Secrets of the Third Planet: New Chamber Music under Moscow's Skies

Secrets of the Third Planet are not - by any stretch of the imagination - an outfit that works quickly. Way back in August 2008, we dedicated a post to the band's four-track EP. That recording was not released with any fanfare at all, nor was it supported by discernible concert activity. In fact, when Secrets of the Third Planet did, eventually, take to the stage in the closing days of 2008, they were playing live for the first time in three years.

Apparently 1,000 days was insufficient time to prepare onstage scenery; paint pots, tossed with abandon in a number of directions, were employed as an "aesthetic statement." The cleaning staff termed it differently.

After a subsequent period of equally impressive silence, a video appeared out of nowhere in August last year... showcasing one of the EP's four compositions. A long-familiar track, albeit in new, visual forms; the sense of progress here was minimal. That video, shown below, was published with nothing more than a quick note, scribbled and deposited at the band's Live Journal page: "Fedia Dmitriev has just made a film to our song 'Rain Month." True, the track isn't exactly new any more, but thanks to the video clip it seems to have come alive once again. The release of our new album is, as ever, being pushed back - even though we've nothing left to do except record the drums."

This constant series of delays lasted until February 2010, when a single was unveiled, supposedly heralding the impending arrival of a now-mythical album. The two songs from that same single are included here. Entitled "Out of My Mind," it consists of the title track and a second composition, "Two Ships." Together they constitute a running time of more than sixteen minutes. The band's snail-like activities are to some degree reflected in their equally unhurried musical style.

Intense, yet leisurely stares alternate with intense labor; the former option usually prevails.

This issue of goal-driven activity - or its absence - arose when we first wrote about Secrets of the Third Planet, documenting not only the origins of their name (in Soviet animation), but also of their leader Evgenii Frankevich in the well-known ensemble Silence Kit. As we stated in 2008, Secret of the Third Planet (Taina tret’ei planety) is a very famous Soviet cartoon from 1981.  It takes place during a future search across the cosmos to find strange, never-seen, or unknown beasts for the Moscow Zoo.

In one of the film’s famous quotes, these animal collectors declare: “We’re not bandits! We’re noble pirates!” They’re grateful for whatever cosmic nature lets them take home. It’s fondly remembered even today, because the grandness of verbose, epic science fiction is constantly downscaled and then kept small by much gentle irony. In other words, the cartoon is lacking in any of the cocky, conquering spirit that one might expect from the middle of the Cold War/Space Race.

We’re not bandits! We’re noble pirates!

That same downsizing was something we sensed in the music, too, since several of the tracks leaned heavily on an ambient aesthetic designed to evoke enduring atmospheres, rather than forward-looking arrogance. Frankevich and his self-deprecating colleagues were happy, just as their famous film, to place themselves inside discernible sonic networks or humbling states. The music of S3P, so to speak, evokes a realm much grander than the people therein.

This idea continues on the new single, too, not only because of any "cosmic" themes evident in the video for "Two Ships," but also because that same track - despite its uptempo opening - falls eventually into protracted, almost sparkling swathes of sound. All rhythmic markers fall aside and an audible circumstance establishes itself - for a long time.

Just before this single was released, some extremely rare observations on our "meditative-psychedelic" musicians appeared in the Moscow press. Here the work of Frankevich was likened to key experimental outfits of the late Soviet Union: attempts to escape the rigid genres of Soviet pop were likened to equal "exertion" today, directed towards a flight from commercial constraints. It would seem, therefore, that the most effective response to pop music's frantic avarice is to do almost nothing and then, once activity finally manifests itself, to do nothing in particular.

The article/notes read: "Secrets of the Third Planet are a kind of chamber-version of [Sergei Kurekhin's] Pop-Mekhanika. They represent a project that lies outside of traditional genres and moves forward thanks only the talents of one musician..." (The issue of "moving forward" may once again be open to debate, but we'll let the matter lie.)

Secrets of the Third Planet are a kind of chamber-version of [Sergei Kurekhin'sPop-Mekhanika

"Initially conceived as a guitar-driven ensemble, Secrets of the Third Planet have undergone radical changes in their musical format. Of late they have [willingly] jettisoned any electrical power in their sound and become a more precise, penetrating form of acoustic expression. Against this backdrop there's an interplay of new colors, effects, and sounds, too. The vocals slip away somewhere in the distance." Once more we see the kind of modest, "universalist" worldview for which the Soviet cartoon is so famous. It's a willing exercise of self-expression by means of self-reduction.

And, as a result, Moscow web publications are inclined to discern "the bright threads of indie-rock here and there, together with aspects of post-rock, too, and some shoegazing. This kind of rich sound does not always require vocals, in fact they're quite often absent altogether. Voices, texts, and [linguistically] concrete meaning all take a back seat to a general mood, atmosphere, and ethereal sensation."

Such, we are told, are the results of work conducted by Frankevich, his drummer Anton Dashkin, and bass-player Il'ia Sizov.

Not for the first time in these descriptions, the theme of a "chamber" performance appears: according to the traditional interpretation of that term, we're dealing with music designed for small groups, secreted away within a larger enclave (such as a palace, say). In addition, chamber music, often devoid of ostentatious solo performances, is frequently referred to as an artistic form contingent upon friendship. It is written by and for acquaintances.

And indeed we read online: "Any concert by Secrets of the Third Planet will be a chamber-like affair. These kind of events don't sell out in huge numbers, nor to they correspond to various notions of taste that are prevalent in mass culture. Nobody expects the public as a whole to understand the music of Leonid Fedorov or Pan Sonic; for the same reasons, Frankevich's music is not going to be 'fashionable' [in a quantitative sense]. All the same, these are the kind of concerts where people do find one another; the sort of people who have similar inclinations. They find themselves immersed in a similar state - as kindred spirits."

Individuals, sidelined by a mass aesthetic - or the society that made that aesthetic -, turn to one another in search of a bigger and ameliorated social state. Judging by the sonic, visual, and journalistic contexts of music by Secrets of the Third Planet, the first step  in that direction is to seek a milieu that's bigger than any genial "chamber," yet just as welcoming.

As the band's name and visuals suggest, even before any music sounds forth, an initial foray outside those chambers in search of something better should perhaps start with a simple glance skywards. Towards the "secrets" of distant, opaque bodies of light.

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