Shouts across the Void: Shop Assistants, JUUR, Stoned Jesus & Saint God

Saint God (Tallinn/Murmansk/Tel Aviv): "Montefiore" (2016)

The dramatically named Saint God are based in Tel Aviv, but maintain strong roots in Eastern Europe. This garage outfit has two members, known simply as Tim (drums) and Shura (guitar, vocals); the former musician is from Tallinn, Estonia, while Shura comes from the Russian arctic port of Murmansk. The latest recording by Saint God is a mini-album that speaks directly to the emigre experience. Entitled "Montefiore," it refers to a district in Tel Aviv:

"Montefiore is an industrial part of the city, all concrete and garages. Recently it has started to attract all kinds of artists from around the country. This has led to a combination of art galleries, rehearsal spaces, (more!) garages, music venues, metal- and car workshops, plus weird and shoddy apartment buildings... together with other stuff. Somehow it all coexists, somewhere between equilibrium and chaos. Montefiore is a mixture of dust, dirt, hardcore rave parties, heavy music, poetry, haze, and colors."

Montefiore is a mixture of dust, dirt, hardcore rave parties, heavy music, poetry, haze, and colors

Somewhere within material decline and disorder is a creative renaissance; something grows from nothing. The same symbolism is audible in the duo's self-statement: "It's difficult making music in this part of the world. Being in a band isn't easy––so all that gets transferred to the music, too. 'Montefiore' conceptualizes an escape for us––and hopefully for others, too." One American blogger has joked that he'd be willing to pay the $3,500 round trip to see Saint God in Israel. He sketches some extreme forms of escapism for which he'd pay a substantial sum. He likens the band's music to "black metal [sounds] that have injected the sketchiest heroin possible straight into their eyelids––and then gone for a swim in the Mediterranean Sea... during a thunder storm." Desire has quickly become considerable drama. 

The half of Saint God known as Shura is, in more official contexts, referred to as Mr. Alexander Podkovryov. He often quotes canonical English-language poetry on his social networking account, which amplifies this tension between actuality and aspirations. The poems used include Robert Frost's famous depiction of a snow-blown, rural landscape that is only briefly enjoyed before other obligations force one to move onward:

"The woods are lovely, dark and deep/  But I have promises to keep,/ And miles to go before I sleep." William Blake's equally familiar lines on a tiger's "fearful symmetry" are also used by Podkovryov, reminding readers of a poet's amazement many years ago. Put simply, they ask: how can beauty coexist with equal danger? Why is the sublime bound to material, brutal forms?

The strange "equilibrium" of art and ugly architecture, of death and the divine in Montefiore is raised to a loftier level by a few lines of verse.

Stoned Jesus (Kiev)

A related opposition or tension emerges in the songs of Stoned Jesus from Kiev, who are lauded by Ukrainian and American fans alike for their "mix of garage-style stoner rock and doom." The band is a trio: Igor Sydorenko (vocals, guitars, Hammond organ); Sergii Sliusar (bass guitar); and Viktor Kondratov (drums, percussion). Influences range from Tool, Mastodon, and Led Zeppelin to Swans and Joy Division. 

Sydorenko brought some clarity to the (broad) table when he was interviewed after the publication of Stoned Jesus' 2015 album, "The Harvest." He declared that "the band's signature sound is basically achieved through our relentless touring––in other words, through tons of experience dealing with other people's stacks and amps... [We handle] hundreds of them!" Insight comes only from longterm slog and related burdens in the material world.  

What a shame that hundreds of people died because of political greed and ignorance

The most dramatic opposition of ideal and material themes, perhaps, finds expression in the band's moniker: Stoned Jesus. Chemistry and divinity are placed side by side. Sydorenko claims he was only "toying around with generic cliches, such as religion and weed. Our original idea was to call ourselves 'Stoned Jesus from Outer Space.' I kid you not!" He speaks of local reality as mundane in comparison; reality needs some dogged romantics. "The [Ukrainian rock/doom] scene was flourishing four years ago, but now it's kinda stagnant." 

Sydorenko also refers to Russia's invasion of Crimea as a similar example of real-world misery: "Time will tell how wrong Putin is.... What a shame that hundreds of people died because of political greed and ignorance. [Nonetheless] I do believe in a bright future for Ukraine. It's weird that we don't have any songs directly about the current situation in Ukraine, but almost every song I've written over the last fifteen months has somehow been related to what's going on right now." Struggling musicians and victims of political violence both suffer an unforgiving, physically bruising world.

In another interview the current political crisis is expressed on (or expanded to) a universal level, as above with Saint God. The members of Stoned Jesus discern some universal laws in their quotidian experience. Those same laws structure the band's "Harvest" album. The opposition of daydreams and reality becomes something much bigger:

Memento mori. Stoned Jesus: "The Harvest" (2015)

"'Man versus Machine.' 'The Government'––that’s a big theme. Things happen around you [in daily life]––so you sit down, and the words just flow out of you. That influenced the mood of the whole album, hence our more 'aggressive' sound. For example, we were scheduled to record the bass track one day––they were shooting people in the center of Kiev at the same time. Our sound engineer called us and said: 'Guys, you’re only two blocks away from there. We really shouldn’t be recording right now, because people are being killed on the street.'"

In yet another published interview, Igor Sydorenko lists more difficulties in supposedly "normal" life for Ukrainians in 2016. "Economically things are tougher now; you need to sell more tickets just to cover your transportation costs. But on the other hand, there are more people who want to hear us these days..." He ends on a sarcastic, but very significant note: "Maybe [Ukrainian] youngsters have finally realized that dying for someone else’s interests is much less fun than playing in a band."

Playing music is our way of fighting the s**t we’re faced with

Sociopolitical tragedy has made the hassles of a performer's life seem ridiculously petty. Romantics are more likely to follow their heart when greater dangers are seen from afar––and avoided.

As a consequence, the workplace woes of Stoned Jesus are spoken of very tongue-in-cheek. "I'm spending between six and ten hours a day on the road with the same three a**holes. I [regularly] have to crash at someone’s place for a quick sleep.  And then there's the 'ambiguous' showers [in the homes of strangers]…It can be tough. I got my laptop stolen. It contained all the money I earned on the last tour."

And yet, despite these snowballing fiscal disasters: "Ukraine is pretty much f****d economically right now, [so] you can actually live quite decently with only $500 in your pocket per month. We’re young and don’t have families yet. We don’t need that much, so we’re not starving... though I’m writing this after selling two guitars from my collection to make ends meet." Optimism endures––and the loss of others' lives for an ideal only inspires impoverished musicians to work harder still. "There’s always hope, and playing music is our way of fighting the s**t we’re faced with." Paradoxically, it seems, material loss even increases one's fidelity to an ideal.

JUUR from Tallinn, Estonia––with Corey Tomlins second from left

The distances traveled globally by Saint God are arguably outdone by another Baltic rock band, namely the recently formed JUUR from Tallinn, Estonia. The four men behind that moniker are––in the simplest terms––Rol, Mikk, Kris, and Corey. The last of those names belongs to Australian Corey Tomlins. He used to play in another local outfit––Estoner––who once tagged themselves as "stoner or psychedelic doom" and credited Down, Electric Wizard and Black Sabbath among their primary influences. In interviews that generic pigeonholing would become "some kind of doomy, fuzzy, psychedelic metal stuff... or whatever." Gloom, doom, and drama would remain important, as we'll see.

The musicians in JUUR often joke about their distance from any millennial fashion or philosophy: "We've decided to be hip and modern. You can check us out––and even follow us––on Instagram. SWAG YOLO LOL OMFG." Elsewhere the band posts a picture of a cat, lying next to a CD. Surely the internet's love of kittens will help to advertise the songs? "Cat + New Album = Fans. Out Monday the 15th. And remember to tell your grandkids that you witnessed marketing genius."

As with Stoned Jesus and Saint God, ideals struggle to liberate themselves from tedious, often troublesome experience in the here and now. Then, as a result of those same irksome––or tragic––drubbings, commercial values are spoken of in a dismissive, derisive tone. 

Shouting across the void

One published conversation with Estoner, not long before the creation of JUUR, included the telling admission that some members struggled on occasion with a sense of self. Professional worries led to private doubts. "The only real obstacle is yourself. If you can get the better of your bad side, there really won't be any other obstacles to stop you. Your worst––and only true––enemy is yourself."

These existential matters roll clearly into the timeline and concerns of JUUR, who were known as "Practical Stone Masonry" until Tomlins joined early in 2014. Both bands document, with exactly the same turn of phrase, "a wide range of influences, from progressive to stoner––and then from post-rock to alternative metal." Logically enough, a stoner or doom aesthetic, combined with themes of troubled identity would lead to very dramatic lyrics. And indeed they did. JUUR's lyrics are regularly written by Tomlins, being a native speaker of English.

From the outset, earthbound experience is framed by the grandest imagery. The world "heaves in turmoil," in realms where the "smell of gunpowder [hangs] on the ocean breeze." Elsewhere Tomlins' lyric hero is deep "in the water, reaching out" or "shouting across the void." Social existence is both fraught with tension and full of violence: "My feeble body slams into yours." Relationships are "as brief as they are violent" and likened to elemental forces, amid which emotions become "one last flash and burst of sound... before everything is lost forever." Cries for help or salvation are frequent: "Come save me."

The slow creep of existence. JUUR: "Exile" (2016)

Against this spectacular, sometimes horrifying backdrop, it is surprising to learn that Tomlins is from a religious family, educated as an illustrator––and even performs as a stand-up comic. His promotional materials for those stand-up shows are mercilessly self-deprecating. "Corey Tomlins is a fine example of why eugenics might actually be worth a shot. Disowned by his tanned and shiny compatriots, this Australian in exile will quite literally attempt to say things in a humorous way, for minutes at a time, all in a desperate attempt to win your anonymous approval...."

Absurdist humor, perhaps like unjust tragedy, undermines all sense of stability. There's a strange connection, therefore, between bizarre jokes and the elemental bluster of JUUR's doom rock. Both speak of grand ideals or time-honored hopes and a world that refuses to accommodate them.

The pigs drive loudly past./ OK guys, it's time to go!

The pounding undergone by the lyric heroes and heroines of JUUR can obviously lead to desperation, but in a final rock recording this month a resulting fatalism inspires little more than indifference. If nothing ever goes according to plan and desires turn regularly to disaster, then a miserable shrug of the shoulders is perhaps an understandable response.

That same indifference leads to projects like Omsk's Dopefish Family and its founder, Andrei Mitroshin––who currently lives in Moscow. This man and his creative colleagues or online family in Siberia have just published more garage tracks from an offshoot rock ensemble called Prodavtsy-Konsul'tanty (i.e., "Shop Assistants"). Materialism's lowly representatives are making a semi-serious noise. The newest tracks from Shop Assistants are tagged as follows: "kids, bedroom, punk, garage punk, garage rock, hardcore, punk, lo-fi punk, rock, Russia." Before the inclusion of any self-assured, pugnacious punk reference, we encounter both "kids" and "bedroom." Rebellion operates on a comically minor or childish scale––hence the band's self-definition as "Tumblr wave" on another venue.

One of the newest Shop Assistants tracks on a "Fire EP" (Огонь) is said to include "all the s**t you need. There are [obligatory] couplets, a bridge, and even a guitar solo. It ended up being a whole rock opera. Or maybe a rock western." In reality, matters are terribly different. The opening track––both brief and shambolic––touches upon homelessness, stray dogs, and death by self-immolation. Social contact brings no relief: "Close your f***ing mouth/ Close your eyes/ We're all sick of you/ Go home." A young woman––perhaps ironically––is told to bring beer and then perform a sex act. Young men urinate from a window as the police draw closer. "The pigs drive loudly past./ OK guys, it's time to go!"

Romance stands no chance whatsoever––and shouts continue across the void.

Material woes: A. Mitroshin of Prodavtsy-Konsul'tanty (Mw)

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