Brief Concessions to Silence: Sh*t Happiness, Mikhail Lezin, and Electric Turtle

The city of Samara is five hundred miles from Moscow and situated on the banks of the Volga. Those initial details may suggest something of a provincial backwater, but history indicates otherwise, even within the lifetime of current residents. During WWII, for example, the Soviets planned to use Samara as the capital, were Moscow ever to be captured by German forces. Rumors still persist that an underground hideaway for Stalin was also established - just in case.

From this safe distance, Samara (then known as Kuybyshev) was able to provide heavy weaponry for the frontline troops. Sleepy streets gave rise to a military and political powerhouse.

Such tales of epic struggle, however, leave some folks unimpressed. Especially the younger generation. One good example of this disinterest comes in the work and worldview of a collective known - charmingly - as Sh*t Happiness. (In the original, that asterisk requires a vowel of your choice.) Barely visible online, with only a minor presence on some music portals, the band recently asked fans a pressing question: "How does somebody entertain themselves - and their friends - on a cold autumn evening [in Samara]? Especially if you're a kick-ass rocker?"

Recent artwork gave little hope of an optimistic response.

That same quote's final, cocky adjective is used ironically, perhaps because the musicians have long realized local streets are not going to provide fame and fortune. And indeed, the answers from fans echoed that pessimism with some semi-serious nihilism. Various kinds of entertaining epatage were suggested, involving naked people, alcohol, and even Nazi costumes. The older generation was unlikely to appreciate the humor. 

Another option, it seems, was to borrow a water pistol from some unsuspecting Samara youngster and hijack an office elevator. The people inside could then be sold to nations around the world in exchange for various favors. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

In this environment, neither debate nor discussion have much worth; sad realities predominate over private plans. And indeed if we look at the lyrics of Sh*t Happiness, the depiction of a civic dead-end grows ever clearer. The band's EP of last year, "Alcoholwoman," included a couple of tracks with humorless sketches of local job prospects.

An accompanying video (below), made deliberately from low-grade VHS tapes, likewise implied that life in central Russia involves considerable dexterity, in order to avoid a host of imprecise, yet ubiquitous dangers.

One of those songs begins in translation: "She travels back home, to the town on the Volga. Where she studied as a machinist - and even got a diploma. She then worked forty years in the same factory. And when she got old, she moved to her mother's place."

And with that sad passage circumscribed, a biography ends. Pointlessly.

Forty years in the same factory...

The title track outlines another, equally awful way in which these lifelines might conclude. As an alcoholic. The substances needed in order to survive the daily grind will themselves bring you down. Demise and/or irrelevance appear inevitable; only the speed and manner of their emergence are a mystery. As a result of these all-encompassing realities, the band's newest artwork has abandoned all pretense at authorship: it depicts a grim, grey state that simply is.

If the first song quoted above implies a general yearning towards the homestead (before any sad, adult trajectories ever began), then a second speaks brutally of a violent ejection from all social comfort into homelessness and scorn:

"Nothing left to dream; matches burn your fingertips. Somebody behind you says: 'Over there, look! An alcoholic!'"

Over there, look! An alcoholic!

And so the new EP, "Chords," includes - just as the title suggests - nothing more than some angry, insistent chord sequences on a rough and ready electric guitar. The only words we hear are a muffled, prosaic exchange in English. With some effort, it becomes clear that the speech is taken from a tragic exchange aboard a US helicopter, just before some Iraqi journalists are mistakenly shot. The violent workings of destiny's whim are manifest everywhere.

Hence the band's leaning towards resignation and reticence. The chatty optimism of youth slowly morphs into tight-lipped stoicism, if not dumb acceptance (colored with occasional fits of rage). Any vain hope for happiness seems to warrant the obscenity in the band's name. And that inevitability, as mentioned, devalues all rhetoric with great speed. 

This rejection of speech needn't be wholly negative, though. We've written often on FFM about the work of Togliatti guitarist and visual artist Mikhail Lezin. His own web resources contain many more canvases than texts. And, in the same illustrative spirit, he has now published a new EP together with graffiti artist Michael Oger, aka "Mixa the Dude." That nickname gives us some hope for a sunnier worldview.

Although Oger is responsible for some of the acoustic guitarwork here, his main contribution is evident in the related photos. The logic and value of that visual investment in the project might be sketched as follows. The recording made with Lezin is called "Illegal Manufacturing" and therefore suggests an alternative kind of production to the troubled, heavy industry of the artists' hometown - famous as a center for automobile construction.

Dude waz here! Valera Is King!

This new, illegal productivity takes the form of verbal expressions that are physically inscribed on failing or abandoned buildings. Below we see one of those scribbles, designed to accompany some of Oger's more ornate work. In red paint we notice the phrase "Dude waz here." The blue text reads "Valera Is King!" Little voices make big claims - even if the yearning towards royalty is unlikely to be satisfied.

In an environment where civic norms violently sideline personal desire, little voices come back to mock the failure of grand municipal structures. Miniature, mobile words prove their endurance over ungainly grandeur - as a form of guerilla artwork. Without facing the actual object of their scorn face-to-face, the graffiti artists hide away and (re)appear from a deliberately "minorized" state in order to make a cheeky claim of longevity - in other words, in order to claim the throne as soon as the king expires. The king is dead; long live the well-hidden pretender.

In that light, it's worth considering a virtually anonymous project from Yekaterinburg called Electric Turtle. A very brief EP has appeared with the name of "Stomp Box," referring to a percussive tool used by solo guitarists. The box itself, however, is not employed in this context. Instead we're treated to a handful of miniature tracks (30 seconds or less) without vocals or any drums, either.

The instrumentals themselves are named after some overdrive and distortion pedals. Simple riffs and a few bars of Hendrix take the place of both confident novelty and wordy assertiveness. 

Put differently, the EP merely advertises the fact that noise is being made - and that the necessary tools are at hand. Crudely fashioned sound is ready to become concrete, confrontational statements if and when reality lets down its guard. Another of Michael Oger's images (below), used to illustrate the Mikhail Lezin EP, makes that point rather well - with a reduced or half-erased noun.

One of Lezin's side-projects is known as "Похоть" (i.e., "Lust); below we see how Oger removes the first syllable of that word, which therefore gives us "Хоть," the Russian conjunction meaning "Although..." Despite the fact that an open mouth is rubbed out, the power of "although" remains. That conjunction is used to introduce clauses expressing a concession. Silence and surrender, according to this rationale, are temporary, despite the humbling status quo.

"Kick-ass rockers" and other subversive types are biding their time at home - with some spray cans beneath the sofa. When the barricades are built, they should be quite colorful.

Audio

Sh*t Happiness – Composition A
Sh*t Happiness – Composition B (Talks Edit)
Mikhail Lezin – Free Gig For Togliatti

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