Moscow's Zvuki.Ru magazine recently published one of its standard overviews of new recordings, both from home and abroad. The journalist in question, much to his surprise, felt that one Russian release impressed more than anything from the English-speaking world. It came from Vyacheslav Zavyalov and the streets of Saint Petersburg––in other words, from Kim & Buran. Those two imaginary figures belong to the screenplay of a widely loved Soviet cartoon, "Secret of the Third Planet" (1981). It concerns an expedition to outer space, conducted in search of exotic animals for the Moscow Zoo. Some intrepid, cosmic adventurers are also asked to track down Kim and Buran, two ship captains who once vanished without a trace.
The sound of Soviet lounge music's unrealized past (Kim & Buran)
In a word, the moniker Kim & Buran speaks to a childhood sense of wonder, just before political instabilities began in the middle of the decade under Gorbachev. Pre-adult romance in 1981 could still imagine something wonderful––and also believe it might come true. The space captains Kim & Buran belong to that final generation of Soviet stargazers. For this reason, Zavyalov and his colleagues have spent over a decade writing cheerful, dance-floor instrumentals in the spirit of French space disco (à la Jean-Jacques Perrey and Jean-Michel Jarre) or, in a broader sense, as expressions of retro-futurism. In other words, one has to look backwards in time to find a positive view of the future. Optimism seemingly came to an end in the early 1980s.
Earlier recordings by Kim & Buran have usually been considered an embodiment of dreams and desires that never came to fruition: "This is the sound of Soviet lounge music's unrealized past; it's also the sound of Russia's radiant future." Immediately there's a tongue-in-cheek aspect evident in such pronouncements. Any talk of a "radiant future" will recall the boldest, loudest tendencies of socialist rhetoric––and lead to a complex sense of melancholy. It hints at a dual sadness, caused both by whatever failed and that which never happened. It's the essence of a bittersweet aesthetic.
The band's discography has been infused with some other flavors of the past: "We have always played a trademark, carefree kind of sound that's based on retro-hits and Soviet sci-fi cartoons. It's all inspired by the music of Aleksandr Zatsepin [synth-composer for 'Secret of the Third Planet']. There's the added influence of Leonid Gaidai's movies, too."
Kim & Buran''s Vyacheslav Zavyalov, Soviet synth aficionado
Gaidai's films are the nationally adored screwball comedies of Brezhnev's period in office. As the Cold War killed off any hopes of social amelioration and the so-called "stagnation" took hold during the 1970s, comedies reacted with great vigor. Daily life was overwhelmingly grey and dull; entertainment, as a result, tried really hard to liven things up. Comedies became physical and goofy in a deliberately apolitical way, since national policy was painfully tedious. At the same time, the space race was developing quickly: the distances between life in the average kitchen and the cosmos only got greater. Stuck in dead-end jobs, people could do little but look skyward, smile––and sigh.
This is post-Soviet music about times destined never to return
The newest Kim & Buran album––fittingly called "Orbita" (Orbit)––continues this recognizable practice; in fact Zavyalov has admitted that some of the LP's tracks were actually written a decade ago. Offering a little more context, he recently said to an English-language webzine: "It’s difficult for me to write music in one mood, but all of the tracks [on 'Orbita'] are retro in style––because I love both vintage sounds and the atmosphere of the 1970s. My preferred themes are euphoria, mystery, melancholy, anxiety––and [what you might call] 'searching for the light'... My favorite artists of the moment are Royksopp, Com Truise, Aphex Twin, Depeche Mode, and Todd Terje. In my childhood I listened to Space, Jean-Michel Jarre, and Kraftwerk." Cosmic or Gallic disco passes through another orbit.
In an approving tone this month, a Russian reviewer has then suggested that: "All albums by Kim & Buran can be listened to from start to finish. They're suitable for any situation––either for your parties at home or for work. They can lift your mood in the morning and become an easy-going backdrop in the evening." The temptation to look backwards appears widespread.
The strangely named Moscow duo Artek Elektronika declare themselves to be a "young electro-pop and retrowave project. This is post-Soviet music about times destined never to return––and which their founders never lived to experience. The aesthetic, triumphs, and tragedies of the Soviet years are preserved for us only in television and radio broadcasts, together with the speeches of Soviet leaders. These same refrains resonated through our debut album, which bore the simultaneously melancholy and nostalgic title of 'Last Day in the USSR.' The title alone negates any hope of turning back the clocks..."
Far from home, even the UK press has paid fleeting attention to these musicians, namely in an article for The Guardian. It offered a brief view of nostalgia as expressed in various Russian pop recordings, both from the mainstream and less familiar quarters. Erika Kiselyova and Alexander Kolupayev, the core members of Artek Elektronika, are quoted therein as saying: “We just wanted to convey the emotions of a time when people believed, when people hoped, and when they thought on a grand scale.”
Put differently, these young performers are reemploying the language of aspiration, pure and simple, without which any ideology will falter. Hence the reference in one Artek recording to the "sprawling meadows" of the Soviet space program––as a metaphor for liberty––or to some "distant horizons"––as the goal of heady hopes. The simplest of desires, sometimes evoked in these sentimental or mawkish turns of phrase, were needed in order to propel a specific socioeconomic plan. That same plan obviously came to a disappointing end in 1991, yet the language of desire and potential happiness sounds just as valid today. There's a good reason, therefore, why Artek Elektronika are sometimes tagged in the Russian press as "dream-pop." In a very local sense.
This is the sort of music that makes you ponder what we missed (Artek Elektronika)
As one recent Russian periodical put it not long ago: "This is the sort of music that makes you ponder what we missed. It makes you think about our mistakes, both in the past and the present. These are the emotions that make us lift our heads high, towards a boundless sky. We leave our everyday thoughts behind and encounter grander notions..."
The most recent interview with Artek Elektronika this season includes an admission that vocals were perhaps "missing" from the early publications. "Instrumentals are great, but they'll not get you very far. That's why we decided to compensate with those sampled inserts [of Soviet rhetoric]. In the future we certainly plan to use vocals more. Instrumentals are, well... instrumentals, but you've still got to sing!"
The newest Artek Elektronika EP, called "Legends," addresses that very lacuna. "We continue to be inspired by the old films we re-watch, together with memories from our family and close relatives. We listen to their stories about the times back then. Something will grab our attention [as we ponder new tracks] and then matters simply develop on their own... The idea should always come first. We've got enough of those ideas to fill a book, so we'll borrow a few and go in search of suitable audio samples. If those samples exist somewhere, that's super. If not, then we just move on. We don't always find what we're looking for..."
Desire is not always satisfied, by any means.
Artek Elektronika continue their justification of (or empathy for) locally specific hopes and dreams: "It's no secret that our nation's going through a period of crisis. And when everything's bad, we all start looking to the past. Maybe that has been an influence on this fashion [for retro-wave]. It seems to both of us that young people today have no sense of romance whatsoever. To put things crudely, our lives consist of smartphones, MacDonald's, and some [irksome] education or other. When people go to a concert nowadays, they'll just stand still and photograph or film everything.... This might be a kind of spiritual crisis, even... Today's youth seems very self-centered; we've have no idea what they really want. We'd like people to get over themselves––and breathe deeply. They should stop staring at the sidewalk. They should stop thinking only of their private problems."
A third kind of retrospection colors the very lyrical, wistful catalog of Nizhnii Novgorod quintet The Tairyfale. The title of the band's debut LP could have been translated into English as: "If It Wasn't For You..." It continued the band's overt desire from early conversations to "write kind music for kind people." The CD opened with a half-buried soundbite that could be traced back to the Family Guy animated series. It referred to something "as beautiful as an HBO minority fairytale." That dark sense of humor, mocking modern stories, put genuine magic (and a happy ending) head-to-head with the cynical workings of media finance. From the outset we were reminded that simple joys are often hard to find––and that many stories do end badly.
Strange though it may seem, the best things are found when you're not even looking (The Tairyfale)
More recent Tairyfale songs, placed together as a subsequent LP, were described optimistically by the group as "twelve tracks about love. These are songs designed to brighten the darkest home; they offer a little warmth and will help to rescue you from sadness, also." If we then turned to one of the Russian social networks used by The Tairyfale, a little more information was forthcoming. The musicians declared, this time to a better-known and regional audience: "We've invested an unbelievable amount of effort and emotion in this album. We gave it everything we had. We argued, made up, and then rerecorded everything you hear." Such were the sounds of kindness, compromise, and consolation––locally speaking.
Interestingly enough, as with Artek Elektronika, one of The Tairyfale's founders––Stas Smirnov––speaks today of the band initially needing neither lyrics nor clearly declared plans. Melodies and an ideal were sufficient. "We didn't need any words and everybody played on a very rudimentary level. Subsequently, however, it all became songs––and that transition happened on its own. We just travelled our own path, having built a band upon a dream. We never thought about how we'd achieve anything. We genuinely didn't know what was needed––or what options lay up ahead.... Strange though it may seem, the best things are found when you're not even looking."
When asked directly if he still considers himself a romantic in 2016, Smirnov says: "I've always wanted to be a romantic––and am cocky enough to consider it true! [Speaking seriously,] I'm more than happy with feelings of solitude. That doesn't mean, however, I want to become some kind of 'street poet,' sitting in his cocoon. I mean the kind of [impoverished] artist who runs off masterpiece after masterpiece––while refusing any profits. That's just crazy." Yearning for romance and expecting others to empathize are two very different goals.
This tension between private and public levels of acceptance in The Tairyfale's narrative––between fantasy and fact––are also key to the career of Moscow's Sergey Sirotkin. To a large degree, he cuts a familiar figure among these troubled romantics: the solo artist, with guitar in hand and poetry in his head. Such were the bards of Russian songwriting in the 1960s and '70s, searching for a minor, mobile form of dreaming as Stalinist rhetoric came to an unseemly end.
And so there's a certain logic to the fact Sirotkin writes at home... years after he first began to copy Michael Jackson's dance moves in kindergarten. Plotting the next step in this homegrown evolution, he recalls that the family acquired a video recorder, which allowed Sergey and his brother to perfect their Nirvana guitar solos––using a couple of badminton rackets. Sirotkin has no musical education and is happy to admit: "You can learn a great deal nowadays from the web."
'Challenger' was a proper––and appropriately proud––name for a shuttle (Sirotkin)
This focus upon small-scale creativity appears in fresh interviews, too. "I get scared whenever there's a reasonable degree of attention on me. I'm not used to people writing and telling me directly how much they like my songs––or that they're thanking me personally... I only have a few close friends whose advice I'll ask from time to time... I always need to think about how I might perform [my DIY material] live." Then––once again––outer space is the realm in which dreams seem most likely to materialize. Sirotkin's recent EP "Challenger" was so named because: "I like the word, both phonetically and visually. I reckon it was a proper––and appropriately proud––name for a shuttle. It suggests 'challenging' the cosmos. The tragic fate of the mission also left its mark on me." Grand values prove their idealism by losing everything in their name.
Sirotkin––perhaps unnecessarily––felt the pressure last year of being 27 years old, given how many Western rock stars died at that age. "I've no time for messing around. This is the age at which you're supposed to publish something and quickly become a legend... or not. This is the moment that defined Cobain, Morrison, and Hendrix. They all look down at you, condescendingly, and ask: 'Hey, buddy? What were you doing all those years?' I didn't have an answer, so I gathered my strength, grabbed my notebook, and wrote an EP––of which I wouldn't be ashamed."
Sergey Sirotkin, his wife, and a shared flight of fancy in Moscow
Sirotkin remains at a healthy distance from politics. "I don't think I need to adopt any civic position. Somewhat naively, I reckon that my songs, videos, and live shows will say everything for me. The main thing is to avoid ruining my reputation––or karma." Giving voice to those ideals, however, can be very hard indeed. For all the dismissal of instrumentals heard above by Kim & Buran, The Tairyfale, or Artek Elektronika, language may not be the best vehicle for a cherished ideal. "I write my own lyrics, and that's the hardest, most time-consuming part. I rarely come up with more than a line a day and will often rewrite stuff, starting all over again––if I'm not totally satisfied with the result. Of course, I do consider myself a musician––but there's no way I'm a poet! It's just that I demand so much of my texts. Personally, I reckon that if you've nothing to say in a poem, then it's better to stay quiet."
I've tried to transmit a mood from the music of our past––including the Soviet period (Sirotkin)
That greater level of comfort with silence or solitude emerges in various places. Sirotkin returns to the uneasy topic of stagecraft: "I don't really understand the idea of public shows––and, as a result, my concerts produce varying results. I usually get really nervous beforehand and will feel no real desire to go on stage. Sure, I'll sense a wave of emotions and energy during the concert itself, but that can just as easily be maintained or ruined with a single mistake––either from me or because of a weak reaction among listeners. I don't really 'work the crowd.' I just play the music as well as I can––and hope the audience feels what I do."
For a musician who claims to have "neither a mission, nor any insistent idea," Sirotkin does nonetheless hope to find heartfelt parity. "Whenever I discover the theme I want––or feel an [inspiring] emotion––I then attempt to find the words that'll transmit that same emotion as clearly as possible." Emotion is the core theme.
And why may that be important? "For me to write any music, I need first to sense a kind of emptiness within me. Something the music can fill." The sensation of a vacuum is common. If Kim & Buran or Artek Elektronika are correct in doubting the level of future romance among modern citizens, then for some performers inspiration comes from that which was––or remains––lost. For Sirotkin an air of optimism and future potential is justifiable, yet it can only be fostered one listener at a time. Grand social ventures lie in the past; tomorrow's common hopes will be built on a minor scale––just as they were by Russia's "bardic" singer-songwriters of the gentle 1960s. Once disaster had finally passed.