Following a White Rabbit: Skafandr, Reka, Magnum, and The Re-Stoned

Skafandr: "Follow the White Rabbit" (2012-2013)

Skafandr are a four-piece rock band from Saint Petersburg with a marked (and meaningful) preference for instrumental shows, yet they do operate on occasion with guest vocalists. Founded long ago in 1988, these musicians are proud of the way their catalog has moved, with relative ease, into new media formats and venues. In other words, the band's lengthy history has not led to any sort of complacency or promotional stasis. Several of their works have been included in the soundtracks of popular Russian computer games. Likewise, Skafandr have worked very hard to move beyond the consoling limits of canonical practice, in that their discography includes forays both into dub and trip-hop.

The stable line-up behind these changing styles consists of Evgenii Rybnikov (guitar), Yuri Vitel (bass), Igor' Rusinovich (eight-string guitar), and Kirill Soloviev (drums). Colleague Denis Golovnev is often credited as a fifth member for his constant support as sound engineer.

Alternating, psychedelic patterns of both futurism and realism

There's a set promotional text that these men have used - for quite some time - as an introduction to their wordless enterprise. In translation it reads: "The sound of Skafandr is a combination of various twisted elements. Together they function as a sort of mosaic, alternating psychedelic patterns of both futurism and realism. [As mentioned,] this instrumental ensemble sometimes interweaves aspects of dub and metal, but they ask that their resulting tag of 'dub-metal' not be taken literally... In this particular case, 'dub' means 'doubling,' i.e., a constant repetition of elements, often through digital loops. The term 'metal' also takes on a slightly different connotation..." 

This metaphor of loops will prove to be important, particularly as a way of viewing aesthetic progress through re-scribed, reconsidered visits to material of the past. In a related manner, as we see from the artwork above, talk of creative "advancement" will also employ some famous children's literature and the animal characters thereof. Some of whom move on twisting, underground paths…

Skafandr (Saint Petersburg)

The band's desired (and admittedly hard-won) sense of stylistic difference will eventually carry us a long way from any view of Russian rock as social protest, especially because Skafandr speak about the enduring influence of William S. Burroughs. In fact they directly quote the famous line from his 1964 "Nova Express" that allegedly brought the term "heavy metal" into the English language: "With their diseases and orgasm-drugs and their sexless parasite life forms - Heavy Metal People of Uranus wrapped in cool blue mist of vaporized bank notes -And The Insect People of Minraud with metal music..." 

This long-standing commitment to a "fantastic" craft has now produced a new album from Skafandr, entitled "Follow the White Rabbit." Symbols of movement, metamorphosis, or other winding journeys start to blossom in earnest. In other words, the album's title immediately takes us in two directions - and to a couple of quest narratives. It refers either to "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" (1865) or, perhaps by extension, to "The Matrix" (1999). In both cases, metaphors of yearning predominate. Some object of philosophical desire lies at the end of a long and winding path. Its discovery is not guaranteed. A question emerges from the outset: what exactly is being sought?

Go on till you come to the end... then stop (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland)

The rabbit in both of those much-loved tales becomes, arguably, the guide to some elusive verity - yet the path never ends. That is, the rabbit offers a goal and/or direction, but never seems to provide closure. For discussion of a neverending process, it only seems appropriate that Skafandr would create wordless narratives. In Lewis Carroll's story, the rabbit declares: "Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!" He is the antithesis of stasis - and therefore slips away from any fixed designations. That which keeps moving or changing has no name.

This same investment of a rock tradition with the spirit of endless change is noticeable in the catalog of Moscow outfit The Re-Stoned. Declaring a fidelity to the baroque wizardry of psychedelic, stoner, and space rock, the band's frontman Ilya Lipkin hopes both to "move [constantly] forward and continue playing the music we like." The appeal of a "looping" aesthetic from Skafandr reappears. There's something in the past that needs to be rediscovered or regenerated.

The Re-Stoned (Moscow): "Plasma" (2013)

Some of Lipkin's most telling remarks have concerned the broader context of his music, rather than the compositions themselves. A second question transpires on the heels of our imaginary rabbit: what is Lipkin's attitude to the social realm in which these occasional retro-tracks are either made or promoted? Do these bands, perhaps, harbor a penchant for figments of the imagination because society fails to please?  In response to that query, Ilya Lipkin says: "I try to stay away from politics and related issues, but irrespective of what I might want, I do - unavoidably - live in [modern] society! [That experience, however] doesn't give me any real confidence in our future. Lies and falsehood are too prevalent." Aesthetic changes offer a theoretical alternative to the predictable "fixedness" of a social fiasco. Actuality grinds to a halt: fantasy keeps moving.

We never get stuck in one place

These ideas are part and parcel of the new Re-Stoned recording, "Plasma." The title alone anticipates issues of (constant) fluidity and the band's colleagues at RAIG then write of Mr. Lipkin "leading his band in new directions. It’s still the same sensual and blues-influenced heavy psychedelic rock," yet cover versions of Jefferson Airplane ("Today") and Pink Floyd ("Julia Dream") also offer a chance to dovetail traditions and innovation. 

Ilya Lipkin has just embarked on a related, solo project that seemingly takes its name from Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers" (1863). Just as in Alice's adventure, so here Bizet's central metaphor is one of non-stop, perhaps illusionary yearning. The new Moscow outfit, called "Lovtsy zhemchuga" (Pearl Hunters) and with Lipkin's wife on vocals, is - once again - based upon a "looping" re-employment of various psychedelic classics from the Western rock canon. 

Yet another(!) Re-Stoned offshoot, "Quasar & Void," has also come into being - and we'll take a look at those drone-tinged or industrial compositions very soon indeed. "All of this," says the band's leader, "gives me the opportunity to switch back and forth between plans. I never get stuck in one place." As with Skafandr, therefore, so the The Re-Stoned embrace any possible metaphor of movement - even if it's grounded in investigations of the past. Alteration in any forms trump immobility - and the hunt for a mythical rabbit or pearl certainly looks more appealing than dull actuality. 

Movement above all: The Re-Stoned (Moscow)

The band's critique of moribund civic realms only grows in volume: "The people in political power [today] think about nothing more than how to line their pockets. They have no qualms about deceiving elderly folks who've worked all their lives; politicians steal money from those pensioners and then promise them all kinds of imaginary 'solutions' to their suffering. The social system today is merely generating the people it needs [in order to profit], while general cultural standards are falling fast."

General cultural standards are falling fast

This need for stylistic ideals over material goals is evident in a second Moscow rock combo, Reka - whose name means "River" in English. Here the sense of collective decline is stronger still: "We will all continue to drink the blood of others - and ruin their lives, too - until the moment comes when there are no more downtrodden, 'illegal,' unwanted, or second-class citizens. We must make the [painful, yet honest] admission that we exist wholly at the expense of others [who are less fortunate]. We have a choice; they, however, do not..."

The members of Reka do not claim that any simple, grand solutions exist to unfairness in Russian life, "but we can at least consider at the world from a different [and more inclusive] point of view. We will never find the true answers to all our problems. We'll never even get close to that truth..." Fantasies of communal improvement, even if they're ineffective, must surely be better than cynical indifference. Slowly a common object of desire is coming into view. What's wanted by these bands is more civility and charity.

What's especially interesting, therefore, is that overarching worries - and hopes - lead Reka to look beyond generic distinctions. Put differently, exponents of different, even conflicting rock styles harbor the same disappointment with civic change - or a lack thereof. "A lot of the bands are pretty close to one another. That's maybe because of all the years they've spent together or perhaps because of their sociopolitical activity. In some cases, it's due to [common] philosophical viewpoints... It really doesn't matter what kind of music we're talking about: screamo, punk, indie-rock, or metal. People are communicating with one another..." 

Reka (Moscow) and manifest levels of discontent

A similar hope for increased comradeship emerges in the face of modern-day extremism: right-wing nationalists and football hooligans are mentioned as a couple of lasting, local tragedies. "In Russia, pretty much anything's possible - as you well know, if you've heard about the Pussy Riot trial. We are no longer surprised by anything here..." If activism has given way to introspective fantasy plus the (sad) conviction that "universal fairness" is a pipe dream, then one can certainly understand the more straightforward philosophical approach of Saint Petersburg's Magnum. Whether that stage-name refers to large amounts of champagne, equally large handguns, or a Hawaiian TV detective, any risk of male posturing quickly gives way to friendly hedonism.

Rock music itself becomes the "white rabbit," offering potentially endless forms of civility and rapport. The process is the goal, so to speak; the mere act of playing - and enduring professionally amid friends - is cause for common celebration.

Anything's possible here - if you've heard about the Pussy Riot trial

Magnum's good-natured promotional materials on Vkontakte open in Russian as follows: "We're very glad to see you here on our page! We genuinely hope that you love hard rock as much as we do. We'll be glad to share the sounds of traditional rock with you, played by four guys from Saint Petersburg. We sing in Russian because we really want each of you - each and every listener! - to delve deeply to our music. After all, rock is probably the finest thing on Earth. It's indescribable! Maybe if these songs are performed in your native tongue, you'll better understand the music's essence." And then, in capital letters, we hear: "Love what's true. Listen to what's true." 

Put differently, "truth" here becomes the mere act of empathy or communication from the stage. What's said -lyrically - is actually less important than closeness and concord. In fact, any kind of empathetic interaction. Rock becomes less of a vehicle for protest or rebellion (which is deemed to be almost pointless), and more of a tool for common understanding. Given what these four bands say about the torpor of social life, the idea of that fraternal support system becomes a fantasy itself. It becomes a realizable dream.

Magnum (Saint Petersburg): good-natured champions of amity

Audio

Magnum – After Party
Reka – Chatiment
Reka – Deconvenue
Skafandr – Follow the White Rabbit
Magnum – If the Gods Sleep

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