Black Metal Realism: Starpowers, Saint God, Neulovimye Mstiteli & Otstoy

Very much lost. Neulovimye Mstiteli: "Idiots" (St. Pbg, 2016)

Despite the desire of most young rock bands in Russia to shock, one of them bears a surprisingly comforting name. Neulovimye Mstiteli (Неуловимые мстители) are from Saint Petersburg. Those two words could be translated into English as "Elusive Avengers," which is also the title of a Soviet adventure movie for children. In brief, the story concerns the risky movement of four young misfits during Russia's Civil War into adult service for the Red Army. Outsiders strive for the mainstream, as it were. 

The film's release in 1966 corresponded with a period when Khrushchev's romantic "thaw" had come to an end. Almost two decades of conservatism lay ahead as Brezhnev moved inexorably towards the Soviet leadership. A resulting and so-called "stagnation" would commerce, shaped both by Stalin's death and the nuclear arms race. Soviet society wanted––and maintained––absolute stasis. 

There seems to be a stone wall ahead. We want to do something, but... (Neulovimye Mstiteli)

For that reason, as we've mentioned before, Neulovimye Mstiteli view their stage-name as something ironic, rather than rebellious. "Our group has become a textbook study of the fact everyone's final destination is always the same, no matter where you go. Everything has stopped. Nothing is going on. That's how things were, are, and always will be..." This worldview is then attributed to an entire generation. "There were no real ideas associated with our childhood––and our youth involved [nothing but] sex. And so the story goes... it's all boring now. There's absolutely nothing happening nowadays. I don't know how to live with that."

A philosophically related article was posted by Neulovimye Mstiteli on their social networking account recently. It was dedicated to the touchy subject of laziness. It begins as follows and, crucially, is equally applicable to Russian citizens in 2016 who feel robbed of self-realization: "What exactly are the causes of [domestic] laziness? It makes us feel as if there's a stone wall ahead... We want to do something, but laziness comes from the outside. It's a constant enemy, some 'alien' force to be fought and overcome. Doing so, however, won't make us any less lazy... [Cursed by all] these emotions, we just watch ourselves melt away. We lose our sense of identity––together with any personal goals, progress, and conviction."  

Saint God (Tel Aviv, with roots in Tallinn and Murmansk)

Callow rebels in the late 1960s found themselves facing a "stone wall" of stately conservatism; in the opinion of these northern musicians, little has changed half a century later. Youthful calls for change, diversity, and civic "surprise" are all met with the icy glare of indifference. Sameness and stability trump any loud demands for novelty.

The lyrics on Neulovimye Mstiteli's newest album––"Idiots" (Идиоты)––bring these themes of stifling conservatism to the fore. The LP sports an ominously black cover. There is only the slightest indication of some background pattern or trajectory. The opening songs on "Idiots" give voice to the same gloom; existential tensions grow in the middle of nowhere: "I'm here without reason/ I've got no purpose/ I'm so tired/ You're in pain, pain, pain/ I don't give a f**k, f**k, f**k./ We're all wrapped up like snakes in the dark."  A subsequent song verbalizes a dead-end philosophy: "We're stuck together like two comets/ And that means you have to leave/ Eternal darkness..." Two inexorably bound bodies compete with one another. Conflict is more likely than collaboration.

Heavenly Joker, where's my vacation?/ There's neither heaven nor hell, just f**k all (Neulovimye Mstiteli)

There's little sense of forward movement, either. Some of the new songs from Neulovimye Mstiteli, although lyrical in both tone and structure, have more impact when viewed politically. The private is the public, willy-nilly. "No.../ This is no longer a game/ And if there's no God, then I am God/ Yesterday I dreamed of tomorrow/ Tomorrow I'll cry about yesterday/ Yes, I have lost my mind." In these especially hopeless moments we move beyond the dangers of laziness or sloth, because any form of self-expression is––quite simply––impossible. Even the diligent and impassioned can do nothing: "There's suffering at night and suffering in the day/ Suffering in expectation of when we're going to die/ Suffering at breakfast, hour after hour/ The dinosaurs once suffered/ As does everyone today..."  

Endless circles replace anything resembling unidirectional, pragmatic progression––and, consequently, there's plenty of reason to be mentally "lazy" or fatalistic. "You can see that we've both grown old/ I'm sick of this carousel, too/ I thought everything would be much better / But I just woke up in my bed again––murdered/ Heavenly Joker, where's my vacation?/ There's neither heaven nor hell, just f**k all."

Saint God: "Narasvette" (At Dawn, 2016)

The topics of fate and faith are immediately engaged by Saint God, who are based in Tel Aviv, yet maintain strong roots in Eastern Europe. This garage outfit has only 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. They define their style as "black metal realism."

One recent interview explains how these "black metal" or realist concepts operate across vague distances. We begin with both musicians avoiding membership in any one culture––be it Israeli, Russian, or Estonian––and instead feeling a much greater connection to ubiquitous sound than to sight. Tim starts with the following sonic memory:

I would listen to my friends’ cassettes. Metal, mostly… (Saint God)

"One of the first memories I have of music was Nirvana's 'Smells like Teen Spirit.' I clearly recall seeing posters of the record cover everywhere, just as the song was played everywhere, too. I then started listening to Goa trance when I was [only] eleven or so. Oddly enough, lots of kids listened to it back then. Then I started getting into heavier American bands and metal overall... plus Prodigy and some rap... The last time I visited Estonia [almost twenty years ago], my older cousin and his mates were all into D&B or jungle. I really liked it. But I genuinely couldn't find it back in Israel; obviously this was all before the internet, when it was more difficult to discover music. Today I listen to all kinds of stuff, really."

The radical negations of a black metal outlook, when faced with a "wall" of local conservatism (to quote Neulovimye Mstiteli) become instead an avoidance of all singular, intolerant concepts. Negation gives rise to a healthy, happy inclusion. A constant desire to say no eventually erases all canonical or isolationist values––leaving a carte blanche for everything and anything. Nihilism theoretically becomes anything, such that everything is synonymous with absolutely nothing.  

Shura proffers some additional memories from those times before the formation of Saint God. "Back then, I listened to my friends’ cassettes. Metal, mostly…I bought a lot of cassettes overseas and shipped them back to Israel, where I shared them with everybody. Nowadays I love all kinds of music, the different 'accents.' The issue of style remains somewhere in the background, but what makes the biggest impression on me is always going to be a performance and talent." Enthusiasm is expressed for Sonic Death in Saint Petersburg, arguably the darkest and most despairing post-Soviet rock band from the city. Any freedom from that anguish or despondency comes in movement––a chance to escape and move "elsewhere," be it stylistically, physically, or sonically. 

Starpowers and a collection of lo-fi tapes, including "Two" (2016)

Music sidesteps political geography, belonging to no tangible/ostensible coordinates. Once again, a youth spent celebrating nothing becomes a related yet inverse form of inclusiveness. After declaring, predictably enough, that "music is a language," Saint God then underscore some related, grander notions––from an adult point of view. The band's primary goal in 2016 is to have no goal, to operate beyond the constraints of any one ideology or address: "[Only] the entire world [brought together] has the power to change reality and erase borders..." The interview ends rather swiftly, following such sentimental effusiveness: "Thank you. The sun has begun to rise now where we live." Over and above physical geography, a greater process of movement continues. More moribund tendencies will be found in one location––and one location only. 

Saint God embrace a profoundly transnational outlook, by first negating many philosophical tenets of their own nation. They reject any grim and unquestioned fidelity to one place, one party, or one viewpoint.

Crazy lo-fi, even desperate energy (Starpowers)

In that same Russian city, rich in literary narratives of demise and decadence, are Starpowers, whose lineup includes members of other FFM collectives like Tripinadva and Mad Pilot. The group is a threesome: Erik Bronza, Emil Shakhbazov, and Maksim Karabanov. Despite their shared and wide-ranging professional experience, Starpowers remain committed to "lo-fi, no wave, and garage" enterprise. A passion for noisy "underperformance" even leads the musicians to dismiss themselves as "yet another metal outfit."

As with Saint God, any tendency towards the grimness of black metal is quickly matched with another decadent gesture. "Starpowers are full of crazy lo-fi, even desperate energy––a combination of Jack White and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. There's none of your homegrown, 'communal apartment,' dead-end philosophy here. The last two tracks make me want to take all kinds of drugs––immediately."

A new––and second––EP from the band is titled simply with a Roman numeral and attributed to the current social situation in Russia. "Now is probably a good time for punk culture to make a return... Rock music in Saint Petersburg is different from the commercial possibilities of Moscow. Here there are other songwriting traditions––which began with bands like Akvarium. That scene was based on friendship, wine, and [philosophical] discussions in the kitchen. Those were the kind of songs you could sing at somebody's apartment––or around a bonfire." Consolation and damnation––two sides of the same coin in an imperial city wrapped in fog; if so little is possible in terms of civic change, then small networks of mutual support become vital.

Solidarity is eventually expressed with the new wave of Siberian punk collectives, such as Ploho. "Those groups are all kinda miserable, too. It's probably pretty rough in Siberia [also]." 

Erik Bronza of Starpowers (Saint Petersburg)

Yet another Saint Petersburg outfit with new material makes these linkages between a rainy hometown and Siberia clearer still. They're called Otstoy, which has a range of meanings, none of which are terribly positive; some options would be "sludge," "residue," or "trash." In modern usage it often designates something that's laughably unfashionable. A degree of "retardation" is, quite literally, built into the etymology. Not unlike that same sediment, any phenomena tagged as "otstoy" have presumably slowed down to a lifeless pace and will eventually sink. They're beyond salvation. The same noun has the same root as the "zastoy" or stagnation of Brezhnev's term in office. 

The same problems exist in Siberia, actually (Otstoy)

An ailing nation deserves a slapdash soundtrack. For example, Otstoy's debut recording and its DIY production values came with a brief disclaimer in Russian. "Everything is supposed to be this way––Saint Petersburg, 2014." Over and above those snippets of explanatory prose, listeners were offered almost no context. Everybody knew that bad quality made good sense as a social statement.

And so Otstoy's songs remain brief, tinny, and produced in a deliberately clamorous, amateurish manner. For all the glitz, gloss, and swagger of industry "norms," a lo-fi and distorted aesthetic is much closer to local life. Music of domestic relevance and impact should be simultaneously messy and self-mocking. It should realize its own, sad state of affairs, yet not be burdened by them. It should invoke black metal, yet bypass it with a knowing wink.

Again a parallel worldview is found among Siberian colleagues. Kayro himself is originally from Novosibirsk and so his dismissive remarks about Siberia acquire an additional meaning. A lo-fi, "dirty" outfit chooses a confrontational, anti-social register with which to express pronounced levels of civic doubt. Concert organizers are uncivilized, even in one's hometown. And so––understandably enough––the future frontman of Otstoy moved away from home, very embittered. He moved from Novosibirsk to Saint Petersburg.

"I realized that I simply couldn't stand being there another year. I tried arranging some gigs [in my town], but only school kids turned up. Their parents had obviously decided to let them attend some evening events... I also tried starting some kind of local scene, but nobody was interested. So I moved to Petersburg, thinking that would get things going. I ran into Bungalow Bums, whom I know because they're from Omsk. They told me: 'The same problems exist here, actually. The only difference is scale.' Despite all that, I still refuse to be sad."  

Otstoy (Novosibirsk and Saint Petersburg): "s/t' (2016)

Recently Otstoy were involved in a tour with some other, philosophically and sonically related bands around Russia. The tour's name in English could have been translated as "Lo-Fi Dances." Participants included Nikola Tesla & Thee CoilsSlackersShokalsky Revenge, and Otstoy. Once again Kostya Kayro had some incisive remarks from Otstoy's standpoint.

The primary purpose of the Lo-Fi Dances tour was... to have no purpose. "Our sponsor provided us with free booze, which made it impossible to predict anything. It was like playing the Joker in a pack of cards. When we were in Moscow, for example, everybody was given twenty bottles beforehand––on the day of the show. Four hours after we started drinking, it was already time to get in our minibus. We made plenty of noise and then fell asleep... Somebody tried stealing some of those bottles from our dressing room. The guys ran after him, managing to tear open his rucksack. The bottles tumbled out onto the floor. We still managed to drink a lot that evening."

Half the passengers collapsed, while the other half tried to bite or suffocate one another (Otstoy)

These "lo-fi" responses to an underfunded, under-attended tour grow in drama––and desperation. Kayro continues: "Our bus turned into a circus. We'd leave some abandoned cafe or other––and immediately start p*ssing, vomiting, and screaming––simultaneously. We'd get back on the bus. Half the passengers would collapse in deep sleep, while the other half tried to bite or suffocate one another."

Band colleague Artur Parfyonov of Otstoy commented on some similar tendencies. "I remember us traveling to the city of Perm. Almost all of us were hammered––but we still stopped at every roadside store for more booze... and for more of the same behavior. The upshot of all this was that two of our guys lost consciousness in the dressing room and didn't even go on stage."

Faced with unenviable challenges, be they geographic, social, financial, or simply creative, these four bands toy with aspects of what Saint God (semi-seriously) deem a "black metal realist" tradition. Several of these outfits have genuinely fond memories of a dark genre from childhood, given its risky, very confrontational dalliance with satanic imagery. Ultimately, however, things morph into a lo-fi garage aesthetic––with considerably less subversion or overt nihilism. Eventually, as adult careers take shape, the Lo-Fi Dances Tour is full of young men and women who find the greatest benefit in the cheapest decadence. Forgetfulness and indifference are valued very highly, since the status quo constantly reminds this generation of its insignificance. Everything is done in order to avoid a demeaning nothingness––and vice versa.

"Time Does Not Exist." Lo-Fi Dances and a rejection of linearity

Audio

Starpowers – Chainsaw
Saint God – Etot Gorod (Version)
Otstoy – It's Only Downhill
Saint God – Narasvette
Starpowers – Vecherinka (Party)
Otstoy – Why (Pochemu)

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