Two important compilations of late have diverse origins: lo-fi anglophile coldwave and downtempo glitch. The former album comes from Moscow's Belka Records, a new venture hoping to bring "an Eastern sound to Western ears." The latter belongs to Subwise Records in Saint Petersburg. What they share, however, are some spatiotemporal expressions of desire. They are both fueled by a lasting and consequential wish to be somewhere else. The Belka Records landing page is decorated with lo-fi or Polaroid images. They show a departing airliner, aging rotary telephone, and two Russian couples on a provincial holiday––seemingly in the 1990s (above). The theme of absence links them all, either in terms of physical distance from home or a fading, historical date.
Young people have no sense of collective being. They're all social egoists (Parks, Squares and Alleys)
Among the more familiar names on display for the "Russian Tour" compilation are Parks, Squares and Alleys (Khabarovsk), FPRF (Novosibirsk), Esthetix and OneGin Please (both Moscow). Among these and the remaining contributors there is plenty to suggest the influence of dated British icons, such as late-career Cure, Smiths, or Depeche Mode. Fashions come from afar––and even in the self-statements of specific artists––talk of "somewhere else" predominates. Happiness, put simply, is unlikely to be here.
Already distant by virtue of their location, Parks, Squares and Alleys are based in Khabarovsk, within a short drive of the Pacific Ocean. On previous visits to the band, we have heard the disillusionment of frontman Sergey Khavro with post-Soviet culture over the last twenty years. "Modern youth strives only for individuality. Young people have no sense of collective being. They're all social egoists. The words 'ought' or 'should' simply don't exist for them. They're totally indifferent towards politics, art, and other important matters. There's a widespread sense of nonconformism that's often akin to laziness. Young people are obsessed with finding whatever they want to do. That state of affairs just boosts an overall level of childishness."
The last two singles from the band (who perform almost exclusively in English) both underscore this same melancholy yearning––backwards in time: "I’ve got a friend/ She calls me brother./ There ain’t nobody we cannot live without./ We don’t need nothing/ Except each other,/ But there’s no reason to say it outloud." Amid an overabundance of negatives, the theme of human interaction or mutual reliance is too embarrassing to be spoken publicly. It used to be important.
Another recent track from Parks, Squares and Alleys reconsiders the same topic: "I was walking through the park;/ I saw a total weirdo, alone in the dark./ He was shouting and screaming,/ I thought that I was dead./ His eyes were telling me he’s out of his head.../ I was scared and so confused./ He said 'There’s nothing to gain and there’s nothing to lose./ I’m barely sure [myself], but we don’t need anyone/ ‘Cause I can tell you something about the dark side of fun.'"
The Novosibirsk collective known as FPRF live equally far from Moscow's bright lights, at least in terms of public perception. Siberia sounds no closer to Western Europe than Khabarovsk. Perhaps as a reflection of the professional challenges faced by these musicians, the band's lineup has changed over the years, with two brothers as the only constant factor: Evgeny and Mikhail Gavrilov. Raised in the shadow of Siberian stalwarts like Punk TV and their leader Alex Kelman, FPRF would become part of the region's burgeoning shoegaze and lo-fi scenes.
Cosmic shoegaze full of futuristic synths and retro-psychedelia (FPRF)
Nonetheless, music remains a problematic career choice for the Gavrilovs––so the last publication from FPRF emerged only in December 2015, called "87% Chill." Since then, matters have been very quiet indeed. In the recent past, these same young men have introduced themselves as follows: "FPRF offer a nervous energy, plus a dash of lyricism––together with a yearning for the stars." The majesty of the Siberian taiga or the cosmos––say some Russian dreamers––turns everybody into nobody. One reviewer has written of "cosmic shoegaze that's full of futuristic synths, retro-psychedelia, and some mysterious singing that appears to reach us from far away."
In the same vein, FPRF have also stated elsewhere: "Siberia gives us a sense of expanse or [what used to be called] 'internal emigration.' Music for us is a form of emigration. My home and parents are here. We're certainly not the kind of people who consider Novosibirsk to be hell on earth!" The phenomenon of internal emigration belongs––at least initially––to Brezhnevian culture of the 1970s, when many Soviet underground artists admitted their civic ineffectiveness and turned instead to private, cultural concerns. They hid in their imagination(s).
From Moscow come Esthetix and OneGin Please, who once referred to themselves as a "cocktail of genres [also] born in the '60s and '70s." By 2014, those reference points were specified in greater detail as "psychedelic and psycho-acoustic effects... Young girls who used to smooch to the sounds of our earlier pop songs will now experience something else. They'll slowly gain an insight into what's happening on the psychedelic scene––globally speaking." Superior lessons were learned far away.
Esthetix (Moscow): Marusya Kovylova and Ilya Kusnirovich
OneGin Please would then continue, in further dismissal of geography: "Our music is the product of young people who are united by a single, grand idea. They want to make beautiful sounds––and their address is completely irrelevant. It could be Moscow, New York, or London. In fact, we couldn't give a damn. We're talking about the internet. Nothing is tied to location." This declared freedom from ostensible space inspires even more romantic turns of phrase: "We're riding a real cosmic wave! We've come to see that rock [alone] is a pretty sh*tty style. We've just been taught to hammer away on our guitar strings––but who the hell needs that [now]?!"
Nothing is tied to location! (OneGin Please)
And against that conflicted backdrop––pitting private intentions against likelihood––it's telling to read the most recent interview with one of Esthetix's singers, Ilya Kusnirovich. Here he speaks fondly about growing up in Moscow––not to mention an enduring, more adult love affair with the capital city. Some people prefer to keep their feet on the ground.
What goes unmentioned in all these notes regarding Belka Records and their line-up, however, is that several of the bands have indeed felt the dual pressures of time and space. Put differently, arduous tours would become harder still and other private, mundane obligations would curtail any music. Not everybody on this first compilation is very active professionally, making "Russian Tour" a love letter to the recent past.
And that brings us logically to the newest Subwise Records LP from Saint Petersburg. Entitled a "Post-New-Year Compilation," it showcases twenty-four tracks from the last twelve months, including contributions by Subwise label founder Spotovsky, Fizzarum (both based in Saint Petersburg), Tony Deus, and Csum (both from Moscow).
Fizzarum offer, unwittingly, an immediate illustration of the professional pressures documented by Belka. Founded in 1996 by Dmitry Dubov and Dmitry Letakhovsky, the duo was soon promoting itself as more popular overseas than at home. Long lists of foreign publications would pepper Fizzarum's press releases, in avoidance of anything domestic. In the same way, the project's deliberately meaningless stage-name was designed for maximum international appeal, beyond the constraints of any one language: "It was a cunning manipulation of Latin, Russian, and English. The word Fizzarum meant nothing specific... except the fact that it referred to us!“
Currently, however, Fizzarum's Soundcloud and Bandcamp pages sport a meager three tracks, together with requests for possible interest in a forthcoming LP. Promotion has been replaced with a search for tentative charity. And the figure of Tony Deus (Anton Serdotetskov) only repeats these experiences on the "Post-New-Year Compilation." His own career stretches back at least seven years, over which time he has often expressed a lasting enthusiasm for science fiction––as a celebration of "better ways and worlds."
"Over the years, I have read loads of different sci-fi novels and one day the moment came when I was inspired to discover how much those stories actually correspond to reality. That's when I got into the scientific side of things via Steven Hawking, Michio Kaku, and Brian Greene––plus many others."
This passion for theorizing and/or testing seemingly abstract notions eventually led to Serdotetskov rereading one well-known text on string theory eight times. "Even now there are some elements of it that elude me... Whatever the case, plenty of my tracks are written under the influence of what I've learned from all that material. I mean from realizing how everything around us is truly constructed." Truth is neither evident, nor close at hand.
Russia's music business needs to be entirely wiped out (Tony Deus)
Dreams of a better, more organized universe then extend to the world of sound. Verity allegedly lies in an audible system of fairness that's lacking at home. "Russia's [endlessly unjust and chaotic] music business needs to be entirely wiped out. That's the only way musicians will ever be able to make a living... without showbiz connections or crawling into your producer's bed. The spirit of Soviet light entertainment also needs to be driven out wholesale; some new [rule-bound and fairer] business model has to be constructed from scratch..."
Behind all these overlapping voices of northern nostalgia, futurist daydreaming, civic hope, fear, and––eventual––frustration on Subwise stands Alexander Spotovsky. In the past he has defined his own catalog as "music for an internal microcosmos. Everything's designed for psychedelic dancing... by people who are sitting down. This is the soundtrack to a game of hide and seek—with your own echo." A resonant emptiness replaces any specific, concrete social space, and social goals are abandoned in favor of an internal world.
Since experience outside the front door is so unsatisfying, it's not surprising that some of Spotovsky's more recent recordings have been described as a happy flight from stifling constraint. By way of quick example, some stargazing instrumentals were called a kind of "intergalactic house, together with echoes of old-school acid." Spotovsky suggests that the future might—hopefully!—reinstate some fading, even lost values that once resonated in "old-school" fashions of his youth. "My recording was full of flashbacks to the idm of the past, which—to be honest—wasn't actually that danceable!" The possibility of rejuvenating such simple joys, of course, appears slim. Nostalgia is unlikely to become a reality.
In a new and very brief interview of 2017, Spotovsky dates his professional development from an early passion for British hardcore, breakbeat, and idm recordings––swapped among friends on audio cassettes. "That's what got me into production, DJ-ing, and––consequently––into hosting my own events." One Spotovsky solo publication, the "Chapora" album, takes that optimism into an entirely different realm, essentially by riffing on the Indian associations of its title. A place becomes a passion; an address becomes pure affect: "It's not easy to encapsulate the glory of open skies and mountainous landscapes, but Spotovsky makes a supreme effort to do so with this beautiful album... Get yourself in an epic mood; enjoy your travels through swirls of deep dub techno and some atmospheric jungle."
The line between Goa and some parallel universe is removed. Desire moves free of both time and space. And yet, Spotovsky's current and quoted credo reads––in Russian translation: "Believe in yourself and don't be a jerk [or brute]." By implication, one's initial and private desire is grounded in self-belief. Matters, however, will soon worsen. Bestial or brutish pressures transpire in the outside world and then temper self-confidence––to the point where it fizzles out altogether. Noiselessness ensues.
The numerous tracks gathered this season on "Russian Tour" and the "Post-New-Year Compilation" together encompass a wide range of social likelihoods, many of which end in silence. Yet that only makes their expression of hope even more affecting. OneGin Please have previously maintained that "nothing is tied to location," but life in Moscow and Saint Petersburg would appear to suggest otherwise.
Spotovsky: a thin line between the future and frustration