The Novosibirsk organization called Echotourist has been publishing atmospheric soundtracks to the Siberian landscape for almost seven years––with occasional intermissions. Both the snow-blown region and its young musical representatives slip in and out of view. It was both a pleasure and surprise, therefore, to see two new Echotourist releases this week, appearing almost simultaneously. One of them is from FPRF (aka Misha Gavrilov) and will be reviewed in a few days. The other is by FPRF's side-project Japanese Ash, which is actually a collaboration with Anton Glebov, who performs as Space Holiday Rocks.
Neither the staff at Echotourist nor their in-house artists have ever been keen on wordy self-promotion. In fact the earliest Japanese Ash recordings in 2010-11 were unaccompanied by any contextual materials. Only generic tags served to frame the sounds on display: ambient, dream pop, and shoegaze were popular labels. Just one more noun was typically added, serving to explain the place being evoked. Readers would see the word "city" or "forest" appended to a download page, for example.
Once again, Echotourist's sounds were deemed the product of a given location––and designed to express a material dimension with immaterial noise. A Siberian address was best evoked with nothing.
Experimental. Kraut. Psychedelic. Shoegaze
These same ideas––or frozen stereotypes, even––also surround the region's CTM Festival, which is an offshoot of a famous music and art showcase held in Berlin since the late 1990s. It was recently an opportunity to celebrate the best of young Siberian electronica, including Gavrilov's brother Yevgeny, who is known on stage as Dyad. Neighbors and colleagues playing at Russia's version of CTM included Appleyard, Hmot (Stas Sharifullin), Ferrein, Foresteppe, Nikita Bondarev, and others well known to FFM. The events shuttled between Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk. Over and above the music, of special interest was the role of location even within those cities. Put differently, the Russian organizers––primarily Yevgeny Gavrilov and Sharifullin––brought the sounds of emptiness into the most established urban venues.
One Russian publication wrote of the Russian CTM: "It goes without saying that a festival of experimental electronica in Siberia is already something exotic. But the final touch in hosting this unique event came from the locations themselves, chosen both by the curators and the Goethe Institute together. The CTM program of dance music took place primarily in local clubs––in buildings designed for such matters. But the evening concerts, created for a more attentive audience (and more thoughtful listening), were staged in the most conservative halls––such as the Novosibirsk Philharmonia."
Japanese Ash: Anton Glebov (L) and Misha Gavrilov
These multiple connections between busy, material spaces and the presumed emptiness of the surrounding world were extended not long ago by the Belarusian project Nearfield (Dmitriy Teslenok). On this occasion, we are dealing with instrumentals emanating from the storied streets of Orsha, a town that has often been visited by major military conflict. All the way from medieval battles to Napoleon's invasion and the concentration camps of WII, Orsha has been haunted by wartime losses for centuries.
Melancholic moods and a futuristic sound
Since its earliest publications, Nearfield has––thematically speaking––looked beyond earthbound tragedy, in order to focus upon aspects of outer space. Some initial releases were dedicated to the symbolism of UFOs, rocket launch-pads, or other exciting facets of a national space program. Teslenok openly admitted that the project's attention was turning increasingly to "the universe and the cosmos," fueled by science fiction. The result, full of hopeful yearning and earthbound sadness, was deemed a mixture of "soft melodies, melancholic moods, and a futuristic sound." Thoughts of the future were weighed down by present-day disappointment.
Over time, these oppositions between stargazing romance and a less impressive likelihood on Earth became very stark. Possibility and probability would move further apart. Teslenok and his erstwhile colleague Andrei Paskin would even talk on occasion about the "struggle between good and evil. It takes place not only on Earth, but also across the universe."
These sobering thoughts stretch back to 2004 when Nearfield was created as a duo with Paskin. Teslenok has now worked alone for the last five years––and on occasion with distant international publishers, like Clean Error Records in New York. What remains puzzling, however, is the textual accompaniment for those releases. Also written in English, the Nearfield texts are almost incomprehensible. Whether they come from a machine translation or are some deliberate dalliance with absurdity, the "explanations" for these recordings will require considerable effort of any reader. Sounds dedicated to the sad dimensions of the cosmos find no support in earthbound language––as if nowhere has no name (and makes no sense).
And so the following lines may (or may not) be deliberate: "With highlights such as the title track 'Family' featuring [Kiev's] Organoid and glorious remixes from voqyv [Berlin] and label founder Enabl.ed, [NY] the entirety of the album gives one a sense of a phantasm that had come and gone, although your not quite sure when or where except perhaps, that glitz or sheen of consciousness one could make only when they like to plod heavily alongside free while glaring upon the open ocean, or rather blazing upon something that cannot be contained, something only free like an unmissable smattering mirage."
At least the theme of transience is clear; the importance of that which vanishes.
A phantasm that had come and gone
The female solo performer Atariame is known––in real life and more mundane quarters––as Natasha Salmina. She is originally from Izhevsk. That latter city, musically speaking, has long-standing connections to Russia's industrial heritage––in the sense of harsh electronica. Salmina, however, has now moved to Saint Petersburg, where she operates somewhere between discord and an earnest lyricism. A town associated with both avant-garde sounds and armament factories is swapped for wind and rain along a Baltic coastline. And no place in Russian literature is more famous than Petersburg, perched on the very edge of nothingness. Cursed for centuries by flooding, storms, and blizzards, the city remains an enduring symbol of Russia's peripheral position, somewhere between Europe and Asia.
Atariame's newest album is called "Weirdo Goes to the Disco" and tagged knowingly as bedroom/outsider pop. Some sleeve notes record Salmina's fantasy that Morrissey might, perhaps, one day become her flatmate in that same bedroom. And yet, for all her imagined company, the world outside is most unwelcoming. On her last recording, Atariame drew upon T.S. Eliot's prose poem, "Hysteria" (1914-15) and its striking depiction of a young man utterly unable to manage the anxieties of social interaction. "As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved in her laughter and being part of it, until her teeth were only accidental stars with a talent for squad-drill..." Civic domains are full of dizzying, disconcerting pressures.
And now, with "Weirdo Goes to the Disco," the same civic pessimism becomes stronger still. The one track upon which Atariame has commented in detail for social media is "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night." The title comes directly from Ana Lily Amirpour's identically titled and Persian-language feature of 2014. A dark tale of drugs, crime, and vampirism, the movie makes Salmina think of domestic spaces in Russia. Vampires move from the underworld to the front door in Izhevsk.
And so she says: "This song isn't really about that [Persian] film... I grew up in a small Russian city. Since my childhood I've been told many times that both girls and women get raped, beaten up, or killed whenever they walk home in the dark... That all became a [lasting] nightmare for me. I am still afraid of strangers walking past me in the dark––late at night. Sometimes I [even] sense a violent aggression towards an imagined menace in my own fantasy, too."
An oppressive place shapes the mind––for decades.
I am still afraid of strangers walking past me in the dark
Looking to counter these cultural or geographic norms––in the same city––is the new folk-pop collective, Sunrises. Full of disarming simplicity and optimism, the band's debut EP also comes with a jolly wish for the future: "May this music warm you and bring you happiness!" The depths of the Russian winter do little to lessen the mood. Band member Alina Zorina recently said the following to a Saint Petersburg publication on New Year's Day: "Our songs are now online and I'm really enjoying this new musical season. On the subject of our plans for 2016, I really hope to see at least one more release from each of my ensembles [Sunrises and Pure Illusions]. The New Year promises first-time collaborations with some good labels––and some touring, also. I believe that 2016 will be full of even more music!"
Northern reviewers have suggested the influence of Arcade Fire in these sunny acoustic tunes, but a closer look at the band's lineup indicates a couple more sources of audible optimism. One of Sunrises' chosen tools is the domra, a stringed folk instrument not unlike the balalaika. Largely forgotten until the very end of the Nineteenth Century, it was known to historians as the traditional instrument of medieval court jesters. The other source of an upbeat register is faith, pure and simple. For many of the musicians in Sunrises, their Christian belief helps to foster simultaneous gratitude (for the past) and fortitude (for the future).
Alina Zorina, it is worth mentioning, has prior experience in the all-female choir from Samara called Roundelay. In the past this large outfit has been defined thus by its one male member and ideologue: "Roundelay is a really democratic collective. We're all friends and I write the music. I tend to offer some guidance for the textual ideas, and my girlfriend also helps out. But... if somebody else wants to write a song and develop a special idea, we all support it. We set up general rehearsals and extract [from that idea] whatever's interesting."
We're very keen on interpreting and vivifying moments of our childhood
This sense of emotional support is especially important in a large collective. The more people are involved, the more they need to feel included. Choir leader Dmitrii Kolevatykh adds: "It goes without saying that certain problems emerge when you've got so many people in a band. The more participants, the more individual scenarios or lifelines you'll find among them. It's considerably easier to gather four people than ten or fifteen! Our choir members often get stuck in traffic jams [en route to rehearsals]... They might, conversely, just drive off somewhere, or do something entirely different. You must, somehow, hold all these lifelines together. That means being attentive to each and every person."
That same uniqueness is felt historically, too: "For those of us who were born here in the late '80s, there's a discernible gap between our favorite music and the taste of anybody raised on the Russian rock of Bi-2, Splin, Chicherina, and so forth. There aren't many musicians or songwriters at the moment who reflect our contemporary, domestic culture. We certainly feel a demand from Roundelay's audiences to express that modern, local experience in our material! We're very keen on interpreting and vivifying those moments of our [shared, regional] childhood when we'd pretend to be Cossack rebels or sing around campfires in the evening."
A potential harmony, be it real or metaphorical, is more important than one’s vocabulary. It's a happy state of shared responsibility or trust that's apparently lacking in the outside world. A long-lost ideal, even, one best voiced by a large group of friends and neighbors. No matter where they happen to live.
Sunrises: Russian life seen from a very different perspective