In May of this year, we were happy to report on the work of Argo Vals (top right) from the small Estonian town of Viljandi, which traces its roots back to the thirteenth century. A soon-to-be graduate of the local arts academy, Vals enjoys much support from Estonian music critics - not only as a solo artist, but also in his related projects of Animal Drama and the Viljandi Guitar Trio. His light and breezy instrumentals have many champions around the country, especiallly at Baltic festivals such as the well-respected Eesti Pops - which just took place.
Yet another of Vals' side-projects is the instrumental ensemble Talamak. Here he is joined by Hans Kurvits (drums), Uku Kübar (keyboards), Magnus Morel (bass), and Karl Petti (guitar). Founded in 2009, the band faced organizational issues from the outset, in that Petti (front, center) emigrated to Holland. Physical collaboration therefore moved into a semi-digital mode, with compositions both sketched and edited online. These initial obstacles have now been overcome, as evident from a recent interview for the Estonian press. Here Petti declared Talamak "the most personal and meaningful project with which I've been involved."
Related questions in the same interview concerned whether or not Talamak could be defined as a band in the canonical sense, with concrete recordings and so forth - or more of a fleeting project, designed merely "to go with the flow." No specific answer was forthcoming. Instead the musicians spoke of ongoing melanges, combinations, and generic overlaps. This same competition between nominally "progressive" and alternative, "networked" formats will continue, as we'll see.
In that same spirit, the most widespread promotional text used by Talamak for Baltic festivals describes Vals and his colleagues as a "blend of technical prog-rock, 'foggy' psychedelia, and inventive pop melodies." Added to this we find a small, declamatory phrase sometimes appended to Estonian posters: "Talamak - An instrumental prog-pop supergroup from the future!" In which case, questions about the band's "forthcoming" plans become very complicated indeed.
An instrumental prog-pop supergroup from the future!
A related situation - and view of historical influence - can be found with the Moscow outfit Arcus Superior, who also look fondly at some traditions of Western rock music. So much so, in fact, that it can be hard discovering whether or not the band is actually from Russia. The members almost never use the geo-tags on social networking profiles; instead we find semi-serious suggestions that Arcus Superior are from New York or, at another venue, from the British Virgin Islands.
Kinships and meaningful connections are therefore built more through sound than through physical geography. As a result, the group prefers to define itself via lovingly composed lists of musical touchstones from the past. These range from '90s brit-pop and beyond (Stone Roses, Oasis, Blur, Pulp, and Radiohead) to Bristolian trip-hop or, elsewhere, American psychedelia of the 1960s and '70s.
Should those names mean little, other (more mobile) metaphors are also available in order to underscore the cultural debt. Pork pies, bulldogs, and bowler hats may be added.
For all those British connections, the band's founders - Kirill and Nikolai Stepanov - often speak of Arcus Superior as a "psychedelic rock band" in the American sense. That adjective became clearer not long ago when everybody was placed in front of a pushy Russian journalist. The scribe in question was especially keen to establish a causal relationship between all of these Western outfits and Arcus. How, in other words, did today's Russian performers aim to progress beyond that heritage? How would they further an overseas style?
Since, came another query, the adjective "psychedelic" is frequently used in terms of "expanding one's consciousness," does that mean that Arcus Superior want to foster some kind of aesthetically "expanded or limitless" performance?
By this point, patience was wearing thin: "We don't aim to do anything of the sort. In fact that would be very strange... We wouldn't even say that rock music per se is 'limitless'; it's actually a fairly constrained genre. A little psychedelia, therefore, doesn't hurt [amid those same constraints]... But that still doesn't mean that we're trying to 'expand' anything. The use of psychedelic elements simply helps to make things a tad more entertaining." The artwork to some new recordings (below) helps to place that notion of "limited, constrained" expansion in a clearer context. There's a fairly clear line between horticulture and cosmic epiphany.
A little psychedelia doesn't hurt...
The new EP's title, working between those extremes, comes from a 1959 novel by Kurt Vonnegut. It refers to an imagined gap in the space-time continuum, "where all the different kinds of truths fit together." Once more, images of synthesis and/or networked phenomena emerge.
It slowly becomes clear that for all the historical specificity of the bands listed, the adjective "psychdelic" is somewhat vaguer in tone. We see no concrete reference to people or places within '70s counterculture; instead what takes the place of that strictly historicized usage is an abstract notion of combination and/or synthesis. As a response to today's industry-driven views of progress (and profit), certain elements are taken from the general era of psychedelic experimentation - though purely in spirit. The '70s penchant for non-European instrumentation, difficult time signatures, tricky chord progressions, open-ended improvisation, "spacey" loops, guitar delay, and so forth all blurs into a happy celebration of aimlessness.
It's a stance we can also see at work in the Ukrainain outfit known as (The) Anderson - that definite article is not always employed. The band was formed a full eight years ago, yet even now the members are not keen to invoke any sense of purposeful history when discussing their career. This offhand attitude is evident in explanations of their name, even: "Anderson is simply a beautiful word," seen in wholly impressionistic terms. "It's painted in green upon white. To this day we're not sure how to 'play' its meaning... but the attempts continue."
As the musicians then talk of their changing lineup throughout the years, an equally imprecise atmosphere prevails, one in which chance plays a much greater role than overt planning. A recent interview, coming at the end of those eight years - and after the publication of new songs - asked how matters are progressing nowadays.
What has changed of late? The answer: "In essence - nothing!" Everyone's just standing around.
Part of this worldview, spun from incongruous elements, may be attributable to issues of piracy, in that the new album - entitled "Life" - was immediately released to the public for free downloading. All pretense towards profit was abandoned from the outset. "Let's be honest," said Anderson to the press: "Almost nobody buys CDs nowadays." The group hoped instead to rely upon "an active fan base that simply downloads our material from the web." When it comes to taking the same songs on tour, the artists make an equally forthright admission that avoidance of financial loss is reason enough for celebration. To tour and not lose money is victory in and of itself!
Denying, according to a similar logic, that Anderson could ever consider itself a "commercial project," the artists hope simply to save Ukrainian music from "plagiarism, second-hand influences, and bad taste." Escape from the faulty, demeaning trajectories of the past is best managed through avoidance of them all. Social groups take the place of financial or civic goals. The stylistic melanges of the '70s set the bar high - as does the deluge of modern-day mediocrity:
Message to a Kievan radio station: 'Your ratings reflect entire generations of bad taste...'
Talamak, Arcus Superior, and Anderson are all projects that speak of "networked," rather than of progressive creativity. In other words, their invocations of '70s psychedelia, timeless serendipity, or today's "post-commercial," online fan-bases are all informed by non-linear, even baroque relationships. Creativity, for example, is seen (and celebrated) as interaction, rather than as advancement.
The cover to the new Anderson album sets the scene well - as does the promotional image above. Earthy tones, ecological motifs, and winding, even looping patterns replace timelines. Everybody benefits, except the banks.