Labyrinths and Liberty: The BPB, Madlene, Mokh, and Fish Out of Water

Lika Ostrenko (vocalist for Fish Out of Water, Moscow)

"Fish Out of Water" is an intriguing stage-name for a band that's contemplating the mainstream, so to speak. Less surprising is this group's desire to turn any metaphors of peripheral existence into proud isolation. "We remain distant from all stereotypes and musical norms," they say. In a recent interview with the Moscow press, these young artists extended that wish for difference into a desire for childhood liberties. In other words, true uniqueness was associated with the fading freedoms of childhood. "Most of the time, we have to pretend that we're adults - in the office, with our families, in order to get a bank loan, and so forth. When, however, matters turn to our creative activity, that's when we really become ourselves. We feel free from any constraints, stereotypes, or hang-ups." 

Freedom: it wouldn't matter where we were going...

The same imagery of some lost, distant liberty was extended on a "FoW" recording of several months ago, "Pleasure Highway." The title refers to a recent trip to Spain, during which both warmth and sunlight, so rare for a northern tourist, led to thoughts of happy, directionless movement. "It wouldn't matter where we were going..." Those motifs are especially appealing - and locally relevant - because our performers, when asked about the difficulties of working in Moscow, have listed traffic as the primary hassle. Career options and physical immobility reinforce one another; both create a feeling of being stuck.

And, in the same manner, interviews with the band tend to produce phrasing such as this: "Everything works well when there's spontaneity - and whenever interesting decisions take shape at the last possible moment!" Spontaneity and surprising ease: these, apparently, are two experiences denied a typical Moscow ensemble. 

Fish Out of Water

Personal experience of inhibited "mobility" is soon extended to broader discussions of Russian music as a whole. Is, there, in other words, hope for common progress in a difficult environment? Can artists escape the alleged dead-end of modernity? Imagery of spatial expansion comes immediately to the fore. "There's not much high-quality, smart music around nowadays, but it does exist. That general tendency is cause for celebration. People have started to understand a thing or two when it comes to art; they're broadening their minds." These vaguely elitist views morph into a declaration that self-respecting "pop culture hasn't existed in Russia for maybe ten years or so. Real art, however, has always existed - and always will."

Social misunderstanding and cultural conservatism: two more problems to consider. "The main thing [as we move forward] is probably staying as sensitive or attuned to musical issues as we are now... We should never lower ourselves to the level of gross, mass culture or to mere 'musical produce," such as selling merchandise that's only tangentially related to songwriting." 

And the days go by...

The dangers for grown-up, urban composers are multiple and seen primarily in terms of physical duress. The older one gets, the less room there is for movement - and the more likely one is to encounter disaster.

The theme of impending - and probable - mishap was certainly evident the last time we looked at The Black Pipe's Bottom ("The BPB"), from Rostov-on-Don in Russia's south. The band's last appearance on FFM involved an impressive single. It opened with extended, discordant clamor, seemingly designed to orchestrate the consequences of a barroom brawl... after which some ramshackle percussion staggered in, built from the crunch and crackle of surrounding trash. This was the music of aftermath. 

Whatever happened, it was neither desired nor positive.

The Black Pipe's Bottom (Rostov-on-Don)

At no point did any lyrics step forward with sufficient clarity to suggest they were plotting a confident trajectory away from mishap. The band's mumbled, muffled tones were very much weighed down by what had just occurred: something big and ugly. Such were the sounds of swift material demise.

There are now five new tracks on display from the same collective, which are nicely framed by a small interview The BPB offered to the Russian press. The suffocating constraints of an urban location - even far from Moscow - were front and center. "Generally speaking, there's nothing special going on. Some local outfits have been given a cash advance, and they're trying really hard to justify that injection of funds. We're no exception to that, either... The local scene here is small; you see the same faces all the time. We personally see a lot of students from the architectural school in town - and plenty of professional slackers, also."

A psycho-classic is all I need

The lyrics for the new BPB material concern themes such as the irreversible passage of time... and the simultaneous persistence of stubborn fears. Various anxieties never fade. "Each [and every] time you hope/ the past is dead." Past likelihood determines the depressing possibilities of the future; nothing, in a word, changes. For that reason, perhaps, The Black Pipe's Bottom continue to express an enduring love for '60s psychedelia. Even the new EP declares: "A psycho-classic is all I need. It's all I want to know..." When physical escape is impossible, chemical freedom beckons.

One of the wittiest interpreters of that same psychedelic heritage today is Minsk's Anton Krivulya, who performs as Mokh (i.e., "Moss" in Russian). With new compositions on the horizon, titled simply as "5," he talked this week to Afisha in Moscow. Somewhat surprisingly, he spoke simultaneously of a journey he had just taken with his "friends The Black Pipe's Bottom." That coincidence was tied to a certain philosophical constancy, all in the following manner.

The Black Pipe's Bottom

Mr. Krivulya described the route taken by himself and The BPB, driving away from Rostov-on-Don: "We went beyond the city limits, out onto the steppe. I really wanted to get the sensation of being within that open expanse. We drove over a beautiful bridge, crossing a river as we did so, and continued along a dead-straight road. About 20 km from Rostov, we stopped and looked back on the city. It remained clearly visible and had only gradually grown smaller in size."

Conversations turned to emptiness and liberty. "We spoke about the steppe and what it means. We discussed how this expanse - and its [possibilities for] speed - allowed for the Mongol empire to grow. This was landscape as a form of transport. The relationship of landscape and movement always fascinates me. I really love hills, craggy outcrops, valleys, meadows - and the steppe, of course."  

The Russian steppe: landscape as a form of transport

Freedom from conventional thought is considered in spatial terms. Based upon that logic, the inability of physical movement also suggests, if one can move beyond inhibition or restraint, that a certain emancipation also beckons. They're two sides of the same coin. Russia's domestic geography apparently offers both urban claustrophobia and a natural freedom therefrom; some local environments constrain, yet their precise limits mark - willy-nilly - the beginning of an elemental, humbling homelessness.

For this reason, Krivulya feels the greatest escape from limitation and modern (goal-driven) pressures in the forest, which for him embodies endless movement; not necessarily in linear forms, but as looping, unending regeneration. "There's no such thing as death in the forest... It dissolves you within a multitude of motions. It pulls you into a game with crowds of [inhuman] characters and patterns of [complex] consequence."

Anton Krivulya, aka Mokh and "Stereochuvak" (Minsk)

Progress and freedom are best expressed as anonymous, endless motion. The best liberty from physical shackles is a loss of body altogether. Losing oneself is the start of possible gain. Vanishing across the fields is a very good start.

That brings us to the St. Petersburg "avant/surreal/psychedelic" collective Madlene and their sonic evocation of endlessness. The band's arguably formless - and often cacophonous - instrumentals are located in a realm or disjuncture between selfhood and surrounding reality. As with the other materials under discussion today, nervous sounds appear in between inhibition and worrying, through promising unconstraint. 

One recent Madlene composition, by way of illustration, is called: "Everything Is So Slow. Even the Stars, Even the Sky." Related titles such as "Marionette," "Mask," and "Whirligig" only strengthen the imagery of some disorientation beyond convention. Private experience yearns to move beyond tedious normality - yet is unnerved by what's found there - in a realm of "jazz nightmares." Experimentation is both an object of desire and of concern.

My heart needs this

Having first covered the group's work several months ago, we see now that new recordings have appeared through Madlene's related side-project GreteL. Anything resembling a traditional song-structure has become flat, wordless, and monotone: extended drone is the order of the day. Formal patterns "dissolve," to use Krivulya's term. Folks at Soundcloud are surprisingly grateful: "Ah, very nice textures"; "Hypnotic"; and - best of all -  "My heart needs this." Peace transpires within sounds that never end.

The excellent Dumpster Diving blog has spoken of GreteL's drone instrumentals in positive terms: "These sounds are lost in a labyrinth. They move in the darkness, waiting for something to show up and to carry them away..." A metaphorical passage into the formless, yet fruitful workings of some "hypnotic" forest is undertaken in the hope of deliverance. The loss of everything becomes the hopeful gain of something novel... all at the hands of somebody else. The further one travels, the more dreams will concern the happy sensation - or salvation - of being "carried away" forever. Across open lands that never end.

The brightest potentials shine in very dark places. 

GreteL (a side-project of MadleneSt. Petersburg)


Gretel – Chess Room
Mokh – Lodka (Rowing Boat)
Madlene – Mosaic
Mokh – Superpasha

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