From Minsk to Moscow: The Haze Netlabel Dedication to Pussy Riot

Various Artists: "A Dedication to Pussy Riot" (Haze, Minsk 2012)

The Haze netlabel, based in Minsk, has just published a challenging compilation in honor of the Russian activist band and performance group Pussy Riot. Three female members of that outfit - Maria Alekhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Ekaterina Samusevich - are currently under arrest in Moscow for protesting against the government in ways deemed grossly disrespectful by local authorities. Several months ago, to be more specific, Pussy Riot staged an extremely swift and scandalous show - a la Riot Grrrl - within Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral. Having rushed the building, the women pranced around for less than a minute, before security guards and staff began to wade in. The ethical, religious, and political backlash following that epatage has meant all three women are now looking at the real possibility of lengthy prison terms. Amnesty International has been quick to declare the musicians "prisoners of conscience," while opponents in Moscow denounce these same individuals for irresponsible, if not sacrilegious behavior. 

A sense of proportion – and a sense of humor – is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness (Sting, Moscow July 2012)

At this point, it may seem reasonable that avant-garde, socially concerned sound artists from Belarus would find good cause for concern in the Pussy Riot case. And indeed Haze, a major and long-standing source of experimental electronica in Minsk, has gathered a range of local projects - both old and new - in order to comment upon and champion the cause of their equally noisy colleagues in Russia. 

It's also worth mentioning from the outset that during their forty seconds of infamy in the Christ the Savior Cathedral, Pussy Riot stressed one particular song from their small catalog. It calls upon the Virgin Mary to drive Putin from office. It takes no great effort to understand - and even anticipate - the appeal of such dark humor in a Belarusian context.

Setting the scene for their collective gestures of support, the staff at Haze first quote substantially from the documentation of Amnesty. There's no attempt in the album's supporting materials at objectivity or a balanced consideration of the situation's pros and cons, especially since Pussy Riot have close connections to the politicized art group Voina. The (risky) legal status of those guerrilla street performers in Russia has already attracted enough international attention over the last few years to irritate the Moscow authorities no end. The mere existence of an album dedicated to any members of Voina, past or present, is enough to shed a telling light upon its editors. This LP, in other words, is very much designed as an act of international solidarity and domestic defiance.

Spit it Out (Minsk)

And so, before one even gets to the contents of the Haze album, some loudly quoted - and partisan - Amnesty materials read: "The entire action [in the cathedral] lasted only a few minutes and caused only minimal disruption to those using the cathedral … Instead of prosecuting members of Pussy Riot for their political opinions criticizing the Russian government and some Church officials, the Russian authorities must recognize that their protest is protected by the right to freedom of expression, guaranteed in international human rights law."

Needless to say, the viewpoint in Moscow is rather different.

When you're strong it [should mean] nothing if someone mocks you (Alex Kapranos, Moscow July 2012)

Some of the names on this Haze compilation are new to us, such as Spit it Out. In addition, the same album also includes a few outfits that remain wantonly anonymous or show little desire to move beyond the fading pages of MySpace. As for Spit It Out, they happily foreground an alarming tumult, rather than private information. In the place of any specific references to living people or familiar places, we're told instead to expect "the [faceless] buzzing of high-voltage wires, engine sounds, urban clamor, people talking, church choirs, and various synthetic sounds." As that list already suggests or implies, the general inclination of "A Dedication to Pussy Riot" is to bury the pomp and circumstance of "singular" ecclesiastical or political spectacle deep in daily hubbub. Stately arrogance is made to sound slow, leaden, and sickly.

And, for those who've heard Pussy Riot's own output, it displays a similar penchant for choral or stately motifs (such as cathedral bells), which are quickly subverted with the amateur thrashing of second-hand guitars. The entire process is wantonly deconstructive. 

Kritchev vs. Ban (Minsk)

Giving some concrete meaning to their own abstract and angry registers, Spit It Out tell us to anticipate a general atmosphere of "endless yearning, alienation, misanthropy, sociopathy, and catatonic apathy."  These are the common, shared experiences of "humankind's negative, lowly manifestations." A note of sympathy sounds for minor figures on the edge of civic - or legal - machinery, the kind of people who cannot escape the deathly gait of institutionalized "grandeur."

Another anonymous outfit invited by Haze for the Pussy Riot LP is Kritchev vs. Ban - a duo who've been playing together and using their pseudonyms since the end of the Soviet period. Having started as a home-based DIY endeavor, Kritchev vs. Ban continue to use as much domestic machinery as possible, all the way from televisions and tape recorders to record players, kitchen clocks, and vacuum cleaners. Once more, the musty, sometimes dead weight of typicality is underscored: minuscule processes endure against a fundamentally moribund backdrop.

Those suggestions, at least metaphorically, of some widespread ailment become symbols of violent expectoration - and regurgitation - if we turn to the seminal Minsk project of Karaoke Vomit (aka Vladimir Banker and, on other occasions, Roomdark). As we mentioned on our last visit to his work, Banker has been working with discordant field recordings for the last seventeen years. Across that long career, he discerns his fundamental trajectory as having moved "from harsh noise to rhythmic electro-industrial sounds with melodic, ambient elements." Harmony is a rare and almost irrelevant concern.

Instead, the microscopic - and awkward - workings of the world's minutiae are more important than anthemic arrogance. 

Karaoke Vomit (aka Vladimir Banker and RoomdarkMinsk)

Here he's joined by the equally well-established figure of Vladislav Buben, active on the Minsk scene for many years. Known not only to audiophiles, but also to television viewers, he continues to operate across a dizzying range of styles: "techno, house, break beat, break core, ambient, experimental, and industrial." As for publishing outlets, his homepage in Belarus currently documents almost sixty different labels around Europe that have hosted the unnerving brouhaha of Buben's catalog. He appears for Haze in the guise of his side-project Fat Not Dead, which is his own words is given over to the production of "industrial aggro[!]... Percussive and rhythmic patterns are constantly changing. They're all well greased with some dark, even venomous techno/industrial lubricant."

Everything's well greased with some dark, even venomous techno/industrial lubricant

Just as these musicians work very hard to emphasize some micro-social, liminal aspects of a troubling soundscape, so they dissolve their own identities further into a series of one-off collaborations. Everybody's operating at a maximum distance from haughtiness and chutzpah. Put differently, some of the project names on "A Dedication to Pussy Riot" have no other documentation or audio-materials online: tiny groupings have been imagined, built for a singular purpose, and then immediately disbanded.

A form of guerrilla musicianship emerges. 

This row or ruckus of deflated pathos, nameless chatter, and "endless yearning or alienation" is especially well captured by Belarusian noise/drone exponents Aortha. They've been afforded a track on the compilation in ways that further bolster the abum's overall philosophy. The last time we looked at Aortha, their music was attributed primarily to a liberal use of "field recordings," but the resulting grind and industrial glitch both suggested we were far from any traditionally hushed or ambient practice. There were more empty factories than birds' nests to be heard. The compositions on display were - as a consequence - designed to highlight some social failings of the present, rather than to advocate any pre-modern, rural alternative.

Lifeless drone spoke of a societal dead-end.

Fat Not Dead (Minsk)

So what of Pussy Riot themselves? What has happened to the three women who inspired this grim discord in Minsk? A brand-new article in the New Yorker brings us neatly up to speed. The text, published this week, does much to frame these young artists as supposedly impressive members of a modern intelligentsia, since they've all enjoyed a higher education, begun upstanding careers in responsible professions, or raised children. Against that westernized, liberal view, however, stand a couple of less tolerant tendencies. In essence the New Yorker article suggests that the conspiracy against Pussy Riot is growing to an almost unassailable scale, whatever words of Western sympathy may sound forth:

Nadya and Katya and Masha, we love you (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Moscow July 2012)

"The Russian Orthodox priesthood is, on the whole, deeply conservative, with strong xenophobic and anti-western streaks. Over the past years, the top clergy mostly kept those forces quiet, so as not to compromise the state and its modernization rhetoric. But as the government set out to quash the anti-government activists, it has found the social conservatism to be useful. The end Putin seeks is to consolidate the support of the conservative majority and neutralize the modernized ones. Polarization through aggression and xenophobia is the means. And that was the trap that caught Pussy Riot."

The parallels with modern Belarus are clear - they also explain why the instrumentals on this Haze netlabel compilation are so uniformly grating or jarring. Despite the clear philosophical kinship that exists between Pussy Riot and our Belarusian collectives, though, their choices of genre could not be more different. The ramshackle proto- or punk rock we hear from Moscow at least suggests a brief, fleeting, and gutsy sense of defiance. The drone and industrial downtempo instrumentals from Minsk are colored - deeply - by a sense of resignation.

(L to R) E. Samusevich, N. Tolokonnikova, and M. Alekhina (Moscow, 2012)

Audio

Spit It Out – Built For Sin
Roomdark – Drft (as Ban vs Banker)
Aortha – FreedTh
Kritchev vs. Ban – Putina Progoni (atmospheric mix)
Kritchev vs. Ban – Putina Progoni (noospheric mix)

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