At a time when sales of rock music are increasingly losing ground to other genres, the issue of rock's relevance comes unavoidably to the fore. Or, to phrase things differently, problems of tradition emerge; how might one relate to those established traditions in ways that could vivify them?
One approach to this dilemma involves not change, but fidelity. Rock's heritage becomes a cherished body of work that's revisited in increasingly respectful ways. Over and over.
Take, for example, Moscow collective The Re-Stoned who have just released a live album through RAIG (The Russian Association of Independent Genres). The band's founding member is multi-instrumentalist Il'ia Lipkin, who has played in a host of Moscow-based ensembles, ranging from dark-folk to avant-core. Having run that gamut of styles - from the acoustic to others that are wildly amplified - he has now returned, just as the band's name suggests, to a 70s' heritage of stoner rock.
Deceleration and volume are the markers of seriousness.
In Lipkin's words, The Re-Stoned represent "a return to the [instrumental] music I've always listened to and loved to play." And, in the opinion of RAIG, his new (old) band has become one of the most "popular live acts among Russian classic rock revivalists."
That sense of continuation is now celebrated with a live recording from Moscow's Vermel club. The album consists of forty-three minutes of self-styled "riffing in a golden 70s' style."
...riffing in a golden 70s' style
The group, holding the traditions of that decade high, pride themselves on two core virtues: an enduring display of top-notch musicianship and, conversely, the absence of overdubs. Skill and spontaneity predominate, each supporting the other.
As a result, these stoner or southern rock compositions becomes a direct, no-nonsense statement in favor of an existing custom (or at least the spirit thereof). Venerable conventions of forty years ago, performed live, need neither lyrical statement nor unmotivated innovation. The greatest respect for a rock canon is shown precisely by that stance - of insistent faith, rather than pointless (or profitable) novelty.
What, though, if we move to a distant locale and different generation?
One of Russia's most easterly outposts is the city of Iuzhno-Sakhalinsk, on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. As some indication of the town's far-flung position on the map, we should point out that Iuzhno-Sakhalinsk spent almost half the twentieth century under Japanese control. Here, four thousand miles from the capital, we find the young and locally fashionable outfit known as Tears of Morgana (Slezy Morgany), who have been performing live only since the springtime of 2009. They have just published a second EP with the title of "When We're Silent" (Kogda my molchim).
They tag their work as "alternative, metal, and visual." And, as the images here show, the band does indeed lean in the general direction of a rather thespian, emo style. One might expect, therefore, that the musicians would employ that same fashion and use it as a clear-cut statement of their uniqueness. In other words, the group's distance from dusty tradition could be claimed purely by virtue of allegiance to such-and-such fashions.
As, however, the blur of these recent photographs suggests, nobody is sitting on their trendy laurels.
The band's members have a youthful air about them, both physically and audibly. In an attempt to mature, they use their pages at Vkontakte in order to gather public opinion about their songs, progress, and future options. Fans have not been gentle. An examination of those comments reveals a wealth of advice from technical, lyrical, and musical standpoints. There is, it seems, much to be done.
What exactly is needed in order to call oneself a rock ensemble worthy of respect - many time zones away from Moscow? In the words of one listener: "This new material is far from perfect. You need to work - and then work some more."
You need to work - and then work some more
Another fan dismissed the small catalog of Slezy Morgany as underserving of any comparison with the genre's pantheon, inhabited by musical monsters of past decades, such as Alisa. "This isn't Russian rock," said the observer. In other words, the weight of the past still lies heavy. The traditions established in the 1970s or '80s are, according to this logic, defined less in terms of innovation than as effort.
They deserve respect because they kept going. Artistic processes - in the face of grand obstacles - became more important that any concrete goals. Activity itself was impressive - and it takes a very long time to match those benchmarks.
What's now required in this hypothesis is a band lying somewhere in between the (huge!) discrepancies of The Re-Stoned and Slezy Morgany. A suitable example would be Kiev's Marakesh, of whom we've written in the past. They, in essence, took the emo-stylings of bands like Slezy Morgany and have now - after much work - attained national renown. Despite their clear reliance upon a very contemporary, often hyper-aestheticized mode, the group also embodies a work ethic that comes from prior generations.
After all, the obstacles of the here-and-now are nothing new to Slavic artists; a musical career in Eastern Europe is hardly easy.The coping mechanisms required in that local context come from the past - no matter how stylish you happen to be.
Now, as when we last spoke of Marakesh, the members of this Kievan ensemble happily list their major influences en route to the nation's IPods: Placebo, The Cure, Beck,Oasis, and Aphex Twin. The first two of these sources of inspiration sound the loudest, together with both bands' evident fondness for mascara. This same theatrical streak, especially in the appearance of lead singer Mark (Gritsenko), works towards the visualization of what Marakesh call "androgyny-rock. It's both musically sexless and emotionally overloaded."
It's also a great success, shown most recently by the new EP, "Taste Me."
Gritsenko recently spoke to the Ukrainian press and outlined these efforts in his early career. He claims to have first played rock music at the age of ten(!), when he discovered Vladivostok's Mumiy Troll. A fledgling band was then formed at the almost incredible age of thirteen. Problems of child labor were evidently circumvented.
This engagement of music prior to any standard education meant that Gritsenko's sense of expertise (his membership in the canon) came through experiment, rather than through lessons. And yet the band knows even now that there exist limits to pure empiricism: "You can't get by without experimentation. But sometimes we lose control and people start saying to us 'Get a grip on your style!'"
So what, in a word, is that style? Once more, labor trumps trendiness, for the following reason.
The most enduring quality of these collectives, whether they be inspired by glam or grunge traditions, is work. Given, once again, that the roots of Slavic rock lie in the political contrariness of the late Soviet period, followed by the glitzy, moneyed pop of the early 90s, it makes sense, perhaps, that Slavic rock per se values endurance. An ability to play - come what may - becomes more important than style.
But a nice jacket and flashy guitar never hurt.
In one recent interview, Gritsenko stated: "We play alternative music - and work hard in order to bring that music to a wide audience. We don't hide away - egotistically! - in our basements. Striving to reach that audience is the only way to influence what happens in Ukrainian show business." Rather than a discussion of the finer points of chic, we're treated to a straightforward declaration of intent.
We work hard in order to bring our music to a wide audience. We don't hide away in our basements
A pithy affirmation of effort, pure and simple.
There is little, if anything, to connect The Re-Stoned to Slezy Morgany or Marakesh... except the most important thing of all. A desire to keep going - and an admission that much will decided by diligence.
And, if the sales of rock music are lagging in both Western and Eastern Europe, that work ethic will only get stronger. The standards of commitment set by the earliest Russian bands of the 80s are extremely high. Whether we're talking of late Soviet society or contemporary market pressures, we can see that effort persists in order to surpass failings in the material world.
Or, put differently, Slavic rock makes an ethical investment in physical effort - in order to overcome the failure or burden of physical existence. Sometimes it works.