Recurring Patterns of Wistfulness: Toffee, Napo, and Lapti

Chelyabinsk is a major industrial center in southern Russia. To a large degree, both the city and its current dimensions are a product of Soviet investment, especially under Stalin: Chelyabinsk blossomed in the 1930s. Those initial facts alone are enough to suggest both the scale and speed of urban development; the city and nation grew side by side. Unfortunately, however, the downturn of the Soviet economy in subsequent decades would also be reflected locally.

The nature of that decline can be sketched quickly. Since Chelyabinsk was, over time, responsible for the production of countless tanks and rocket launchers, the entire region was off limits to all foreigners until the early 1990s. Against this noisy backdrop of grandiose construction, though, equally impressive damage was done to the neighboring environment. Industrial growth led to industrial waste - on a similar scale.

As a result of decades of unbridled waste-dumping by southern factories, including the fallout from a massive nuclear accident in the 1950s, Chelyabinsk is still, in some cruel quarters, referred to as the "most polluted place on Earth." A lot of the amateur images uploaded by residents to Russian photography sites underscore these dual emphases: industry (being positive) and the chemical results thereof (less so). Consequently, we take a look here at one local musical fantasy that takes place somewhere else. Somewhere altogether "sweeter."

From Chelyabinsk this week comes an EP accredited to a performer known as Toffee. That stage-name belongs, in less interesting quarters, to Mr. Oleg Legotin. He also composes under the moniker of "i3i3." Whatever his chosen identity, though, Legotin first performed locally in 2002, specifically under the influence of dubstep. Working his way from those modest DIY beginnings, Legotin gradually developed beyond the limitations of some initial podcasts and started to attract attention further from home. More specifically, some net-releases would eventually be forthcoming through labels in Moscow (8me) and then London (EightFX).

Any potted bio from Legotin that documents similar information is likely to end with the following phrase: "Each new track gives you a chance to delve deeper into the futuristic world [of i3i3 or Toffee]". It's a promise he likes to offer in many web-based venues. Progress, no matter the throwaway phrasing here (redolent of a PR release), is viewed in spatial terms. It's a vague metaphor that slowly adopts more concrete patterns - in different locations, as we'll see. 

...a psychedelic, fairytale world, made of sweets

The newest Toffee recordings this week come as a five-track, twenty-seven minute EP: "In Sweetland." Each of the compositions is named after an imaginary location, reached by means of some "Sugarland Express": "Cacao Kingdom," "Cinnamon Storm," "Mint Glacier," and "Shugar [sic] Desert." The rationale behind (or between) these dreamy destinations and phenomena reads as follows: "The 'Sweetland EP' gives you an opportunity to travel through a psychedelic, fairytale world made of sweets. The Sweetland Express has already set off... The first stop is the Cacao Kingdom, where little chocolate figures meet the train. Now you find yourself in the center of the Cinnamon Storm, rushing through the desert... Are you cold? That's the Mint Glacer" - and so forth. 

Suitable clothing is required.

Toffee (Oleg Legotin [Chelyabinsk, Russia])

Once all the tracks have been segued with this fantasy narrative, we're informed that "This not the end of the story. Not by any means! The tale will be continued..." In mapping that movement into later releases and further yarns, Legotin himself likes to define his output as "imprecise [in meaning, yet] rich in content, with a deep sound and dynamic rhythms." 

Creative progress continues to be seen in terms of departure, distance, and depth - in other words, "advancement" always takes place (increasingly) far from home. It's an appealing trajectory that needn't necessarily begin in a smokey industrial city, though. Take, by way of illustration, the new "Depth EP" on Lithuania's StrikeBack Records from young producer Leonas "Napo" Rėčkus. Himself from the small, picturesque town of Šakiai, Napo still makes recourse to the same imagery of (desirable) descent.

Post-dubstep, future garage, and chillwave...

"Napo's first fifteen[!] years of life should be viewed in terms of rhythm and the depth of his beats... His new 'Depth EP' is also a debut publication. It's a mad combination of top-notch post-dubstep, future garage, and chillwave vibes." The rush here from generic constraint is swift indeed (and again close to PR stereotypes): we're invited to consider sounds subsequent to dubstep and garage, whilst simultaneously pondering the willful nostalgia(!) of chillwave. Movement away from the present - viewed spatially - is the prime consideration. Escape from the here and now is attractive: employing the imagery of "profundity," Napo heads down the road.  

Leonas "Napo" Rėčkus (Šakiai, Lithuania)

It's a happy flight from actuality that we noticed in an earlier consideration of Napo's online experiments. Several months ago, we discussed ways in which this young performer namechecks his influences from the world of visual culture. Now, as then, he throws together a series of brief quotes, all of which - in kaleidoscopic fashion - hope to evoke some positive, yet unspecific impression. Fragments aspire to a general whole. Rėčkus quotes narratives of grand heroism ("The Terminator" and "The Godfather") together with those of self-deprecation ("The Simpsons"). They pull in opposite directions: which is more important, though - grandeur or mockery?

In between things epic and parodic we again find a certain degree of social skepticism. Mr. Rėčkus has a fondness for the sage, yet wary thoughts of Benjamin Franklin: "Three people can keep a secret... so long as two of them are dead." In other words, there's a disconnect between cinematic storytelling and the messy, often petty nature of human interaction. Fact, quotidian experience, and one's imagination refuse to walk in step.

Both Leonas Rėčkus and Oleg Legotin imagine their career trajectory as fantasy, either because actuality seems less appealing, or because social processes (those public and private) are troublesome. Neither industry nor interaction are easy to manage. Hence the predominance of lines scribed "away from home," to bigger and brighter locations. It's a response to a sense of claustrophobia both verbal and visual.

It can be useful to consider these two producers against the backdrop of a better-known colleague, for whom the search of a large, stable audience is less unsure. In other words, a level of renown has already been attained: does that, however, lessen the penchant for dreams over reality? We've considered the work of Moscow's (Alexey) Lapti on several prior occasions; he's a good benchmark for our current overview of reverie and social anxiety - in ways that inform the catalog of a young and "homebound" musician. 

Some reviewers of Lapti's sound in the past have certainly noticed a leaning towards places imagined, rather than those real: "This is the style of a unique individual. Lapti's output is a real balancing act between sounds, thought, and feeling. It's inspired both by tragedy and a utopian happiness, too. Together with aggression and moments of cacophony this music offers the emotional range needed by multicellular organisms for a full-blooded lifestyle!"

Music inspired both by tragedy and a utopian happiness

The building blocks of emotional, audible maximalism are sometimes listed as chiptune synthesizers, "a mighty bass line, and real dancefloor drive." When it all falls into place, Lapti then finds himself celebrated as "The #1 guy in the village. The local guru of wonky." Before we reach that closing, witty fanfare, though, several less appealing issues have been touched upon. We're presented with the presumption, for example, that tragedy simply "is," while happiness is "utopian"! Then, on a less obvious level, we find other elements of a self-deprecating outlook that defines the world's biggest country as a "village."

Daily experience can offer little that's aesthetically appealing.

Lapti (and some visual wizardry)

These melancholy emphases indicate some enduring problems within the status quo. When Lapti worked recently with the Belgian label Vlek, the desire to move away from ostensible experience was pronounced:  "From jungle-rave tracks without any bass or drums to the ghosts of 80s' sci-fi soundtracks, Lapti has a way of making old sounds new. His unique use of lo-fi samples, combined with surgical, synthetic elements, all results in a strange feeling of nostalgia for the future."

The resulting melange of progressive sounds and nostalgic wistfulness produced the same, schizophrenic references we see with Napo. The staff as Vlek invited us to "Hop in the DeLorean for some ice-cold-electro-retro-future-funk!" And then drive in any direction at all. 

...a strange feeling of nostalgia for the future

The term "Vlek" is Belgian slang for "junk" or "trash." It has been used by the label as a way of both commenting upon (fading) cultural values in Brussels and of inviting musicians to make new, promising sounds from the remnants of "the nation's rubble." In describing their output, the staff like to speak of Vlek as a social rescue operation, building linkages inside a fractured social sphere. Some of their chosen artwork of late, redolent of Escher's famous motifs, implies that much effort is required to instigate any natural, burgeoning process.  

Cover art for Lapti's "Sunpunch" (Vlek Records

For that reason, it's heartening to look at the responses to Lapti's work on Soundcloud: the difficult entrance of an artist into his audience begins, perhaps, to pay dividends. All of the three performers under consideration here have doubts about the charitable nature of contemporary society - and therefore the future. Of all those musicians, Lapti has the largest audience: his work has been handed over to the greatest number of strangers. In fact his tracks - even the newest material - are usually jam-packed with audience comments. Thankfully, they are almost exclusively positive, sometimes to an extreme degree: "Moscow's runnin' this sh*t!"; "You've got an amazing style, man! Don't ever change."  

This is like an 80s' prom dance in the year 2020

And yet within that upbeat, enthusiastic crowd, it doesn't take long for retrospection to start. Even for Lapti's audience, the most pleasing sounds are those that suggest past events: "This is like an 80s' prom dance in the year 2020." One Slavic listener fashions a new generic tag: "Futurerussian." Apparently that novel style involves looking back - or, at the very least, moving far away from home. In short, progress and departure become synonymous. If, however, the present leads to little faith in the future, forward-looking rhetoric morphs into nostalgia. What events within Lapti's' recent experience may be fueling this backwards passage?

In late August this year, his house burned down. Various Slavic and Baltic netlabels gathered money in his name. Sometimes the reasons for retrospection are clearer than others. 

Lapti (left) and Ol (Oleg Buyanov)

Audio

Toffee – Cacao Kingdom
Lapti – Little by Little
Napo – Na Nerk Gilyn
Napo – No Place No Plays
Lapti – Sunpunch
Toffee – Sweetland Express

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