U.R.A.N., Spacebirds, and A Headphones: Travels to a Kitsch Cosmos

In May this year, we looked at a handful of tracks from Moscow duo U.R.A.N. that were said to presage the release of a fully fledged album, "Astrodiver." That full-length recording has now appeared - and made its way to iTunes. It sits rather neatly in the context of some other, aesthetically similar works that also touch upon "cosmic" themes of distant travel, either around the globe or into space.

As we mentioned last spring, the Moscow press have referred to U.R.A.N. as "some kind of banal nonsense about outer space and androids, screamed over the top of an electroclash soundtrack." The origins of that nonsense have now been mapped with greater accuracy by the band members, who despite being led by the concrete figure of Mr. Aleksei Chulanskii, are happier listing themselves as "Uni" and "Raptor," plus two other, equally mythical colleagues: "Anti" and "Noise."

From this point onwards the silliness only increases, despite the serious demeanor. 

U.R.A.N now like to refer to themselves as "underground space pop," a phrase that neatly encapsulates the enormous distances between homespun or boyish reverie and the faraway stars of a nighttime sky. Sooner or later, a gap that large between actuality and dreams is likely to produce some kind of romantic irony - and indeed it does. U.R.A.N. position their cosmic-synth sound firmly amid the styles of the mid- to late '70s when the Soviet space program was nearing a point of slow decline. As greater goals and further planets came into view for researchers, the Soviet economy would start to fizzle out, bringing the dreams of wide-eyed physicists back to earth.

Material problems scuttled astral plans; we'll see that problem reappear a little later.

The Western influences now credited by U.R.A.N. support this enduring movement away from earthbound emphases. Elements of a spacey worldview are taken from the corners of early Soviet science (Leon Theremin), '70s glam (Bowie), US psychedelia (Zappa), continental po-faced irony (Kraftwerk), and new-romantic posturing (Japan). That heady combination is then filtered through the post-war kitsch of the B52s, themselves more than familiar with the kind of "cosmic nonsense" mentioned already.

A kaleidoscopic image starts to cohere.

At the end of these challenging lists, however, we find the comfort and familiarity of ABBA: a sense of innocence and pop-purity endures above all. And indeed U.R.A.N. link that Swedish style of the mid-70s to the synchronous (and equally well-scrubbed) output of Soviet pop ensembles. The decade as a whole continues to offer happy memories: "All of a sudden [in the 1970s], Soviet bands found themselves the owners of computers and synths. What resulted was the romance of conquering cosmic realms, set to synthesized harmonies. For some inexplicable reason, we're left with the feeling that this is the music of 2010, too." 

All of a sudden [in the 1970s], Soviet bands found themselves the owners of computers and synths. What resulted was the romance of conquering cosmic realms, set to synthesized harmonies

One of the group's members, who - after some police work - can be found as Il'ia Dmitriev, lists on his Facebook page an admiration for various quotes from "L. Lipavsky in the 1930s." Quite what those quotes might be, he does not say, but we take this reference point to be Leonid Lipavsky, the writer who chronicled the development of Russian avant-garde poetry - before being killed in his late 30s during WWII.

The trajectory of spectacular verse was cut short by unforgiving wartime; the parallels with U.R.A.N.'s tempered daydreams here are not difficult to draw.

The most closely related recording in the last few weeks has been an album from Moscow's Spacebirds, one of the countless side-projects operated by Evgenii Kharitonov (aka EugeneKha). The tracks were all recorded on Arturia synthesizers, in other words on tools of French origin - and it was precisely French spacepop that had a great influence in Russia, following Jean Michel Jarre's "Oxygène" in 1976.  While cynicism exploded in music of the UK, mid-70s continental offerings preferred the grand or orchestral leanings of Jarre and other operatic Frenchmen. Themes of space and galactic grandeur prevailed over the social critique echoing from British radios. 

Spacebirds' new "Dreamscape" album is replete with some loud sci-fi cover art (above), showing a spaceship "going boldly where no man has gone before." The destination on display, though, is a huge ball of fire - maybe not the wisest stopping-point. Hyperbolic narratives, however, have no time for such mundane concerns. 

Romance, risk, and a knowing smile are all rolled into one.

Important here is the element of kitsch that we see in much of the music and its visual presentation. Kitschy artifacts by their very nature are a blend of two elements: high levels of sentiment and the lowly workings of commerce. They are the result of a private yearning thrust into the public marketplace, to the point where the personal desire they once expressed loses all forms of dignity. Kitsch forms of expression mirror the dual pressures audible in these recordings: a lonely idealism and the dead weight of commerce.

The cover to U.R.A.N.'s album is a fine example. It gives bold voice to the excitement (and sexuality) of space travel from the 1950s, perhaps, from a time before the actual journeys to the moon had happened - and before science fiction as an industry would become a lumbering cash cow. The image is full of private romance and yet carries an aspect of pulp fiction, too. It squeezes an appealing vision and an unappealing commercialism into the same space.

This kind of aesthetic clash has even greater resonance for A Headphones, whose odd name and quirky output have been the focus of our attention before.

Until recently, the main catchphrase used on their website was "We are 4 unlimited" - in other words, any genres and any combination thereof were potentially possible. The band's enthusiastically inclusive worldview did indeed lead to an often bizarre jumble of styles. The group has recently posted some new tracks at Soundcloud, two of which we include here; some of that freshly-minted material has been presented under the collective title of "Tropicalization."

We can see from the recent image above that references to anything that was previously "unlimited," such as outer space or distant and exotic lands, have now been surrendered to the radical kitsch of nylon leopard-print fabrics. Private dreams of faraway shores have been downgraded to the cheapest of tourist trinkets - sold to anybody, anywhere.

Tawrdy versions of "world culture" can be acquired for pennies in the corner store.

For this reason, perhaps, the pithy celebration of unlimited romance on the MySpace page of A Headphones has now been swapped for a very different credo. Translated from the German(!), it reads: "You Are Not Alone." The peaceful promise of outer space and distant lagoons has now been gobbled up and trivialized by the coarse, dime-store workings of "tropicalization."

It is estimated that tens of millions of particles - various forms of material space junk - are currently orbiting the Earth, since the cosmos is just as overpopulated by profit-driven enterprise. Astronauts are indeed "not alone." The true romantics, though, wait for the return of a purer, more idealistic view of travel, when they'll be surrounded by less people and less trash. They count the minutes until a dignified spirit of adventure comes back.

That countdown has begun - on a Casio retro-watch, of course.

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