Monologs and a Stereo Sound: Vanyn, Ethica, Bananafish & Jonny Online

Vanyn (previously known as "Vannin," Moscow)

Behind the moniker Vanyn stand four young and musical residents of Moscow, known in most professional settings by their first names alone: Andrey (vocals), Vova (guitar), Kirill (bass), Yegor (keyboards), and Misha (drums). Those diminutive forms are then countered by the confidence with which the band speaks of itself; a friendly register is overshadowed by some jarringly bold claims. "Vanyn are one of those quintessentially Russian bands whose origins can be something of a mystery... These five Russian lads play in that most 'un-Russian' of styles––a mix of indie rock and neo-soul... It's conceivable that you have already heard this music on the streets of Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, or Milan. Those cities, after all, have been the primary sources of inspiration for Vanyn." A sentence designed to sound cosmopolitan instead slips into silliness. 

The Russian language has 'sharper edges' than English. And yet our native tongue allows us to play with shades of meaning

A romantic, arguably superficial tone is next extended in "ten facts" the band have offered to local media outlets. None of this data is terribly useful––but that may, perhaps, be deliberate. One member of Vanyn is said to collect Converse shoes; initially the group was called Vannin, but changed their name due to some minor tensions with a Western DJ of the same name. (Other tidbits follow.) Both of those monikers play upon the surname of vocalist Andrey Vanin. Fuller identities come to light only in regional newspapers: Vova Borisov, Yegor Zhigalov, Mikhail Maslennikov, and Kirill Karpenkov. 

Vanyn's basic rationale for singing in Russian is one often encountered within Slavic popular music. Bassist Karpenkov announces: "Songs just sound more pleasant in English––in fact, English is a more musical language overall. Russian, so to speak, has 'sharper edges.' And yet our native tongue allows us to play with shades of meaning. Russian allows you forge a single image from a song. Personally I'm in favor of singing in [more often] Russian––it's something I'd certainly like to do." 

A gradual movement away from boilerplate comes from unexpected quarters. In one of Vanyn's brief press cuttings––the band has only published two songs thus far––an argument is given for leaving pathos and/or unjustified grandeur behind, in favor of sentimentality and small-scale audience contact.

Guitarist Vova Borisov declares: "Everybody in our band used to play in a much heavier [rock] outfit. I actually still play that kind of material today... but only when I'm home! There came a moment when I understood nobody needs heavy rock any more. Moscow's smaller venues don't give anybody the opportunity to perform that stuff, anyway. It's hard to pull it off in small halls, especially if people are sitting at tables––even on top of one another!––and you're up on stage, rocking away!" Audience contact should start on a minor scale. 

A long way from the limelight. Vanyn: "Don't Look Back

And then we hear a few more words in favor of understatement and restraint: "Acoustic music is a more universal form of expression––you can play it absolutely anywhere. If I go into a venue nowadays that's blasting out rock music, I'll probably reach for my ear plugs!" Pathos and considerable volume both leave a nasty taste in the mouth, so to speak. 

Some more substantial backing for gentle interaction and "lighter" genres comes in various quotations used by Vanyn on their social networking profiles. First up is the following pearl of wisdom, taken from the German and Canadian new age spiritualist Eckhart Tolle: "Be where you are. Look around. Just look, don't interpret. See the light, shapes, colors, textures. Be aware of the silent presence of each thing. Be aware of the space that allows everything to be. Listen to the sounds; don't judge them." Humility and miniature––even maudlin––genres quietly compliment one another. They are, at the very least, sincere––as opposed to our opening promotional declarations.

All things will kill you, both slowly and swiftly, but it's much better to be killed by a lover (Charles Bukowski)

This is followed by Honoré de Balzac's belief that movement towards a goal is more consequential than any singular purpose, in and of itself. Loud, goal-driven thought should never sideline the importance of process. Wisdom comes more from humbling experience; it comes from interaction and from other, better ideas encountered en route. Importance is itself dialogic, not dictatorial. Some claims from the recently deceased Muhammad Ali are likewise repeated to show that dreams force us to "get out of bed"––and thus enter a busy, sometimes contrary world.

The purpose of love and romance among all of these ideas scrapbooked by Vanyn is to inspire endurance––not to guarantee wish fulfillment. The rhetoric of the band's love songs may seem shallow to some, but it remains an antidote to grandiose political assertions. Loud talk of goals reached (or guaranteed) has limited charm. In a similar way, the ensemble's arguably throwaway verse is an unexpected counterweight to cocky PR releases, devoid of all objective evidence. 

Bananafish (St. Petersburg): "Loadstar / Immersion" (2016)

Most important here are some imperatives taken from Charles Bukowski. The opening phrase is the one actually cut and pasted by Vanyn's members, but some subsequent sentences in the original follow Bukowski's thought to a more dramatic conclusion. An initially trite, over-quoted statement presages a darker notion. "Find what you love and let it kill you. Let it drain from you your all. Let it cling onto your back and weigh you down into eventual nothingness. Let it kill you, and let it devour your remains. For all things will kill you––both slowly and swiftly––but it's much better to be killed by a lover." 

An opening, impressively bold offer to choose the nature of one's demise actually ends with an admission of inevitable quietus. A cocky declaration of choice is downgraded to something much more banal, humbling––and truthful. 

The world is rudderless (Alan Moore)

Hence the suggestion that we balance some of Vanyn's public statements with privately endorsed quotations or the band's lyrics, even. One of Vanyn's current couplets reads as follows: "If you love somebody new/ Just say it..." Nothing remarkable there; yet against the backdrop these literary, philosophical, and historical aphorisms, a concept evolves. Simplicity, modesty, and a lightness of touch are held to be a laudable response to broad-chested chutzpah. Private thought is more revealing than public statement.

There's little reason to dismiss any intimate, perhaps trivial register as inconsequential. Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson, himself with a sizable following in Russia, has spoken in the past of "the great tension between the banal and the essential, the comic and the tragic." Underlying Vanyn's chirpy assumptions and light tone are some very sobering implications. Andersson––the subject of a new book-length study in Moscow––has said overtly that banality may even be the home of all profundity. That claim is made on the microscopic example of somebody pinching their finger in a typical door. It's an event of zero apparent significance, and yet its banality is surely a reminder that everybody has fingers––and knows very well the pain in question.

Superficiality therefore remains a fine counterbalance to pomp, arrogance, and institutional truths. The little things in life can say a lot. 

Bananafish recording live a few months ago at Oxygen Studio 

Аnother push-back against stately, singular verity comes this week from Bananafish, an outfit based in Saint Petersburg. Vocalist Dasha Grinevich begins by stating: "There is no truth, only opinion. (I read that in some library or other.)" She then appends a bittersweet turn of phrase from Mark Twain, declaring insufficient love and infrequent travel to be our most likely regrets in later life. An unwillingness to sacrifice one's agency––to other cultures, people, or places––will perhaps be the death of love. We hate ourselves for not taking those anxious leaps of faith. Put differently, the most banal pleasures of all are arguably those we least engage in actuality. Instead we strive towards public notions of rectitude––towards what others want.

I am not the one who is the lord of my life (Bananafish, via Kierkegaard)

In light of these melancholy and remarkably simple ideas, Bananafish invite us to move further still from cockiness. Another aphorism chosen by the band questions the gross arrogance of conspiracy theorists, holding that they––and nobody else!––comprehend the true workings of the world. Dasha Grinevich uses a Russian translation of the British graphic novelist Alan Moore: "The truth is, that it is not the Jewish banking conspiracy or the grey aliens or the twelve-foot reptiloids from another dimension that are in control. The truth is more frightening, nobody is in control. The world is rudderless." 

Verity is here downgraded by these northern musicians to the point where the world has no significance, being "rudderless." To drive home their philosophy, Bananafish also draw upon Kierkegaard's famous admission that: "I am not the one who is the lord of my life; I am [merely] one of the threads to be spun into the calico of life! Well, then, even though I cannot spin, I can still cut the thread." Perhaps the only way to give life meaning is to cancel it out. On her VK networking page, Dasha Grinevich even declares––in the designated "About Me" field of her profile––"Everything is Void."

Tongue in cheek, a Russian online music webzine recently introduced a video interview with Bananafish as follows. Readers were promised "tales of a rock star's difficult life. Highlights from our mortal existence: philosophy, theosophy, money, [political] power, coffee, and cigarettes." Plenty of questions, not many answers.

Within a few minutes, Bananafish admit in the same footage that their stage-name comes from Salinger's identically titled short story (1948). That post-war tale is burdened by a struggle to find some grand, overarching meaning in everyday existence after years of global conflict. As with Kierkegaard's use of suicide to do something of consequence, so Salinger's hero shoots himself amid anecdotes of some imaginary, pointless bananafish. Those underwater creatures are fated by their hunger for bananas to die from a resulting banana fever. Just as with Vanyn, so we hear from Saint Petersburg a narrative of "finding what you love––and letting it kill you."

Jonny Online (Moscow): "We Are Better" (2016)

In a world of apparent demise and pointless death(!), a simple and aimless pleasure scribes a better trajectory than pain. Addiction is clearly better than any affliction, because it's chosen.

The peculiar name of Moscow's Jonny Online would seem to be playing a related game. The band's moniker sounds––initially––almost unaware of the very media it's designed to celebrate. It sounds clueless. The generic Western name "Jonny" is placed beside the term "Online," invoking some imaginary representative of contemporary US culture. Positioned side by side, however, those two modern words look very outdated. They recall the clueless ways in which Russian media spoke of American culture in the late 1980s, just before average families had a chance to actually go overseas.

Valery Todorovsky's film of 2008––Stilyagi––operated along these lines. It depicted the lives of Soviet boys and girls in the 1950s, trying unsuccessfully to imagine what American rock 'n' roll culture really was, somewhere over the horizon. Hoping to look culturally relevant, the same Soviet youngsters would have been dismissed by their American contemporaries––had they ever met. The provinces still dream of somewhere else in 2016––in deliberately hackneyed terms, invoked here by Mikhail Safarov (vocals/guitar/keyboards), Aleks Shalagin (guitar), Maks Zverev (bass), and Nik Purtov (drums).

Now ignorance is bliss (Jonny Online)

Jonny Online are from provincial Yoshkar-Ola, a city maybe 500 miles inland from Moscow. The quartet was formed in 2011 and moved to the capital in 2014, after success in competitions around the Kazan region. Yoshkar-Ola's received cultural identity is with somewhere liminal, perched on the edge of familiarity. It undoubtedly suffered––like many other Russian locations––from the downsizing (or total demise) of centralized Soviet industry over the 1990s. Once those state-sponsored jobs had vanished, Yoshkar-Ola gained the reputation of a place where Moscow traders could sell all manner of goods––be they useful, pointless, or even fake. It's as if Yoshkar-Ola became known as the edge of normal trade or tradition, beyond which stable commerce would tumble into chaos.

The city grew throughout the Soviet era due to a well-developed transport system that once connected it with socialist society. Having experienced the rapid ebb and low of post-imperial trading, those same roads and railways are now more likely to lead young professionals away from home. Dreamers know the paths that point quickly and directly away from familiarity. Jonny Online are very aware of any provincial overtones in their stage-name; they also moved away.

These geographic issues are, to some degree, also audible in the band's English-language lyrics. Distance is seen more in terms of isolation than freely chosen solitude: "The enormous feeling/ that I'm lonely./ It never leaves my mind." Truth and civic decisions both lie, apparently, in the hands of "reckless people/ with dark desires."

Jonny Online: one knowing smile, at least

Perhaps digital culture will return some personal interaction to a fantastically impersonal landscape? Distance from mainstream attention in 2016 is offered a possible solution, since we are experiencing a "time to use feedback." The public is similarly asked in Jonny Online's songs to "remember gems off the beaten track." Yet the residents of those provincial backwaters show no actual desire to encounter difference and/or diversity. Given the tools and opportunity to oppose decades of monologic truth, not everybody wants to: "You should have known those [names]/ like 'The Beatles' or 'Kinks.'/ But what the Hell now…/ when ignorance is bliss?"

Songs of modesty––of self-diminution––struggle to be understood in a world that has scant attention for private whim. Little people in little places might vanish altogether. A philosophical desire for "minor" experience seems almost impossible when provincial, outlying towns are full of others' "reckless and dark desires." 

Bananafish and Jonny Online are both tagged on various portals as "dream pop" and/or "shoegaze." The same is true of Nizhnii Novgorod's Ethica, an ensemble founded two years ago from the remnants of Satellite Dreams and January's Dreams in the same city. The former outfit took considerable pride in its "walls of sound, which are placed next to some gentle dream-pop melodies. The vocals and guitar, both resonating from within [that hubbub], turn the compositions into hypnotic motifs. Listeners are––of course––led into a trance. Satellite Dreams' lyrics appear to rise from the depths of the ocean... To top it all off, the band's combination of shoegaze, dream-pop, and electronica build a chilly sense of estrangement." As earlier, the public and sweeping statements of PR boilerplate give the tiniest indication of a more salient and private concern––estrangement.

Hypnotic motifs and lyrics from the depths of the ocean

When we first encountered them, Satellite Dreams' two representatives––Petr Shishonkov and Pasha Kotikhin––were announcing a philosophically related mini-LP under the title of "Time Wasters." A "trance-like" absence of purpose or direction was allegedly the best response to local reality.

Pasha Kotikhin, in the meantime, was heading his social networking profile with a couple of English phrases: "You are sleeping. You do not want to believe." A removal of clarity from ostensible surroundings swiftly became something dramatic. Those same quoted lines, in fact, were borrowed from Latvian parapsychologist Konstantīns Raudive, who claimed in the early 1970s that he could record the voices of the dead... (They were also sampled, more famously, by The Smiths.)

The fleeting nature of human existence is one sobering guarantor of modesty for Ethica; the other has been a tough regional scene in Nizhnii Novgorod. A minor marketplace leaves no room for arrogance; there's not enough cash to fund––or even justify––a big ego. Members of January's Dress once said in the same location: "I reckon we've already found our dream job! Being part of a band and making music together––that's how we want to spend all our time! Unfortunately, though, we're unable to do that each and every day. We find other work wherever we can––and those second jobs would hardly qualify as 'cool' employment. The same goes for our [paltry] wages..."

Ethica (Nizhnii Novgorod): "Supreme" (2016)

Ethica hope now to wipe away "the bitter tears" of local fans who have lamented the inability of Nizhnii Novgorod's market to support the niche sounds of a shoegaze outfit. Here two tendencies merge: the desire to build and then acquiesce to walls of overwhelming sound––or simultaneously evoke a dizzying array of influences. Surrender looks appealing.

The band's current bassist, Yegor, hints at the raison d'être of Ethica's forthcoming album by talking of a well-known English outfit: "I'd like to say a little about Radiohead or, more accurately, about the band's new album. The new LP shows that Radiohead are still capable of surprising us. It's a fundamentally instrumental recording; the group's members have––somewhat unexpectedly!––moved away from any [prior] emphasis on electronic music. It's a really multilayered recording, peppered with Jonny Greenwood's obvious influence. The tracks, time and again, reference both's Radiohead's own catalog and other styles or musical movements. I'd like to draw special attention to the composition called 'Daydreaming'..." 

We hear a stereo sound, coming up from the ground (Ethica)

Reverie is understood in visual terms as a series of looping, self-referential patterns––such that bigger dreams involve an even greater loss of linear movement. Selfhood gradually gives way to other wandering designs––and happily so. 

In the meantime, a couple of published songs from Ethica this year vivify a voluntary self-erasure. The song "Ever Even" talks of "clusters of rays, lighting your way." That illuminated path then leads to a "fire parade," where participants are invited to "set bones on fire. We're dancing on our toes––with a queasy feeling. We hear a stereo sound, coming up from the ground." A modern-day ritual is visualized, itself summoning a multitude of sounds in some allegedly "natural" manner. The removal of any one voice from that host also cancels a sensation of membership or magic.

All of these new releases from EthicaJonny OnlineVanyn, and Bananafish give voice to a similar outlook. They all celebrate the philosophical benefits of modesty––the realization that individual experience is best fashioned in a networked, social setting. Any one musical style or lyrical register is likewise improved by admitting its debt to those who came before. "Novelty" performed in ignorance of the past is likely to duplicate prior experimentation––or just lead to ridiculous narcissism.

Truth and rectitude belong to no one individual. Or, whenever they do, then small-town residents and modest souls are often dismissed as insignificant; humility guarantees little more than the predatory malice of others. Understatement can be difficult in a realm where––to invert Eckhart Tolle's wording, nobody listen to sounds any more––they just judge them.

Ethica: a self-assured stance from five unassuming romantics

Audio

Vanyn – Don't Look Back
Ethica – Ever Even
Vanyn – Just Say It
Ethica – Supreme

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