The Moscow collective known as "Romantiki" (i.e., Romaнтики) uses a combination of Cyrillic and Latin characters in their name. A related spirit of mix and match is also discernible in the workplace: "You'll find elements of classic or hard rock, Brit-pop, old-school rock 'n' roll, and even folk motifs." This movement in and out of what the band calls "familiar notes" is then likened to a fondly remembered recipe, in which novelty harmonizes with something tried and tested. A recent interview with Romantiki front-man Roman Zolototrubov revealed his fondness for the 1991 Queen classic, "The Show Must Go On," given its presumed philosophy of continuation or endurance. Familiarity is a sign of persistence.
However––one need not recall that same song for long before the darker side of persistence emerges. The Queen lyrics read: "Empty spaces, what are we living for?/ Abandoned places, I guess we know the score./ On and on, does anybody know what we are looking for?/ Another hero, another mindless crime./ Behind the curtain, in the pantomime./ Hold the line, does anybody want to take it anymore?" Effort and anxiety are close to one another, especially given that Freddie Mercury was diagnosed with AIDS early in 1987––more than four years before the song was written.
Music isn't Bach or Beethoven. Music is the can opener of the soul (Henry Miller)
In the same interview Zolototrubov admits to penning most of his songs "on the basis of stories that involve my friends and acquaintances." Somewhere in places of comfort, therefore, a troubling drama persists. Zolototrubov's ability to "endure," either privately or professionally, is informed both by a sense of cultural belonging or familiarity and an existential rootlessness. Opposites impinge upon one another. In Zolototrubov's own words: "Creative work is a process of both sublimation and self-analysis. Whenever your heart feels heavy, you write a song––and immediately you feel better. The worse your experience, the more beautiful and incisive the song will become."
Elsewhere Zolototrubov has also quoted Henry Miller's assertion that: "Music isn't Bach or Beethoven. Music is the can opener of the soul."
Tellingly enough, whatever these mainstream or familiar connections to Queen and so-called "pomp rock" of prior decades, Zolototrubov says there's one period of Russian history he'd love to visit: the early Twentieth Century. This was a time of radical experimentation––of the deliberately unfamiliar. "I'd like to have met [the writers] Pasternak, Mayakovsky, and Kharms." He is inspired by their rush of Futurist activity, an aesthetic of industrial speed––while the same industrial world tumbled into world war and revolution. Excitement and a creeping horror developed side by side.
Rooftop dreamers: Romantiki, with Roman Zolototrubov (in yellow)
A sort of resolution, somewhere between inspiration and anxiety, is found in hope. Another interview with Romaнтики asks why one of the band's songs includes the line: "I don't want to be an adult!" The answer comes from a surprising place. "I'm not talking about childishness. I mean the words of the New Testament. When people wanted to present some children to Christ, his followers blocked them. Christ was concerned and said: 'Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.' In some sense, that's the essence of our band's romance. We want to preserve a sense of childlike purity. It allows you to [truly] discover the world, overcome envy, malice, and pride... all of which are so prevalent in our society."
Envy, malice, and pride are so prevalent in our society
That worrying note emerges simultaneously with the revelation that Romaнтики's stage-name comes from the British television drama of 2009, "Desperate Romantics." The series centered on the lives and complex loves of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. For Roman Zolototrubov, additional parallels quickly become clear between those nineteenth-century English artists and Russian Futurists:
"The Pre-Raphaelites staged a revolution in art. They chose unusual themes and ripped up various stereotypes. In a similar way, we're trying to find our path and show that 'romance' doesn't just mean little red hearts and Valentine's Day. It's just not just chocolates and flowers; it's also the desire to overcome widespread cynicism. I'm trying to transmit one basic idea with Romaнтики: nowadays, love's the only thing that can save us. I mean that in all possible senses: passion between a man and woman or passion for your work. I also mean the desire to make life in our country a tiny bit better and happier."
If today's civic worries are clarified with references to poetry and paintings of the last two centuries, then the Saint Petersburg known as duo VEiiLA pushes a discussion of local fear much further into the past. Destiny was once thought to be in the hands of other fickle forces. VEiiLA take their name from the ancient northern spirits known as Vila, who lived on bleak mountain tops and could control even the most unruly winds. According to legend, an ability to master the air and its unpredictable movements gave the Vila a beautiful voice. As with Sirens, their sonic and sensual beauty often lured young men into a netherworld. Any ensuing love affair could be a success––if the man involved remained entirely faithful. Infidelity and falsehoods would make the Vila very angry indeed.
Our two Russian performers––Vif Nüte and Bes Eiredt––have spoken in the past about "hoping to stay open-minded for as long as possible." Something in the outside world makes the lasting and naive "purity" of Romaнтики impossible. These challenges to innocence are now expressed in a new single, "Road Movie Star." The song first juxtaposes two sensations: the possible meaninglessness of human existence and a feeling of constant worry. "All of my life I'm on the run,/ I'm like a bullet in a gun./ You've always failed to understand/ There's no beginning and no end." Some alternative is sought to "living in a state of constant emergency."
I'm living in a state of constant emergency (VEiiLA)
Rather than fear some increasingly likely disaster––a punishment that's probably in the hands of an uncaring social force––it would of course be better to live in abiding hope, like the self-confident hero of an American road movie. Hence the song's title. Romaнтики imgaine a childhood that never ends, perhaps thanks to a stubborn faith. VEiiLA imagine a similar experience in spatial and cinematic terms. The quixotic heroes of road movies are (hopefully) able to drive forever and therefore avoid the awfulness of something ending. "I am driving––far, far, far.../ Like a road movie star./ Never let go of my hand/ Because the road has no end."
It's intriguing, amid these inherently American symbols of movement and self-assertion, to find a profoundly Russian interpretation of car culture. It begins in the following manner.
The Moscow-based project known as So Mnoyu Vot Chto is so embedded in local experience, even their stage-name makes no sense without a little introductory context. It is part of a longer phrase, which in total might be translated as "Here Is What's Happening To Me." More importantly, however, that same line is also the opening of a 1957 poem by Evgeny Evtushenko, which became nationally famous almost twenty years later when sung in Russia's most popular romcom, "The Irony of Fate."
We're taken back, therefore, to a couple more––and equally contrasting––moments in Russian history. The original text quoted by So Mnoyu Vot Chto is a classic poem of the Thaw (1957-1963), in other words the gentlest period in the Soviet timeline. Lyrical tales of love and childhood were most popular in Russian cinemas. "The Irony of Fate," however, is a national classic because it plays upon the tension between love and social likelihood in the grey 1970s under Brezhnev. Just as the title suggests, it takes an ironic view of love. The first date symbolizes a belief in romance; the second symbolizes doubt.
So Mnoyu Vot Chto (Mw) with E. Gurina and M. Sukhov (in black)
Why use that reference point in 2016? Because life always gives lovers a hard time; Soviet daily life left precious little room for romance. Today is no different––and here we reach the importance of automobiles. Unreliable family cars were the only way for Soviet families to head for the horizon. Drudgery could be briefly escaped with four wheels. Soviet cars, however, were certainly not built to travel from one side of the country to the other. Hence the lo-fi aesthetic of So Mnoyu Vot Chto; road movies become a gentle comedy––or at least an ironic view of what Romaнтики hold so dear. "You'll hear Soviet harmonies in new-wave arrangements, delicate melodies, and analog synths. There are poetic texts taken [even] from the 1940s, plus the musicians' original poetry [of 2016]. The primary heroes in the songs aren't actually people, but the cars of the Soviet auto industry."
So Mnoyu Vot Chto dedicate their songs to the treasured cars of Soviet family life. Those automobiles kept dreams, innocence, and love afloat––by driving away from reality. In these nostalgic songs they populate a happy world that never came to be.
It's much easier to find something good in the past (So Mnoyu Vot Chto)
The band members add a few words: "In the past, anybody with a record player was considered a big shot. People would come to their apartment and dance beneath the windows. Nowadays, of course, that music is considered old and ridiculous. The same goes for cars. Consider the old Volga model. Fifty years ago, people would kill to get their hands on one, but they've become piles of rusting junk––the kind you see everywhere. We wanted to reassess that forgotten beauty and broaden the concept of 'retro.' That meant combining some forgotten texts of the 1940s with arrangements of the '80s. We wanted to show that old styles can still be hip, lively, and full of energy. Just like our grandparents, we also go to exhibitions [in 2016], attend concerts, and see movies. We all raise children––and we are all afraid of war. Isn't it really cool that similar faces pass us by in town, generation after generation. We've all got much more in common than it seems!"
Time's sad passage is lessened with shared memories. The communal spirit voiced here by So Mnoyu Vot Chto's two members––Elizaveta Gurina and Matvey Sukhov––is also evident in the band for which Gurina usually plays flute, KDIMB. In one interview she made the following and rather touching remark: "I wear my grandmother's plaid dress, which she stitched in her twenties. Even now, it makes me feel like an ultramodern beauty queen." Sukhov is glad to support this kind of well-intentioned retrospection, since "it's much easier to find something good in the past." The future doesn't offer a great deal.
The Ukrainian ensemble known as Vivienne Mort is based in Kiev. These four gifted musicians are well-known champions of escapism. Take, by way of illustration, their last EP––"Gotika"––and the accompanying text: "Does it ever seem to you we're just filling our days with countless tasks––and ignoring the most significant things of all? Our daily satisfaction or dissatisfaction depends on those [fleeting] tasks... while life's greatest treasures still await us, undiscovered. The days are always too short [for self-improvement]––and we're consistently tired in the evenings. 'Gotika' speaks of a dark night, repressed dreams, and a life poorly spent. Our years are squandered trying to 'keep up with the Joneses.' So what are your real hopes? Why are we all filled with [unrealized] desire? Leave the Gothic world behind. Everything you see around you is a kind of stage decoration––allowing you to live. It will help to reveal the one and only you." Actuality, free from social pressures, perhaps holds some promise.
Nonetheless, nobody can stop me dreaming about something (Danielle Lapchikova-Zayushkina)
In interviews with the Ukrainian press of late, vocalist Danielle Lapchikova-Zayushkina and Vivienne Mort have offered an extended metaphor of life as text––as a troubled fairy tale. "Imagine you're a book, both soft and gentle––with pure white pages. You open yourself wide and people soon write whatever they want. And indeed they start to inscribe you: parents, educators, teachers, and the church. They write both because you're open - and you allow it to happen. You're still young. Over time, you're covered in text... and then you finally get a pen of your own. You start writing but you merely copy 'their' style, because you want to please others. You want to be loved..." Social pressure promises little except reduced self-determination.
The band now has another EP on display, "Rósa." In fresh discussions with the Ukrainian media, Lapchikova-Zayushkina has expanded that florid imagery, speaking in detail of society's endless inability to seek commonalities, rather than conflict. She interprets the artwork below in both sociological and spiritual terms:
"People so rarely look to the sky [like leaves or petals]. They rarely notice their shared roots or the veins running along the stalk, where blood flows... We mistake passers-by for strangers from our childhood onwards." Innocence quickly gives way to anxiety and doubt. These abstract musings cannot be divorced from the current situation in Ukraine. Lapchikova-Zayushkina admits that her private hopes or dreams may sound fanciful, when considered in the context of local tragedy. "Nonetheless, nobody can stop me dreaming about something [better]." Fantasy plots a much better timeline than fact.
Zayushkina is so upset with the increasing hopelessness of a national future that she searches for––and discovers––a utopian strain in a wide range of thinkers: Buddha, Christ, Gandhi, and Solovyov, to name but four. She has also mentioned Christ as a figure worthy of lifelong emulation, albeit for very specific reasons: "Christ is an example of the fact people are capable of withstanding anything." That stress on physical pain implies that material suffering is more likely than spiritual salvation.
Her relatively fatalistic view of the future (of tomorrow) leads at least to a more inclusive and caring outlook today. Prejudice is too time-consuming––in a lifespan that's too brief. "Our lives are all 'terminal.' They all end soon enough. So why would I erect any barriers between myself and other people?"
You can decode the phrase Vivienne Mort as 'the soul is eternal'
Amid all these pronunciations regarding life's finality, there are at least two lasting signs of dreams' superiority. They claim––against all evidence to the contrary!––that weightless thoughts may perhaps be more enduring than weighty things or possessions. They also maintain that hope can outlast the human body––if it is transmitted to others. These brief, yet essential moments of optimism are most obvious in two places: the band's stage-name and the four performers' shared view of songwriting. Whatever the gothic overtones of "Vivienne Mort" as a moniker, Zayushkina has said that it was conceived as a play upon the French words for "death" and "life"––simultaneously. "You can decode the whole thing as 'the soul is eternal...Life and death together are an eternal process. So if someone decides to kill themselves, they shouldn't reckon it's the end of everything." The soul prevails.
As for Vivienne Mort's interpretation of their creative work, a synthetic and directly spiritual intent shines through––sometimes. The words of Danielle Lapchikova-Zayushkina make a suitable and more uplifting point of closure: "Music is a universal language, understood by all living beings––irrespective of their native tongue or faith. It's both what unifies us all and what breaks down the walls between us––music leads all the way from me to you. It's how I socialize with others, how we exchange emotions, and share energy. Music is a divine language." In both senses of the adjective.
In the newest material from Romaнтики, VEiiLA, and So Mnoyu Vot Chto we encounter various attempts to ignore or entirely avoid the future. For Vivienne Mort, living in the most politically, economically, and militarily troubled location of all, dreams work the hardest––and seem to win the day. Roman Zolototrubov's assertion that negative experience leads to superior songs may sometimes be true.
Vivienne Mort, with Danielle Lapchikova-Zayushkina (B/L)