The Belarusian label Ezhevika (Blackberry) has become one of the most intriguing publishers in the Slavic web over the last decade. One of Ezhevika's two newest and equally promising artists actually comes from Saint Petersburg and goes by the name of Antrru (Anton Kiltsov). More specifically, the Antrru album now on display is a debut recording––the result, we are informed, of four years' lonely enterprise. The label traces the LP's genesis to "a time when Anton lived in a rehearsal studio, itself housed within a defunct factory." Perhaps as a result of professional instability and meager funds, married with a sense of purpose, the album has been called "Mramori," a neologism made from the Russian nouns for "marble" and "sea."
That juxtaposition is used to invoke the album's overall and admittedly abstract theme: "It's something with the timeless solidity of stone, yet the fickleness and changeability of the sea." Singularity is found in contradiction. This will continue to be important, as we'll see.
The timeless solidity of rock, yet the fickleness and changeability of the sea (Antrru)
Originally from the northern forests of Karelia, near the Finnish border, Kiltsov is happy to drawn upon any assumed "melancholy" of that sunless upbringing––which is now best captured, he says, with old analog synths and guitar pedals of the Soviet past. The first of those synthesizers, in fact, was only affordable after Anton sold his cell phone. Big dreams began on a very tight budget; sounds stuck in the past epitomize the present day.
Those memories and musical preferences all took shape in the small Russian town of Sortavala, a settlement first recorded in medieval Swedish chronicles and subsequently tossed back and forth between three political systems: Sweden, Finland, and Russia. In the same unstable manner, the primary industries developed by the Soviets in Sortavala did not prepare residents well for the Twenty-First Century: logging, ski factories, and fish processing. Heavy industry does not flourish in digital times. The presumed permanence of socialist tradition goes head to head with fickle commerce.
Antrru's "Mramori" album, speaking of these social and sonic vacillations, was originally planned with English lyrics, but Kiltsov would soon change his mind. A local aesthetic needed a local register. "Turning [back] to Russian lyrics was something of a challenge, since that's actually harder for me. Whenever you write in Russian, then anything you happen to say will probably be more challenging––and bring a greater responsibility with it, too. It's no longer just music, but your private thoughts, also. Whenever you write in English, your thoughts are never completely captured."
That sense of responsibility––the need to give modern Karelia a fitting soundtrack––brings us back to Sortavala. "'Mramori' is a very private, personal recording. For example, one of the tracks is even about my parents. It's also an LP about myself, but without recourse to any vanity. Instead you'll find expressions of complete honesty. I simply relate whatever I happen to think, see, and feel. I'm not prejudicing the lyrics in any way; what matters is the combination of words and music. The way they sound together." No one expression corresponds to states of flux: change has no name.
There's certainly enough forthrightness on display in Antrru's "Mramori" to suggest that truth resides in a mosaic of contrasting metaphors, media, and viewpoints. "Most of the songs simply 'came to me,' as it were. I felt that somebody was doing a lot of the work for me. The result is an album that sounds vibrant, honest––and robust, too." Because it admitted a multitude of ideas, opinions, and options––in the following manner.
In some recent interviews, Antrru explains that a second northern locale played a significant role in the LP's development. Much work was done near the village of Savino, not far from Novgorod. Most of the album's editorial challenges were resolved "far from any urban hassle––or social networks! On top of that, the majority of the lyrics were written there." Put differently, Antrru is a project designed to ponder and then utter a range of diametric opposites––in the name of some locally adequate "truth"; Anton Kiltsov considers the Russian countryside to be especially conducive to work. He does not––purportedly––seek to isolate or champion any one point of view or genre; instead the very noiselessness of a Russian village is where difference becomes most audible. In a complicated year, in a region of socioeconomic flux, imprecision and confusing variegation make more sense.
Antrru finds an ability to "hear oneself think" in silence, as if the city––driven by the singular purpose of commerce––drowns out forms of minor variety. And so readers hear of some usually dull working habits. "Anton just lived in a dacha with minimal hardware. He fixed the wood stove every day, had traditional steam baths, and walked with his dog around the village." Editorial, stylistic, and even philosophical alternatives come to light where almost nobody lives.
Nobody distracts you, so you're focused on the task at hand
Kiltsov adds to the excitement: "I'd boil myself some Chinese Pu'er tea and make breakfast. Then I'd work straight through until maybe 4pm, improving the tracks and taking occasional breaks to go for a stroll. Sometimes I'd stay up all night. The whole set-up there is ideal for work. Nobody distracts you, so you're focused on the task at hand and 'stew' in the music for days on end! You get up––and go to sleep––with music on your mind, since there's nobody to bump you off course."
A purpose develops: to express polar opposites––the permanence or dead weight of local history ("мрамор/mramor") and the flux of modernity ("море/more"). They begin with the juxtapositions audible in the term "Mramori" and end with the need to escape the present day, in order to hear diversity. Potentials reside in noiselessness––in sounds that have not yet been made.
A similar trajectory––from noise into nature, from depressing fact into productive fantasy––has always informed the downtempo instrumental recordings of Novosibirsk's Siba.Pro and the outfit's founding member Aleksandr Solovyov (currently based in Rostov-on-Don and employed in a southern youth theater). Solovyov and his rare colleagues take their inspiration from regional landscapes, folklore, and a related sense of how time changes slowly in isolated, distant realms. For the better.
Much as Antrru, Solovyov views the collective style of his band in an unhurried, understated framework. Superior sounds are made slowly. "We play downtempo material with additional elements taken from diverse styles." He imagines Siba.Pro's typical listener to be "somebody with a tender, open heart. Somebody capable of both romance and reverie. Nonetheless, judging by what I read on the pages of Vkontakte, all kinds of different people listen to Siba.Pro's recordings!" Gentle souls are more widespread or commonplace than one might imagine. "The most important thing is that our tracks always have a strong melody; that can take the place of a text. Everything else is mere decoration. I love slow and thoughtful music."
Thought is a rare blessing; it allows one to investigate other options and––very often––other places in which those possibilities are found. Hope and desires live elsewhere––and not necessarily in the future. Antrru's antique hardware is arguably used to express the burden of history in Karelia; if, however, it's employed for nostalgic purposes, then Siba.Pro make the connection between old tools and old times much clearer.
There's the hope and expectation that somebody will hear you (Siba.Pro)
The importance of nostalgia transpires whenever Siba.Pro declare their intention to "take all the best things [from our Soviet upbringing] and continue to develop whatever was left or forgotten back there... It's well known that certain melodies have a curative power. The music we write together not only calms you down; it also––sooner or later––takes you back to the Soviet past... This is music designed for the heart and soul." Socialism's fraternal rhetoric can seem especially appealing when viewed from grey Siberian suburbs in 2016.
Amid these flights into reverie, nostalgia, or treasured simplicity, the newest Siba.Pro recording is called "Personage." The artwork sets the scene immediately, depicting a good-natured, alien "personage" traveling through the stars on a tiny steampunk spacecraft. Not only does he sit outside(!) the spaceship, he also appears to be mastering the entire journey with a console controller. Childlike simplicity is only found far from home.
The open track begins this general theme of diminution––of some liberation from unsatisfying grandeur––and is called "Little Planet." Distance itself is then quickly celebrated in the second composition, "10,000Ly (10,000 Light Years). That does not, however, mean that flight is a guarantor of satisfaction, as Solovyov soon makes clear in the same composition.
"This track describes my creative path––by which I mean ten years of following a dream... albeit to no end. It describes ten years of staying the course and being faithful to an ideal, while somehow finding the strength to keep writing and still enjoy every little detail of the process. On one hand, those ten years have simply flown by––just like that beam of light. Yet on the other hand, there's the constant hope and expectation that somebody will perhaps hear you. And so I continue sending my radio signal into the abyss. My hope has travelled over a thousand light years."
My hope has travelled over a thousand light years
Again a dialog is sought with an understanding other––and it's more likely to be found in less populated places. If one voices answers, it becomes the hope of yet another empathetic soul––and so forth, until loneliness finds itself among a multifaceted, accepting congregation.
Along the same, committed lines––moving from miserable fact to tantalizing fantasy––Solovyov compares the new Siba.Pro recordings to the wanderings of Don Quixote. His ten years of frustration and unflagging belief explain the appeal of a Spanish alter ego. "My [star-bound] personage has decided that it's only worth chasing an ideal if it lies among the stars. From our distant viewpoint, of course, the stars always look so bright––and small, too. It seems that catching a star would be both easy and the key to finding happiness. Plus it goes without saying that 'hunting the stars' always sounds so romantic! But... the closer you get to them, the harder it is to actually hold them. In fact, you soon realize that you'd burn up in their radiant light."
He ends on a consoling note: "At least dreaming about all those romantic travels is something that never hurts!" By extension of that dour logic, anybody who actually leaves urban life and commits to some distant travel in the name of happiness is likely to encounter a second state (or dead-end address) that's considerably less appealing.
The name Siba.Pro comes from a couple of straightforward sources. "Pro" refers simply to the musical project in question, but "Siba" is an abbreviated form of Alexander Solovyov's hometown, Novosibirsk. Something in Siberia itself fuels a growing disconnect between city life and self-realization. And, with that in mind, it's worth turning to the newest album by Alex Kelman, a man whose career has also stretched "10,000Ly." Beginning in Siberia, Kelman would go on to front outfits such as PunkTV, Tony Soprano, and now––somewhat logically––the Alex Kelman Band. Its members include graduates of other groups celebrated in the earliest days of FFM, like Hot Zex (Novosibirsk) and Dsh-Dsh (Moscow).
This story begins on a modest Siberian scale. "We were all kids at the Novosibirsk School #10 and that was a time of genuine social change––the 1990s... We were given a classroom for band practice; somebody had bought some equipment for us, too. At one point I happened to attend a Hot Zex rehearsal in the school––and that same day changed my life forever. I just sat and listened to those guys, at a time when they were playing really cool hardcore. Up to then I'd heard nothing like it in Novosibirsk. I soon decided it'd be really great to play with them. I was already tied up with my own projects, all of which had bizarre stage-names and used crazy old Russian drum machines, plus Polish and Czech guitars..."
Sing away sorrow, cast away care (Don Quixote de la Mancha, 1605-1615)
A sense of professional purpose took shape: "Eventually I managed to record one of those rehearsals on a tape machine." A young man's enthusiasm started to outpace his tools; Kelman had only one cassette on which to record multiple school performances. "A little while later, I turned up with another machine, stuck in the first tape and recorded something over the top. I liked that kind of experimentation. We all became friends and, after some time, I even became a member of the group..." Sonic testing created a sense of liberation, yet the tools available didn't allow romance to travel very far. One tape will not fuel a daydream; the daily grind put a stop to any sense of progression.
Rather, therefore, than stressing the physical importance of Siberia––or Russia, even––for his music, Kelman speaks instead in terms of manageable preferences. He speaks about the importance of choices made within certain a priori limits, because desire is never entirely unfettered.
And thus, on the matter of fact versus feasible reverie, he declares: "Today [given the internet in 2016] where you like writing is more significant than where you live." Desire, hopefully, is what defines one's sense of location. If so, then a given, ostensible state (today) is colored directly by thoughts of where one would rather be (tomorrow).
If and when such faith or fantasy actually works, then we're back in the realm of Cervantes' itinerant hero. "It's all a matter of mood and your surroundings, which might change over the course of a few hours... Sometimes I'll write on trains." Movement, in whatever form possible, is vital to one's mental and emotional welfare. The awkward transition from noisy immobility into silent change and difference is key.
Certain factors obviously frustrate the expression of professional whim. And so Alex Kelman puts an additional damper on daydreams. Much as one might like to espouse the hipster existence of a digital nomad, real-world necessity makes an artist scribe unwanted trajectories: "You have to promote your work. I know that's difficult, but it's also crucial. There are plenty of fine bands in Russia, but we don't yet have a well-developed media sphere here, and that makes PR very difficult. For that reason, you have to pay special attention to interviews and promotion. If you don't do it yourself, then nobody's going to suddenly appear and handle that stuff for you."
Alex Kelman (R), live in Moscow last summer
Elsewhere, in another conversation, Kelman remarks in darker tones: "Ninety percent of people want everything brought to them on a platter." Or, in yet another interview, he tosses a few accusatory remarks in the direction of indolent stargazers: "Everybody nowadays has Facebook and Google. Force yourself to sit down and look for festivals across Europe. There must be three or four thousand of them, especially in summer! Bear in mind however, that the booking process is normally finalized half a year in advance. So search and write ASAP––because nobody will be waiting for you if you don't."
Between reality and some distant ideal lies hard work. Not everybody, it seems, is willing to make the effort.
Ninety percent of people want everything brought to them on a platter (Alex Kelman)
And that's why the appeal of Siba.Pro's "small planet" or Antrru's local retreat to village life is widespread; it allows an individual to attempt self-realization far from clamorous, avaricious crowds. It also allows for the investigation and validation of nonmaterial viewpoints––of different, diverse outlooks.
Take, by way of quiet example, the newest album from Vihrea (Вихрия), aka Rita Popova, who was known previously on stage as Chaos in Heathrow. She speaks first of how her career began. One of the earliest markers of Vihrea's voluntary "smallness" was on YouTube, where Popova has archived several videos of herself playing a ukulele. She had, in the recent past, found a guitar too difficult––and big. "The ukulele has only four strings and, I reckon, a more feminine sound, too. I began writing songs that way and sticking them online. People started asking me why I didn't launch a proper musical project." Thus some private sounds gradually became more public.
Until recently, Popova declared at the top of her social networking account: "I believe in St. Isaac's Cathedral and the Tretyakov Gallery"––where one can happily be alone. These tendencies were clear even in her earliest conversations. Long before Vihrea was conceived as a musical project, she remarked to the Russian press: "I always used to travel to my shows alone. And then, one day, I realized that a kind of 'musical solitude' was taking shape."
And now, with the new album "Cyrillic" (Кириллица), we hear: "When I was little, I really wanted to fly like a tiny bird. But after I'd suffered plenty of mocking jokes––'Go fly on a plane!'––the desire to soar like a bird passed me by. After that failure, I soon decided that I'd simply accept my voice the way it was––just as I love [and cannot change] my height or eye color..." Popova resigned herself to the fact that local actuality is often unforgiving towards daydreamers. Small victories needed to be cherished.
And that brings us to the title track of "Cyrillic" (Кириллица). The song opens, as with Siba.Pro's album, on a celebration of space travel. "I immediately recalled the color of your eyes, but I had my suspicions that you were... a cosmonaut." There's a gap between earthbound affection and the lonely individuals who are dedicated to quixotic star-chasing. Popova seems even to fear her lyrical voice, lest it lead her into a series of bad decisions: "I'm growing stronger from day to day/ And that's why I'm asking you to save me."
Some of the other songs on "Cyrillic" also speak of Popova's addressee "saving yourself from yourself! Our own strength can sometimes be constructive... yet sometimes destructive, too." Romantics––famously––often come to a sticky end. Such, it would appear, is the central message of Vihrea's title track: desire and drive are capable of overcoming local realia, but the more impassioned one's flight from normalcy, the greater the risk of self-destruction.
Our own strength can sometimes be constructive... yet sometimes destructive, too (Vihrea)
In an online interview, Rita Popova sketched a little background to the song. "The Russian alphabet is a collection of symbols that distinguishes us from many other people." It does not, however, justify a sense of nationalist or isolationist superiority, not to mention any related entitlement or laziness. The very "oddity" or uniqueness of Cyrillic characters, relative to Latin script, should inspire a step away from ordinariness and tedium into other strange and fruitful encounters with alterity.
Popova breaks down her theory into two key elements. Firstly, positive contrasts or contrariness begin by way of inclusion: "Our task [in life] is to accept others' points of view in all situations. We don't always need to agree with others, but we do need to include them... no matter the [peculiar!] Latin characters they happen to write with." Selfhood is found in the middle of other voices and views. It's the realization that one is ultimately "little" and part of a grander network.
Secondly, an attentiveness to other concepts and creeds does not require living in some culturally diverse, populated center. Quite the opposite, in fact; Vihrea's sage and humbling conclusions are reached whenever she gets out of thundering cities and instead considers the innumerable aims and activities of nature as a whole. In Alex Kelman's experience, that movement into pre-commercial bliss is something of a pipe-dream. Self-realization begins only after considerable physical effort, expended against daunting odds of success. Destiny and indifference are but two possible downfalls. One leads to surrender; the other is deserving of scorn, yet equally powerful.
And so, as a result of these ongoing contradictions between town and country, clamor and quiet, actuality and aspiration, likelihood and laziness, we hear a contention from both Antrru and Siba.Pro that the best way to realize one's status as a human being is to go where no humans live. Or, in other words, the ideal place to both ponder and embrace alterity––the often challenging and humbling voices of plenitude––is a rural location where absolutely nothing can be heard.