Transgression: WLVS, Bears Garden, Looch, and All Tomorrow's Parties

All Tomorrow's Parties (Tashkent): "Three" (2013)

This summer we drew attention to a young outfit from Tashkent that was moving to Moscow, primarily in order to increase creative and commercial opportunities. The group in question was All Tomorrow's Parties, who take their name from the Lou Reed song of 1967 - a fact of particular significance in the light of Reed's passing a few days ago. Since our initial notes, the group's lineup has altered a little. It is currently documented as Vadim Tikhonov (guitars/vocals); Wladek Sheen (guitars); Ruslan Tikhonov (bass); and new member, Muscovite Denis Kuznetsov (drums).

So far, things are going well. The Moscow press has paid regular attention to the band's activities. Not surprisingly, the question of an international move emerges in most conversations. Why did this foursome come to one capital from another? "We've plenty of friends and relatives who live in Moscow. We'd done all that we could in Tashkent and were looking for better opportunities and a greater chance of progress."

We'd done all that we could in Tashkent

Particularly flattering interest has come from the Russian edition of Rolling Stone magazine, although in essence all of these "capital" conversations tend to revolve around the same few issues, over and over. The basic building blocks of an interview with All Tomorrow's Parties are as follows: reasons for moving northwards from Uzbekistan, the material problems of any Moscow-based career, a list of primary - Western - musical influences, and some plans for the future. Over and above those discussion points, little transpires. It's might be more telling, perhaps, to consider the reception of the songs themselves across a broader fan base, especially in the light of a debut ATP album that's now available, entitled "Three."

Amateur reviews have focused - still - on assumed UK/US influences, and whether or not the band justifies some standard tags a la "indie rock" or "garage." In the context of what one webzine refers to as the "castrated" nature of primetime Russian pop, there's gratitude expressed for ATP's "drive, heavy guitars, and [occasionally] shouted vocals." These online and amateur texts, just like the interviews in Moscow's music press, quickly revert to some tried and tested presumptions of international similarity.

All Tomorrow's Parties - traveling far from home

The one thing that's missing here is what All Tomorrow's Parties bring with them in terms of cultural standing from Tashkent. Pride of place in their biographies is given to a couple of new Uzbek rock festivals and competitions connected to Tashkent's Ilkhom Theater. That might seem uninteresting or irrelevant once the band is in Moscow, but it actually speaks directly to how these performers view their long-term goals. What, in a word, is the Ilkhom - and why would its prestige be directly invoked by these musicians? 

The Ilkhom Theater was founded in 1976 by Mark Vail, a stage director whose life would be cut short in 2007 after a "scandalous" staging of Aleksandr Pushkin's "Imitations of the Koran." In a word, he was brutally murdered. Vail himself, perhaps anticipating violence sooner or later, was keen to see the theater as a vital player within Uzbekistan's counter-culture. He often spoke of three phases in the company's development; they all involve deviation from stately enterprise.

Our works were seen as 'anti-Soviet' (lkhom Theater)

The first phase of Vail's theater ran through the early 1980s, when political changes slowly began to manifest themselves in the Soviet Union - and rock music started to run parallel, at least in Moscow and Leningrad. For that reason, the debut tour of Ilkhom to Soviet Moscow was a liberating experience: "We were free to experiment in both form and style. Our plays weren't tied in any way to ideological constraints. That was enough for the works of Ilkhom to be seen as 'anti-Soviet.'" Bureaucratic hassles grew, but so did a sense of purpose among the Tashkent actors once they went home.

The Ilkhom's second phase - not surprisingly - coincides with the years of perestroika, and the third with post-Soviet society. Given that Russia's emergent democracy and free market enterprise have not been reproduced in Uzbekistan, the opportunity for All Tomorrow's Parties to recreate some of that old "contrary" romance at home has been considerable. Put differently, an Uzbek rock band is proud of its connections to a Tashkent theater company whose reputation was established during the birth of "deviant" play- and songwriting in Russia.

One can only hope that the unique lineage of performance celebrated by these four young musicians - via the Ilkhom Theater - will not always be forgotten amid a flurry of Western tags and generic, international labels. 

Saint Petersburg's Looch

If All Tomorrow's Parties have trouble reminding Moscow's media of what makes them different, then Saint Petersburg rock band Looch face a different challenge. Their networking account on Vkontakte recently included a brief and pithy statement after the appearance of a debut, eponymous EP: "The media pays us zero attention." It's not surprising, therefore, that the group celebrates itself with much self-deprecation. "We're old, incredibly tired, and have beards... but we're still serviceable."  

Musical ideas are prisoners, more than one might believe, of musical devices (Pierre Schaeffer)

The lineup of Looch overlaps with that of Petersburg rap duo On Yun in the figure of Vladimir Sedykh. The URL of his own networking account includes the phrase "Will Work for Food." And yet, in the face of local media indifference, Sedykh still finds sources of inspiration - in unique places. Value systems are transported from one location to another; distant thinkers throw a new light on local realia. Sedykh begins with the intriguing words of French composer and engineer Pierre Schaeffer (d. 1995): "Musical ideas are prisoners, more than one might believe, of musical devices."

There's a creative spirit that needs to be liberated from various material constraints, be they "object-ive" or otherwise.

Once the demeaning shackles of convention are rejected, Sedykh them turns to Miles Davis, who loosens the bonds of sound to geography and/or ethnicity. "I don’t care if a dude is purple with green breath as long as he can swing." Perhaps the most impressive - even epic! - of all these quotations comes from Nietzsche, specifically from "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (1891). In translation from the German, it might read: "Man is indeed a polluted stream. One must be an entire ocean in order to receive that stream without becoming unclean." It will take a great deal to ignore the "pollution" of regional life. A handful of European and American visionaries help to keep optimism going.

Looch and some grand, oceanic Nietzschean motifs

This romantic call to immaterial significances above any physical or geographic limitation creates a sense of kinship with homeless, endlessly moving tides. The sea is more appealing than terra firma. In the same way, the lyrics of Looch find consolation in the nameless metamorphoses of nature. When specific people and places disappoint with their rigid notions or borders, the natural world brings a sense of relief. Some of the band's recent lyrics might read, in prosaic translation: "We walk away barefoot. We've dissolved our essence [into something bigger]. I don't care where you are. The rain will pass through here, and wash away your traces." 

The rain will wash away our phrases and banners...

To leave friends, family, and habit behind, however, is to risk anonymity and isolation. The very process of abnegation can be more destructive than constructive. A move away from Tashkent to Moscow might prove to be practical and productive, but it could easily lead to ruin.

The other new songs by Looch tread a thin line between the pride of dismissiveness and the risk of some abstract "homelessness." Social realms can be spurned and/or abandoned, but maybe heartache and loneliness lie ahead. "The staircase descends, we go downwards according to memory. We've no distinguishing features; we're slowly going mad. This winter will devastate us; it's time to leave. There are no safe places to sleep or dream. The rain will wash away our slogans and banners..."

Working along similar lines is the almost invisible project from Vladivostok known as Bears Garden. Perhaps the only available fact of immediate consequence is that Bears Garden has been guided by a certain Vyacheslav Ivanov. Thanks to a recent interview in Snapbox, the man and his basic philosophy come into view. 

The wantonly vague avatar of Vladivostok's Bears Garden

Once again, surrounding nature offers both comfort and inspiration, especially across an oceanic vista. "I was born and raised in [the Pacific Ocean port of] Vladivostok. I've always loved the sea, nature, trains, and my local park... I was a pretty bad kid growing up and even got expelled for bad behavior." What style best suits this social detachment? "My friends and I have a screamo band. We've been playing together for a couple of years. It was always something of a childhood dream. Things only came to fruition much later, of course, but I was still really glad... I've also got lots of electronic side-projects that keep me busy in my spare time, but it's highly unlikely that anybody will hear any of that. Except my close friends, maybe."

It's a crying shame that so many rock groups in Russia get less recognition than they deserve

Eventually the contrariness of screamo would slip quietly into a very different and more introspective register. "Round about three years ago, I started moving into shoegaze. I was really inspired by the general sound - and I knew it was exactly what I needed. I bought myself a cheap, no-name guitar and found myself making ten separate recordings every day... I eventually saw that I'd produced a ton of [DIY] tapes but was never able to find anybody who'd get involved with me, doing something similar."

And so, in an increasing pattern of swings and roundabouts, garage rock was engaged once more. Colleagues, however, remained thin on the ground. "What prospects can there be for a one-man band? Especially in Russia? None whatsoever." Neither rebels nor romantics can find workmates or styles with which to express their cherished - elusive - ideals.

Of these four bands today, the loudest voice of protest is that of WLVS from Samara. One fan online sets the scene nicely: "There is real rock in Russia... There's a massive injustice in this country when you consider what [aging, irrelevant] bands do get considered as 'rock's representatives.' Take WLVS; surely they could fill entire stadia! Their music is so full of energy - and professionalism, too. It's a crying shame that so many rock groups in Russia get less recognition than they deserve."  

Bears Garden: values both serious and ironic

WLVS define themselves with a single adjective: "loud." The line-up of WLVS is equally straightforward: Aleksandr, Kirill, and Maks. Surnames are irrelevant. There's no time for tedious details amid high tempos and ear-splitting volume levels. For all this zeal, however, disappointment - it seems - is something of a miserable norm: "We've some very bad news. Our tour was cancelled because our visas were denied. We tried three times to make things happen, but every time we failed. We did everything we could to make our dream come true. Nonetheless, it all fell apart for reasons beyond our control."

Everything will undoubtedly come true... just a little bit later

A Russian text on another social network is even more expressive. "I don't even know where to start. Sometimes in life - no matter how much you work or invest [time and energy] in your dreams - life will turn its back on you. Everything goes out the window, for completely inexplicable reasons." After more expressions of upset and offense, a brief note of optimism from WLVS sounds at the close: "Everything will undoubtedly come true... just a little bit later. F**k the borders."

A value system based on energy, youthful enthusiasm, and healthy dissent is choked by geography and the bureaucracy thereof. Pierre Schaeffer's worry returns; the conviction that "musical ideas" fall foul of the enclosed material world within which they're expressed. The grandeur of Nietzsche's pure and metaphorical oceans likewise seems a distant dream.

The band's frontman recently spoke to the Russian press. The opening question, as with All Tomorrow's Parties, concerned various stylistic labels. The response of WLVS? "I'm already bugged by your questions! We play rock. It's something I can't even define very well myself. Let the listeners do that. Secondly, we really don't want to force our music into any kind of stylistic limits or hashtags. Maybe you could say it's 'nasty rock for kindly souls.' Songs about love that - in my view - are pretty honest, noisy, and even raucous."

WLVS (Samara): advocates of a more expansive outlook

Even the suggestion of a specific lyrical emphasis was troubling. "I don't want to say anything with the music of WLVS! ... I didn't even upload any of our lyrics until recently. I didn't want anybody to read them... I'm not inspired by any of the local bands in Samara. The scene here is pretty sad. Good bands do appear, of course - but then they break up [soon afterwards]. They may have potential - and good material - but people just fall by the wayside." 

Local spaces disappoint; distant locations are unobtainable. "I've no intention of leaving Samara and going somewhere else, though.I really do love my hometown. Sure, there are plenty of minuses..." What's needed is a better philosophy, not a better address.

I don't want to say anything with the music of WLVS!

And so we see from All Tomorrow's Parties, Looch, Bears Garden, and WLVS a series of different experiences regarding the presumedly "subversive" act of rock performance. All Tomorrow's Parties find that the Moscow press has no interest in the proud contrariness of their Tashkent background. An Uzbek rock heritage vanishes amid parallels with anglophone outfits. Looch, conversely, receive no attention from the press at all, and therefore turn a classically rebellious stance towards nature. They offer not songs of social protest (since society doesn't notice), but instead dismiss the pettiness of civic life in favor of a stormy, boundless wilderness.

Dignity is found very far from home. In fact, the romantic yearning that transpires from Looch is so unconnected with peopled places that it has no logical style. Places with no name are hard to tag or describe. Hence the generic runaround evident in VladivostokBears Garden look for the right way to evoke that which'll never happen. How does one sing songs about nowhere and nothing?

And so we find that even in thunderous screamo outfits like WLVS, there's no attempt to change social classes, politicians, or places. The world will not be altered. What can be changed, however, are degrees of faith - or a hope against hope. It seems fair to say that the less optimism is evident locally, the louder these bands will play. Their own view of rock becomes a manifesto against cynicism or indifference. As WLVS say, with disarming simplicity, "this is raucous music for kindly souls." 

Homebound reverie. WLVS: "Songs of the Backyard" (2013) 

Audio

WLVS – Me, a Guitar, and a Suit (Rubl')
Looch – Obrazy (Images)
Looch – Teplo (Warmth)
WLVS – The Believer
Bears Garden – Warm Shine

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