Barnaul is a city in southern Siberia, over 1,800 miles from Moscow. Given that distance from European and urban centers, it may not be a surprise to learn that the region developed thanks initially to natural riches... in the middle of nowhere. In this particular case, it was the discovery of silver deposits around 1730 that established a stable population and, ultimately, hopes for a larger settlement. More and more people moved to Barnaul, especially after the introduction of a railway link in the following century. Those connections to Moscow would continue - for reasons both good and bad.
Major losses were experienced during WWII, as men and women from southern Siberia were drafted in order to defend Western towns and villages they had never seen - or heard of. After the end of the war, however, Barnaul flourished again, since it had proven itself a safe, if not priceless location for evacuees - and therefore gained increasing importance as an industrial center from the 1950s onwards.
In the same city, both far from the capital and yet continuing to show its importance for national industry, we find the quartet known as YAMMI: Daniil Yachin (vocals, guitar), Roman Vtorov (bass, vocals), Nikita Firsov (drums), and Ilya Neverov (keyboards). Lots of activity is needed in order to attract attention over 1,800 miles.
Together these young men feel destined for fame and fortune, if for no other reason than their stage-name rhymes with "Grammy." They continue this touching, homespun PR their own words: "Over a short period of time, the band has become popular not only in Siberia, but also in other [more distant] musical circles."
Furthering those aims and addresses, the group has just released a second album. It can be downloaded for free from various locations and is entitled "Whoamilogy." It contains fourteen songs, both in English and Russian: all of those compositions were presented to a Siberian audience a few weeks ago, as the album was officially launched in the presence of friends, family, and local supporters. Those same fans have now started to discuss matters on some social networks.
A band popular not only in Siberia, but also in other musical circles
The primary impression has concerned the production values of the CD, which have struck many folks as surprisingly high for a "provincial" outfit, operating on nothing more than a shoestring budget: "The sound is really professional... and, overall, the album has turned out really well. You can play it in the background, or sing along!" In other words, for all the volume and (happy) posturing of the group's promotional enterprise, a sentimental or lyrical vein runs through this material.
That juxtaposition of stature and sentiment is well captured by the artwork, showing an intrepid cosmonaut, presumably in search of human life. And yet he's surrounded by several signs that he may not have traveled far beyond the garden... The line between grand adventure and private, almost pitiful empathy is made deliberately unclear. Care, compassion, and loudness(!) somehow operate together.
This issue of sound quality certainly pleased those who'd liked to see Barnaul earn more respect from music-lovers in bigger Russian cities. Again the dual status - or debatable location - of the band's hometown is center stage: pride of place and hometown chutzpah are juxtaposed with a niggling feeling that distance actually inhibits a great deal. The desire to build a local scene develops with simultaneous doubts as to whether anybody will pay attention. In fact, as further indication of that duality, one could point to the group's bilingual track-list, alternating between Russian and English lyrics. The former imply a local listener, whereas as the latter are meant for very different ears.
A related conundrum faces the band GDR, of whom we wrote several months ago. They, too, have new songs on display, specifically as an EP called "Excellent Visibility" (Otlichnaia vidimost'), available for downloading in the same (free) manner as YAMMI's work. Whereas our Siberian outfit grapples with the burden of distance, GDR battle against the contrary and sometimes fickle forces of public memory. Based in Moscow, their own "distance" is one of passing time, not space.
Musicians are best suited to dream of 'utopian' matters
Put differently, and as we mentioned earlier, GDR first appeared in 2005; over the initial years of their existence the musicians received serious airplay on Russia's central radio stations. Associated with a polished, upbeat format, they frustrated any expectation that their name might presage some grim, industrial drone. Instead, GDR became major representatives of Russian pop-rock during the last decade, thus helping to establish a more radio-friendly form of guitar-fueled craftsmanship.
Things have quietened down somewhat since that time, due in part to the national economic situation. When the musicians' last album was published, it came with a request for charitable donations, should listeners feel morally obliged to fund the recording process. Despite this modest scale of operation, GDR - again like YAMMI - do not shy away from a grand definition of their songwriting.
"Mankind finds itself on the eve of a global epiphany - when the principles of mindless consumption will finally give way to a meaningful existence, based on principles of harmony and creativity. That's utopian, you say? A mere dream? But surely the most daring dreams of all become those which transform reality? And musicians are best suited to dream of such things... since their efforts are focused on realms known only to the heart and soul..."
We've played in tiny indie-clubs and on Russia's biggest stages
These thoughts of widespread harmony have, on several occasions, been channeled into ecological efforts, which probably offer a greater sense of return than an unpredictable marketplace. In other words, the grand, civic hopes of Russian rock's prior generation - looking for social change two decades ago - are now directed towards quieter, natural versions thereof: ecology replaces (and outpaces!) sociology. Sure enough, reflecting that same commitment to plants, rather than (ungrateful) people, GDR's website and blog are currently decorated by various photographs from a Moscow clean-up campaign in a local park.
Aleksandr Andreev (GDR)
And now, with the publication of "Excellent Visibility," the musicians look back on the fifth anniversary of their debut recordings. "We've travelled thousands of miles in our little yellow tour bus - and have often stayed in very spartan accommodation! Nonetheless, those experiences have only served to bring us closer together. People often approach us after a gig and say how much GDR's songs have helped them in tough times. That alone gives us justification for continuing what we started [five years ago]. And so we're still guided by our old principle - just like the Three Musketeers!: 'Let's do what we must... and que sera sera.'"
Let's do what we must... and 'que sera sera'
It's a romantic outlook, validating ideals over ostensible and often rough reality. Perhaps for that reason, it has special appeal in (even more) distant and sadder venues: "Fans started to scribble their wishes and contact info on the side of our bus. Towards the end of our last tour the vehicle was completely covered in ink. The yellow paint eventually became some kind of grey-brown-reddish color!" The worse the weather, the more that transformation would take place.
Given these touching tales, and the contacts made in faraway bars or clubs, we can see why GDR might believe friendship and handshakes to be a more impressive mode of socialization than political rant. The band is fully aware that recent rock music has, contrary to their heartfelt belief, operated increasingly in sync with Moscow's politics. This marriage of convenience, they feel, is another reason to step away from the (failed) mission of '80s rock. Keen to "enlighten" their audiences, GDR's members would nonetheless prefer to avoid overt ideology. They hope, instead, to "get some kind of [minuscule, yet] heartfelt response" from their lonely fan-base.
Sympathy and empathy become new civic goals - since they're apparently lacking in the here and now. In that light, the EP's title and bleached artwork take on a special significance.
GDR: "Excellent Visibility" (2011)
These desires for minimal contact are, say the musicians, already changing media development in Russia. Living upon a huge, empty landscape, and "entertained" by impersonal splendor on television, people are allegedly yearning for a smaller scale of interaction. So much so, in fact, that GDR anticipate both the demise of centralized television and the move of all broadcasts online - revealing in the process that the most popular shows are actually not what Moscow churns out. Our musicians hope and suspect that a totally different - and undocumented - passion resides in normal households: instead of well-funded splendor, citizens would "probably rather watch something like 'Conversations about [Riverside] Fishing.'"
As a third example of distance, scale, and related issues, we return again to the band Tally Ho!, based as ever in the southern Russian city of Belgorod, a few miles from the Ukrainian border. A little context would be useful, before we start. The region has seen its fair share of battles over the centuries, all the way from the Mongol horde to Fascist troops during WWII. In several cases, this conflict was a direct consequence of Belgorod's outlying location; the city was obliged to fight in defense of massive territories to its rear. That same peripheral or provincial locus is important in the story of Tally Ho! - the band members had first played in a heavy metal outfit. A less fashionable genre, especially on such faraway streets, is hard to imagine.
Britpop, indie-rock and so forth
At some point between the spring of 2009 and the current day, the group made a radical shift from long hair and leather to "britpop, indie-rock and so forth." Nonetheless, for all this decisiveness, Tally Ho! still had great trouble keeping anyone within their ranks for long; people came and went with troubling frequency. Only a short while before a debut performance was the group able to list its lineup with any confidence. Currently the members are: Anthony Coldmaker (vocals, bass), Maxee Mcfly (vocals, guitar), and Michael Burns (drums). Real names are thin on the ground.
As a result of the gap between reverie and actuality, perhaps, these musicians tend to downplay any danger of rockist pathos. Their output instead embraces the rock canon in terms of sheer enthusiasm, rather than striving towards pomp. The group has just published a new five-track EP - "Upside Down" - in the same spirit. It has already found a few grateful listeners: "Generally speaking, I don't like this kind of music, but I took a listen - and was really impressed. It's kinda 'light' music in the sense that it's doesn't give me a headache. I'm probably getting old!!" Arrogant clamor has little charm.
I took a listen - and was really impressed
If we look at some of the band's download sites, a few folks have already posted one and the same question: "How come I can't download it?" That technical glitch has since been fixed, but it is indicative of a situation experienced by Tally Ho!, GDR, and YAMMI. All three bands have released their new recordings onto major torrent sites for free. Whether the ensembles have professional connections to Moscow primetime media or not, the hope of commercial publication is zero. And yet, even after free publication (and major fiscal sacrifice), technical hiccups and physical distances still conspire to stop these songs getting through. The songs - theoretically - should be universally accessible. Actuality, however, is a little obstructionist.
As a result, all three bands - despite their dislike of pathos - need to make much noise in support of modest, small-scale, and/or "human" interaction. In a media environment where glossy maximalism is the norm across multiple time zones and endless forest, even lyricism needs to shout for attention. Hence the proliferation of capital letters and exclamation marks in the names of all these projects - and the need for a bus that never stops moving. Carrying concrete proof of hopes and dreams as it does so - until the rain and snow begin.