JR Moores On Gnoomes' TSCHAK!
, March 9th, 2017 12:52
In the pharmacologically sober follow-up to Ngan!, JR Moores finds that being forbidden from ingesting mind-altering substances hasn't neutered Gnoomes' ability to create joyful and inspiring Russian psych,
Once a successful chick-lit author, briefly a Tory MP and perhaps best known for her incessant pestering of the internet, Louise Mensch says a lot of daft things on Twitter. Last year, one of her daftest tweets exploited Leonard Cohen's death as an opportunity to contend that American culture is enduringly superior to that of "joyless" Russia. As everybody knows, Cohen was of course Canadian while at the same time Mensch managed to overlook a fair few Russian cultural big-hitters. Tolstoy for example, Dostoyevsky or Gogol, to name just three. Naturally, their achievements pale in comparison to Mensch-née-Bagshawe's own literary works, one of which was shortlisted for the prestigious Romantic Novel Of The Year Award in 2010 and includes the sentence "Her name was Lola Montoya, and God, she was a cold bitch." Eat that, Chekhov, you forgotten tubercular hack.
If we're talking strictly music, we could start with Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. Not one to apologise for such wilful ignorance, Mensch might assert that those composers' undeniable accomplishments occurred way back in the olden days whereas she views modern Russia as having, to quote one of her own garbled follow-up tweets, "no rock 'n' roll."
Mensch spends much of her time launching badly named internet ventures that soon come to nothing (www.menshn.com, anyone? Unfashionista?) or helping to investigate a botoxed topless horserider's malevolent influence over a furious tiny-handed tangerine demagogue. As noble a journalistic crusade as this may or may not turn out to be, there's no excuse for unfairly shoehorning culture into the equation, especially as Russian artists, writers, poets, playwrights and composers have traditionally been rather prone to challenging, subverting, satirising and confounding the country's successive ruling regimes.
Besides, if Mensch bothered to conduct even the bare minimum amount of digging she'd discover there is much joy to be found in Russian rock 'n' roll, particularly on the part of its contemporary psych-rock scene. Take Moscow's Nikola Tesla & Thee Coils for instance, whose jangly organ-laden surf-rock style would certainly get Californian garage hero Ty Segall's tail wagging. There's also Pinkshinyultrablast, based in St Petersburg, who evoke Kevin Shields deconstructing an early Lush song while a sighing hurricane hammers at the studio shack's dusty windows. If you fancy something more introspective, you could sample the post-punk band Motorama from Rostov-on-Don, who might remind you of Interpol when Interpol still had some edge. I could go on.
Pinkshinyultrablast have insisted that they and their peers are "more of an exception than a rule" but there are enough of them to counter Mensch, even if her own tastes remain firmly in the conservative, classic rock vein. (Remember, her husband manages Metallica, she once presented a Sky Arts documentary about AC/DC's Brian Johnson and has boasted of briefly dating Noel Gallagher. That's the same Noel Gallagher who Luke Haines has astutely labelled "Britain's Least Psychedelic Man.")
Even better than those aforementioned Russian acts are Perm's Gnoomes, whose second album, the follow-up to 2015's Ngan!, has been recorded without the creative oil of psychedelics. There is a long history of psychedelic artists creating psychedelic music without the aid of psychedelic drugs: intoxicated by nothing stronger than booze, London's Kaleidoscope released two late-60s albums that were as trippy as Syd Barrett floating with Lucy in a marmalade sky. Even more out-there was the madcap material recorded by the fierce anti-drugs zealot Frank Zappa. More recently, Hookworms' singer MJ has said he prefers Chocolate Hobnobs over mind-bending hallucinogens, while The Brian Jonestown Massacre have just released one of their freakiest albums to date in spite of the fact that Anton Newcombe has been sober for years.
The West's half-hearted "war on drugs" has proved too strict for the likes of David Nutt while at the same time so lenient it makes steam spurt out of the rarely not-steam-spurting lugholes of Peter Hitchens. As such, the aforementioned substance-eschewing Anglo/American artists essentially opted to just say no, whereas in contrast Gnoomes' abstinence has been forced on them by the state. Collared by the police for being high, the band members were sentenced to five days' imprisonment followed by a year of regular check-ups with the narcologist. Rather than rebranding as a 1980s straight-edge post-hardcore outfit with a name like AUTHORITY DISTRUST, Gnoomes have continued to make psychedelic music without the aid of psychedelics.
TSCHAK! could've fooled you otherwise. Though its ten tracks may be individually more concise than Ngan!'s four movements which were bookended by two fifteen-minute sprawlers, TSCHAK!'s shorter pieces are brimming with wacky ideas and unusual sounds, while its sporadic vocals are woozier than Dylan the rabbit's plasticine brain after a week on the tiles with Julian Cope. I don't know how Gnoomes managed to manufacture this glowing grogginess, whether by sleep deprivation, stepping up their cheese consumption or simply fine acting. I do know that Gnoomes have found much inspiration by wallowing in effects pedals and exploiting old equipment such as Cold War-era analogue synthesizers.
The album begins in resolutely non-joyless fashion with a well wonky fuzzscape, free of beats and full of charm. Its two subsequent numbers, 'Maria' and 'Cascais' both showcase those dizzy vocals early in their running times before the words are drowned out by instrumental jams sparkling with skitterish rhythms, throbbing loops, distorted guitar noise and spindly effects. That Cold War gear sounds retro, knackered, second-hand and low on batteries, but with an ultramodern sci-fi feel all the same.
Influenced by krautrock, early electronic music and experimental classical composers, the LP's opening tracks already contain a flavour of the more esoteric material produced by the later-period Flaming Lips; thereafter Gnoomes rove even further into the uncharted atmosphere with the record's most abstract section. With added Hawkwind proggyness, 'Severokamsk' recalls the ghostly club sound of Liars' last couple of albums but fruitier still is TSCHAK!'s title track. With its splintered vocals suffocating in disorderly bleeps and whirls, it resembles a battered space probe having a nervous breakdown before emerging the other side humming a euphoric rendition of a discarded theme tune from the soviet equivalent of Tomorrow's World, Look Around You or How 2.
In its second half, the album grows a little bit poppier. 'City Monk' touches on the delicate indietronica of Germany's The Notwist before giving way to a sweet burst of axe fuzz, while 'One Step' is like some dreamy New Order number remixed by the two chaps from Grumbling Fur in collaboration with half the Kranky roster. The final track, meanwhile, is basically 'Don't Worry Baby' as beamed to Earth via telekinetic satellite by the extraterrestrial floating octopi from Denis Villeneuve's Arrival.
With TSCHAK!, Gnoomes have risen to the challenge of creating sober psychedelic music with experimental aplomb. This may hardly be the equivalent of scratching one's poetry into a frozen boulder in the Siberian gulag but it's one more testament to how Russia's vibrant, joyFUL culture survives under harsher conditions than the West's and how it remains so admirably, determinately and everlastingly robust.