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Shortparis
ПАСХА John Doran , March 26th, 2018 07:50

If you listen closely enough you can hear this Siberian post punk quintet laughing but that doesn't mean their latest album is a joke, says John Doran

On 17 May 1991 a musician called Sergey Kuryokhin and a reporter named Sergey Sholokhov carried out an audacious hoax live on Russian television. Kuryokhin, despite being a relatively popular musician, piano player, composer, artist and film actor, passed himself off as a political historian on the talk show Pyatoe Koleso (The Fifth Wheel). Via a series of interlinked logical fallacies mainly (though notably not always) played with a very straight bat - including lengthy references to the anthropologist Carlos Castaneda, MIT and the reclusive father of the Russian space programme, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky - he ‘proved’ that Lenin was a mushroom.

His argument, boiled down to its bare essence, was berserk. He ostensibly said that Vladmir Lenin was in the habit of eating psychedelic mushrooms which gave him a pre-cognitive hallucination of the October Revolution and acted as inspiration for the actual event. Furthermore he claimed that eventually his fly agaric fungus habit caused him to turn into a mushroom himself… and a radio wave. As implausible as the lie was, once viewed in full, the hoax, can be judged as masterful. The constant appeals to authority, the pile on of bewildering technical jargon just before each logical fallacy appears, the many references to documentary ‘evidence’, the setting (in this case a library crammed with books) and the kind of misdirection worthy of a stage illusionist (watch Kuryokhin answer the phone half way through the segment).

By the end of the clip, the two Sergeys are barely attempting to conceal their mirth - after all, what they are saying is utterly insane. But their laughter, coupled with a lead in clip of Kuryokhin conducting an ensemble of prog rock guitarists with wild abandon and the sheer implausibility of the story itself, was not enough to stop a reported 11 million viewers from taking the programme at face value. It would be easy to claim that the Russian public were gullible but really this was, in temporal and spatial terms, a perfect storm of hoodwink. 1991 was the height of glasnost and perestroika and the role and nature of the Russian media was in great flux. The grip of Soviet censorship had just relaxed for the first time in living memory, and incredible revelations about the country’s recent history were now a daily occurrence, but generally speaking the only real context for Russian television was still one of trust and absolute authority. (The above story doesn’t seem so far fetched when you remember that Lenin was all but deified after his death as a secular saint... a secular god even... and that the abolition of human mortality itself and the resurrection of all comrades, the great leader included, was actually part of the Bolshevik plan.)

If you’re laughing at this point, perhaps you should be doing so uneasily. The people who believed this hoax (or, perhaps, to be more accurate, the people who found themselves dismayed that they even had to entertain such a bizarre proposition) were no more gullible than the huge numbers of people who fell for Panorama’s spaghetti tree hoax, Orson Welles’ radio dramatisation of War Of The Worlds or the Brexit Leave campaign. (Although it should be said, one of these three media events was not a deliberate attempt to mislead large numbers of people.)

Shortparis, a decadent, dancefloor facing post punk band based in St Petersburg, claim countercultural polymath Sergey Kuryokhin as an influence. (They have also praised fellow countrymen Sergei Prokofiev, the titan of 20th century Russian classical music, and Yegor Letov, a psych/post punk renegade.) Just like Kuryokhin, they play interviews with an incredibly straight bat while leading journalists and readers alike on a merry dance but if you look carefully you can just about see them smirking. They have talked in the past of operating on three levels. They refer to the first level as the white assembly, concerning information they can discuss with the press; the second level is the red assembly, concerning spiritual and civic revelations which will only be made to chosen people; and finally there is the black assembly which involves “things we can’t talk about - at all”.

Is this a joke? As with “Lenin Was A Mushroom” the answer is both emphatically, ‘Yes, obviously’ and also, ‘No, this is about a serious as it gets.’ When considering Kuryokhin’s satirical broadcast one doesn’t need to think too hard to see why saying the Chairman Of The Council Of People’s Commissars Of The Soviet Republic was an actual mind-altering drug transmitted by radio waves. This tripartite structure of Shortparis seems to be a playful reference to the mystic tie - the system of Russian freemasonry which was transplanted into the country in the 18th century and which still survives to this day. This then acts as a metaphor for deep power structures that survived from the time of the tsars, through Communism and into this neoliberal age of oligarchy.

Reliable information on Shortparis is scarce. Reliable information on the band written in English is even scarcer (interviews seem to be a riot of subterfuge - doubly so, when dumped from Russian text into Google Translate) but here are the “facts” as I can discern them... Frontman Nikolay Komiagin, a messianic singer, met guitarist and synth player Aleksandr Galianov because he was walking around his home town brandishing a hammer and realised he had encountered a kindred spirit. Novokuznetsk, a Siberian town eulogised by the band, is the former home of a gulag and has extremely harsh weather - it is famous in Russia for having gardens populated with plastic flowers, as it is too cold for the real thing to bloom there.

After the pair moved to Saint Petersburg, they formed Shortparis in 2012. (They have two drummers, Danila Kholodkov and Pavel Lesnikov, not to mention an accordion-toting bassist, Aleksandr Ionin.) Their opening statement was to describe themselves as “audio theatre”, adding: “[What we do is] a combination of ancient Greek tragedy and pubescent sensuality” claiming that their music is supposed to act as a backdrop for “hysteria, sex, and irony”. From the outset they claimed to be experiment-oriented, positioning themselves in opposition to the “modern [Russian] musical scene” and have since claimed on social media that they are seeking “original music and art solutions” while singing not only in their native tongue but in Macedonian, French, Greek and Kyrgyz as well. What this means is not explained directly but historically they have treated shows less in terms of gigs and more as performance art, prefering to play in non-standard venues such as abandoned warehouses, sex clubs and, according to them at least, “grocery stores”.

If you’re a fan of Mary Anne Hobbs you may have heard her play the latest excellent Shortparis single ‘Shame’ on 6Music Recommends recently. The song captures them in an intermediary stage, as they appear to be in the process of repositioning themselves as a pop group. (In what was presumably a KLF-referencing interview to the Russian press they said they wouldn’t mind becoming famous if it meant they could burn two million quid in front of Stonehenge.) However, I’m hoping neophilia won’t stop people from venturing into their excellent back catalogue as this exposure on the BBC and rave reports of a recent festival-destroying live set at MENT in Ljubljana filter back to the UK. For if we go back exactly one year we can hear the most recent Shortparis album ПАСХА (Easter) which hasn't been far from the stereo at tQHQ for the past few months.

In purely practical terms I’m not sure how useful the comparison to Peter And The Wolf and Lieutenant Kijé composer Prokofiev is, so let me offer a few quotidian observations in addition. Ian Curtis has been invoked in some quarters but, in Nikolay’s lusty falsetto, what I’m hearing primarily is the just-stopping-short-of-histrionic, operatic grain of Billy Mackenzie and the sensuous vocal priapism of Hayden Thorpe, of the recently departed Wild Beasts. Again, as with most current bands who end up being described as post punk, they don’t actually sound anything like any post punk bands that I can name, instead they share a convergent and parallel sonic evolution with other, more recent post punk fans, especially those with a serious commitment to servicing the dancefloor, such as Health, Re-TROS, Snapped Ankles, Algiers, My Disco and Liars.

‘Любовь’ (Love) throbs with a thrillingly unspecified sexual longing sublimated into religious fervour (Nikolay has previously claimed in interview to work in a gay bar frequented by intellectuals and elsewhere has talked of the band singing the lyrics to Orthodox Greek hymns to an audience of strippers) as groaning analog synths fire out junkshop-sourced hardware house hooks. The rudimentary DIY punk acid of ‘Что-то особое во мне’ (Something Special About Me), complete with Carl Craig scream samples and hectic synth stabs builds to a quivering epic. ТуТу (Macedonian for tutu) is an anguished art rock reworking of Chicory Tip’s ‘Son Of My Father’ while the title track is suitably dub-ecclesiastical. Boulevardier chanson gets repositioned as herky-jerky art school twitchiness on angst-ridden waltz ‘Раз, два, три’ (One Two Three) while the album holds back its heaviest, most strident one two knock out for the closing pair of ‘Весело’ (Fun) and ‘Сын’ (A Son).

You know, I constantly dream of coming across bands like Shortparis yet so rarely do. Ambitious, bombastic, incredibly pretentious, erotic, thrilling, impossible to pin down, vaguely deviant, fun to dance to and full of revolutionary potential. Sure, if you listen hard enough you can hear them laughing but you would be a fool to make the mistake of presuming that they're joking.

With thanks to Richard Foster and Natalia Papaeva

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