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New Weird Russia - #2 Moscow
Richard Foster , February 12th, 2019 07:28

In the second of a series on the current Russian alternative music scene, We find out why hassles with venues and house hunting help set Moscow’s scene, tune into some wall-melting electro hybrids and try and fail to understand whatever passes for alt-jazz here. (Disclaimer, no rap!)

Kaya Rekk and Alexei Borisov collaborate live

“Moscow is a very rich city, it’s always looking forward, and destroys the past with pleasure."
Jenya Gorbunov.

There is an undeniable magic to Moscow that lends itself to a dreamlike state, or to metaphor when describing what goes on there. The first impressions are of a gigantic, hyper-modern city of some 17 millions, a metropolis with many sides and tales to it. Despite the city parading obvious cultural and historical signifiers as the capital of a huge country, it is impossible to fully comprehend in a short space of time. It feels as if everything happens all at once, all of the time. As one resident musician friend told me, “Moscow does everything in quantity – more clubs, more audiences, more techno parties, gigs, events, festivals and so on. It’s very much over-the-top, and its 'central' role has both the upsides (the aforementioned ones) and the downsides – the lack of intimacy, the chaotic cultural pluralism that results in the 'presumed' absence of style, the excessiveness of everything and the competition, less everyday non-conformism…”

The Space Race + Party Animals

It’s also worth remembering how the climate and (socio-ecological-economic) geography of any given city affects its music. Something we will return to again when we talk of “Peter” (St Petersburg). Many Muscovites I know complain about the harsh climate, specifically the long, cold, dark winters. And despite the recent rebuilding - the clean up and “urban gentrification” programmes - pollution levels can also be high, and are noticeable in the muggy, high summer months.

In short it’s not a climate for the artistic dilettante or long-term dawdler. In Moscow, stuff has to get done and a good time has to be had, as soon as possible. Things also have to be fought for; space, recognition, time. As no-one can say for certain how long any scene - or any part of the city - will hold together. Consequently imaginations are on hyperdrive. It can seem like a mental party city, with each musical wave reinterpreting this sense of time running out, to constantly try to capture the thrill of “the now”.

So musical trends can change quickly, and old tricks and knowledge are often cast aside. Things can feel disconnected, permanently amateur. As one friend put it (when talking about the Moscow and “Western” music scenes): “We are cut off from our past and we search and collect its scattered pieces, always looking with some kind of envy on the charming solid western world, the one we can’t create here because of lack of time and money.” For instance it seemed that the much-written about guitar acts associated with the Боль (“Pain”) festival were already beginning to be challenged at Moscow Music Week 2018 by a bunch of younger, punkier, scruffier acts like VED, KnightKnights and ВЛАЖНОСТЬ (Vlazhnost).

Moscow, though, will always be a magnet to many provincial musicians who want to cut some wyrd rug and get noticed. This presents problems; as finding a decent pad to groove about in is difficult. So much so that the “race for space” has sometimes been elevated to the stuff of legend (the house hunting stories I have heard are truly surreal). This feeds into attitudes, lyrics and ways of working.

The city is cramped at underground music level. And the last decade has seen many mid-sized venues close for a number of reasons, not always the most positive. Rapidly increasing rents in this increasingly knocked-down, rebuilt and cleaned-up city also play their part too. Consequently many potential organisers find it hard to find, start up, or keep an independent space going. These trends have led to a widening gap between official (“approved”) venues and spaces that host the numerous strands of Moscow’s diverse underground. Pubs, temporary or makeshift and often rackety (if charming) places like Pluton, Успех and Agglomerat rule the roost in this world; as well as fancy clubs that can accommodate something artsy, like Powerhouse. Another name, DOM, is a well-established underground venue, with some 20 years under its belt. I suppose it can be seen (if we can be Londoncentric for a second) as the Cafe OTO of the scene, with its resolutely high-brow programme and audience.

However this means that many musicians join forces to make do and mend with what they’ve got. And the jazz and alternative electronic scenes and the “Pain” scene have a friendly enough, sometimes collegiate feel to them; even if peer love may be temporary, or illusory or, (as with the electro scene), things can sometimes look inwards. Whilst you can’t speak of a universal collective effort (and there are plenty of differences and jealousies), there is a strong polyglot feel to many of Moscow’s musical activities. One unifying force is СТОРОНА, a magazine driven in the main by the girls from Lucidvox. The immensely charming singer in Spasibo, Rasel Rahman, is also an active connector and concert organiser. Energy is the key, regardless; whether shared or stored for personal use. Its afterglow best heard - somehow - in Kate NV’s beautifully reflective paean to the city, для / FOR [INSERT LINK ], which somehow captures, in miniature, the Moscow’s quizzical, itchy, can-do feel.

Sample #1 ГШ / Glintshake - 'Только для вас' (Only for You)

To talk of New Weird Moscow and not talk of ГШ / Glintshake would probably invoke a court order. The band use their frenetic, scratchy post-punk and almost relentless wordplay to backdrop daily Muscovite trials and tribulations, such as the schlep of house hunting) Uzbeki and Tajik taxi drivers and fascinations around the aesthetics of modern Russian life. It is fair to say, I think, that ГШ / Glintshake’s work directly reflects on the ever-changing cityscape and bustle that is impossible to escape in this dazzling, dayglo, yet grimy city. And there is a brilliantly acid element to tracks (replete with titles stuffed with double meanings) like 'Польза' (Benefits), 'Что-то случится' (Something’s Going to Happen) and 'Не Долж' (Must...n’t) .

Sample #2 Lucidvox + Spasibo

Two bands that epitomise the devil-may-care party attitude of the Pain crowd (even if they are fairly accessible, straight forward rock bands) are Lucidvox and their close friends Spasibo. Both are fabulous to watch and play wild exhilarating shows - often with one band indulging in a harmless spot of diving from the other’s stage. You wonder how long they will last. Lucidvox have a magicke rock aura that has something of Amon Düül II and very early Banshees about them; for me they make music that has the feel of the drawings of Ivan Bilibin, (don’t ask why). Spasibo - one of the best, most giving live guitar bands I have seen in many a year - krank out motherloads of Mudhoney/ Butthole Surfers/ Oh Sees guitar grit at a thousand miles an hour.

Omnivores And Internationalists

Moscow’s all-embracing, hedonistic attitude to music is very noticeable when you skim through the underground labels. Although there are aesthetic considerations at play, release policy (like anywhere at this level) is sometimes determined by who your pals are and what you like doing together. We can point to deejay Andrew Lee and guitarist Jenya Gorbunov’s very rewarding label, Incompetence, which releases Gorbunov’s brilliant solo work as Inturist and the pair’s Detroit-tastic collaboration Interchain respectively. You wonder if they’re not behind the label’s other splendidly offbeat releases (Enjineer, DEM LEEDZ), too. In more rockist / psych foothills, the [addicted] label and R.A.I.G records are surely worth a mention. R.A.I.G were trailblazers back in the noughties for all kinds of Russian rock and post rock and still releasing some mightily Heavy releases for longhaired banging and stack-amped space travel. And it’s safe to say [addicted] release some truly far-out, psyched-up stuff.

Some other labels act as international gatekeepers or sonic traders for the city’s musical cognoscenti; happy to accommodate all sorts under a broad remit of “different sounds”. Perfect Aesthetics and Fancy Music are two cases in point. Both are cosmopolitan, tasteful and outward looking. A dive into the very well-named Fancy Music is a day trip in itself, where you will encounter sounds ranging from the new age to cocktail jazz, sacred music and some winning electro glitch pop. Oh, and some glorious modern classical works thrown in. None of it feels particularly underground per se. But some of it is just plain strange and an indication of the lack of trendy hang ups these independent labels seem to have. The internationalist Perfect Aesthetics label hosts a lot of Scando and Western dark wave synthpop, dark ambient, found sounds and electro as well as local variants thereof. Recent releases include Newcastle Upon Tyne’s Burning Pyre and France’s David Lacroix. There is the feeling that a lot of unspoken, sometimes sinister things are happening in this label’s mind, however approachable the music is.

Sample #3 Marble Bust - 'N053X'

A splendid example of the serious Perfect Aesthetics label, a typically intense remix of one Moscow act (Marble Bust) of another, Måla.

Sample #4 Mark Saburov - 'Kut'

Fancy Music’s strange, scattergun vibe is perhaps best seen by the release from Mark Saburov’s Kut, a strange odyssey of sound that charts Saburov’s relationship with traditional Turkic beliefs.

Another label of real note is the eclectic but very rewarding alt-dance/electro released by Hyperboloid Records. Hyperboloid is a label of some renown with a catholic release schedule and an internationalist bent but one deeply attuned to the foibles of living in the Russian Federation. It also has strong links with the West’s club scenes, particularly Berlin. Label luminaries include the phenomenal Bad Zu, Muscovite-in-Petersburg footwork maestro (and non-stop producer and mixer), A. (Anna) Fruit and ‘Peter’s’ veteran headbanger, Dissident. It also hosts some tremendous electro, as witnessed by Cadeu’s latest LP, Un - a record that has some similarities with Moscow resident Kate NV’s latest release, для / FOR (see earlier).

Dark Fusions… Does Dark Jazz Actually Exist in Moscow?

In a word, maybe. It depends on who you talk to. It’s certainly a thing in Russia. Saint Petersburg, for example, boasts Low Kick Collective and Yojo. Further afield we can point to Samara’s prolific artist-blogger visionary, Valdemar Bebopovsky and his Bebopovsky And The Orkestry Podyezdov project. More on these heads another time though. The most notable and maybe well-known Muscovite take on this genre is the accomplished Fogh Depot (now ruling the roost on the Denovali label). Denovali also released Moscow’s fellow dark jazzers Povavoro earlier in the decade.

Moscow sources also say the term has a broader meaning here; covering avant-garde and experimental jazz, fusion and a host of obtuse sub-genres. This may be down to the fact that lots of things can be “dark”, (maan) but possibly down to the influence of the ubiquitous VK. The Dark Jazz VK public network is reckoned to be the largest Russian internet community related to the genre (there are over 74,000 dedicated followers) and posts about many Russian and international jazz allies, such as BROM’s mighty Anton Ponomaryov.

Sample #5 Baritone Domination - 'Abyss'

OK this isn’t probably 100% Dark Jazz, but what the heck, it’s dark enough. Baritone Domination is Alexander Serechenko and prolific Glintshake/ Inturist horn man, Sergey Khramtsevich (baritone saxophones) and Peter Ototsky (drums). Apart from being dronetastic in itself it’s here because it’s a good example of the polymorphous nature of the jazz scenes. Most of these musicians play in many other, completely different projects. The ‘Domination have a new LP out too, so uh, look out.

Sample #6 Fogh Depot - 'Quicksilver Spoon'

A fabulous slice of the real thing. Fogh Depot are unquestionably the most well known of the dark jazz groups mentioned here. Their music is also betrays the love affair with moody electronics, seemingly sine qua non in Russian music circles.

Fusions Squared: Jazz-Experimental “Porosity” And Other Weird Bangers

What then of the rest? What can be said with confidence is that there is a tight knit but blossoming, incredibly productive jazz-experimental scene, that allows plenty of room for creative crossover. Many see this milieu as the most “underground” of all of Moscow’s scenes. And despite the decrease in the overall number of clubs and spaces mentioned earlier, adherents are keen to point out that there is a commensurate rise in know-how and understanding of those spaces that survive; and a more committed and regular audience.

Sample #7 BROM - 'Vortex'

It’s imperative here that I mention BROM and the mighty Anton Ponomarev. BROM are a truly fabulous and flexible band who play a righteous and very winning No Jazz skronk that has punkish elements in it, somewhat akin to Dutch loons Dead Neanderthals. I need a spare pair of hands to count the number of acts Anton has been in. I’ve added another one later on in this article.

A relatively small band of musicians and enthusiasts are gatekeepers to some very inspiring cross-genre interactions and promote a more personal, sharing approach to their work. As mentioned before, most have projects of their own and also often collaborate in big scale improv-orchestras, as well as (according to my friends on the scene) “spontaneous” duos and trios. Luckily all of this creation has a few places it can call home; one being the truly brilliant Moscow ТОПОТ label, (appropriately translated as “Clatter”). ТОПОТ knocks out a heady mix of alt, experiment and darker things.

Sample #8 ТОПОТ аркестра - TOPOT arkestra

Google Translate serves up the following spaghetti to the Cyrillic description of this 2016 release (one of my current favourites) thus: “a large super-group of 8 people, consisting of the cream of Moscow near-jazz scene.” What is near jazz? Even if it’s a Googleism I’m keeping it - if only to add to the general jazz confusion. And the music is killer; a groove that bounces between Sons Of Kemet’s more goggle-eyed moments and Tim Leary’s gangshow declamations on 7 Up with wild abandon.

Sample #9 MOSHCHEE - Live at ZAGRANICA VIDEO

MOSHCHEE are an intense but highly rewarding duo formed in 2016, consisting of Valentin Grudskiy (drums) and Michael Barkovskiy (daxophone). MOSHCHEE make committed, sometimes gnomic fusion that has a unique quality. Probably best experienced live (hence the live clip).

Sample #10 Speedball Trio - Live (Burning Man)

You know when I said BROM’s Anton Ponomarev has a million acts? Well this is one of them. Speedball Trio are what old lags like me call a Heavy Project, as Ponomarev is joined by two rockist players; uSSSy’s Sergey Bolotin and Solvichegodsk’s Hassan Mustafin. This project is the sort of thing that, in the 70s, would have won you a decade’s worth of synthesizers and cheesecloth pants delivered by the tonne-weight. Their music flies a flag proudly at the crossroads between punk, jazz and prog-metal.

Sample #11 Злурад / Zlurad - 'Помутнение' / Muddiness

An absolutely mental release from free association / noise nutters Zlurad, on the [addicted]. This burglar alarm of a record straddles free rock, free jazz, thrash noisecore and a lot of ullulating and wailing. It’s best consumed in small doses.

Fusions Squared: Rock, Avant-Garde Electro, Glitch, Dance & Other

Moscow’s electro and electronics scene could take days to wade through. As with the jazz scene it seems fusions and cross pollinations are the order of the day. Lots of acts seem to be in thrall to a dark, Gothic vibe and driven by the reappropriation of old sounds into new spaces, like the very moreish duo, Marzahn; who sound like every Sheffield band rolled into one. The dance scene needs a separate series of articles, though a good start point is the aforementioned Hyperboloid label. We can also point to avant-pop, as represented by Rosemary Loves a Blackberry (Diana Burkot) and the brilliant Kate NV, one of the international pin ups for the city and certainly no stranger to experiment. One “poppy” label that is certainly worth your time is the Udacha label, which has all sorts of wonderful and wobbly electro-psyche (and disco) fusions to delve into.

Lone Nutters, John’s Kingdom and Katya Rekk

Some of the more interesting and offbeat underground “electronica” [sic] is provided by wild and wired lone agents such as Vitaliy Stromchinskiy, Zurkas Tepla, Vyacheslav Grigoriev, the genius Alexei Borisov, Katya Rek and Fesikl Mikensky. We should also flag up the mysterious 8 Hz, who have stories circulating about them that sound mind-boggling. Some of the more rocky, weirdo and glitchy fusions are provided by gloriously prolific underground veterans like Alexey Tegin’s Phurpa project, Motherfathers, Pavel Dodonov, Ninja Glam and uSSSy.

This article would not be complete without mention of the intriguing John’s Kingdom collective, based around the brilliant producer Pavel Milyakov - aka Buttechno. It seems that John’s Kingdom is a form of artists’ community based around a specific aesthetic and Milyakov’s own relentless work ethic, that has seen him move away from punk towards increasingly inspiring deviations of post techno and electronic noise. We should also mention the superb Klammklang label here too, which leans towards both neo-classical and electro-goth, with recent releases by Fanny Kaplan’s Lusia Kazaryan-Topchyan.

Sample #12 Buttechno - Martyan Cuts

A marvellous trippy soundscape by the prolific Pavel Milakov. This particular release captures his and his label’s inquisitive vibe very well.

Then there is Katya Rekk. Rekk is seen by some as the prime mover in a new generation of Muscovite experimentalists, and (guess what) plays in lots of other acts; most notably with Alexei Borisov, By Zero and the fabulous experimental techno-noise project, REKK&KUTOBOY, whose other half is Ilya Kutoboy.

Sample #13 Katya Rekk + Fesikl Mikensky - 'Corovi'

This is a beautiful and brave single collaboration between the obsessive collector and re-arranger of sounds (and dance duo Drojji producer) Fesikl Mikensky and the equally prolific Rekk.

To be honest - given the seemingly endless love-in between Muscovites and strange electronic and digital sounds - even a half-hearted attempt to cover all that’s going on in this world would lead to a 15,000 word dissertation with a swathe of unpronounceable names that would drive both me and my long suffering editor mad [You should have reached this conclusion 18 paragraphs ago, Cyrillic Editor]. So I’ve plumped for a quick “magnificent seven” of the obvious and oddball, below.

Sample #14 Zurkas Tepla - 'Burning House, Salty River, Take A Shit, Good Bye'

Zurkas Tepla makes grandiose often beatless High Goth electro soundtracks out of cut ups, loops and meandering vocals, such as this brilliant extempore declamation. Somehow his dramatic cut ups have an element of low comedy about them, like getting the Old Chap stuck in your zip at the precise point of the world’s ending. It should go without mention that Tepla’s titles alone are worth your time.

Sample #15 Vitaliy Stromchinskiy - Live In Moscow

This sounds like some crazy Stanshall-style broadcast and is fairly typical of the work of Stromchinskiy. His pieces sound intuitive and seem to embrace a mild form of chaos, though I also get the feeling he’s got his approach nailed down to the last pixel.

Sample #16 Alexei Borisov and Katya Rekk - “24-23”

A fabulously rich soup of found-sounds using custom made and specialist instruments (see their own liner notes for the details), and lashings of deep improv know-how and wisdom. Both musicians are specialists in electronic music and free improvisation. Alexei Borisov is a lauded and decorated veteran of the Russian experimental scene, and played in infamous things like The Center and Notchnoi Prospekt.

Sample #17 Ninja Glam - 'Wasteland'

This prolific experimental electronic duo, comprised of Dmitriy Peitsch and Maxim Elizarov of the noise-rock band Motherfathers, have captured the energy, head-crushing discipline and magpie approach that seemingly informs a lot of underground Moscow music practice. It’s a gloriously fuzzy and glitchy track, with little time to hang about.

Sample #18 8 Hz - 'Slowly*'

This remarkable outfit, founded by scene drummer Andrey J Kim, is nigh on indefinable. A mail sent to me described it as a “chiptune/rhythm&noize/romanticIDM project that became a band of six people who apparently never rehearse”. At times their music is bewildering, at other times incredible.

Sample #19 uSSSy - 'Elephant’s Riot'

This act are truly mesmerising live and have recently released what may be their masterpiece, the long player Voyage. Veterans of noughties alternative post rock acts such as I Am Above On The Left and Bosch’s With You on the R.A.I.G.label, uSSSy’s can-do energy is nothing short of ridiculous.

Sample #20 Holy Palms - 'Skeleton Team Is Leading'

Pavel Eremeev from uSSSy has a brilliant longstanding project, Holy Palms, quirky, sometimes poppy electronica that is want to disappear in its own electroid wormhole at a second’s notice.

Finally - where’s the rap?

So at this point, right at the end, you are probably wondering where the report on the city’s rap scene is. Seen by most as the boom music market in Russia, the reason for international articles, and the subject of supposed cultural ententes by the regime and individual provincial censorships of shows by local officials. There is a reason. It’s not a political one, though I am very aware of the current issues with some of these artists. Quite simply, I don’t understand enough of Russian to get the lyrics. And therefore don’t feel qualified to comment, outside of the fact I have a feral liking of IC3PEAK’s videos. Answers to my questions on whether the lyrics are worth investigating, or reveal something that’s worth investigating, are mixed. Some say there are many great things, some say the scene is monstrously large and encompasses virtually every form of expression and opinion, others opine it’s like rap the world over and not worth my time. An article for another time by one more qualified, perhaps.

Once again I want to thank the many, many Muscovites who’ve gently corrected me on the way and let me into their world, and the courteous people behind InRussia for their insight and allowing the odd link here and there. Спасибо!

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