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New Weird Ukraine Part One: Bringing Home The Bacon
Yaryna Denysyuk , August 17th, 2021 09:58

In the first of our reports from the Ukrainian underground, journalist Yaryna Denysyuk reports on punk and post-industrial scenes while drawing attention to feminist and LGTBQI issues as well as drawing some links between smoky bacon and gabber

Pustosh keep it arboreal

To many, talk of Ukraine conjures up notions of division and confusion. Historically, this huge country has suffered the vicissitudes of fate, often due to questions around where its borders actually lie and with what its people (drawn from many groups and traditions) identify with. There is also, sadly, the current war in the Donbass region to contend with; a state of affairs that has increasingly raised the issue of what news about Ukraine can be believed. And given this is a country in which journalists are often mistrusted, who would be interested in such luxuries as music journalism?

This is a shame as Ukraine has a remarkably rich musical heritage, with celebrated contemporary artists such as Dakh Daughters, Dakhabrakha, Alyona Alyona and a number of fascinating alternative scenes that deserve a wider public. Still: trying to make sense of contemporary Ukrainian music from a perspective written in the west of Europe, without sounding naive, voyeuristic or misguided, is impossible. The Quietus felt it proper to be directed by two Ukrainian music journalists active in the country, including myself. The magazine I edit, Neoformat, mostly covers the local underground music scene in my native town of Uzhhorod, situated near the borders of Slovakia and Hungary.

Ukraine has a massive and diverse music scene. But it has been a long and difficult process to get to this point. It's difficult for western Europeans to imagine the total control the Soviet Union had over all of Ukrainian culture. The disapproving and repressive Soviet regime saw hippies and punks as manifestations of "harmful bourgeois culture". There was a great burst of creativity in the late 1980s and after the country got its freedom, and some underground metal, punk rock or experimental electronic bands appeared during the 1990s, but most of the bands from that period are forgotten. The post-Soviet era was one of total poverty whilst the national economy was restructured: there was no internet to share and record the music made, no creative economy to support young talent, and no music industry to speak of. It was only in the 2000s that a wider underground scene started to appear. Mostly this was thanks to the liberating possibilities of the Internet, but also the change in the economic situation allowed more people to get into and play music. A real alternative community of punks formed in cold garages and abandoned industrial plants right across the country. This was the time when the hardcore boom started.

The 2000s was also the time when typical anti-fascist, straight edge and vegan themes began to appear in the songs and punk zines. These topics were often eulogised from the stage by singers. There was also occasionally a small place for feminist and queer topics but not always; probably because both then and now women and LGBTQI+ communities are still underrepresented in the Ukrainian hardcore scene. As time passed and musicians became older and didn't have to fight neo-Nazis at their concerts anymore, this subculture became less politicised and more philosophical. In describing the current hardcore scenes I'll concentrate on the western part of Ukraine, starting with my native town Uzhhorod.

Go West: Noise, Hardcore, Metal, Punk And Related

Uzhhorod is the most western regional centre in Ukraine. The town is near the border with Slovakia, and the Hungarian border is some 40 minutes by car. This has meant that bands like Napalm Death, Celeste, Jungbluth (ex-Alpinist), Bestial Vomit and Sete Star Sept could perform here in the 2000s and 2010s, and many local musicians learnt from them. It's fair to say Uzhhorod's underground hardcore and metal scenes are still run by these older musicians. Probably the most exciting were d-beat project Displease as well as hardcore punks The Symbioz, whose latest EP (Crossing the Borders, 2019) is full of personal but still depressing-as-hell Ukrainian lyrics about adulthood. Then there is death metal band (Horizon), founded from members of Mykola Maga and Vasyl Laver. They sing about totalitarianism, the historical tragedies of the Soviet period and other modern political issues.

One more great local example is the grindcore band Degradatus (formed from those who played in legendary local 2000s grindcore band, Gaz-66 Intrusion). As the name suggests, they provide some really angry texts about the degradation of modern society and, given that they are experienced musicians, high quality, straightforward grindcore. Their debut self-titled album is worth checking out as well as the fierce and noisy black metal side project Furuvgerendufuroval.

Khmelnytskyi is a town that lies much closer to the central part of the country. Somehow it has managed to preserve a strong, young local scene, which is something to be praised, as many talented young people move to the capital or at least to the four biggest Ukrainian cities, Kyiv (capital, north), Lviv (west), Kharkiv (east) and Odessa (south). A great example of the Khmelnytskyi hardcore scene is local street punk band Cios. Probably the best of their albums are Streets On Fire and Crisis, released in 2014 and 2015 respectively. It was the period of revolution and big changes in Ukraine, so their harsh lyrics about the war, politics and poor working people with good songwriting gave Cios a really strong profile in the whole Ukrainian punk scene. The younger generation of Khmelnytskyi musicians is mainly concentrated around Olexander Rozhkovsky and his screamo/emocrust band René Maheu who made the great 2019 EP Mor, which tells us to preserve our planet and stop destroying each other. The record is full of hope for a better future, but still a deeply sad release.

Lviv is often called the cultural centre of Ukraine, though in terms of the punk scene there, that is probably down to Mauser and their self-titled debut album from 2020. It's probably the best new Ukrainian hardcore record, full of different influences from Bad Brains, Cro-Mags, Leeway, Turnstile and even some grunge vibes. This release also deals with important issues like crooked policemen and gender identity. Mauser are connected with the whole Ukrainian scene through the personality and activities of their vocalist Stan Ibrahim, who makes great art for punk albums and concerts in places like Kharkiv, Odessa and Kyiv.

Lviv is also known more as the city of 1914, the well-known death metal band, who mainly sing about World War I. Other, younger acts include the post-black, female-led band Pusca who dress mysteriously and sing in a number of languages. The new electronic post-industrial project from Ship Her Son sings in German. Ship Her Son uses texts ironically, and the instrumentals connect the project sonically to the city of Dnipro (in the central part of Ukraine), with its really great club Module and the label Dnipropop.

Another western town is Ternopil, well known for its original math punk band Raw Grip, who released the brand new EP Kaleidoscope. Remarkably, it took the band four years to create those six minutes of complex rhythms and melodic noise. Their debut album Kaleidoscope is worth listening to as well. The diversity of the Ternopil scene is represented by Dreadnought In The Pond with their fresh-sounding psych / stoner debut album Zero Is One. They base their musical concept on Joseph Campbell's book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Dreadnought In The Pond are part of a pretty powerful Ukrainian psychedelic scene and play some fine eclectic stoner rock. Ternopil has some interesting underground electronic music, released on the local label Pincet. I can totally recommend their latest releases by batacat or Clasps, but the compilation of Andriy Kapusta's work impresses with its wild mix of gabber and hardcore techno. And the label named the main genre of this release Shquarcore, where "shquar" comes from the Ukrainian word "shquarky", meaning grilled bacon.

Another western town with a lively music scene is Ivano-Frankivsk. Complete! play fast melodic punk rock in English and are probably one of the best active Ukrainian punk rock bands. But what is really fascinating about this town is its post metal scene, which was basically created and is represented by one person; Yuriy Dubrovsky. I could say that Dubrovsky has kept post metal alive in Ukraine for the last few years. All his projects are great, but two of them are worth noting. One is the more "conservative" Nug. Their latest long-player, Alter Ego was backed by the American label Willowtip Records and could be interesting for fans of The Ocean or Neurosis. Yuriy's vision of post metal – great Ukrainian lyrics with a heavy, viscous sound – can be heard in his project Octopus Kraft and their 2016 album Through A Thousand Woods. But recently, after four years of silence, the musician came up with his solo work Null (2020), which is full of prog elements, experimental electronic parts and interesting guest musicians.

The last interesting stop for music in the western part of Ukraine is Kalush. This small town once had a really powerful rap underground scene. Kalush is also known for its underground festival Back To Youth. Obviously, rap was always a big part of it, as well as screamo, post black, post metal, crust, hardcore, post punk and other interesting sub-genres. The biggest name is probably (Son Of A Dog) who has a really unique flow. In 2018 he recorded a really interesting album, Псючий Син, together with another great local rapper Angelo Porter (Nashiem Worryk). After its release, Псючий Син was noticed by professional producers and now his flow is the main attraction in the band Kalush, which has a contract with Def Jam. Quite an interesting story of success, because in Ukraine, (despite the fact that rap is now probably the most popular musical genre in the world), there is a very big gap between the underground rap scene and the more popular rap artists. It is not common at all here for an underground rapper to become well-known throughout the whole country, and not only in his own community.

The Feminist Narrative

As a young woman and a feminist, I constantly search for the music that can represent me, my feelings and my problems. But there is one issue; Ukrainian artists in general, both mainstream and underground, tend to wrap their ideas and emotions in metaphors. As a person who prefers clearer messages, it is hard to associate myself with texts about both everything and nothing. I often find out that some song is feminist only after I have read the band's press release. Luckily the younger generation in Ukraine is not afraid to speak out openly. A really great example of this is the indie rock band ZfeelZ. On their debut EP Waves Of Shards (2019), there was a song 'Man', where young frontwoman Anya Lipatova questioned the elder generation: "I wonder what his wife is thinking/ Does she really agree with everything he ever said?". Their new EP All Viewers Are Confused (2021) pushes these topics even harder – religious pressure on girls, sexual violence – I can hardly remember some other Ukrainian band or singer who in the past few years would speak so frankly about such serious and common problems. Cleverly, ZfeelZ wrap their serious lyrics into the best possible form: light indie rock, which is very acceptable not only in the underground but also among the wider native listeners so that the message can get to more people.

A similar topic is found in the song 'I Am Fire', the debut by pop act The Mad Game, written from the perspective of a girl with an abusive father and an indifferent mother. The music does resemble Billie Eilish, but what is great in both these cases is that young girls don't want to be silent victims anymore, they fight for themselves and can look straight into the face of their abuser. The topics from an older perspective can be seen with the band Pustosh (can be translated as "emptiness") and their single 'M.O.H.'. This Kyiv-based band writes grunge songs with heavy lyrics, and their 2019 debut single 'Shos' Ne Tak' (Something is Wrong) was a well-crafted piece of pop art. Their new single 'Mantra Of Happiness' takes this further. Frontperson Maria Rubel is well-experienced from her past projects, and Mashlaw, and is able to sincerely describe the life our society expects every woman to have. It is so simple, but still so realistic, that the song is almost painful to listen to.

If you'd like to hear girls-only bands, you should definitely check out Death Pill. This riot grrrl/ hardcore punk trio have existed since 2018. They don't have that many recordings, but are really energetic and impressive on stage. Milktuth, who have just released their debut EP, is an even better example. Four experienced musicians inspired by Chastity Belt, Warpaint and Sleater-Kinney focus on great songwriting skills and hardhitting lyrics. A past project Ai Laika, had half of the current line-up (Lera Guyevska and Nastia Spichka) and played faster and more energetic punk rock. The modern electronic scene of Ukraine is also represented by many great women. I'm no specialist in that field, but there is plenty to check out, especially on this compilation.

Queer Culture

The youngest and weakest current narrative in Ukrainian music is found with the representation of the LGBTQI community. Elements of queer culture have of course been in Ukrainian music for a long time; watchers of Eurovision contest will remember our singer Verka Serduchka from 2007, but here we mainly talk about the image, not the content. The modern situation with LGBTQI music scene is not that good, but it is understandable, because queer topics in general only started to be noticed in Ukraine in the last few years, thanks to the appearance of progressive modern institutions, some grants and the growing queer community and its supporters. As a result, we get something like the project Different Equal including modern indie artists, with the song dedicated to Kyiv Pride.

The elder generation of musicians, especially those in punk, were not homophobic or transphobic, but generally speaking these issues were rarely raised in their songs. Nowadays, it is the younger people, who see musicians such as Lil Nas X and are inspired to try to express their identity in music. For instance, non-binary artist Kinder Limo has songs such as 'Ama Fucking Gay', 'Identification', 'Rainbow', 'Asexual guy', and so on. But it must be said that Ukrainian society in general is still quite unfriendly to LGBTQI people. Kinder Limo had to leave the Ukrainian Catholic University where they were studying due to societal pressure concerning their identity.

Kinder Limo says they perform at queer parties both in Ukraine and neighbouring European countries, so there is a scene. But due to that social pressure, including not only from the church, but often also family, plus the very real risk of being attacked by neo-Nazi organisations or homophobes, this part of modern culture remains mostly closed off and unknown to the general public. For example, the queer rave 'VESELKA', which took place at the beginning of June, kept its location a secret until the very last moment.

Southern Power Plants

There is a small but powerful scene in the little town Nova Kahovka, situated in the warm southern part of Ukraine. The town itself is quite young, founded in the 1950s to support the newly-built hydroelectric power station. Somehow, after half a century, this place has become a hotbed for a dozen experimental projects. There is a new compilation which documents this scene, released by young local label Despot.

A favourite of these acts is Starless, and their album Lezo (2020). This is the second solo album by Yuriy Samson, also known for his industrial project Kadaitcha. This is a totally bizarre, avant-garde release on the borders of noise and post industrial. The soundscapes are strangely pleasant and lead us into a deep reflection of the Ukrainian countryside and an understanding of our own nature.

Kadaitcha are a duo and make a unique mix of industrial noise, drone and dark ambient. Alongside Yuriy Samson, the other half of Kadaitcha is another talented musician Andriy Kojoohar. His recent album with Goo, Dotla is also worth your attention. Back to Kadaitcha: their album Southern Phlegm (2019), is possibly the best audio representation of the region, with its heat; sand; hot winds; old, rusting, abandoned constructions from the Soviet era; and the wild nature: everything's there in the music.

The third bright representative of Nova Kahovka is Edward Sol. He is known for his labels Quasi Pop records and Sentimental Productions. Sol has a few dozen different releases on the border of noise, drone and industrial, but one quite old one, 2017's Sokyra (hatchet, or axe), written with another electronic musician Kotra is excellent. The album is also a useful alternative view on the revolutionary Euromaidan events of 2013-2014. Compare it with the Cios releases mentioned earlier.

This article is supported by the British Council's Selector PRO programme