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Inner Ear: Ukrainian Music For March Reviewed By Jakub Knera
Jakub Knera , March 8th, 2022 07:53

In his latest report from the contemporary music scenes of eastern and central Europe, Jakub Knera looks at Ukraine’s powerful electronic underground

Katarina Gryvul by Nika Gargol

On 22 February, I watched Stop-Zemlia, a coming of age film about Ukrainian teens that won a Crystal Bear at the 71st Berlinale, with music by Maryana Klochko. A day later, I watched the last episode of the Euphoria TV series – the themes are similar, the circumstances different. Kateryna Gornostai’s film is set amid post-Soviet tower blocks, not in luxury villas; the main character plays badminton and attends military defence classes where she learns how to shoot a rifle.

What initially looked like a surreal mix of the quotidian and the militaristic – just a few days later – sadly is no longer surreal as jarring scenes of regular folk picking up weapons are being broadcast on rolling news channels non-stop around the world. I scroll media websites, Twitter and Instagram: there are endless photos of volunteers with guns. Elsewhere numerous voices from the Ukrainian music scene have been posting information about the latest shocking developments in the conflict that is raging through their country. The Standard Deviation label has suggested which organisations people should support (a list of organisations and charities can be found at the foot of this feature). Muscut was one of the first labels to announce that their profits would be donated to Ukrainian NGOs; Dmytro Nikolaienko from the label put pressure on independent Western radio stations, asking bluntly how they would respond. Katarina Gryvul is educating us on how we should defend ourselves against fake news and posts horrifying photos of the injured from Kharkiv. Musician John Object has sent a troubling message via Bandcamp: "Kyiv is being bombed, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever get another chance to do this, so here’s the majority of my 2010-2019 music that you may have never heard."

Like the whole of Ukraine, its music scene is strong. Apart from metal, folk, post punk and hip hop acts, its electronic artists have been shining for a good few years now. Important hubs come in the form of nightclubs. Closer and ∄ (which roughly translates as 'does not exist') can be found on the edge of the centre of Kyiv and are key to promoting the country's contemporary electronic scene. Classically trained musicians who have turned their interests towards deconstructed electronic music include Katarina Gryvul and the aforementioned Maryana Klochko. Dmytro Nikolaienko, of the Muscut label, has discovered a dreamlike music ideal for a younger generation: lost hauntology or fuzzy dubs straight from Odesa performed by the band Chillera. And then there’s Shukai, the Muscut sub-label, where listeners can rediscover artists such as experimentalist Valentina Goncharova or sci-fi soundtrack composer Volodymyr Bystriakov.

This scene wouldn’t have been where it is now without Svitlana Nianio or Lviv eccentric Ihor Tsymbrovsky (whose only album is being reissued, this time on vinyl, after a quarter of a century). When attempting to map the underground music of Ukraine, one must remember to include Zavoloka, who broadcasts from Berlin and established the new Prostir label. Last but not least, we also have synth enthusiasts like Igor Yalivec, Lu Joyce and Poly Chain. Below is a list of ten electronic discoveries, fractious club deconstructions and bursts of gritty noise. All of these albums represent an original and distinctive language, documenting unique emotional states.  

Katarina Gryvul – Tysha
(Standard Deviation)

Composer and producer Katarina Gryvul moves mainly in the classical world but is currently studying computer music and sound art at the University Of Music And Performing Arts in Graz, Austria. Tysha (‘silence’ in English) is based on the methodological duality between the world of classical music and modern electronic sounds. The album is full of deconstruction, verging on heavy club sounds served in a highly stratified, broken formula (‘Ruyina’). Gryvul completes this album with the sound of classical instruments (‘Bezodnya’) and vocals (‘Vidsutni’) – adding a human and lyrical element that enriches this synthetic sound environment. The result is full of colour and bold ideas, gripping throughout, brilliantly planned in terms of drama, of strictly cinematic prominence. It is already one of the best albums of 2022.

Nikolaienko – Nostalgia Por Mesozoica Vol.1

Nikolaienko is a bit like Piotr Kurek in that he also creates his own separate musical world, his own kaleidoscope of stylistic connections. After last year’s Rings, he recorded an album that’s like an archaeological excavation in musical terms referring to prehistory and its imaginary soundtrack, visits to a wild forest and a museum of curiosities. The aqueous electronic passages remind me of the achievements of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and the innovative solutions devised in the 80s by experimental studios in Cologne or Warsaw. Sometimes there are melodic outlines reminiscent of the hauntological expeditions and trance like repetitions that can be found in early Sun Araw records (‘Tryglodydes’). Alchemical combinations of musique concrète, samples, synthetic parts with fairy-tale melodies (‘Muzak For Mesozoic Showreel’) and sound-art (‘Dark-Archeo’), produce a varied, fascinating and original music narrative.

Oleksii Podat – Lazy Heart

Sloviansk-based producer Oleksii Podat calls his music ‘melodic noise’. The opening track of this album – referred to as a mixtape by the artist – is like a colossus: a harsh drone, shaking industrial rumble and ambient synth background that evokes a sense of emptiness. Halfway through there’s a break in the narrative: the noise and bass thicken, the line veers a little towards a gritty drone, a shredded melody, and then an industrial march. A little Ben Frost, a little Einstürzende Neubauten. The rest of Lazy Heart doesn’t even last as long as the first composition, but it doesn’t have to: Podat once again shows how, by simple means, he generates quasi-melodic layers of drones (‘3’), gradually filled with bass pulsations (‘5’). It’s an intense and heavy album but at the same time there’s a space for emotional melodic phrases that testify to the producer’s exceptional ear.

Poly Chain – Dogtooth
(Dom Trojga)

The synth wizard returns with a new instalment of her exuberant output. It’s yet another immersive recording, following previous Poly Chain works such as the cheekily titled (but by no means ambient) electronic arpeggiations of Music For Candy Shops, and the warm drone-like Currency. On Dogtooth, Sasha Zakrevska’s fascination with synths and polyphonic electronics is encapsulated in four intense, jittery tracks whose voluminous sounds build a truly cosmic atmosphere. Beats present truly different faces here – the house ‘Visa’ shines with synthesizers, ‘Acid Regular’ flows in the stream of technoid kosmische-musik, and ‘Visa Reprise’ is an acidic polyphony. The whole thing is short, but also comprehensive and not overdone. Poly Chain once again reveals herself as an intriguing artist, showcasing her broad range of ideas. 

Lu Joyce – Misternal
(Corridor Audio)

In search of hazy structures and a distinctive analogue sound, Serhii Batura, one half of duo Rudnic Ore, reached for a modular synthesiser, electric guitar and tape reels, and recorded them all on a portable Nagra reel to reel. His music tries to find its way through a sense of pandemic emptiness, gradually swelling into ambient and somewhat melodic tracks. The warm-sounding, hauntological motifs he creates are introduced to improvised soundscapes. Batura draws attention to the production of the material which has been refined to reveal great detail. This is a spacious sound, which is especially important when the multi-layered nature of the tracks is selectively revealed (‘Misternal’). The whole thing flows unhurriedly but is by no means monotonous, like an imagined soundtrack to a Wim Wenders or Gus Van Sant film.

Edward Sol – Almost Sugar

The discography of Edward Sol can be counted in dozens of titles, and that's before we track the output he is responsible for as the founder of Quasi Pop Records, which has been releasing music for over two decades. He began by producing sound effects for the film and television industry. Field recordings, Soviet synthesisers and prepared tapes are an indispensable part of his work. His latest cassette features two extended compositions. ‘Almost Sugar’ is a booming, analogue exploration lasting a quarter of an hour, in which bass ranges are intertwined with electronic heaviness and snippets of field recordings. ‘Superdry People’ has a slightly industrial flavour, a pulse, a distorted human voice, interspersed with musique concrète. In terms of narrative, everything is tied together in the form of a polyphonic collage, full of micro-sounds, closed by an acrid synth groove, dense noise, or maybe just musical decay.

John Object – Sweat

John Object is recognised across the continent on the club scene, as someone who is both a home producer and live performer. Sweat is a synthesis of these two modes as it is a collection of tracks prepared for live performances. The character of these pieces builds a bipolar narrative for the album – lyrical piano samples, guitar (‘Don’t Leave’) and melodic, emotional sounding fragments are still full of nuance when placed in the context of gabber breakdowns, glitches and heavy rhythmic transitions. Surprisingly, this extremely intense album does not overwhelm, and spasmodic electronic motifs served by Dzhafarov are often surprisingly catchy (‘Cum/Blood’). But as soon as these moments arrive he deconstructs them with sound fragments, expressive beats or vocal distortions (‘Baby Shit’). This duality is the greatest strength of Sweat.

Konstantin Bessonov – Sun Sets Low On Smear Hill
(Bad Boy Jesus Tape Club)

The graphic designer and member of the Europe duo is here methodologically close to the band Oneida, although he’s admittedly more minimal. Synths and organ build a droning shell, the percussion sounds very free, bolstered by wheezing brass sounds and resonating keyboard bass on ‘Sun Sets Low’. In fact the sound is so minimal in parts it is reduced to virtual silence bar the muffled pulse of a kickdrum heard in the distance. In ‘On Smear Hill’, Bessonov at one point firmly relegates the acoustic instruments to the background and the synths come to the fore. Dense streaks build up in the form of a peculiar, slowed-down glissando. This is a base from which the musician shows off his improvisational skills, both in a more subtle, acoustic form and in a more powerful, electronic one. A great solo display of electronic-acoustic concepts.

Kotra – Radness Methods

Dmytro Fedorenko is one of the most distinguished artists on the contemporary Ukrainian electronic scene. He co-founded the Kvitnu label and formed the band Cluster Lizard with Zavoloka. As with Kotra on Radness Methods, he draws inspiration from ritual drumming and meditation techniques, which he translates into the language of dense beat-based electronics. In this sonic noise, he creates multi-layered patterns of beats and industrial passages, which are very dark and aggressive. His compositions have the progressive form of suites, which do not end with a single motif but often develop over the length of ten minutes or so. The shamanic mood and raw, metallic sound base of martial rhythms are most attractive here. The beat allows you to immerse yourself in the intensity of the modern ritual structures.

Igor Yalivec – Still Life
(Polar Seas)

Dnipro native Igor Yalivec has been active on the Ukrainian scene for over a decade, playing in bands such as Gamardah Fungus and Submatukana. Only now has he released a solo album, inspired by the villages in the Carpathian forests of Ukraine, their undisturbed tranquillity – something we could all do with right now. The beautiful, subtle compositions built using modular synthesisers captivate with minimalism, flavoured with field recordings evoking this specific pace of life. Yalivec creates a sparse sound tissue, balancing between silence, sonic details, hazy electronics and punctuated ambient segments. The unusually meditative mood of this album is one thing, but its complex world, based on delicate points and minimalist forms is another, which testifies to the composer’s erudition and sensitivity. 

Whaler – Сум-Коляда

After ten albums, here is a bonus single. Ukrainians sing 'Kolyadkas' not only during Christmas but almost until the end of January. We are in March now, but the lyricism and meditative character of this song by Whaler resonates all year round, and especially now. The simple beat and synth strands lend themselves perfectly to a universal text that, taken out of time and space, can be read in many ways.

You can donate in support of Ukraine through the following links:

The international fund Everybody Can helps children and elderly people with disabilities affected by the war in Ukraine who are in need of support, as well as raising money for hospitals and volunteer initiatives in Ukraine.

The Ukraine Humanitarian Fund helps humanitarian NGOs and UN agencies in Ukraine to assist the most vulnerable communities and people, and to provide them with urgently needed food, water, shelter and other basic support.

Save The Children Ukraine is currently trying to help 400,000 children directly affected by the conflict.

The British Red Cross has launched an emergency appeal to help Ukraine, and will provide food, water, medical aid and clothing to those in need.

UNICEF is appealing for donations to provide access to clean water and food, and ensure child health and protection services are sustained. It is also working with the UNHCR to assess the refugee situation across neighbouring countries.

Ukrainian charity Sunflower Of Peace helps paramedics and doctors, and has been fundraising for supplies.

Voices Of Children aims to help children affected by the war, providing support through art therapy, psychologists, video storytelling and a number of other methods.

The Ukrainian Institute London has compiled a dedicated guide to further ways in which you can support Ukraine, which can be found here

Outright International Ukraine raises money for several Ukrainian LGBTQI+ organisations