Inner Ear: Belarusian Music For February Reviewed By Jakub Knera

In his latest report on the contemporary music scenes of Eastern and Central Europe, Jakub Knera looks at the music scene of Belarus and talks with band Soyuz and the hosts of online station Radio Plato about keeping independent culture alive under governmental oppression

Soyuz, photo by Ivan Smolyar

I’m underground, on level -2 of the Jassmine club in Warsaw. In a long dark room, the tables are scattered with warm-coloured spherical lamps; it looks like something from a sci-fi movie. The music, however, is a complete contrast. Soyuz, a band from across the eastern border in Belarus, plays compositions loosely inspired by Brazilian tropicália. Warm piano and synthesizer arrangements are backed by the sound of electric guitar and varied percussion – it feels out of step with the reality of the musicians’ homeland, and their neighbours in Ukraine.

The Belarusian music scene is a tricky one to explore. Due to the way bands are scattered across Europe and beyond, it can sometimes be difficult to find Belarusian artists online at all. That said, there are plenty of post punk and new wave bands, such as Molchat Doma, who will play more than 40 concerts across North America in spring, the coldwave duoSuper Besse, who now lives in Berlin, Nürnberg who released their latest album on Augsburg’s Young & Cold Records, and their labelmates The Violent Youth. There are Vilnius-based dark disco artist Dlina Volny who releases on Italians Do It Better, psychedelic punks Weed And Dolphins, and the garage rock of White Cave. In this column, however, I’m heading off the beaten track, to bands like Sk.ein, whoI wrote about in Inner Ear’s best of 2022 round-up at the end of last year.

In 2020, Belarus erupted in protests against the results of that year’s general election, which have been widely reported as being falsified to allow Alexander Lukashenko his sixth term in office. Several hundred thousand people took to the streets of major cities, and more than 30,000 were arrested. In the spring of 2021, Lukashenko signed new legislation making it harder to organise protests, and compulsory for all mass gatherings to seek authorisation from municipal authorities. There are now specific guidelines on when a band can and cannot do a gig, the lyrics they sing, and the type of music they play. The venue and the members’ history of protests will be examined. Many underground venues don’t exist on an official level, with bands playing in secret, sharing information about the concert by word of mouth.

These places where independent culture can flourish are few, but one of them is the online station Radio Plato. “In Belarus, they say that if you don’t know what to listen to – turn on our station,” laughs Aliaksandr Karneichuk, aka KorneJ, who, together with Pavel Kirpikau, aka Stereobeaver, founded it in Vilnius in 2018. They both studied there – the former was finishing a job in IT, the latter working for the publication34MAG. “From the beginning, we played music 24 hours a day; later, we invited others to host and broadcast live events. There are now about 30 programmes.” The DIY radio grew into a community of DJs, producers and podcasters. They have a studio in Minsk, but people living in other countries connect online. On the second anniversary of the protests, KorneJ has prepared a mix of Belarusian music, which you can hear below.

Since russia invaded Ukraine, Karneichuk has been living in Gdansk – before that he was imprisoned for some time because of his role in the protests. “During the revolution, there was a boom. There were many compilations about Belarus coming out, like Long Play Belarus, Dance For Belarus, or Перамен! Now it’s hard to say there’s a scene because people have moved to other cities and countries.” He believes that nothing can be done to improve the situation, that there is a spirit in the nation, but people are afraid to do something, even abroad, because the government can target their families still remaining in the country. We’re talking at the current incarnation of cafe Karma. It was first established in Minsk, then a venue opened in Kyiv, but when the war broke out its owners moved to Warsaw and Gdansk.

Many people from Belarus emigrate to Poland, the members of Soyuz among them (although one of them is still waiting for the necessary residence permit that will allow him to travel abroad). They live in Warsaw now, and in August, they will play at the We Out Here Festival in the UK as part of a wider tour. Mr. Bongo released the trio’s latest album, made up of music inspired by Brazilian musician Arthur Verocai and European soundtrack composers like Alessandro Alessandroni and Piero Piccioni. “Brazilian music feels so much like a home for me,” says the band’s Alex Chumak, but he aims to avoid exoticising. What draws him in is a juxtaposition of bright melodic music and an element of sadness. “Brazilian music in the 70s was written during a military dictatorship. When you listen to the words, you’ll understand that these people are trying to cope with what they live with: the country’s situation, censors, etc.” Maybe, considering what’s happening in the dictatorial Belarus now, they have much in common. During turbulent recent months given the situation in their homeland and the war in Ukraine, “we were not looking for our identity but searching for the way to show our identity. The Brazilian scene helped us to find a key,” says Chumak.

Mikita Arlou, a multi-instrumentalist who plays in Soyuz and a dozen other Belarusian bands, concludes that even amidst the waves of musicians migrating to other countries, new generations are arriving back in his homeland with their own new music. “More mature bands are more likely to make tracks that analyse the situation to cope with it. New, younger bands entirely [avoid] the situation. Maybe they don’t fully realise the problem, or perhaps they will be a new foundation for the future scene.”

Syndrom Samazvanca – Vostraŭ Skarhaŭ

On Vostraŭ Skarhaŭ, Syndrom Samazvanca may at first appear too much in tune with the prog rock eccentricities of King Crimson. However, the further one goes, the more the influence of Osees, airy and catchy Can-like melodies, or stoner motifs in the style of King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard become apparent. The quartet cavorts between catchy riffs and psychedelic walls of guitars, all underlain by a clear bass line in which there’s a lot of air and lightness. So, there are swashbuckling arrangements instead of pathos and a coarse sound, as can be heard in the fast-paced ‘Promni’ with its jazzy guitars in the last minute or the ‘Bu Samoje’ with its various synths parts.

Sveta Ben and Galya Chikiss – Приём!

Although the backing tracks on Приём! are often dominated by drum machines, the whole thing maintains a slightly cabaret-like tone, reminding me of the irreverent Dresden Dolls. Sveta Ben does not try to sing sweetly here, also playing piano and banjo. Galya Chikiss accompanies her with electronic synth passages, keeping the music in a somewhat gloomy, Brechtian mood. The songs are more pensive than danceable, the slick arrangements and wide range of instruments – like the neatly woven trumpet at the end of ‘Я слышу чаек’ – are fractious ornaments. I especially like the album’s less obvious instrumental combinations, like the accordion melodies and acid synths in the background of ‘Не печалуйся’, somewhat in the spirit of Felix Kubin.

Soyuz – Force Of The Wind
(Mr. Bongo)

Fascinated by the 1970s Brazilian scene headed by Arthur Verocai, Soyuz pay homage via extended arrangements in which light-sounding guitars, flute, strings, and lyrical piano take the lead. Non-English lyrics and the guest appearance of Kate NV and Sessa add colour to the music. Soyuz is far from mere exoticism, however, and takes an off-kilter approach to the songs – there’s a melancholic sound and a dreamy, slightly impressionistic vibe. Despite being confined to 3 and 4 minute songs, it’s full of progressive compositions that serve flashy ideas and catchy melodies but shy away from clichéd formats. Behind the airy tunes there are grand rhythmic cascades and multi-layered instrumental parts which show that, on their third album, this young band is compositionally and technically very much advanced.

Aliaksandr Yasinski – Hlybini
(Riverboat Records)

Accordion music is relatively rarely focussed on, the instrument’s sound associated with archaic playing. Yasinski, however, who has lived in Prague for 11 years, shows a study of it on his solo debut. His accordion’s distinctive, ribald sound is firmly rooted in tradition but twists towards minimalism, polyphonic variations, or dense crescendos that make Hlybini a rewarding listen. Yasinski demonstrates the possibilities of solo exploration of the instrument while simultaneously venturing stylistically as far as possible from its less fashionable associations. It’s best when he improvises, weaving intricate motifs, but also when he varies the accordion’s timbre so that it sometimes sounds radically different, at times like a synthesiser.

Damon Made Of Human Parts – Nobody’s Watching You

Earlier I mentioned Weed & Dolphins, whose frontman, Damon, released a solo album recorded in Warsaw last year. Its starting point is quasi-folk acoustic guitar playing, but the wailing vocals give these songs a psychedelic feel, creating something of a study in loneliness. Sometimes shoegaze guitar parts come to the fore (‘Hell Is’), and there’s also a spot of synth (‘Deny’). Damon builds up the atmosphere brilliantly when instrumentally it gets like a soundtrack to a winter horror movie (‘Bells’, ‘37.8’), but when production-wise, he combines with distortion (‘Void’) or reaches for black metal (‘Rest’). This diversity does not work against the cohesion of the album. Instead, it encapsulates the record – colourful in terms of compositional ideas but hitting dark and lonely moods.

Ilya Gurin-Babayeu – Essential Line

Ilya Gurin-Babayeu is the founder of the Elementary Intuition label. He also hosts a show on Radio Plato and has released music on various other imprints. His last album Embryos XLP was a sonic reflection on the 2020 Belarusian protests, whereas Essential Line consists of sound collages from recordings made in London, ambient structures, and sketches on electric guitar. The music oozes emptiness, and metallic sounds alternate with surreal electronic impressions. The album initially maintains a cold, rough tune and sounds very mechanical. In the second half, it gains ambient warmth but also has more going on with samples and distorted vocals (‘State of Us’, ‘Future Zov’) and guitar parts (‘Closer to the R frame’). In this way, he strikes a balance between dark ambient stretches filled with mechanical or electro-acoustic ornamentation and brings light into this music.

Applepicker – Haunted Tapes

After our interview, I asked Soyuz musicians what bands from Belarus they would recommend – Alex Chumak joked that I could make a list just from the bands in which their own multi-instrumentalist Mikita Arlou is involved. He also plays in Michael Dailida and White Cave, but after hours he records solo as Applepicker, where it’s his production and composition experiments that appeal to me the most. His latest release is a hauntological journey with electric guitar, effects kit, samples, and hazy synth sounds. A bit impressionistic and dreamy in the spirit of Not Not Fun releases, but at the same time possessing plenty of space for improvisation. The distorted sound of the compositions sometimes recalls early Emeralds or Oneohtrix Point Never albums. Arlou plays in the spirit of quirky songwriting or electrified freak folk (but he doesn’t sing), looking for scraps of melody and a specific, obscure emotionality among the noises, delays, and walls of sound.

Anatoly Grinberg & Abell Leonid – The Birth Of A Quantum Lamb

Leonid Churilov has been making music as A-Bell for many years, using field recordings, analogue and digital equipment, and sound synthesis, keeping things lo-fi when it comes to production. He created his new album with Anatoly Grinberg (they previously recorded as TVAÑ) remotely during lockdown, on which dark ambient afterimages dominate. The songs are full of noise, metallic sounds, sound strained sparingly, stretched out in time. Subtle waves build up, sometimes thickening and layering, at other times weaving between synthetic passages and shreds of concrete music. A lot is going on here in the background; the album is spatial and mysterious, resulting in a something like a soundtrack to the landscapes of Tarkovsky’s films.

Various Artists – Rajsn-Elektronik: Jewish-Belarusian Electronic Music
(Radio Plato)

More than a third of the Jewish community in Eastern Europe before the Second World War lived in what is now Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine. They contributed to the culture of these countries, including musically – from traditional songs and oral histories to contemporary folk. In collaboration with folklorists Zisl Slepovitch and Ales Astravuch, Radio Plato collected an archive of sounds associated with Jewish culture and invited electronic producers to work with what they gathered. The music, which is kept to a club beat, carries a certain nostalgia but also a refreshing feeling when sampled instruments are intertwined with pulsating rhythms. It could perhaps be criticised as an over-flattening of centuries-old tradition in a slightly kitsch form, but over time it gets more and more convincing. Particularly impressive is when Rik Tomito ramps up the original recordings’ dancier potential, Sk.ein creates a piece in the style of The Caretaker, and Ilya Gurin-Babayeu makes excellent use of the trance-like double bass motif and spiritual-sounding chants.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today