Tak Zakalyalas’ Stal ('Thus the Steel Was Tempered')

*Tak Zakalyalas’ Stal* ('Thus the Steel Was Tempered'), the new record by St Petersburg's Shortparis is an album made to conquer, finds Richard Foster

Shortparis are a force of nature. They are one of the most brilliant and exciting live bands this reviewer has seen in the last few years. But, however tempting it is to paint them as the latest sensational morsel for consumption, it would be unfair to see them – or their mighty new record, Thus the Steel Was Tempered – as harbingers of the “new”. On the contrary, the St. Petersburg act have had a number of years to hone their vision and boast a pretty diverse back catalogue.

Although the band are not there to be remade, or remodelled by anyone but themselves, repeated listens suggest that this is a record created to conquer. Whatever steel that has been forged by Shortparis in the making of Thus the Steel Was Tempered is an alloy that is very, very highly polished and subject to a long period of refinement and recasting. Every beat, blurp, crash and cadence of the record is fully thought through; with each song a step to a conclusion that, maddeningly to the listener, remains a secret.

Their music has always been dramatic. But it is essential to realise that now, noise is used primarily as spectacle. This new offering is full of high gloss rock music that draws liberally from the past, and has the stamp and tenor that ZTT once traded in. Gone are the accidents that gave earlier records like 2017’s Easter work a sometimes brilliant, cavalier quality. The moments that take your breath away (and there are many) are planned, and will be delivered on time. 2018’s single ‘Styd’ (Shame) sounds much more at home in this setting, its restless melancholy and innate theatrics now clearly telling a part of a wider story.

Now and again we get angry eruptions. Recent single ‘Strashno’ (Dreadful) is a hip-shaking pop march – over a blurting beat and a guitar swan dive – feels it’s summoning up the spirit of New Beat for one last dance. The title track contains some rabid howling and ‘Polomalo’ (Broken) intermittently threatens to break free of the shackles but then contents itself to follow the narrative set out for it by singer Nikolai Komyagin, who seems to relish the role of being Hamlet in Castle Shortparis.

High camp and dark despair are favoured weapons in Shortparis’s war. The ridiculous interplay with falsetto warblings and a mental guitar break on ‘Otvechaj Za Slova’ (Stand By Your Words) makes it as arch a song as you could ever wish to hear. As well as being a very creepy one. The song feels like the soundtrack to some nightmare where you can’t find your shoes. The very robotic end (with some superb cod-theatrics from Komyagin) certainly adds to this oneiric quality, your limbs frozen as you dream and sweat your way out.

The nightmarish aspect often appears in the melody lines, which often feel as if they are deliberate pastiches of traditional Russian dances. At times this reviewer wondered if the band were taking snippets from the likes of Tchaikovsky and Shostakovitch, for the sole purpose of throwing them into the Shortparis fire pit and watching them melt. The misshapen gobbets then being polished and caressed into a new world where everything is not as it seems.

Take the glossy frantix found on ‘Nozhevoy’ (Knifelike), possibly the record’s high spot. A glorious conceit, this cut is a brilliant twenty-first century take on 80’s goth pop that is equally idiotic and superb, like a cavalry charge. We’ve heard it all before, in terms of styling and conception, but have we ever heard “it” quite like this? Imagine Pete Burns went deadly serious on you. Imagine he released a nightmare, drugged version of ‘You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)’, (the Prokofiev remix); the song’s mirror image writhing in agony, slowly revolving above the flames in an imaginary 1980s hell. ‘Zhizn’ Za Tsarya’ (A Life for the Tsar) follows directly along the same path, the accordion part somehow launching this strange sonic vessel into the Styx, fishing for the souls of the Wild Boys or the Kitchen Persons in the Stygian gloom. Last track ‘Tol’ko Khuzhe Stalo’ (Things Only Got Worse), which could soundtrack a drug fuelled midnight race round some godforsaken motorway, threatens to turn into ‘This Fear of Gods’ before somehow ending with a crash, like Lieutenant Kizhe’s sleigh ride.

To end on a curious note. If this record reminded me of anything, it was a quote by the luckless Constructivist artist Gustav Klucis when talking about the propagandist value of photography. “This precision and documentariness invests the photograph with a power of effect […] that could never be achieved with a graphic representation.” In other words, Klucis wanted to create a type of image that transports a particular truth, for a desired effect. It’s my notion that Shortparis have melted down, recast and refined their type of music to dazzle and to dominate. The band says that the record “is structured as a progression from glossy forms to protest only illusorily possible within pop culture”. Appropriately this glorious music both engages all of your senses and somehow manages to glide past the listener like a huge black limousine with shaded windows. Engagement is not demanded outside of bearing witness to a sonic world that could immerse or reject. In fact the whole listening experience is very reminiscent of the gleaming, utterly emotionless smile given by the glamorous representative at the Embassy when you get your Russian visa stamped; after days of waiting and no communication, and with a couple of hours to dash from the offices to catch your plane. “Welcome to Russia! We hope you have a very pleasant stay.”

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