this is the sound of young russia
Russia is in the middle of a political crisis and riding on the wave of post-Soviet cool in the West, but for all the aesthetic appreciation of a nostalgic vision of the USSR there are a generation of young musicians in the country creating a thrilling...
High-rises towering in the dusk like dark cliffs, lilac blossoms, lightning, bonfires in the countryside and, above all this, a large radiant moon. This is what Russia looks like according to one of its most celebrated young underground producers, Buttechno, real name is Pavel Milyakov. Based in Moscow, Buttechno owes some of his fame to fashion designer Gosha Rubchinskiy, both adored and criticized within the country for being responsible for creating hype around post-Soviet aesthetics so in demand in the West. Milyakov is Rubchinskiy's long-term sonic collaborator: he was part of Gosha's original skate crew and used to do graphic design for the brand before concentrating on music. He never gave up visual art though; images, videos, artwork, have always been integral parts of the universe he constructed — full of strange, rough romanticism and mystery, they form a unique artistic perspective on the edge lands of Moscow where Milyakov is based.
"I live in Mariyino, was born in Izmailovo, for half of my life I lived in Orekhovo and Tepliy Stan," Pavel recalls, reeling off a list of the tower block studded suburbs of Moscow. "I think the place you live in definitely influences you as it has unique energy which doesn't exist anywhere else."
Those tower block-studded suburban landscapes have always been an easy visual metaphor for Russia, but for Milyakov, the form never works without the content. "Our Russian background is very special and valuable to our generation, but you can't just put it on top of anything," he adds. "You have to pay attention to what you do first of all so it doesn't turn into shallow exploitation."
The rising wave of post-Soviet cool means anything stereotypically Russian can end up in the unexpected international spotlight: from cyrillic letters on T-shirts to Brutalist architecture to underground raves. At the same time the Russian music scene is increasingly hard to pin down — perhaps because of how authentic, complex, and diverse the work is. There's no easy, one-size-fits-all interpretation for the diverse sounds the country's young musicians are producing. The new generation of producers from all over the country don't just make tunes, but create audio visual narratives which deal with the time and place they live in, their background and the future they imagine for themselves and their peers in Russia.
The flat in Moscow's suburb of Mariyno where Milyakov lives also happens to be the base for another Russian producer making waves on the international scene right now, Yana Kedrina, aka Kedr Livanskiy. Her debut LP January Sun was released in February on 2MR records; it's eight tracks of pure fleeting beauty, home-recorded analogue sounds organized into irregular and complex structures. She sings in Russian, the lyrics are dream-like and non-linear, and so is the visual narrative she creates to accompany her music: suburban train journeys, vast fields, the graffiti-covered walls of abandoned buildings. It's a scene that could be plucked out of any corner of England or Germany, but it's also a hymn to the very unremarkable corners of urban and rural Russia, spaces which you end up wandering in as a teenager.
"In Russia there is a lot of chaos and fatalism at the moment, and creatively it nurtures me more than a structured ordered world," Kedrina explains. "Groundlessness is the feeling that makes you write, that makes look for the shape in all this madness. It's difficult and impractical for life but just what you need for creativity. Also I think there this sense of enormous space, the vastness of Russia, the fact you'd never know and see what's happening in Taiga or Vladivostok." The time we live in is also crucial for her: "I think we are one of the first generations who can place themselves within world history, who can get rid of a feeling of backwardness compared to the West. It's about looking for your identity, being more honest and fearless."
The desolate urban wastelands and tower blocks of Moscow are a landscape that could be applied to almost any place in Russia — landscapes in the country's large cities are often homogenous. Yet the idea of regional and local identity definitely plays an important role in the largest country in the world, a country of over 6.5 square miles and 140 million people. Duo Love Cult — Ivan Zoloto and Anya Kuts — are based in Petrozavodsk in Karelia in the Russian North, a land of pine forests that has historically always had links with Scandinavia. Their dark multi-layered hypnotizing sound has almost physical impact and occupy space as well as only a work of art could. The fact that they live away from the cultural center certainly has influenced their creativity. "This place kind of kicks you in the ass a little bit, stimulates your work positively but also sets barriers for you, which you have to overcome in a creative way. In this respect Karelia is perfect. It's heartbreakingly beautiful but culturally dead and economically poor. We don't sing songs about trees and lakes of course but anyone can see the influence Karelia's had onus." The atmosphere of isolation and being happily lost could be traced to their collaborative work with Moscow-based director Alina Phillippova in music videos "Educated Guess," "Wonderland," and "This Good," one of the most earnest and haunting portrayals of Russian adolescence.
Local independent labels often become focal points for underground music producers outside Moscow. Love Cult's Ivan Zoloto, for instance, runs Full of Nothing, a prominent label in the international DIY community. Another stronghold can be found in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, home to Klammklang, a label run by Stas Sharifullin, who also releases music as HMOT. The experimental sound championed by the label is often dark, gripping and crisp. Aesthetically it's cold, minimal Northern: white vinyl, black and white artwork. Releasing music available worldwide, Sharifullin often has to deal with a whole set of stereotypes of Siberia which he's grown to resent. "Unfortunately the tired stereotypes are the only thing the West is willing to see," he says. "The stories about how we all live in the dirt under the oppression of the horrible tyrant sell very well — but hardly anyone is bothered by the fact that it has little relation to the day to day lives of a lot of people. Yes, the situation is very far from perfect but considering Russian history it's not the worst — you just have to work with this environment and work on yourself."
If Sharifullin has to deal with the whole set of pre-existing stereotypes involving snow and bears, for Samara-based community and DIY label Oblast it's the total obscurity which is a starting point. Hardly anyone, even inside Russia, can distinguish Samara from other cities. Oblast only releases music by local artists, usually on tapes, the record artwork is almost always grainy black and white images somewhere between photocopied collages and digital art, in a style they call provincial acid. The collective's creative approach comes from that Samaran nothingness: their parties are held at random locations like apartments (and once even at a dry cleaners), and they don't stress the idea of actual local sound ("we just live here and make tracks").
Locality is the most obvious pathway to the unique identity, image and sound of Russian underground music — in remote corners of Russia the world still doesn't seem as global as it might in Moscow and St Petersburg. But there is also a deeper search going on, a search for the new sound which means not looking up to the West, but exploring the country's unique heritage, geography, and landscape. Anastasia Tolchneva, aka Lovozero, is perhaps the best example of rethinking the actual musical and cultural artifacts: in her tracks, ambient sounds and field recordings are layered with fragmented folk songs. "After years of senseless academic singing I decided to try to find my voice through body practices, and along the way I fell in love with traditional folk songs and started ripping them off, learning to sing them by ear," Tolchneva says. "This is how it is, the only songs I can remember are folk songs. When it comes to the necessity to turn to exploring Russianness at the moment, I can only acknowledge the fact that it is happening."
Fedor Pereverzev aka Moa Pillar (and also Lovozero's collaborator in the project Tikhie Kamni) does not explore Russianness straight up, but rather the spaces it exists within, the way sound reverberates through landscape and is reflected off the buildings in the city. He refers to the music he makes as "spiritual bass," intense and beautiful compositions that would work equally well in Berghain and the wide open steppes. "I think there are two factors which influenced my music. The first one is the village called Likhaya where I spent most of my childhood: it's surrounded by steppes, hills, fields, the horizon is very far away. The second one is Moscow, one of the biggest cities in the world, with incredibly wide highways, full of Stalinist monumental architecture and other large scale expressions of human consciousness. Combining those two, the steppes and the metropolis, I started composing very large scale compositions, symphonies — instead of tracks which would be based on just a couple of instruments".
When it comes to the persistence of stereotypes, Pereverzev sums up perfectly what a lot of his peers feel. "Opal Tapes recently announced a compilation of Russian musicians titled USSR. And although it's supposed to be an abbreviation, it's very apparent what kind of aesthetics the guys are toying with. It seems very strange to me. I am 24 and I don't have an experience of living in the Soviet Union. I don't really understand when people try to define us with old tags. It would be as ridiculous as trying to promote new American music with pictures of cowboys."
Text Anastasiia Fedorova
Images via pavelmilyakov.tumblr.com