Ex Soviet States of Music — The Culture Crush (2023)

by Mark Gurarie

To a certain cohort of indie musicians and fans, especially those who don’t mind the sound of a synthesizer and prefer lyrics on the more melancholy end, the influence of late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s post-punk bands cannot be overstated. Despite coming from a very specific era and context—a time when even cities like New York were struggling and dilapidated and the promises of the Me Decade began to ring hollow, the deep cultural imprint of bands like Joy Division, Gang of Four, and The Slits had been inescapably etched in stone ever since. In other words, sometimes no matter which type of music we’re talking about today, all angsty roads seem to lead back to Ian Curtis. Forty or so years on, those sounds are as vital and contemporary as ever, ripe for rediscovery in the streaming era. In fact, it wouldn’t be all too surprising to see art students in safety-pinned Unknown Pleasures t-shirts 30 years from now.

And while revivals of this music seem to happen every decade in the U.S. and U.K.—aughts-era bands like Interpol, LCD Soundsystem, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs ceded way to contemporary acts like Parquet Courts and Bodega—there’s been a veritable explosion of post-punk in Russia and other post-Soviet countries over the last five years. Bands like ΓШ (originally known as Glintshake), Molchat Doma, Konets Elekroniki, and Ploho, among many, many others, are pushing the boundaries of a musical style and taking it into new realms. To track this rise is to take the pulse of a thriving youth culture and to gain insight into the outlook of a new generation.

Clearly indebted to the styles and influence of their U.K. and U.S. forebearers (not to mention Soviet bands like Kino), the post-Soviet post-punkers—not only from St. Petersburg or Moscow, but from cities like Ryazan, Novosibirsk, and Minsk, Belarus—paint a picture of life growing up in the shadows of the fallen Soviet project. Their music befits their economically and politically anxious times. These acts are far from retro-minded—they’re not trying to recreate late ‘70’s/early ‘80’s Manchester or New York—they sing in Russian and aim to make work that is authentic to their lives and undeniably of today. Most importantly, they fit into the post-punk tradition precisely because they’re unafraid of breaking down its idioms.

And these idioms were built on broken ground. Facing shuttering factories, eroding cities, growing dole queues, and a resurgent white-nationalist right wing, post-punk spread like chemical fire in late-70’s England. In Manchester, a pair of shows by The Sex Pistols in the Summer of 1976, though poorly attended, famously spawned Joy Division, Magazine, The Fall, and many others. Within a couple years bands from other parts of England cropped up, with similar scenes developing in the Lower East Side and across the US. By 1979, these groups captured the critical imagination; just two short years since punk broke with the popularity of Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols, the genre was thrown aside in favor of its nerdier children.

Attempting to break out of the more simplistic, garage-band formulations of their punk predecessors, these groups retained an insurgent spirit by looking to other influences: dada art, dub, disco, early electronic experimentation, and Krautrock among them. With hooky bass lines, prominent use of synths, and proto-industrial rhythms, their songs spoke to a generation of dispossessed, alienated youth, for whom just yelling “anarchy” was not enough. Furthermore, they offered something different and darker than the overbaked stadium rock and disco that was dominating the airwaves at the time, inviting listeners to nod to the rhythm of a seemingly mechanical heart. The punks picked up a copy of Sartre, it seems, and went to art school.

A sense of grit—of decayed spaces, of a society in decline—is essential to the music. “You’ll see the horrors of a faraway place,” Joy Division’s Ian Curtis sings in “Atrocity Exhibition,” “Meet architects of law face to face/See mass murder on a scale you've never seen.” Yet in every way, he may as well have been describing his Manchester. Writing in Cuepoint, journalist Frank Owen, tied into that city’s punk scene at the time, describes a chaotic patchwork as “shabby-but-stable row house communities” were replaced with “Clockwork Orange-style housing projects that soon became incubators for the social ills they were supposed to cure.” Rubble and rubbish framed the bleak outlook of bands from that era and made them relevant and salient to wider audiences.

So now, not coincidentally, it is thegeneration born to the new republics of post-Soviet society who have taken up the mantle. Surrounded by those same bleak aesthetics, a new generation of disenfranchised youth can’t help but rise up against the possibility of a grim, futureless future. And it is here—in the capacity for a sound to capture the absurdities, violence, and contradictions of this urban sphere—that this crop of post-punk acts have gained particular traction. They sing to cityscapes pockmarked with rundown Soviet-era apartment blocks and the still tangible fossils of the failed Communist state. In an interview, Minsk-based Belarussian band Molchat Doma describes growing up in “post-Soviet panel buildings, their design is usually very gray and miserable. You are just terrified how everything is filled with these concrete boxes.” Not only are the monuments of the Soviet past crumbling, but what has followed seems even worse. Coming of age among these anonymous structures while watching their own country’s struggle, it’s little wonder that the band’s name can be translated as “Silence At Home.”

Conceptually, architecture plays a massive role in the work of Molchat Doma. Their first two albums, 2017’s S Krish Nashih Domov (“From the Roofs of Our Houses”) and 2018’s Etazhi (“Floors”) hulk in a timeless way, as if constructed 60 years ago. Featuring splashy drums/drum machines, driving basslines, arcade game synths, and highly reverberated guitar splashes, the band has been called “the Belarusian New Order of our generation.” Fittingly, a kind of ironic distance is established between the lyrics and the mood; “I don’t know how to dance” goes the refrain in “tancevat” (“dancing”), which is easily the most danceable song on the eminently danceable Etazhi.

But what’s really striking about Molchat Doma, placing it firmly within the post-punk tradition, is the way their music sounds like it’s been pieced together in a factory. It’s an assembled aesthetic: a fabrication of interlinked parts. The songs evoke the mechanization and industry that underly our existence, while gawking at the lack of humanity in the wake of this progress. In the same way that Devo, from rust-belt town, Canton, Ohio, posited a new, post-human existence with their synth-inflected first album, 1978’s Q: Are We Not Men?A: We Are Devo!, Molchat Doma gestures towards the isolation and alienation of contemporary life. Whether arising from the urban decay of Ohio a half century ago or the still-remaining monuments of Soviet industrial failure, it’s little wonder that these bands share a cynical futurism.

Indeed, the largest shadow cast over this wave of post-punk bands is that of the Soviet past. The Soviet Union was meant to represent the society of the future, so it’s failure, in one sense, became a failure of modernism. One can assume that a majority of the musicians in these bands—like a majority of post-Soviet millennials—either were not around when the USSR existed or have next to no memory of it. And there’s no question that the ‘90’s in these countries were fraught and difficult. In Russia, for instance, the decade saw precipitous declines in life-expectancy, spiraling unemployment, and catastrophic hardship. As new kleptocracies took its place, the old order became a shared but fading memory: a collection of crumbling statues and passages in history books.

It’s interesting, then, that Ryazan, Russia-based Konets Elektroniki (“The End of Electronics”) titled their first album, Soyuz (Serpien Records, 2018), which means “Union” and can be shorthand for Soviet Union. The title-track, on the slower and more contemplative end, seems a kind of direct response to Joy Division’s “Transmission,” with the repetition of “radio soyuz,” (“radio union”), which “lights up the blues.” In both cases, radio broadcasts represent equal parts communal promise and alienation. No matter if you’re in England, the US, the USSR, or in the rubble of its aftermath, when you dance to the radio, you often dance alone.

However, it’s not the similarities to their forbearers that makes post-Soviet post-punk so salient—anyone can access the first generation post-punk bands, not to mention the scores of others inspired by them online—it’s the way the old idioms are reinvented to speak to the current concerns and anxieties of the youth in the former Eastern Bloc. Rather than ape certain styles and appeal to American or UK-borne sensibilities and audiences, this crop of bands pick and choose from a constellation of influences and styles. In an era when Russia and other former Soviet republics are increasingly isolated from the west—and when western bands are less-likely to tour there—this music is speaking directly to the concerns of vibrant local audiences.

This decision—to adapt existing forms into a decidedly local context—is often premeditated. So it was with perhaps the most adventurous of this post-Soviet post-punk lot: female-fronted Moscuvite band, ΓШ (the name is a nonsensical pairing of letters that make a “Gsh” sound). Formed in 2007, its sound has evolved; earlier releases, when the group was named “Glintshake,” were sung in English and seem mostly indebted to a heavier, grunge groups like Hole, L7, or The Breeders. However, having become more interested in their own roots—particularly the Russian avant-garde of the teens and 20s—they rebranded and now work solely in their native tongue.

Along the way—and mirroring how some first-wave of post-punk bands developed more refined techniques as they “outgrew” punk—the buzz saw guitars dropped off, and a hypnotic, experimental sound emerged. ΓШ’s latest album, Polza (meaning “Benefit”), is in some ways a different animal than the more straightforward dance-oriented work of their peers. You can certainly point to an array of first-wave influences on the sound (the funky flourishes of Gang Of Four, the frenetic vocals of The Slits’ Ari Up, the swells and builds you’d find on Wire’s Pink Flag) but there’s more to it. Manchester, London, or New York—in any decade—couldn’t have produced these kinds of musical gestures; they’re a product, unabashedly and proudly, of Moscow in the twenty-teens.

In the same way that some post-punk bands like Bauhaus or Cabaret Voltaire reached back to pre-World War II continental European cabaret aesthetics, ΓШ overtly references the Russian and early Soviet avant-garde. Their music, as noted in a manifesto accompanying their record, Оэщ Магзиу (the title is a name: “Oesh Magzi’iu”), is conceptually built of the philosophies and ideas that animated the Russian revolutionary period. In interview, the band members are quicker to note the futurists, Shostakovich, or early abstract painter, Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) as influences than any kind of punk music. The band’s lyricist and guitarist, Genya Gorbunov, has been quoted saying that the sound is rooted in everything “from Soviet rock and jazz, and Russian modernist art…to show the complete absurd madness of living in Russia today.”

While there’s much to gain by looking at the lyrics of the band’s songs, they’re evocative even without an understanding of Russian. Often arranged employing the cut-up method, the words, delivered by singer Ekaterina Shilonosova (AKA Kate NV), tend to emerge as repetitive fragments, each iteration and repetition building in intensity. You can call it dada poetry set to music or Gertrude Stein with a backing band. And comprehension is certainly not Kate NV’s main focus. She loves singing in her native tongue, and has said, “I could sing in any language and I know the audience will understand me.”

With overt aesthetic underpinnings—abstraction, minimalism, Malevich’s Suprematist Manifesto (which privileges “pure feeling” over representation)—the band’s sound has a kinship with modernist painting. The instrumental flourishes function almost like broad brush strokes; the singing a collage-like layer almost pasted onto the canvas. And like good abstract paintings, they evoke the intimacy without being intimate or confessional. With exuberant flourishes, the band celebrates the adventurous philosophies of 100 years ago, finding something familiar in the proclamations of Marxist revolutionaries and avant-garde painters.

In many ways, of course, this harkening back to turn of the 20th century modernism and associated philosophies is fitting; especially in terms of social and economic indicators, there are many similarities. As we ourselves have turned into a new century, economic inequality remains on the rise globally (in some ways, worse), and there’s no lack of anxiety surrounding the direction societies are going the world over. Right wing authoritarianism and xenophobia are resurgent, and escalations of existing conflicts, as well as new wars and economic inequality, seem a hair’s breadth away. Surely, there’s a kinship between the apocalyptic mood of the late ‘70’s in western cities, and that which permeates the former Eastern Bloc today.

Post-punk, ultimately, gains its power because it is a music of proximity: its bleak outlook responds to the sense that social collapse is imminent. It’s a soundtrack to hopelessness and witness: to seeing everything decay while being powerless to stop it. There’s simply nothing hopeful when Jon King of seminal English post-punk band, Gang Of Four, sings: “Watch new blood on the 18 inch screen/ The corpse is a new personality” on 1979 album Entertainment!. In a world rapt in images—when atrocities are witnessed streaming in real time online—these lyrics seem contemporary. There’s something chillingly familiar in the way mass-media, and by extension the viewer, is addicted to violence, simultaneously sensationalizing it and making audiences desensitized to horror.

And for this crop of Russophone bands, emerging from the rubble of their history into an anxious current state online and in analog, it’s only natural that the idioms and outlook of post-punk music are as salient as ever. In post-Soviet countries, cultural influences from the west are inevitable—no doubt there’s more than one art student in Moscow wearing that Joy Division t-shirt right now—but what’s truly remarkable is the way musicians there are creating something new and wholly their own out of these ingredients. It speaks not only to a furious and dynamic present in Russia, Belarus, and other countries, but to the imprint of a shared past as part of the failed Soviet socialist experiment.

It’s fair to say that crafting an indigenous post-punk sound for these kids was a matter of psychic survival; whatever optimism emerged when the USSR first fell has surely been stomped out. Vitali Klitschko, former champion boxer and current mayor of Kiev, put it succinctly: “when the Iron Curtain fell, everyone had a dream to live in a modern, democratic society. More than 15 years have passed and nothing changed. There’s a saying I like very much: if you want a thing done, do it by yourself.” What the young coterie of musicians are doing is exactly that: they’re doing it themselves. The results, echoing off the walls of Eastern European clubs or reverberating from pairs of ear buds of commuters, are nothing short of remarkable.

By dipping into the past—be it first-wave post-punk or the aesthetics and philosophies that permeated the former Soviet Union—these bands are blazing trails for Russophone music. Emerging from the literal and metaphorical rubble of their collective past, they’re packing clubs, going on tours, and serenading vibrant crowds throughout Europe. In the face of authoritarianism, of economic stratification, and of a nearly 30-year-long hangover from the failure of the Soviet project, artists like ΓШ, Molchat Doma, and Konets Elektroniki, among so many others, are creating a vital, if melancholy, soundtrack from the ashes of history.

Music, mgrp

Debra Scherer

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