Abelian collects round the clock streams of the very low frequency (VLF) radio band. These sounds of ‘natural radio’ are characterised by a series of whistles, crackles and pops, generated by thunderstorms and lightning flashes bouncing off the Earth’s ionosphere. Currently, the site hosts streams from locations in the US, Italy, UK and Germany.
Based at a record store in Clerkenwell, Central London, Kindred operates as a radio station every Tuesday. Hosting an average of six DJs a day, it specialises in house, techno and garage. Sessions are archived online, but it’s best to visit the shop for the live sets, if you can.
Not a broadcaster but the site of an international organisation of amateur radio enthusiasts who research number stations. These notorious stations transmit encrypted messages on shortwave frequencies, most likely directed towards intelligence agents across the world. There is a comprehensive directory of current and former stations along with short samples of transmissions, a station schedule and links to live digital streams.
IDA is a community station broadcasting two parallel streams from Helsinki and Tallinn. Typically online in weekday daytimes, there is a wide range of programmes including DJ mixes and talk shows. The archive is tagged by genre, so it’s easy to make new connections and interesting discoveries.
Located in Rotterdam, WORM is a multidisciplinary art space focusing on alternative new media practices, experimental performance and the development of non-academic knowledge. The radio station broadcasts from the basement and predominantly showcases avant-garde music. Live from around noon onwards every weekday, the full schedule is published on the radio.worm Instagram page.
Ilia Rogatchevski Originally published by Wire, July 2021
Image above taken from the Mr Redley & Kristy Harper session at Kindred Radio, June 2021.
For his first release with Artificial Dance, Black Merlin aka George Thompson takes a departure from the hard-wearing techno and intricate field recording work that he has come to be known for. Scape One is a fifteen-minute psychedelic diversion recorded in one continuous live session. While the track’s sonic characteristics may echo dance music from the turn of the millennium, its pulsating rhythm is more suggestive of the slowly evolving landscapes seen outside of a train window as opposed to raves from the late ‘90s.
Appearing on the B-side is Gordon Pohl’s remix of Scape One. Like its source material, this track is long and subtle in the way it develops over time, but Pohl dissects the most salient elements of the original to construct a new rhythmic urgency. The high frequency accent that guides the remix does so at a speed that recalls the rotations of Brion Gysin’s stroboscopic Dream Machine, which taps into your brain’s alpha waves, aiding drug-free hallucinations.
Pohl and Thompson are frequent collaborators and release music together as Karamika. While Scape One is not a collaboration in the strict sense, there is plenty of crossover in the working methodology of the two musicians, especially when it comes to constructing uncomplicated arrangements.
The repetitive nature of their respective tracks locks the listener into a contradictory sensation of travelling whilst staying seemingly motionless. This sensation is not altogether uncommon, but in this instance it’s not quotidian either. The result is a record that unravels slowly, leaving space for the listener to home in on all the available information and, in the process, discover elements that can be just as unnerving as they are satisfying.
Records purchased from the Artificial Dance Bandcamp page come with a further two remixes by Pohl as digital-only bonus tracks. Artwork by Steele Bonus. Mastering by Gordon Pohl. Text by Ilia Rogatchevski.
Photo: Hippies at their summer camp in Vitrupe, Latvia, 1978 (Photo courtesy Archive G Zaitsev, The Wende Museum, Los Angeles)
Ilia Rogatchevski speaks with historian Juliane Fürst about her new history of Soviet hippies and the counterculture of the former USSR.
Juliane Fürst is a historian specialising in Soviet subcultures. She is head of the Communism and Society department at the Leibniz Centre for Contemporary History in Potsdam. Fürst’s interest in Soviet countercultures can be traced back to her first book, Stalin’s Last Generation: Soviet Post-War Youth And The Emergence Of Mature Socialism (2010), which explored anti-Stalinist youth organisations, as well as subcultures like the stilyagi, that emerged after the 1941-45 Great Patriotic War.
For over ten years, Fürst has been researching Soviet hippies and conducted over 130 interviews with former members of the movement. Inspired by the music, fashion and lifestyle of their Western counterparts, the hippies of the USSR challenged the norms of their socialist environment and, despite state repression, survived as an underground community until the early 1990s. The project also spawned a film Soviet Hippies (Terje Toomistu, 2017), on which Fürst served as a historical consultant, and an exhibition at the Wende Museum in Los Angeles/Culver City in California called Socialist Flower Power: Soviet Hippie Culture in the summer of 2018. Her latest monograph Flowers Through Concrete: Explorations In Soviet Hippieland is the first comprehensive study of the phenomenon in the Soviet Union. It is published by Oxford University Press.
Ilia Rogatchevski: What drew you into researching Soviet hippies?
Juliane Fürst: I’m interested in what makes people do radical things. Of course, radicalism is relative. You are radical depending on how harsh your restrictions are. In a more liberal society you have to go to greater lengths to be radical than in a society where you are very restricted, where it’s enough to grow your hair long and dress in a particular way.
In the West, the hippy phenomenon largely died out by the early 1970s, but in the Soviet Union hippies survived until the collapse of the USSR. Why do you think the subculture was so resilient there?
That resilience, even in the face of persecution and difficult life circumstances, is really the merit of the so-called sistema, which was a loose network of hippies. It’s down to the fact that people like Iura Burakov aka Solntse, in Moscow, and later hippy authorities such as Gena Zaitsev, in Leningrad, Sergei Moskalev, in Moscow, and Misha Bombin, in Riga, grasped what needed to happen to make this movement more resilient against dispersion, repression and just petering out. They did that by maintaining an elaborate contact system through address books, travelling, summer camps, writing their own history, creating rituals. They really started to challenge the state monopoly of memory and culture. They basically made sure that their own people knew they were not alone. They survived because they created a community.
Freedom was a key part of hippiedom. How did Soviet hippies define freedom?
In the Soviet Union freedom meant first and foremost freedom from state interference. In the West, freedom was very much connected to anti-materialism. There was a rejection of the materialism of the postwar generation, who had fled into domesticity. In the Soviet Union, it was rarely economic privilege the youngsters railed against. Of course, there were economic differences in Soviet families, but these differences were usually the result of political or social privilege, which was bestowed on you by the state rather than economic prowess. The rebellion actually happened against this privilege, because it had to be paid for by loyalty.
It’s striking that a lot of youngsters who came from very privileged households decided to make that rejection. Some of them suffered, some assimilated back into the world of Soviet privilege. Some of them broke, because the repercussions could be quite severe, especially if drugs were involved. Almost all male hippies spent time in psychiatry, partly voluntarily, because they wanted to get out of the army service, partly enforced, because they were deemed not fit for normal society.
That experience of incarceration, imprisonment, forced medication created an even larger desire for individual freedom. If one looks at the manifestos that are written around the concept of freedom, especially by the Soviet hippy Iura Diversant from Moscow, they are often centred around the freedom from physical interference. This, of course, refers to arrests, having your hair cut [by force], but also to the experience of being stripped of your physical rights in psychiatric institutions.
How important a role did ideology play in Soviet hippy culture?
It would be wrong to understand the hippies as an ideological phenomenon. Only part of their self-identification went via ideology. I have one chapter on ideology and it is followed by a chapter on kaif [Russian: high, buzz, pleasure] and, in many ways, the feel was more important for the hippies as a self-identifier. They felt being hippies, they did not think being hippies. But then, of course, the two are not entirely separate from each other.
There were ideas floating around to which they subscribed. The interesting thing is that it was perfectly possible to subscribe to contradictory ideas. Soviet hippies liked an American idea, which was, however, anti-American. Hippies in America defined themselves as being against the Vietnam War, against materialism and, to a certain extent, against America as an imperial power. But [Soviet hippies] actually quite liked the West. They thought that American music was cool. They thought that American hippies were cool. So what did they do with this anti-American element? They kind of just ignored it.
Most of your research stems from first-hand interviews with former hippies. Could you trust the validity of their statements?
That’s the big question. How much can we trust oral history? I can only say that after ten years of interviewing more than 130 people, my impression is that most people want to say the truth as they remember it. You then have to work with their subjective views rather than against them.
Did you speak with any former KGB agents to balance out the story?
It turns out that KGB agents are much harder to find than hippies. The written sources about hippies by the state are mostly uninteresting, even the ones from the KGB, which I could access in the Ukraine [through the Ukrainian SBU Archive]. They repeat the same tropes over and over again.
In the end, I decided that I was more interested in what the hippies thought about the state, in the self-organisation and creation of culture that happened in this community. The KGB work is the most interesting when we come to the 80s and we get this phenomenon of the curator; where the KGB starts to get a more serious engagement with the music scene, because the music scene was the bridge between the more radical hippy movement and a much larger part of youth. They started to pluck people out of that cultural midst and say: “OK, we don’t want you to betray or give away information, we want you to give us an estimation about the scene. You tell us whom we should tolerate and whom we should not.” Gena Zaitsev became one of the organisers of the Leningrad Rock Club. Or there is Sergei Zharikov who went on record (in a different interview, not with myself) saying that he was one of those curators and largely responsible for the punk music scene in Siberia, which was very radical.
The role of hippy-as-curator that you mention seems to be a direct result of ‘the concert that didn’t happen’ in Leningrad. Can you talk about that and the path to the semi-legalisation of rock in the USSR?
I don’t know why, but someone in the Leningrad film industry got this idea that they needed to make a film, which would be a cooperation between East and West and feature a large concert scene where Soviet youngsters would dance to Soviet and Western music. They put an announcement into Leningradskaya Pravda, the Leningrad daily newspaper, saying that on 4 July 1978 this concert would happen on Palace Square – right in the revolutionary heart of Leningrad, where the Bolsheviks had stormed the Winter Palace – and would feature The Beach Boys, Joan Baez, Santana, Alla Pugacheva and a couple of other acts. A little snippet of the newspaper was sent around the whole country along the hippy information highway. In the meantime, the film was cancelled, but nobody announced it to the public.
On the day, thousands of people assembled waiting for the concert. People waited for about two hours patiently. The square started to fill and they started to chant: “Where’s our music? We want Santana! We want Alla Pugacheva!” The sheer amount of people demonstrated to the authorities that hippies were not an isolated group in society. There were a lot of hippies on the square, but there were a lot of people who just liked rock music. It really transcended all sectors of society. People got very impatient and then the chants started getting more political until they reached: “Down with the Soviet Union! We want our rock music!” People went down Nevsky Prospekt, the main thoroughfare in Leningrad, and it came to violent encounters with the police.
The actual riots got crushed within a few hours, but it left quite a shock. For the first time in the Soviet heartlands, the authorities saw how music can mobilise young people and how it was capable of creating such strong emotions, which very quickly could turn against the system. That’s definitely an impetus as to why they started to act. Two most famous examples are the Leningrad Rock Club and the Moscow Rock Laboratory where bands were allowed to play outside the official canon, but under clandestine KGB supervision. That provided a valve. The club was perceived as a space for youth by youth and [the curators] were very good at keeping the KGB presence in the background (they were hiding as trade union representatives).
As you mention, music is an integral part of hippy self-identification and Western bands, particularly The Beatles, played an important role in defining the Soviet hippy lifestyle and fashion sense. In the book you suggest that hippiedom paved the way for the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Not quite, but I would certainly agree that it was one of the factors that facilitated the disappearance of the Soviet system. That The Beatles brought down the Kremlin is of course the Leslie Woodhead theory, which he advances in a BBC documentary [How The Beatles Rocked The Kremlin, 2010] and subsequent book. The Beatles appeared at the same time as technological innovations such as the magnetophone, which allowed people to record, and increased traffic of goods between East and West. The most important previous influence of Western music had been jazz, but jazz was difficult music, especially as it moved away from swing.
Over the last 30 years of Soviet rule people had been very successful in building up an alternative sphere in which the regime was only necessary as a boogeyman. The really interesting question is hence not why the Soviet Union collapsed – there are many factors starting from economics to party politics and personalities like Gorbachev. What’s really interesting is how in January 1992 people woke up without the Soviet Union and just went on and did their thing. The reason for this was that there were already many structures in place, so when the Soviet superstructure imploded initially not much was felt to have changed. Subcultures served like lighthouses in this kind of society. The hippies might have been small in numbers, but their ideas, their fashion, their music was just a concentration of things that spread in less radical form to the entirety of Soviet youth.
When I was ten years old, I purchased a little transistor radio. It was cheap and small enough to fit into my pocket. Although I was slightly embarrassed by its pink plastic casing, this thing kept me company on my thirty-minute walk to and from school. I remember taking the radio out with me to the playground one day and turning it on in. Each station, it seemed, was preoccupied with transmitting the same news. I didn’t know what the World Trade Centre was at that point, but the magnitude of what had just happened dawned on me very quickly.
In the 1970s, William Basinski sat in his Brooklyn loft making tape loops. His radio antenna was powerful enough to capture transmissions from the Empire State Building. These broadcasts relayed muzak cover versions of American popular standards. Basinski recorded them, capturing ethereal snippets on magnetic tape. This was sampling before such a concept really existed. Knowing that these recordings were good, but not yet having the confidence to use them in their own right, the classically trained composer boxed them up.
In the early 2000s, when Basinski finally came around to digitising the loops, he discovered that the tape had degraded to such an extent that bits of it would flake off every time it passed the tape head. This meant that the recordings would slowly disintegrate as they were being played and soon became ghostly versions of their former selves.
On the morning of 9/11, Basinski rushed up to the roof of his building and watched the second plane hit the South Tower. As the smoke billowed, he turned on The Disintegration Loops and listened. Beautiful, haunting melodies swelled up around him, mapping their own decomposition. They were at once both hopelessly melancholic and surprisingly resilient.
Unlike the moment with the pink radio, I don’t know where I was when I first heard William Basinski’s music. Most likely, it was a YouTube recommendation; a full-album stream of Watermusic II. My appreciation of his work had been gradual, much like his music is gradual. Things that at first appear static soon reveal themselves to be filled with dynamism. There is a wealth of possibilities in chance, simplicity and repetition. Basinski’s work showed me that you don’t necessarily need to ‘go anywhere’ with a piece of music. It can stay in much the same place and your mind can wander.
Above L-R: Laura Michelle Smith, Peter Jordan, Ilia Rogatchevski, Tomoko Matsumoto. Photo: Artem Barkhin
Sebastian Melmoth has seen various stages of activity since I established the project back in 2006. Intended to operate as a conceptual antithesis to popular music, to begin with, the group existed in name only. At the time, I was mildly obsessed with the life and work of Oscar Wilde and, upon discovering that Wilde took up the pseudonym of Sebastian Melmoth during his self-imposed exile in France (1897-1900), decided to call my imaginary band in his honour.
The name is referential. It is a combination of Saint Sebastian and Melmoth the Wanderer. The former was an icon for the underground gay community in Victorian England and the latter, a Gothic novel by Wilde’s great-uncle Charles Robert Maturin, first published in 1820. Due to his own castigation by polite society, it is likely that Wilde greatly empathised with both Saint Sebastian’s martyrdom and Maturin’s central antagonist (a man who takes to wandering the Earth after selling his soul to the Devil in return for immortality).
The literary nature of Sebastian Melmoth was the project’s founding principle. The first few years were littered with attempts at writing sincere songs that pointed towards literary hallmarks. Sunshine Blues, for example, namedrops Rodion Raskolnikov, the anguished protagonist of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment (1866), while Manskinner references a peripheral character from Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (1994).
This way of working was typical for us. Books were read in parallel to the creation of the music, lyrics and visual artwork. Each activity informed the other, creating a fluid symbiotic network of overlapping information. Like is often said of Sonic Youth, I wanted Sebastian Melmoth to operate as an obscure gateway drug to other works of literature, pop culture and art with each release having a tight conceptual idea supporting it.
Sebastian Melmoth began life in earnest as a high school four-piece, with myself on rhythm guitar and vocals, Miranda Collett on lead guitar, Joe Dibb on keys and Elias Razak on drums. Peter Jacobs replaced Elias after a while, but before long the group downsized to an acoustic anti-folk duo in the vein of the Moldy Peaches. The underlying theme of our debut album, Insanity’s Insanity(self-released, 2010), was the absurd nature of everyday reality. This is evidenced by the title, which was lifted out of Eugène Ionesco’s 1959 play Rhinoceros.
While looking for a job on Gumtree, I came across a psychedelic indie outfit called Clinker (at that time a quartet, but now a duo consisting of Peter Jordan and Tomoko Matsumoto). They were advertising for extras to cast in their new music video So We Say (Dir. Ambrose Yalley, 2009). We became friends and eventually started making music together. They produced Insanity’s Insanity and even remixed a few of the tracks from that album, but our collaboration didn’t realise its full potential until a little later.
Our next releases, In der Tiefe (self-released, 2011) and The Nausea of Being(self-released, 2012), were at the same time more ambitious and conceptual than our first long player. Pointing their fingers at the works of Carl Jung and Jean-Paul Sartre respectively, these companion albums broadly concerned themselves with existentialism. In der Tiefe (German, in the depths) took drug psychosis as its principal theme. Not unlike Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void (2009) the central protagonist uses psychedelic drugs to delve deep into the rabbit hole of his psyche in an attempt to capture and control his ‘shadow self’. The German title was appropriated from Fritz Lang’s silent sci-fi classic Metropolis (1927) and, in its original context, referred to the bottom level of the titular tiered city: the domicile of the working classes.
The Nausea of Being expanded on these ideas, rising, as it were, from the depths and surfacing on a desolate landscape of social destitution, political corruption, alcoholism, murder and religious dogma. Sartre, Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett all greatly influenced me around this time. I remember reading Sarte’s 1938 novel Nausea, where the narrator experienced crippling anxiety in the face of everyday interactions, and thinking that his experiences were not far from my own. Tracks such as Waiting for Godot, Paintstripper Blues and Godemiché echoed the work of the authors above and attempted to illustrate what I saw, at the time, as the core elements of the human condition: alienation, despair, lust, self-destruction.
Peter programmed the drums, played bass and, along with Tomoko, pretty much moulded our sound on these two albums, but the next couple of years saw a period of transition, both in terms of lineup and musical direction. Laura Michelle Smith joined us on drums, adding much needed rhythmic power to the live band dynamic, while Miranda left a short time after that to pursue other interests. Her parting contributions can be heard onEmetophobia(self-released, 2013). This eight-track EP was recorded entirely on GarageBand using drum presets and the inbuilt laptop mic for live instrumentation. Stylistically drawing from Atlas Sound’s Bedroom Databankseries and the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s more lo-fi output, Emetophobia is still one of my favourite Sebastian Melmoth albums. The lyrics may be a touch naive and the sound imperfect, but these elements contribute to the album’s overall charm.
Being now in the business of making difficult music we found a couple of labels sympathetic to our way of thinking. After listening to an unsolicited copy of The Nausea of Being, Thomas Martin Ekelund commissioned us to compose thirty minutes of new music for his tape label. The result wasIn Ruins (Beläten, 2014), which is probably our best and most consistent work. It was described in one review as sounding “like a Britpop version of the Velvet Underground filtered through everything rock saw during the 70s, 80s and 90s”.
While on the surface In Ruins may appear to be a breakup album, at its core, it is actually a complex study of fanaticism, personality cults and terrorism. Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry’s account of the Manson Family murders, Helter Skelter (1974), and Stefan Aust’s The Baader-Meinhof Complex (1985) both fed into the album’s sense of isolation. The latter book, which recounted the history of the Red Army Faction – a far-left West German militant organisation – was particularly influential.
After becoming increasingly fascinated with their story, I rechristened each of us after the main Baader-Meinhof members: Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof, Gudrun Ensslin & Jan-Carl Raspe. At concerts we wore all black, save for a red armband adorned with an inverted white triangle, and performed theatrical psychedelic noise rock to the general bewilderment of all. While playing Wrong Side of the Sun, for example, I would typically invade the crowd and strangle myself with the microphone cable. This performance had roots in Viennese Actionism, but also functioned as an extension of Guy Debord’s push for the Construction of Situations. What we were trying to say was that all forms of fanaticism are dangerous, irrespective of their ideological origins, but I’m not certain whether this came across particularly well.
By this time we were regularly rehearsing in a garage underneath the A104 in east London. It was a cold, dark and unforgiving place. Apparently, the space had been an illicit marijuana farm before it became a rehearsal room. With notable latency, this knowledge trickled down to the local gangsters and the garage was broken into on a few occasions. Finding nothing but piles of cheap guitars, broken amplifiers and no marijuana our new friends left the place alone, but not before holding our besieged landlord up at knifepoint. Tensions in the band were also on the rise. Laura and myself were becoming more interested in musique concrète, graphic scores and improvisation, while Peter didn’t like this new direction at all, feeling that our strengths lay in songwriting and the traditional band dynamic.
It was against this background that our last two full length albums were recorded: Felix Culpa (OKVLT, 2015) and Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta(Must Die Records, 2016). We worked on these projects in parallel in an attempt to appease our diverging interests.
Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta is a garage rock record that nodded to our punk rock influences while also including elements of surf, psych and noise. The record title is a reference to a council of Senior Aboriginal Women from the town of Coober Pedy, South Australia who protested against the Australian government dumping radioactive waste on their land. Coober Pedy, which translates from the local Aboriginal language as “white man’s hole”, is not only famous for its opal, but also the fact that many of its residents live underground to escape the scorching daytime heat. Having spent our fair share of time writing music underground, we felt companionship with these people. Peter wanted an accurate reflection of the band as a live unit and, I suppose, the album manages to achieve that (some of the drum tracks were actually multitrack recordings from our concerts). The production is far from perfect, but the energy is there, which, in the context of a garage rock album, is probably more important than fidelity.
Felix Culpa (Latin, happy fall) took on a slightly different approach. The majority of these songs were created during intense and heated sessions. Improvisation played a key role in its construction, but so did William Burroughs style cut-ups, digital manipulations and field recordings. At its heart, Felix Culpa explored the nature of the Fall: a condition of living in a permanent state of exposure; of opening oneself up to the Other. According to Slavoj Žižek, “the ultimate Event is the Fall itself, the loss of some primordial unity and harmony which never existed, which is just a retroactive illusion” (Event, 2014). Just like Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta, this project also served to reflect what the band was at that particular moment in time: fractured, vulnerable and on the brink of disbanding. The album cover shows Gerhard Halbritter’s photograph of Andreas Baader’s death mask, which hints to the viewer that the creative drive behind Sebastian Melmoth had largely ceased to operate.
Each of our studio releases aimed to depart from the last. Not repeating ourselves was another key principle of the band. Towards the end, however, I began to feel that we were doing just that. I also felt that my songwriting had become contrived and breaking out of that mould was not an option supported by everyone. Additionally, I became uncomfortable with some of the characters in my lyrics. Songs such as Prosopagnosia or Foedi Oculi employ elements of sexism, sadism, oppression and violence in order to highlight the abhorrence of such actions. Even though I saw the explorations of these themes as a contemporary take on Maturin’s gothic horror, as time went on, it became increasingly difficult for me to justify them.
Our last show was at a tiny Clapton bar called Biddle Bros, in the summer of 2017. In my opinion, the show went better than expected. At that point we hadn’t rehearsed much or played live in a while. Peter disagreed. He felt that we lost something crucial along the way. Where once we had been theatrical, now we were just plodding along. I wasn’t convinced. Theatre is an open-ended format that can allow for modest gestures as well as flamboyant ones. We were coming from different directions and refusing to meet each other halfway. Peter was citing David Bowie and I was referencing Fluxus and Bertolt Brecht. At its core, this argument – not our first or last, but certainly our most public one – was saturated by our personal and professional expectations of one another. These expectations weren’t always met and neither of us were open to what the other person wanted. Whatever odd bits we had recorded around this time were self-released as an outtakes compilation called Devotional Songs for the Digital Age, in late 2018.
Not long after all of this, Olf van Elden aka Interstellar Funk reached out with a proposal to compile our more electronic cuts together on vinyl. We christened this new albumThe Dynamics of Vanity(Artificial Dance, 2019). The title is both a comment on culture’s obsession with rehashing the past – the subject matter of Simon Reynolds’s book Retromania (2010) – and our own personal navel-gazing. The title references a collage I had made as an art student that mocked the fashion industry’s depiction of male underwear models. To my mind, they resembled intricate amphorae paintings and Hellenistic bronzes of Greek antiquity.
Although The Dynamics of Vanity is not a studio album, we approached its production with the same attention to detail as we would any other record. For the cover, we wanted to get across the stark, archaic beauty of the human body in motion. Stripped, Rammstein’s appropriation of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938) was the main reference point, but so too were Andy Stott’s album covers, namely Luxury Problems and Too Many Voices. After some initial back and forth, the Amsterdam-based Australian designer Steele Bonus rendered these ideas in a post-punk fashion suited to our sound and aesthetic.
As we dug through our hard drives compiling the album, we unearthed a few unreleased remixes made by Peter and Tomoko. We decided to weave these rediscovered tracks into a new project, Imaginary Futures (MFZ Records, 2020), a record that reimagined our back catalogue as a suite of rave-ready dancefloor fillers.
While the album title, which alludes to the lost potential of disparate creative outcomes, was borrowed from Richard Barbrook’s 2007 book charting the emergence of the internet, it was the production, remix and DJ work of Andrew Weatherall that was the key inspiration for the our approach. The album’s flow and concept loosely mirrors Weatherall’s treatment of Primal Scream’s source material for Screamadelica, which itself resulted in their pivotal marriage of rock and acid house. The idea for the album was set before Weatherall’s passing, but his departure helped to calcify the direction of the mix.
Musically, our last two albums are pretty cohesive, despite the fact that they are both compilations and the material on them isn’t strictly new. They are collections of snapshots, taken over our decade-long recording history, that are bridged together by new contexts. The Dynamics of Vanity was curated by Olf and the bulk of Imaginary Futures was remixed by Peter and Tomoko, and my personal contributions to these projects was limited to administrative tasks, design and artwork consultation. That being said, they are fair representations of who we were: not ‘Best Ofs’ or ‘Worst Ofs’, but ‘Sort Ofs’.
Much like the albums described above, this essay is merely a rendering of our story and far from the whole picture. The text is not intended to be canonical. Many events, people and releases have been omitted for the benefit of readability. What I hope the text does is provide some background of our origins, processes and motivations.
As mentioned before, we haven’t played live or recorded anything new since 2017 and I doubt that we will do either of those things again. After fourteen years of nurturing the same idea, it has come to a point where I have said everything there is to say in this particular format. I have enjoyed developing this band with my many friends, and seeing it change over the years, but it’s finally time for us all to move on to other projects and for Sebastian Melmoth to cease his aimless wandering.
Molchat Doma: (from left) Roman Komogortsev, Egor Shkutko, Pavel Kozlov Photo: Stas Kard
The dark synth poetics of Belarusian group Molchat Doma transcend language barriers
“Minsk is very much a post-Soviet city, with its gloomy panel highrises. It was in this atmosphere that we thought to tie these words together.” Roman Komogortsev, guitarist, synth player and principal songwriter explains the meaning behind his band’s enigmatic name, Molchat Doma, over Skype. “It’s an interesting combination of words, which, over time, reinforced our background”.
Translating from the Russian as “the houses are silent”, the name suggests an appreciation of modernism and an intimate understanding of its cultural legacy. Constructivism’s promise of a concrete utopia paved the way to cheap identical prefab architecture. This fallout is just as evident in the UK as it is in post-Soviet spaces. Reflecting on Basildon’s influence on Depeche Mode bassist Pavel Kozlov admits that Minsk influences Molchat Doma’s sound too. “Minsk has many grey residential neighbourhoods. We live in these neighbourhoods.”
This fascination with imposing architecture is especially evident when looking at Molchat Doma’s record sleeves. Their debut S Krysh Nashikh Domov (From The Roofs Of Our Houses, self-released 2017) depicts a human figure dwarfed by the infamous Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, while the follow-up Etazhi (Floors, Detriti Records 2018) shows the unnervingly top-heavy Hotel Panorama Resort at Štrbské Pleso, Slovakia. Monument, their upcoming album for Sacred Bones, which was recorded at Komogortsev’s home studio during lockdown, illustrates Pyongyang’s Monument to Party Founding. Three arms holding a hammer, sickle and calligraphy brush respectively are thrust high into the air in defiance of the cold and unforgiving sea that threatens to engulf them. Unlike Laibach, who explore manifestations of totalitarianism and were the first western band to play in the DPRK, Molchat Doma are interested only in aesthetics. North Korean architecture attracts them for its monumentality, not its political ideology.
Komogortsev formed Molchat Doma with vocalist Egor Shkutko in late 2016. Kozlov joined them a year later on bass and synths. Originally playing something more indebted to trip hop than post punk, the band’s sound pivoted to a darker palette when exposed to the New Russian Wave of the early 2010s. Bands such as Ploho, Electroforez and Utro paid homage to 80s new wave acts like Kino by blending synth pop with morose Russian lyrics.
Elements of New Order and Joy Division are also present in the music. The band has even visited Macclesfield to find the grave and former home of Ian Curtis during their recent UK tour. “I was very upset about how he was buried: a little plaque, not much else,” says Kozlov. Komogortsev agrees: “He’s an icon. It’s clear that fans visit him, but I wish it looked more like a monument.”
It was interesting to note, while seeing Molchat Doma at London’s Scala in February – the band’s biggest show at that point – just how few Russian speakers were present. Despite not knowing the words, the thousand-strong crowd sang along to the melodies, all the while dancing to the intertwining bass grooves and vintage drum machine samples.
The fact that the Belarusian three piece transcends linguistic barriers while selling out shows across Europe can be explained by their popularity online. This is largely due to YouTube tastemakers such as Harakiri Diat unofficially distributing the band’s music on the platform. Full album uploads sneak their way into the recommendations sidebar, while individual tracks appear in playlists that are enthusiastically shared by proponents of internet doomer culture and subsequently accrue millions of hits.
More recently, the song “Sudno” (“Vessel”) has been trending on TikTok. Its bleak lyrics, translated as “Living is hard and uncomfortable, but at least it’s comfortable to die”, and borrowed from a poem by Boris Ryzhy, a Russian poet and geologist who took his own life in 2001, aged twenty-six, unwittingly soundtrack thousands of videos where users engage in benign activities like cycling through their wardrobe collections. Molchat Doma’s online success gave the band confidence to self-organise their first European tour in 2019 despite not having a booking agent or a strong command of English.
Writing for Pitchfork, Cat Zhang theorised a hauntological connection between Molchat Doma’s music and the spectre of Marxism in our technologically saturated late capitalist society. Marco Biasioli, a PhD Researcher in Russian music and culture at the University of Manchester, also attempted to explain the band’s popularity outside of the Russian speaking world, in an essay for the Belarusian independent media outlet 34mag.net, by linking their sound to the idea of longing and a “nostalgia for the future”. Both writers cite texts by the late Wire contributor Mark Fisher to back up their arguments, but when pressed on whether these concepts inform the band’s songs Komogortsev disagrees. “No, it’s not about that at all,” he says. “[It’s about] anguish, which is an eternal thing. As long as we are human, [anguish] will always be relevant”.
Molchat Doma are much better known outside of Belarus than at home. One reason for this may be the difficulty of performing live there. Shkutko explains: “You have to apply for a ‘tour certificate’ from the Cultural Department of the Minsk City Executive Committee”. Have they ever been rejected? “Yes. The answer is always the same: ‘insufficient artistic level’. But, hopefully, that is now in the past”.
In August, Molchat Doma’s song “Ya Ne Kommunist” (“I’m Not a Communist”) appeared alongside tracks by Gudrun Gut, Mary Ocher and The Underground Youth on the For Belarus Bandcamp compilation. Put together by the Berlin-based musician Galya Chikiss, the album sought to show solidarity with the anti-Lukashenko protest movement. All of the proceeds were directed to a foundation that helps the victims of political repression. Molchat Doma isn’t keen to discuss the political situation in Belarus, however. “If you say something carelessly and too loudly, they can come to your house, knock down your door and indict you,” says Kozlov. “We’re an apolitical band. We’re more concerned with the romance of the everyday”.
I am Meat was formed by Jonas Golland and Kazuya Ohtani as part of their university project in 2011. David Gadsdon, who was moonlighting as a stand-up comedian at the time, was drafted in to front the band. While Golland and Ohtani composed the frenetic music, Gadsdon’s lyrics underpinned the songs by constructing elaborate narratives populated by abhorrent protagonists. On stage, the frontman would embody these characters by dressing up in various costumes and delivering the vocals in a confrontational style.
When Ohtani moved back to Japan, the band continued to operate, with Gardyloo Spew (SPeW) joining on alto saxophone and Cos Chapman (Rude Mechanicals, An Infernal Contraption) on bass. The shifting lineup saw the band move away from the theatrical cabaret that defined them in the beginning to the queasy jazz-punk outfit they later became. While Spew’s riffs gave the songs a new melodious edge, Chapman’s bass worked hard to ground Golland’s flitting drumming. Having no guitar opened up the mid-range and ensured that Gadsdon’s lyrics took centre stage.
The band finally disbanded in 2014, citing exhaustion as the principal cause for their demise. Luckily, their experiments in punk, jazz and cabaret were committed to tape. Six years later, I am Meat’s eponymous debut finally sees the light of day. Like their live shows, the album exudes a sense of paranoid urgency where the vocals, rhythm section and saxophone conspire to reflect our chaotic world. Ilia Rogatchevski caught up with the band to examine their motivations.
The band broke up back in 2014, why release the record now or even at all?
Jonas Golland: Better late than never seems a veritable excuse, but we feel the album is worth it. This was the release that captured most of the songs of the four members. It was also the highest quality and, in the early noughties, production values dwarfed the urgency. Recorded music is a wafer these days. One touch-up of vocals or saxophone levels leads to another, until our release show had no actual album. We hoped no one would notice.
David Gadsdon: With the rise of streaming, albums aren’t given as much prominence in the digital world as they once were. I longed for this to be the record it is, because, in my mind, this collection of songs shares similar thematic concerns. Most of them were played at our first gig and it felt like a betrayal to leave any of them behind. The bottom line is that it’s so good to finish something and set it free. It draws a line under what you’ve done and allows it to live a life of its own.
I am Meat started off as a trio called The Protagonists of David Gadsdon. Can you tell us more about the early days?
DG: I was doing a monthly stand up gig at the Boogaloo pub in north London in 2009. Jonas came to see me perform. I didn’t meet him until I was outside. He started saying my name over and over in order to memorise it. It was a disturbing encounter. From there I was invited to do some improv recordings with him, which I had never done before, to pieces of his pre-recorded music. They were much more comedy sketches and jazzy lyrics than songs, but the intention of making each a different character was still embedded in the concept of the band at that time.
Flash forward to 2011. Jonas had decided, based on our recording sessions, to put together a band as part of his dissertation at university. I was probably the natural choice to do it with, as was Kazuya Ohtani, who was living and studying with Jonas at the time. By this point the music started to edge towards spoken word songs with a cabaret influence to them, like Kurt Weill or The Dresden Dolls.
JG: As a trio we debuted at the Kings Head, Acton, to an unsuspecting student crowd from Tech Music Schools. The good response was played down by professor Simon Carter: “It’s a bit niche, innit?”
Who are these characters that you mention and how do they manifest themselves in the music?
DG: A mulch of people. Some of them are fictional like ‘The New Growth’, some are based on people I know. Others are takes on famous people, like Walter Sickert in ‘Mr. Nemo’. There’s a part of me in all the characters, although I draw a line with associating myself with the truly awful ones.
Some of your characters express chauvinistic tendencies. ‘Mr Nemo’ is certainly one. Having had a prolonged break between the writing and publication of these songs, how do you reflect on their content in 2020?
DG: I’m glad you’ve brought this up. It’s been on my mind a lot. Post #MeToo, there is a lot of focus on men doing grossly inappropriate, if not actually immoral, things. I can’t help but reframe the way I see the characters in that context. There is definitely a lot of toxic masculinity in some of them; Mr. Nemo is downright diabolical and I had to stop performing him live because I hated the character. My focus was to puff up the characters and then deconstruct their machismo.
The lyrical content of ‘Teenage Sluts’ suggests that the protagonist is male, but the song is written and sung by a woman. Is there more to this song than carnivalesque inversion of traditional gendered perspectives?
Gardyloo Spew: The perspective inversion came from an angered place somewhere in the depths of my mind. Some have interpreted the lyrics as an anti-feminist attack when in fact it is the complete opposite. At the time of writing, I had a friend who was a heavy porn abuser and this triggered me very strongly. The reaction I had had come from my own past experiences of being objectified and abused. I wanted to attempt to understand the state of mind of the abuser.
Corrupted states of mind seem to be one of the principal themes on this album. Do you still see the individual as inherently corruptible?
DG: I think the temptation of corruption is evident in everyone’s life. Being in certain positions makes you more prone to it. The rich and powerful are bound to fall prey to corruption more easily, because they are trying to protect the hierarchical systems that give them such exclusive privilege. The burden they place on the people beneath them creates an additional temptation to give in to whatever dubious ethical or moral failing they may feel seduced by. That does not mean you cannot fight against it.
I certainly wouldn’t say that we are in a better place now than when I wrote the songs. What with the increase in police brutality against black people, the trampling of queer rights and the inequalities between the genders, it seems we are in a much worse place than before. These systems can’t help but fail us, because one size does not fit all. The challenge of maintaining your individual integrity is as strong a fight as it’s ever been. But you can choose that path and you can decide to do the right thing.
Moscow Music Week is a festival that celebrates new underground music. It has been described by Russian culture website The Village as Russia’s answer to The Great Escape and SXSW, although it doesn’t yet match the size or status of either. Its fifth edition took place in a dozen different venues spread throughout the centre and northeastern quarters of the city, competing for the public’s attention with the Russian capital’s 872nd birthday celebrations.
Thirty events were programmed over the course of four warm September days. These included concerts, panel discussions and a cinema screening. It’s a tough calendar to follow and impossible to see everything, especially when considering the distances involved in getting from one venue to another. Due to the majority of the festival being held on weekdays, the gigs were programmed concurrently in the evenings, hence many unavoidable clashes.
Most of the gigs at Moscow Music Week were marketed as showcases. These were organised by external promoters affiliated with record labels, other festivals or radio stations, each with its own specific audience and sound. The online radio station New New World Radio, which was founded in 2017 by Arthur Kuzmin and Ivan Zoloto, took over the Powerhouse late on Friday night. Describing itself on Instagram as “post-genres, post-geography, post-politics”, NNW’s showcase focused primarily on experimental electronica in a 19th century house not far from the Moscow river front.
NNW regulars Electro-haram began the night with a series of textured sound collages assembled from a bank of blinking effects boxes and rotating flexi discs. In a questionable choice of stage attire, one of the group’s members wore a niqāb. It is unclear if this was a ‘post-political’ provocation, but if the wearer isn’t Muslim, then this action is extremely disrespectful. Judging from some of the group’s releases, namely Rape the tape >> Tape the rape and Taharrush Gamea (Arabic for group harrasment), they also have a fixation with sexual assault.
When questioned about the set post factum, the project’s representative Dalia Bakunova claimed that “this practice is the theatrical embodiment of the metaphysical synthesis of tradition and modernity, religiously-mystical components and a reflection on the subject of global culture.” Perhaps it wasn’t their intention to equate Muslims with rapists and terrorists, but it’s hard not to come to that conclusion when presented with overwrought PR statements such as the one above.
One of the real highlights of the festival was the sovietwave four piece POEXXXALI (pronounced poekhali – meaning ‘let’s hit the road’) who performed at the Aglomerat creative space. Claiming on social media to hail from “Darkmenistan”, the band is a conceptual project that began life on YouTube. Their videos made liberal use of 1990s cable television aesthetics and exaggerated performance art. Co-fronted by the alleged vampire Poko Cox, whose skin was painted entirely in red, and Valdis Bielykh (former art director of the Dozhd oppositional TV channel), the band cycled through a set of songs that were both humorous and thematically basic, but nevertheless got to the core of the Russian condition.
For example, the lyrics to the song Chai list different sorts of tea, as well as all the things you can do with with the hot beverage, namely drinking or spilling it. Another key song is Zarplata, which is about spending all your payday money in one go. Western audiences may hear echoes of the Beastie Boys or Devo in POEXXXALI’s prankish style, but the band make their new wave allegiances clear by covering Imperiya’s 1992 synthpop hit Poezd na Leningrad (Train to Leningrad) towards the end of the show.
POEXXXALI’s concert was part of the Bol Festival showcase, which mostly confined itself to the Aviator Loft in the Basmanny District. Bol promotes homegrown indie acts and there were many artists on the bill, but Lucidvox, who have already made waves in the UK press with their blend of desert psych and Russian folk vocalisations, were perhaps the most memorable.
In the Zamoskvorechye District, just south of the Kremlin, the DOM culture house presented a showcase of free jazz and improvisation. Speedball Trio came close to forging a new unstable element with their transgressive fusion of jazz and metal, while the improv four-piece Dukkha, lead by the sound artist Viktor Dryzhov, mined for fleeting instances of textured serenity, before collapsing time and time again into freeform noise. However, it was the Saint Petersburg quartet Kubikmaggi who were the most arresting act of the evening.
The self-proclaimed jazz-punks synthesized radically disparate styles that included electronica, dub and minimalist composition to create an enchanting atmosphere that had people daydreaming in the mezzanine lounge area. There were moments of grinding tension, too, such as the track Summertime. Bass player Max Roudenko, drummer Ilya Varfolomeev and saxophonist Alexander Timofeev wove in and out of Ksenia Fedorova’s piano melodies, which started off playfully meditative, before swelling into an ambulatory groove and, finally, concluding in a thundering crescendo.
Ilia Rogatchevski Originally published by Wire, December 2019
Ilia Rogatchevski catches up with the Polish quartet’s front man to discuss Gdansk’s tumultuous history, the films of Werner Herzog and the importance of boredom to the creative process
Trupa Trupa are an art rock band from Gdansk. Fusing elements of post-hardcore, no wave and psychedelia, the four-piece exude a restless energy that bears the hallmarks of Fugazi’s uncompromising punk ethos. Fronted by the poet Grzegorz Kwiatkowski, the band weave absurd lyrics through liquifying guitar riffs, angular bass lines and concise percussion. Repetition plays a key role in their work, as is evidenced by their playful band name, which roughly translates to a troupe of corpses.
Trupa Trupa released their first two albums Headache and Jolly New Songs, through independent labels Blue Tapes and ici d’ailleurs. Both records received international praise. In his Quietus review of the band’s debut, Wire contributor Tristan Bath called Headache ”their first moment of true greatness”.
On the 26 February the band announced that they had signed to Sub Pop, whose label head Jonathan Poneman revealed that he thinks of the band “as a thunderstorm with big gusts, explosions and torrential downpours”. He made the decision to sign them three years ago, but, he says, “it took me a long time to get it done”. Coinciding with the news, Trupa Trupa released the brand new track “Dream About”, with an accompanying video by Norwegian artist Benjamin Finger.
Ilia Rogatchevski: Congratulations on signing to Sub Pop. How did it happen?
Grzegorz Kwiatkowski: Jonathan Poneman, the boss of Sub Pop, was at our gig at OFF Festival in Katowice. He enjoyed the gig and suggested that he would like to work with us. That was six years ago. Through the years we were working hard, but we weren’t working for Sub Pop or anyone else. Of course, we were curious. We knew that it could happen.
The breaking point was when we played SXSW in 2018. The gig was in a small Irish pub. David Fricke from Rolling Stone was there and Robin Hilton from NPR. All these important people came and my amp broke. I asked the stage manager if he had something else, but he didn’t. Suddenly, one person from the audience said: “I’ve got an amp I can give you.”
In 20 minutes we played songs which should be played in 35. The fastest concert ever. We were so angry. Everything was going wrong. The bass player’s guitar stopped working. We kept on playing, but he was shouting with his guitar over his head. These journalists thought: Woah, man! What a band. They are crazy. We are lucky to have strange accidents working on our side.
Is the band a conduit for accidents, then?
We are really open to mistakes. We love absurdity and paradoxes. The band seem a bit dark, but we love to act like clowns. We just wrote many songs with our producer (Michał Kupicz), but we really don’t know if they will be accessible. Let’s see.
Benjamin Finger directed the music video for your new song “Dream About”. How did that collaboration come about?
We played with him at a great gig in Cafe Oto in London and became friends. The video looks like hipster stuff from the internet, but it’s his own tapes. We love this kind of atmosphere. It’s very important for us that we are not pretending to be a professional rock band, which makes a professional video. We were afraid that Sub Pop would tell us what to do. Of course, we were wrong. They are totally open to this kind of DIY art.
In a previous interview you suggested that the “spiritual strategy of DIY” is important to the band. Can you define what you mean by that?
You can feel it inside the music that it’s not a PR project. The important thing about Trupa Trupa is that [our] albums are a bit boring. I like to be bored. Our new songs remind me of the atmosphere from Samuel Beckett. Samuel Beckett’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The time is running. We are waiting. We are observing. It’s a meditative, pessimistic thing.
Samuel Beckett’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I like that. In the past you’ve cited The Beatles as a core influence. They were very forward thinking for their time, but are now so canonised that we no longer consider them to be experimental. With that in mind, what sets you apart from other guitar bands working today?
Bands as we are, they don’t exist, because they break up after one or two years. But we exist and are more established than ever. Quite unique, I think, is that we are very democratic in our vision. Every one of us has a strong personality. One is a painter, the second one is a graphic designer, the third a poet, the fourth a reporter and a photographer. Every one of us is trying to put his view inside of the band. It’s kind of a competition. We don’t want to [exist] for the audience. The most important thing is ourselves. I know that sounds narcissistic, but we are friends and this music comes from our friendship.
You guys are based in Gdansk. Have you always been there?
We all live in Gdansk, but not all of us were born here. Tomek Pawluczuk [drums] and Wojciech Juchniewicz [bass] came here from Białystok and Skarżysko-Kamienna, respectively, for studies at the Academy of Fine Arts. Me and Rafał Wojczal [keyboard, guitar] are friends from the same neighbourhood. This is our city and I think that it’s got some impact on us, even if we don’t want it. It’s a very special place, for sure.
What aspects of it seep into your work?
It is the history. Gdansk is connected to the Second World War, to the movement of Solidarity. For me, the place called Westerplatte – the place where the war started – was the dream place for a child. It was like a video game.
There is a mixture of many things in the air still. It’s a really horrifying place, even. For example, a few weeks ago our mayor [Paweł Adamowicz] was murdered. The whole of Poland is in big shock. Gdansk is the city of transgression. Big things are still happening here.
There is also big, great nature around us. We love these landscapes. All of us love Werner Herzog movies, for example. It’s a bit connected to the German aesthetic, I guess. On the other hand, we have our inner landscapes and stories, which are not so connected to the city.
It’s interesting that you mention Herzog. In a previous interview you said that “Jolly New Songs” was a Fitzcarraldo moment for you: the band building an opera house in the middle of the rainforest.
Brian Fitzgerald, the main character of Fitzcarraldo, is a hero for me in the same way as Don Quixote. I’d like to be someone and achieve something, but after all I’m a loser. Every day I wake up and think I will be a better man. It’s not that I would like to be the Übermensch. I would like to be a good man, but I would also like to be a good artist who is constructing his strange ideas and objects.
Listening to “Dream About”, I would compare it to another Herzog film: Lesson Of Darkness (1992), which documents the burning of the oil fields in Kuwait after the Gulf War. It’s contemplative and mellow, but very dark as well.
I think you’re right with this example. For me, the new material is the same. It’s pessimistic, naive and slow. You can hear in this song [“Dream About”] that it’s a bit broken. It’s resigned, calm. Almost every [one of our] songs pretends to be a regular song, but they’re really mantras about nothingness. They really are songs of nowhere.
Trupa Trupa will perform three dates at SXSW 2019 on 14, 15 & 16 March, as well Poznań on 26 April and Sharpe Festival, Bratislava, on 27 April.Photo: Michal Szlaga
Ilia Rogatchevski Originally published by Wire, February 2019
Based at the Daile Music House, a repurposed cinema in Riga’s central district, Skaņu Mežs displays a broad approach to curation. Now in its 16th edition the festival’s most accessible programme yet incorporates everything from contemporary classical to power electronics.
First on stage is the Latvian pianist Rūdolfs Macats. His solo piece is percussive and unrelenting. Using his elbows to hammer the keys and, at times, tersely strumming the strings inside, Macats’s violent treatment of his instrument erodes away established notions of the piano’s melodic qualities and sets the tone for the sets that follow.
One of this year’s Shape platform artists Caterina Barbieri presents amodular set so loud it has members of the audience sticking fingers in their ears. Harsh noise is common, but so are ethereal synth sweeps, occasionally punctuated by interjections of deep bass. These stark combinations embody the Italian composer’s work with a sense of grave and foreboding intensity.
The feeling spills over into Thurston Moore and Mats Gustafsson’simprovised duet. Both musicians display a diverse textural range and, during the delicate sections, it’s impossible to tell who is responsible for the bell-like flourishes. There is plenty of feedback, of course. At one point, Gustafsson gets behind his pedalboard and starts emitting staccato bass frequencies, which pop the speaker cones and make you worry for the sound system.
By contrast, William Basinski’smusic is much more static. Subtle melodies weave in and out of scope as if they were tectonic plates grinding up against each other. Basinski’s appropriation of muzak finds a natural home in Riga. The city’s public spaces are dominated by what the American composer calls “anesthesia music”. In the Q&A prior to his set, Basinski spoke about capturing and distorting these unwelcome interventions in an effort to “find a loop that suspends time”.
Strong parallels exist between Basinski and Liz Harris aka Grouper.Both composers make music that is slow and melancholic, but whereas Basinski is in search for the sublime, Harris is engaged with the intimate. Illuminated by a single dim spotlight, Harris alternates between cassette playback, spacial guitars and contemplative piano phrases. The reverb-laced vocals conceal the lyrics, but the sense that a story is unfolding is never far away.
Armed with a mic and sampler, LA’s Busdriver aka Regan Farquhar unleashes a torrent of staggeringly psychedelic hip hop rhythms interspersed with hyperfast lyrics about electricity, sabotage and dangerous art. Vocally reminiscent of Mr. Bungle-era Mike Patton and backed by jazz drummer Darryl Moore, Busdriver gets the crowd moving by fusing elements of bebop, funk and electro. Despite the bare staging, there is theatricality in Farquhar’s delivery and, during one of his improvised segments, he even enters a scat battle with the drums.
It is RP Boo’sset, however, that eventually breaks the dance floor. Spinning deconstructed hits like Bohemian Rhapsody and Funkytown, the footwork pioneer intercuts the source material with syncopated beats and unifies the audience into a single dancing organism. Speaking to the festival director Viestarts Gailītis after the event, I asked him to explain the diverse curation of Skaņu Mežs. “It works best to have a programme that caters to various tastes,” he says. “That way concert attendants learn about other genres [and] aren’t easily bored by uniformity. Next year, we will have more dissonant music”
Ilia Rogatchevski Originally published by Wire, December 2018