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Monumental Doom

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”.

Molchat Doma’s Monument is released by Sacred Bones Records.

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, November 2020

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