Meet The Underground Artists Soundtracking Post-Soviet Russia
The underground scene is helping change Russian attitudes towards local music.
"Russian music sucks" was a common attitude that I encountered when I first visited Russia in 2013. It was the norm for bands to sing in English, some average Berlin DJ to headline almost every event, and plenty of lame "Russian version of (insert US/UK band name here)" acts filling out bills.
But attitudes have changed and "I listen mostly to Russian music" is something I've heard a lot more of since moving to Moscow in 2015.
Despite the country's questionable gay rights history and that earlier this year domestic violence was decriminalised, nationalism, or a faux-nationalism has developed with many young people happy to drape red, white and blue flags across their stage visuals and press shots. It's partially Gosha Rubchinskiy-wave but Western imposed sanctions may have had something to do with it. The Ruble's worthlessness means that there's little in Russia to attract commercially driven foreign artists.
Russians of course aren't going out any less, so just as people now have to buy Russian beer and cheese because of economic sanctions, small name Russian artists are also getting more of a chance to fill venues.
A night out differs greatly between cities in Russia. Moscow is the centre of the electronic scene but it's not like in cities where scenes are specific to different areas of the town. Moscovites generally live wherever they can find a decent priced room, or if they are lucky enough, wherever babushka has died and left them a Soviet apartment. Even so, the Metro comes almost instantly. The distance between friends and venues means that wherever you choose to go out you are pretty committed to stay for the morning and night. If that's not a house party, a club such as Rabitza or NII with a six-hour DJ lineup makes much more sense than a bar with overpriced craft beer and a couple of badly mixed bands. For that reason I think I've seen one Moscow rock band in the past 18 months.
St Petersburg is a cheaper and more centralised city making it easy to start at a mate's place, head to a bar, check out a couple of bands and then end up at a club. Most of the great Soviet and Russian bands, including Kino, come from this city and still today there's a strong guitar scene with an American-Russian running Ioneteka, a full-time indie/punk club.
Full disclosure: there are no acts from St Petersburg in here, but bear with me. I'm focussing mainly on emerging artists. Check out Kedr Livanskiy, Pinkshinyultrablast, Love Cult, Buttechno, Ic3peak, Gnoomes, Motorama and Sonic Death, if you want to hear what Russians would consider 'famous' indie acts.
Moscow's Gost Zvuk is one of the coolest independent labels in Russia and has the strongest local aesthetic. Their releases are generally lo-fi dance without being harsh, there's melancholy but there's also movement. This latest release is a kind of cosmic house collage album by Пайпер Спрэй. Gost Zvuk have also released bit of a best-of-Soundcloud-tracks album from not so underground artist Buttechno.
The late 80s was arguably this region's golden era with American guitars and Soviet electronics coming together and the country coming undone. There's still a mountain of music influenced by this era and Вальс (Waltz) from Rostov-on-Don sound like the most sinister of the depressed bunch. They're from the same city as Motorama, who are a little more twee, but are along with Буерак, the two most popular post-punk bands in Russia.
No surprises that dark electronic music is very popular here. This Moscow artist lies somewhere between dance and experimental and, and much as this sounds like a press bio copy + paste, is someone just as at home on a festival stage as he is playing first at a DIY show. I saw him play live at a festival above the Artic Circle a few weeks ago and think he's better live than on record. That might change soon because he has a new LP coming out on what is probably my favourite Russian label, Full of Nothing, run by Ivan from Love Cult/Myka.
Witch House didn't die in Russia and over a thousand mostly teenagers still flock to the ever-popular VV17CHØU7 (pronounced 'Witch Out') party. The sounds continue to evolve and this party remains a big deal for the sportswear crowd. Venues change and the big gimmick is that if you travel to the party from outside of Moscow you get in for free, which works for me. Ic3peak is the most challenging band in this scene and told me that they recently turned down Moby when he asked them to do a remix. WPCWE would likely do no such thing and is, along with Убийцы Crystal, one the most fun of the Adidas bands.
Something from new digital label Raw Russian, based in Orel, a couple of hundred kilometres outside of Moscow. So far their releases have a lo-fi house aesthetic not dissimilar to Gost Zvuk's, but the music is probably more accessible to non-Russian ears. This label doesn't give too much away about their artists but while I know that some of them are already dead, Mounty is alive and kick drumming in St Petersburg. This track sounds like a 90s Goa come down set played back on tape, and staring out the window right now that works just fine. Hyperboloid Records is another Russian label worth checking out if you are looking for a more hi-fi sheen.
When Nite Fields came to Russia in 2015 this boyfriend/girlfriend duo opened one of the shows. They make tropical sounding headphone music on an old PC, which sounds a hemisphere away from the damp St Petersburg climate. They're not assertive enough to make much of a fuss in Russia, but they're real and people overseas have started to pay attention with Not Not Fun recently putting out a couple of tapes.
Karina Kazaryan plays in Fanny Kaplan and has been doing some cool experimental stuff on the side for a while now. Dark and droney with plenty of light shining through the cracks. If you like this check out Siberian label Klammklang.Danny Venzin is an Australian writer living in Moscow. He plays in Nite Fields.