May 27, 2019

Far From Moscow: A Digital Festival for the Ages



Far From Moscow: A Digital Festival for the Ages
Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

Founded in 2008, Far From Moscow is a project that collects contemporary underground music from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states, and other parts of the former Soviet Union. Run by UCLA musicology professor David MacFadyen, the project is constantly evolving. Prior to 2018, its components included an annual festival, online profiles of up-and-coming indie artists, and a record label. Last year, its Los Angeles festival was headlined by classic rock band Mumiy Troll and screened six new Russian films.

Unfortunately, this year the original Far From Moscow project closed. However, in its place, MacFadyen has opened a number of promising spin-offs. Far From Moscow now runs a SoundCloud that reposts experimental music from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states almost daily. In addition, the project has a Bandcamp page that shares albums of note. Arguably, Far From Moscow’s new projects are better than their old ones, in that they are far more accessible. After all, not everyone can fly to Los Angeles, but anyone with a computer can open their websites and hit “play.”

If you’re looking for contemporary underground gems to supplement your classic Russian rock playlist, we’ve got you covered. Here are five tracks that stood out to us in Far From Moscow’s collection.

Radio Morpheus, “Сны Ивана Радзиевского”

Sleep
Photo credit: stocksnap.io

What would dreams sound like if you transcribed them into music? That’s the question Radio Morpheus strives to answer. Radio Morpheus is an avant-garde internet radio station that curates sleep-themed soundtracks. In its own words, its mission is “to broadcast sleep in all its audio manifestations.” Depending on your mood, you may find their tracks artistically intriguing, or you may think they sound like horror movie soundtracks.

“Сны Ивана Радзиевского” (“Ivan Radzievsky’s Dreams”) is an introspective 38-minute depiction of sleep. The track’s subject drifts into a light but peaceful sleep before his mind lights up with bursts of sonorous, beatless electric noise. Forget the prophetic dream of Dmitri the Pretender or Tatiana’s nightmare about Onegin: Radzievsky’s dreams have no form or shape. They’re unsettling, but it’s hard to pinpoint why. Maybe because they remind us that we only construct meanings from dreams after we dream them. In actuality, as anyone who’s ever had a crazy dream can testify, in the moment, no one really knows why we dream what we dream.

Russkaya Bespredmetnost, “Лети”

Album cover for Russian Tour 3
Album cover for Russian Tour 3. / Belka Records

The next three songs come from a 2018 album shared on FFM’s Bandcamp, entitled Russian Tour 3. This album features twelve up-and-coming indie bands, mostly from Russia but also from Ukraine and Belarus. Although the songs on Russian Tour 3 sound more like mainstream rock, they experiment heavily with mood and form and often (though not always) feature electronically inspired sounds. So if at first listen they don’t sound experimental, don’t be fooled: they are far from your typical DDT- or Animatsiya-inspired rock bands.

“Лети” (“Fly”) is a melodious piece that is more about constructing an ambience than telling a story. There are few words in the song, but those that exist are sung dreamily, as if the singer were lying on a beach while staring into the sun. The song’s artist, Russkaya Bespredmetnost (“Russian Objectlessness”), is an experimental pop group that “transforms the colorful heritage of pop culture of the last two decades of the twentieth century into a pellucid, simple sound construction, outside genre and time frameworks.” Indeed, “Лети” sounds abstract and timeless.

Ploho, “Сердце получает нож”

Album cover for Куда птицы улетают умирать
Album cover for “Куда птицы улетают умирать”,
where “Сердце” originally debuted. / Ploho

Ploho is a Novosibirsk-based band that considers itself the “essence of the cold wave of Siberian post-punk.” Through its music, it seeks to respond to the collision of daily life with Western capitalist culture. Ploho’s mission is quintessentially post-Soviet; nevertheless, its music can be appreciated outside its post-Soviet context. For example, “Сердце получает нож” (“The Heart Gets the Knife”) handles the universal theme of post-breakup resentment.

The opening riff sounds like it came off a Pilot album. Pretty soon, however, we are treated not to headbanging hard rock but rather an emotional slow-burner. The song’s speaker remembers, without sadness, how his girlfriend talked while he stayed silent. “You didn’t talk about anything, and I stayed silent about the same,” he says. They ran along the road and leapt over fences together. Then one day she said to him: “My dear, for you and I to have two hearts — that’s too many.” The speaker concludes that it’s an “unheard-of luxury” for there to be two hearts in two people. Inevitably, “one continues to beat, while the other gets the knife.” Evidently, if anything is worse than getting stabbed in the back, it’s getting stabbed in the front.

Chernikovskaya Hata, “Бледный Бармен”

Artwork for Бледный Бармен
Artwork for “Бледный Бармен”.
/ Chernikovskaya Hata

Chernikovskaya Hata was founded in Ufa but has since relocated to Petersburg. Their music is mainly about “the stunning, sometimes catastrophic contradictions of the modern world; the never-ceasing struggle between the creative and destructive forces of life; and the bright humanistic ideals of freedom and justice, found in the face of the collective conscience and pain of this generation.” No wonder, then, that they’ve chosen to cover a classic Soviet rock song about finding community in an uncertain world.

“Бледный Бармен” (“The Pale Bartender”), whose alternative title is “Тоже является частью вселенной” (“Also Part of the Universe”), was originally performed in 1989 by the Soviet rock band Rondo. Chernikovskaya Hata’s cover takes the first two verses and re-situates them in a modern soundscape dominated by sparse electric guitar harmonies. While Rondo’s frontman belts out the lyrics, Hata’s singers sing them in a low, almost incantatory register. Their simple accompaniment and minimalist solos transpose Rondo’s song into a musical language that twenty-first-century ears know intimately.

Anstrel, Summer Visions

Album cover for Summer Visions
Album cover for Summer Visions. / Anstrel

Synthwave is not a genre usually associated with Russia — it’s heavily tied up in the aesthetics of North American, Western European, and Japanese video games and electronic music from the 1980s. Believe it or not, though, there is a highly devoted synthwave following in Russia. On the popular forum Pikabu (which is like Russian Reddit), there are numerous articles, including a two-part series, dedicated to the history of synthwave. If you Google “синтвейв”, the second result is a DIY guide for making your own synthwave music. “Remember, making synthwave is easier than it looks, but harder than it sounds,” says the guide. Great advice not just for synthwave, but for life.

Anstrel is a Moscow-based artist specializing not just in synthwave but also retrowave and dreamwave (subgenres of synthwave). Her new album Summer Visions, which was released just last month, uses the synthwave aesthetic to capture summer moods. The album is rather short, only seven pieces, but every piece captures a different slice of positive emotions. Since spring is becoming summer and the weather is warming up, now’s an especially appropriate time to sit back and bask in the warmth of Anstrel’s music.

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