Synth bands with their eyes to the West rule the 21st-century Russian underground.
Some of the earliest visions many young Americans have of Moscow revolve around the pixelated image of St. Basil’s Church in Tetris. From that limited perspective, it might seem strangely appropriate that the Russian capital experienced its own neon-tinged New Rave trend last year, complete with club nights like Idle Conversation and bright, angular fashion. Think “Theme A” for a new generation.
But Moscow’s music scene has more depth and a much different history than simplistic stereotypes suggest. Like hipster masses around the world, Russian clubbers are keyed into international trends, as the increase in underground disco nights this year suggests. But there’s also a hefty crop of bands playing hybrids of electronic music and rock–including some familiar post-punk and early-’90s Manchester sounds–at popular clubs like Ikra, Sixteen Tons, and Krisis Zhanra, which reopened a few years ago.
Any comparison has to take into account Moscow’s comparatively underdeveloped musical infrastructure. During the ’90s, the country’s socialist past and
economic crash slowed the development of labels, studios, and clubs. The recent economic boom has led to a super-luxurious clubbing circuit, also trickled down to the indie scene.
“Three years ago, it was a desert–a complete desert. Now it’s starting to show a little green,” says Dima Ustimov, a promoter of nights like Idle Conversation and Thriller. “I’m feeling a bit more optimistic.”
The AeroCCCP label–founded by Maxim Nazarov in 2005 and responsible for bringing surf-rock eccentrics Messer Chups to the U.S.–just released The Future Sound of Russia, a compilation of new St. Petersburg and Moscow bands and a worthwhile entry point for Westerners. Some of the most talked-about bands include post-punk group Manicure, which is about to release its first album; Bajinda Behind the Enemy Lines, from the Samara region; and veteran group Punk TV, whose members started playing atmospheric electronic rock together in the mid-’90s in the Siberian town of Novosibirsk (and have recently relocated to Moscow).
Many influences are at play in new Soviet dance rock, and not all of them new. Popular touchstones include ’90s Russian bands such as Splean, Agata Kristi, and Kino, itself influenced by both the Russian bard singer-songwriter tradition and groups like The Cure and Joy Division. (They now have a cult following, in part due to the tragic death of lead singer Viktor Tsoi after a 1990 car crash in Riga.)
But American and European culture also plays a huge part. “Russia has always had this copycat approach to Western culture,” says Nazarov. “I blame it on Communism. Imagine looking toward the West for culture for so many years because there wasn’t anything in your country. Also, Russia is one of the biggest countries in terms of piracy. That increases the anarchy, which can be good for the creative side. I definitely think it’s going to be big at one point. It will become American within a given number of years.”