When rock music was legalised in the 1980s during Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms, some bands chose to distance themselves from the rock mainstream that had suddenly emerged across the USSR. While the indie bands of the wild 90s suffered from a scarcity of venues or worse — poverty, drug and alcohol abuse — indie bands from the Noughties were often much too focussed on trying to be commercial, putting creativity at stake.
It took the new generation of Russian indie artists a while to grow up and mature but they are finally here. Combining a mastery of musical skills with unconventional, creative ideas, this fourth generation of Russian indie musicians is defying categorisation, freely mixing elements of various styles and influences, from obscure British punk bands to local veteran pop groups.
While very few Russian indie bands have had much exposure abroad, Jack Wood from the Siberian city of Tomsk are certainly an exception. This past summer, they played a set at Glastonbury and earlier collaborated with the likes of Richard Hell, Lenny Kaye, Mark Ribot and Le Tigre in New York. Fronted by petite singer Jack, often compared to Patti Smith, Janice Joplin and The Kills’ Alison Mosshart, the three-piece play what is often dubbed as “gothic punk blues”. Still, the band’s members insist they are not part of any scene or movement.
This reggae band from Yekaterinburg fronted by charismatic singer and lyricist Olga Markes has been pushing the limits of the genre in search of a unique sound. From the outset, the band took inspiration from a broad range of influences within the reggae genre and beyond, with Barcelona no less a promised land than Ethiopia, and Manu Chao as influential as Lee “Scratch” Perry. Now based in St Petersburg, they have been experimenting with a variety of genres and sounds, having performed with a symphony orchestra earlier this year.
Disco punk isn’t exactly a popular genre on the Russian indie scene but the best known band in that niche, St Petersburg-based duo Barto, certainly stand out. Composed of singer Maria Lyubicheva and keyboard player Evgeniy Kupriyanov, they are hilarious, energetic and tongue-in-cheek, appealing to office employees sick of their jobs and free spirits alike. While the music resembles stripped-down, minimalist disco, the lyrics run the gamut, revisiting the “wild” 1990s to ridiculing excesses of consumerist society. A few years ago, a Bonnie and Clyde-influenced song called Gotov written from the viewpoint of young revolutionaries nearly got Barto in trouble with the police.
This Moscow/Saratov three-piece is one of the youngest bands on the list. Having played just a handful of shows, The Salted were one of the main discoveries of this year’s edition of Indyushata indie festival, where they collected the audience award. Their version of guitar-driven rock is influenced by a variety of bands from the 1960s to the 2000s. Seeing them live, you might think you’re at a concert during 1960s “swinging London” or at an early White Stripes show.
Fronted by Kira Zinina, a native of Veliky Novgorod, Kira Lao have gone through several incarnations in their six-year history. The band came into the limelight a few years ago after a set at the Indyushata festival, collecting a Steppenwolf indie award for the best debut. What began as “acoustic trip hop” with only a boom box and a gusli (a Russian folk instrument) and lyrics in both English and Russian, transformed into a sophisticated mix of folk and experimental sound. And while nowadays they only perform in Russian, their music is rooted in powerful and dynamic rock.
Home Punk, one of this St Petersburg-based band’s releases, could be taken as a reference to their homespun and deliberately sloppy way of playing and recording music. And while the album was no doubt recorded at a home studio, there is nothing amateurish about their high-power, mind-blowing brand of psychedelic garage rock. Its simplicity is misleading, as unexpected melodic and lyrical turns are in abundance. Jokingly referring to themselves as “your favorite hated band”, Sonic Death, led by Arseny Morozov, confess to liking stoner rock and solos, which certainly shows in their material.
Bruno’s 4 Positions
Bruno’s 4 Positions come from Yekaterinburg and are, arguably, the most experimental artists on this list. And although the most recent album released by the duo, I’m Taken, is more or less conventional in the singing and song structures, it defies any attempt to be placed in an existing genre except for “toxic dub”, coined by the musicians themselves. The band’s material is a melange of sources without any obvious connection, including Russian criminal chanson, dark ambient, waltz and 1980s Siberian punk rock.
Last Tanks in Paris
This St Petersburg-based punk band owes its unlikely name to a show promoter who, when they were just starting out, misheard their original name taken from the title of Bernardo Bertolucci film, Last Tango in Paris. They stand out among scores of local punk acts thanks to the charisma of singer Alexei Nikonov and his lyrics, which are poems in their own right. Nikonov, who has published several books of poetry and admires the likes of Joseph Brodsky, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Osip Mandelstam, Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire, captures the darker side of contemporary urban life in his songs.
This Moscow-based duo composed of Zhora Kushnarenko and Ildar Iksanov, both former members of the band Manicure, may sound rather conventional but their music is more sophisticated than it first lets on, and although minimalist and monotonous is heavily influenced by postpunk. What makes the band appealing is its powerful mix of Joy-Division-esque postpunk and contemplative lyrics that explore the childhood joys and fears of the last generation that grew up in the Soviet Union. The band’s name, meaning Labour, is reminiscent of Soviet-school classes and the almost fetishistic admiration for work in Soviet ideology.
My Granny’s Red Flag Division
Judging by the name alone, My Granny’s Red-flag Division is easily the most postmodern lineup on the local indie rock scene. This Moscow-based, 12-person orchestra derives inspiration from diverse sources such as instrumental post-rock, Soviet-era children’s literature, choir singing, Afro-pop and shoegaze, adding all of that into a mix that defies categorisation, although they are sometimes referred to as the Russian Arcade Fire. The band manage to combine catchy melodies with absurdist lyrics, including a song written from the perspective of a toaster.