Liberation frequency: inside the angry, apolitical world of Kyiv’s underground punk rockers

The punk and hardcore scene in Ukraine’s capital is thriving — and they don’t give a fuck about your labels.

24 November 2019
Header Image: Maia Iva

In a lofty rehearsal space in northern Kyiv, a throat-punch mix of thrashing guitars, screaming female vocals, and blasting drums plays from a speaker roughly half the size of a person.

The riffs are pure Master of Puppets-era thrash metal, until a melodic, almost pop-punk chorus takes over, sounding like a long-lost Distillers B-side.

“This is the new song we’re recording right now,” says Marianna Navrotskaya, the voice behind the mic, as we sit in a circle and eat pastries with drummer Anastasia Homenko.

Their band, Death Pill, might be Kyiv’s only riot grrrl group. Imagine Slayer but fronted by Kathleen Hanna. They’re one of a handful of punk bands that make up the small but vibrant punk and metal scene in Ukraine’s capital.

“We want to build something big: not just to make money but to make underground culture better”

This demo will be the first single on their upcoming album, which the band hopes will reach a wide enough audience for them to be able to do music full-time.

“We want to build something big: not just to make money but to make underground culture better,” Homenko says. “When you have no money to buy drumsticks or go to another city to play a concert, it sucks. We’re so tired of this. We want to do it on the next level.”

Death Pill’s DIY sound is not what comes to mind when most people think of music in Ukraine, dominated either by Euro techno, or the imported pop sounds heard on local versions of The X-Factor and The Voice.

The bands in Kyiv’s underground scene pull from a much more aggressive palette of influences. They fuse punk, hardcore, metal and other styles together, blurring the lines of genre and resisting easy labels.

A performance by Ukrainian punk band MOCHA. Image courtesy of the band

The scene itself is small, but packs a punch, says Oleksii, the guitarist of crust-punk band MOCHA (pronounced MO-CHA or Моча in the original Cyrillic; Google Translate the name for a surprise). Since he started playing music at 17, he’s seen crowds as small as 20 and as large as 300.

Punk in Ukraine may have lost some of the popularity it gained in the early 2000s, he says, but musicians believe that they have something to offer which is truly different on the Kyiv scene.

“Not a lot of people come to our shows, but I believe we create a unique sound and community,” he says. “Nowadays, [punk is] not as hyped up as it was 10 years ago, so only people who really enjoy this music continue playing it.”

Acts like Death Pill, MOCHA, Warningfog, PkhShkh, and Reminded know each other and play shows together. They tour with bands from other Ukrainian cities, like Kharkiv and Odessa. They frequent Kyiv venues like Otel’, Tom Sour, Coschey Local DIY or Breadberry, a rehearsal and recording studio that also hosts shows.

A performance by Ethereal Riffian, fronted by Val Kornev. Image:Jorg Steinhauer

There’s often overlap with bands from seemingly disparate genres too. The city’s metal acts are closely tied to its punk bands. And bands like Ethereal Riffian, a stoner-metal group, draw from influences like prog, doom, and ethnic music.

“Underground music in Ukraine is like a big salad of a lot of people,” Homenko says.

But if Ukrainian punk is a melting pot from across the musical spectrum, one element is perhaps conspicuously missing. Punk has always been political, but Kyiv’s punks tend to look inward with their lyrics, covering themes like depression and anger as their preferred form of catharsis. Their words — often screamed — are as raw as open wounds.

“Our lyrics are about people, and those people could be Italian or Russian or Ukrainian,” Navrotskaya, Death Pill’s vocalist says. “It doesn’t have a language; it’s all about feelings and anger.”

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MOCHA’s lyrics, meanwhile, are unique in their nihilism. Their new EP, released on 9 November, features musings on death, drugs, and suicide. “We’re very tired of bands playing music about unity and peace, ‘Stay together, we’re all friends’ — we’re not all friends,” says Sasha, the band’s vocalist, as we sip espressos in a Kyiv chocolate shop.

These bands’ aversion to politics may well reflect the current weariness shared by many Ukrainians. The war in the east of the country still smoulders after taking more than 13,000 lives. Crimea is still under Russian annexation. Ukraine is still one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in Europe.

Before the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, punk shows in Kyiv were closed, or invite-only, to keep far-right people from coming and fighting with the predominantly left-leaning band members and their fans, Oleksii says. After the revolution, shows were opened up to everyone “because then many people didn’t care about left or right”.

“We think a lot of people can enjoy our show, but without wearing some political T-shirts,” Sasha adds. “We have our opinions, but we’re not expressing these opinions into our music.”

Sometimes Ukrainian groups, like DakhaBrakha, put their cultural identity at the forefront of their music, fusing traditional instrumentation and singing with punk dynamics to create a new sound.

Navrotskaya, the vocalist from Death Pill, was trained in “narodny vokal,” or Ukrainian folk singing, as a child. “Marianna’s vocal is the good side of what Ukrainian culture can show,” Homenko says.

“We’re living in our society and in our country, so we’re Ukrainians. We play music in Ukraine. That’s pretty much it.”

Yet most of the time, bands in Kyiv’s punk scene avoid these stylings. The ethnic melodies and rhythms of Ukrainian music just don’t mesh with punk or metal, they say — and it’s not the type of music they set out to play anyway.

“We’re living in our society and in our country, so we’re Ukrainians. We play music in Ukraine. That’s pretty much it,” Oleksii says. But if Kyiv’s punks are detached from politics in their home country, they are even more detached from Russia. Getting across the border is a challenge for bands in both countries, Oleksii says, making it hard to tour.

“We listened to bands from Russia growing up, but we’re not connected at all,” Oleksii says. “We’d rather play somewhere in Europe than in Russia, it’s much easier.”

“If Russia has people who support the war in our east or [annexing] Crimea, I don’t want to play there,” Sasha adds. “I have friends in Russia who understand our politics, but many Russians don’t.”

A performance by Ukrainian punk band MOCHA. Image courtesy of the band

But visas and travelling opportunities are not the only challenges standing in the way of young punks. For the Kyiv scene, playing music is about everything but the money — because most of the time, they barely make any. Almost every band member I speak to has a full-time job outside of music.

“It’s DIY. We don’t earn anything except our good feelings,” Homenko, the drummer of Death Pill, says. For her, juggling music, work and her personal life is especially hard, because touring means spending long periods of time away from her young son. All the same, she says she can’t see herself quitting music anytime soon.

“We’re trying to do something that can make our lives better and make our culture better,” she continues. “Sometimes I think it’s not worth it, all my time and love and energy. You have to decide whether to keep going or to say ‘Fuck this shit.’”

“In Ukraine, we don’t have a history of rock music or the mentality related to it”

Val Kornev co-runs a record label that has a mix of Ukrainian and international bands on its roster, as well as acting as guitarist, vocalist, and lyricist of his band, Ethereal Riffian. Both he and his team try to develop the Ukrainian scene and give a platform to good music. But he knows more than anyone else that rock music in Ukraine means playing the long game — and requires no small amount of luck.

“In Ukraine, we don’t have a history of rock music or the mentality related to it,” Kornev says. “You’re not getting successful or rich by being in a band in Ukraine or by running a label in Ukraine; you’re breaking a wall in the minds of people and paving the way for future musicians.”

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A few days after we speak, Kornev announces that he’s putting Ethereal Riffian on hold. For years, music had been his outlet for the concepts he was exploring as a spiritual practitioner — but during a meditation retreat last winter, he had an epiphany that he wasn’t expecting.

“I felt that this was over and it’s not serving me anymore,” he said. Fans weren’t picking up on the spiritual subject matter in his lyrics, he said, and he wanted to pursue something that would help him more effectively convey these ideas. He says he plans to develop a spiritual movement for an Indian mystic in Ukraine.

“Mankind is going nowhere, it’s going to self-destruct. We don’t have more than 30 years to solve the current crisis. I don’t have another 10 to 20 years to create a band that will reach more people. All of us need to start taking actions right now. Otherwise, was there a point in our existence?”

The members of Death Pill, however, know that music is their calling — and they’re not ready to give up.

“When I’m sitting here and playing, I feel so happy,” Homenko says. “It’s like nirvana for me.”

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