Best albums of 2016 from the Former Soviet Union

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soviet union

Today we present you a feature that is somewhat off the beaten track for most… All the better for discovery, my friends!

You know the expression goes ‘When one door closes, another opens’? In this case, with the collapse of the Soviet Union came the birth of 15 independent countries. Three of them are Baltic countries, which eventually joined the European Union. The remainder, for the most part, struggled for quite a while before eventually forming a more loosely-knit trade union called the Commonwealth of Independent States, for better or for worse. At the same time, some ghosts just don’t know when to die. 2016 marked the 30-year anniversay of the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant meltdown, so what better time to reflect on this ongoing spectre from the past while looking forward to the future of these nations – with music reflecting each of their respective cultures, like a window to their beautiful souls – aside from all the negativity seen on the political front – today we’ll take a glance (and drag you along with us) toward some wonderful discoveries.

Represented here are 10 releases from four countries that were previously republics of the Soviet Union. Here we have four artists from Ukraine, three from Russia, two from Estonia and one from Belarus. This was a big year for Ukraine musically. This spectrum of sound covered here include pop, rock, trip hop, synthpop, shoegaze, dream pop, psych rock and post-punk. Despite borders and division between genres, we believe that these artists all want the same thing for themselves and their respective countries – to move forward, to shake off the past, to follow their own individual paths, and to do so with pride and honour. In this special ‘Best of 2016’ we celebrate this diversity of their sounds and cultures.

1. Zapaska – Pomalu

 

Zapaska is a wife-husband electronic folk duo from Kaminets-Podolsky, one of Ukraine’s very few infamous walled cities, sitting on somewhat of an isolated peninsula-like hil, cut off from the rest of the surrounding population and Ukraine. Perhaps the age and rich history of this city is what gives Zapaska their own ‘ancient’ sound. In fact, this is futuristic music on the basis of something entirely old, giving the listener a feel that her is somehow undergoing replenishment upon listening, especially to standout tracks such as ‘Pomalu’ and ‘Vikna Vidchynty’. ‘Pomalul’ was released several months ago through independent label Polish Jews Records.

2. Okean Elzy – Bez Mezh

Undisputably the most famous rock group to ever come out of Ukraine and even able to conquer the hearts of millions of listeners in neighbouring Russia, Okean Elzy is led by Slava Vakarchuk. He also served as a member of parliament following the Orange Revolution and rose to become Minister of Culture in the word of politics before finally returning to music. Not the most typical path taken by a rock star in any country, but at least it’s one that brought him full circle back to making music. Obviously a major inspiration and source of pride for millions of Ukrainians, even the title of this new album ‘Bez Mezh’, which translates as ‘No limits’, is inspiring. Released in May 2016, their unique blend of alternative rock and ballads. For this particular album, ‘Не йди’ (Don’t Go) and ‘Не Твоя Війна’ (Not Your War) should be highlighted, with the first of these two videos presented here specifically to highlight what I see as one of Okean Elzy’s high points of 2016.

3. Ummagma – Winter Tale & Frequency

At the tail-end of 2016, Ummagma released the ‘Winter Tale’ mini-EP featuring the original track plus two remixes by legendary dreampop founder and shoegaze / triphop forefathers A.R.Kane. With Rudy Tambala leading the reformed trio, this is factually the first musical output from these pioneers since the 1990s and to see that a release from this band has been long waited is an understatement. In comparison, Ummagma are relative newcomers, having formed in Moscow only in 2003 before transplanting themselves to Ukraine in the wake of the Orange Revolution. Based out of their recording studio in the former Polish town of Kremenets (now Western Ukraine) with its great castle ruins, they crafted and managed to release two albums, three EPs and numerous singles over the past 5 years. ‘Winter Tale’ is available as a free download and comes on the trail of the ‘Frequency’ EP, released earlier in the year by American label Moon Sounds Records. If you are a fan of either 1980s legends Cocteau Twins or Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, you’ll be thrilled to find remixes from members of both here, along with some beautiful original compositions.

4. Onuka – Vidlik

 

Ukrainian outfit Onuka may also be new to the music scene as a band, having only been created in 2013, but they are indeed led by music veterans – Ukrainian musicians Eugene Filatov (aka The Maneken) and Nata Zhyzhchenko. ‘Vidlik’ is the band’s second album, released in February. Packed with five tracks of originality. I was particularly drawn to ‘Svitanok’ with its Carphathian whistle charm, as well as tracks ‘Other’ and ’19 86′, a very big year for Ukraine and Europe in general due to the Chernobyl reactor’s meltdown – a Soviet event that literally affected all of Europe and forced the Soviet government to adopt a policy of Glasnost (openness). This technogenic catastrophe is apparently one of the key influences for this current EP, which definitely feels like it in both the tracks ‘Vidlik’ (translated as ‘Countdown’) and ’19 86′.

5. Sounds of Sputnik – New Born

Released on May 16, 2016 via U.S. shoegaze – dreampop label Moon Sounds Records and issued on CD and digitially, this 13-track album features a whole array of contributors, ranging from Malcolm Holmes of legendary synthpop band OMD to uber-driven Swervedriver drummer Graham Bonnar, as well as renowned British psych rock producer Fran Ashcroft, Brazil’s Mind Movies and Russia’s Morozov and Oleg Mezherovsky (Zapreshennie Barabanshiki). The track ‘Overdrive’ from this release propelled them to win the Jagermeister Indie Music Award in 2014, Russia’s equivalent of the Mercury Prize. Standout tracks include all five originals plus remixes by Mind Movies, Morozov and Oleg Mezherovsky. Later in the year, the band released the expanded EP ‘New Born Remixed’ through German boutique label Emerald & Doreen Recordings, which included two originals and a handful of remixes from producers strewn across three continents. Apart from tracks ‘Light Scheme’ and ‘New Born’, the fave standout remixes, in my opinion, are those by Haioka (Japan), David Garcet (Belgium-Thailand) and Headpocket (UK).

6. Pinkshinyultrablast ‎– Grandfeathered

 

This album from St. Petersburg natives Pinkshinyultrablast follows up their extremely well-received Club AC30 debut ‘Everything Else Matters’. Here you’ll find 8 tracks of math rock, hazey gaze and noise. Calculated heavy electro gaze noise would be a feasible way to describe this album, which was released by London’s Club AC30 and Japan’s Vinyl Junkie Records. ‘Grandfeathered’ takes the band into more dense territory. While not as accessible as their former releases ‘Umi’ and ‘Holy Forest’, which showed them more in true shoegaze territory (on the Lush end of the spectrum), this is still a great release. Highlights include ‘Kiddy Pool Dreams’ and ‘The Cherry Pit’. Definitely one of the key landmark albums from Russia in 2016, the album features Lyubov’s vocals in all their glory, embedded awash a sea of beautiful noise. Once again, the songs seem wordless – perhaps as a mechanism to avoid the pitfalls that come with the language barrier (or perhaps an evident Russian accent). The band is in love with electronica, guitar noise ane experimentation. Even more so on this album than others, math rock has slipped into the formula (or perhaps they’ve been avoiding any formula?). Whatever they are doing, it seems they are on the right track. By the way, they also won the Jagermeister Indie Music Award in 2015.

7. Gnoomes – Ngan!

 

Signed to British label Rocket Recordings for the release of ‘Ngan!’, this psych drone rock trio hails from Perm, located in Russia’s Urals region. This autumn, they played the Liverpool Psych Festival (perhaps the first Russian band to ever do so) and toured around the UK. The album received positive reviews from Clash Magazine, NME and Getintothis, and airplay on BBC6 via Guy Garvey, Lauren Laverne, and Gideon Coe. One track also featured on a neopsychedelic music compilation of MOJO magazine devoted to the the legacy of Syd Barrett. Also check out the trip that is their tremendously cool remix of Landing ‘Across The Sky’. I wonder if the band will release something again in 2017 – will be keeping an eye on them.

8. Super Besse – 636108*

Hailing from Minsk, the capital of Belarus (formerly Belorussia), Super Besse is comprised of Alex Sinica, Maksim Kulsha, and Pavel Mikhalok. The trio released their debut album ‘636108*’ through Louder Than War Records, which is run by punk rock legend, Membranes guitarist and Louder Than War founder John Robb. A bit earlier (in 2015), this album was also released by I Love You Records, an independent record label based in Riga, Latvia. Catch the video for ‘Holod’ (Cold) from this album here.

9. She Bit Her Lip – Viiv

 

This is Estonian shoegaze – never thought I’d be combining these two words in one breath, but it is what it is and it is indeed wonderful. This 10-track LP was released via Seksound Records, a small label, started in 2004 by members of Estonian shoegaze band Pia Fraus. Standout tracks include ‘Voolav viirastus’, ‘Kajaruum’ and ‘Eile’. On the latter track, Risse Soomets’ vocals are angelic. On the first track, they are wonderfully reminiscent of Spanish shoegazers Sexores. Overall, if I had to compare this band to any one artist’s sound, I think it would be Manon Meurt (from the Czech Republic).

10. Pia Fraus – Autumn Winds

 

This is an EP comprised of the original track plus three remixes, released on their on own imprint, which was mentioned above in reference to She Bit Her Lip. Like with their debut album ‘In Solarium’, once again the band wears their influences on their sleeve, which is never a bad thing when you are as skilled as this band. These tracks hit you first with Stereolab-worshipment but they manage to pull it off with touches of My Bloody Valentine and Teenage Fanclub, so it is forgiveable and comes off as even unique. Pia Fraus started in 1998 in Tallinn, Estonia when six art school students came together, followed by a colourful history that includes setting up their own label, releasing this album with Japan’s Vinyl Junkie released In Solarium with bonus tracks, recording with Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake as producer, releasing a split-single on 7″ vinyl with Ulrich Schnauss, not to mention sharing the stage with artists like Ulrich Schnauss and Animal Collective and being remixed by the likes of Hood, Bill Wells, Guther, Miwon, Fleckfumie, Mondii, His Name Is Alive, Future Pilot Aka, Seeland, International Airport, Teenage Fanclub, 3Pead, Mirabilia, Galaktlan, and Pastacas.

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