In the early 2000s, the dormant genre of post-punk experienced a period of revival and reintroduction into the musical mainstream, taking new-found inspiration from genres such as grunge which by this point had all but died out.
Bands embracing the genre labelled as post-punk revival popped up on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, although a particular hotspot was New York, which spawned bands such as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Strokes and Interpol which helped prolong the lifespan of rock music on the radio for another decade.
But this isn’t New York, this is Minsk, 2017. Molchat Doma, the vanguard of Belarus’s post-punk scene, have signed to independent German label Detriri Records through which they release their debut album, С крыш наших домов [S krish nashih domov, From the Roofs of our Houses] and gain a small but loyal following. It was their second album Этажи, [Etazhi, Floors] however, that propelled them to underground fame in select pockets of emerging Europe and beyond.
Molchat Doma, meaning Houses are Silent, combine elements of post-punk, new wave and synthpop, and, I am told, form the basis of every Russian doomer’s playlist. (For those not in touch with contemporary internet nomenclature, the ‘doomer’ is a character who embodies an exaggeration of the ‘sad and lonely’ archetype, and is frequently used as an ironic symbol of modern-day sadness. ‘Doomer playlists,’ as a result, consist of music the doomer character might listen to, and include gloomy or introspective songs).
The three boys from Minsk fit comfortably into this category. The band consists of Yegor Shkutko on vocals, Roman Komogortsev on guitar, synths and drum machines, and Pavel Kozlov on bass and synths. Although capable of writing superb guitar melodies that feel like they ground and free the listener simultaneously, as well as simple but effective basslines, the essence of their sound lies in the lo-fi production that gives off the illusion their songs came out in 1982 instead of two years ago. Indeed, the only real giveaway is the drum machine which at times produces rhythms sound engineers might have struggled to reproduce at the time.
Other than that, the listener’s first experience of Molchat Doma may feel like hearing a cut that never made it onto Power, Corruption and Lies, (until Shkutko’s deep Russian voice comes into play), especially if it’s listening to the opening track “На Дне” [Na Dnye, On the Bottom] of their latest effort, Этажи.
Another potential giveaway of their true time period is the contents of their lyrics, which although not explicitly anti-Soviet paint a bleak picture of life under communism as well as contemporary life in Belarus, a country still trying to break free of the shackles of its communist past. Had they been around 40 years ago, Soviet state censorship would have denied the band the right to record; most rock bands throughout the Union tended to host underground concerts (as in, hidden as well as possible and not ‘niche’ or subterranean) to remain active, the Soviet government banning potentially ‘rebellious’ lyrics and having an anti-rock bias since the movement first started after Beatles and Rolling Stones bootlegs were smuggled into the country in the 1960s and 1970s.
On their second record Этажи, which features cleaner production and sounds more eighties than their first effort, these lyrical themes are hinted at by the album name, referencing the tall Stalinist apartment blocks that still dominate the landscapes of many former Soviet cities, as well as the album cover which depicts the Hotel Panorama in present-day Slovakia, often considered an icon of socialist-realist architecture. Described are images of cheap cigarettes and the sound of tram rails, an ironic comparison of government officials to businessmen (They remake reality / They rewrite chapters / They throw dirt / To foreign countries) and a possible double entendre of personal heartbreak and government oppression – I will not be shot by a random bullet / And you won’t appear such a fool.
Beneficial to their positive reception outside of Belarus was how their Russian lyrics – although rather good – are really the backing act, the instruments themselves doing a fantastic job of creating the atmosphere of a cold and grimey apartment block hallway. Their removal of the language barrier by using the prime characteristics of the post-punk genre instead of changing the language to English is to be admired.
I first came across Molchat Doma late on a Sunday night after a meme page used one of their songs in a post. I liked what I heard so I googled them – and discovered they were playing a gig at Club Control in my hometown of Bucharest the following day. I convinced two of my friends to come along, and it is at this point in the article where a Belarusian music review becomes an anecdote on Romanian bureaucracy.
Upon showing our tickets at the entrance, we were promptly ID’d, which had never happened before at this venue. This was a bit of a problem, given how only one of us was 18. Desperately keen not to let us in, the venue officials added another entry rule every time we found a solution, and in the space of around 20 minutes, ‘an accompanying adult’ became ‘a parent for each under-18 plus ID for them and their child.’ A Scottish friend of mine has since said that the documentation we needed to get into the concert was the same as when he needed to prove his eligibility for an Irish passport.
As the list of documents spiralled out of control, I couldn’t help but laugh as the bouncer (yes, security had been called to escort three dangerous schoolboys outside) looked at me in bewilderment after I told him my dad didn’t have Romanian ID as he’s English. “It doesn’t matter if he’s not Romanian, he still has a Romanian ID,” he said. It must be terribly well hidden then, seeing as my dad doesn’t even know it exists.
By the time Molchat Doma took to the stage there were twenty or so people in the same boat as us, sulking on the street outside the venue. As we disappointedly left, I hypothesised Romania was the only country where it’s easier to purchase alcohol underage than it is to get into a concert. To prove the point, we went for a beer.
As we walked home later, listening to Крыши from the band’s first album, we felt as though we understood the true essence of Molchat Doma – walking between imposing apartment blocks, wishing we were somewhere else instead.