Far from the copy-paste brutalism of Moscow’s Soviet apartment blocks stands the old city of St. Petersburg—the historical site of the former Russian revolution—a cosmopole of Baroque and Style moderne architecture hanging together between storied cobblestone.
Somewhere on the outskirts, between rain falling on the powerlines like hissing cold explosions on so many frying pans, I imagine a warehouse, wherein red dead light slices the nicotine haze under hanging plastic curtains. Amongst rolled-back eyes, amongst the buzz of sewing synthesizers and sawed up soundwaves, there happens some seriously dangerous aural carpentry. Putting that hammer to eardrum is Russia’s enigmatic Shortparis.
If my imaginative intro seems a little flourished, I’d like to suggest that it adds a little to the spectacle to know that to get most of the information available on Shortparis I’ve had to tax Google Translate with bag loads of cyrillic, and so some of my best guesses rest between translation and fantasy. What I can tell you is that Shortparis hasn’t made it easy deliberately, and what I know is not far behind what Those-In-The-Know know, because Shortparis is all about hoax, obfuscation, and pretentious, self-imposed hierarchies of knowing. I’ve been told you’ll need level three access before this article is over.
So, the facts: Shortparis is masterminded by Nikolai Komiagin on vocals, who is also an aspiring filmmaker, and former, daring schoolteacher of world art culture, whose controversial hands-on teaching methods allegedly include turning his classroom into a functioning model of a totalitarian state for a month (CTRL+F the article), as well as co-frontman Danila Kholodkov on drums and percussion, whose longer history of performance includes playing in the lo-fi indie folk duo Shokalsky Revenge. Less is known of guitarist and synth player Aleksandr Galianov, bassist Aleksandr Ionin, and drummer Pavel Lesnikov, though they form the backbone of Shortparis’ “avant-pop/experimental team,” whose spastic, dark but danceable music positions itself “in opposition to the modern music scene.”
The music on Пасха is a deep, gushing throb. If the music was a body (a sometimes insightful simile to attempt), it wouldn’t know where it’s at home; a dance club washroom stall popping M? By Kolya’s rattling 1988 Seat Ibiza stereo he’s been mistreating late at night? The throes of a political protest, or even strangely among the hesitant nods at a progressive metal show?
We got anti-gravity bass drums steeped in noir/chernyy reverberations, acid synthesizers, and some hella slapping bass walling in the sometimes soaring, sometimes tender altar boy-esque vocals of Komiagin (who sort of sounds like Matthew Bellamy singing to an orthodox congregation.) Of the more unusual elements, the slide guitar is most prominent, functioning somewhere between a lead guitar and a sort of post-fiddle, scratching at and doing loops around the spaces between noteheads. Occasionally, some refurbished eurodance orchestra stabs, and, of course (!), the accordion. All this wrapped up in dark, unsettling 5 millisecond delays that create metallic, claustrophobic resonances like the inside of a propane tank.
This locates Shortparis somewhere in this wordcloud: experimental avantgarde acid avant-pop darkwave darktronica new wave industrial minimal pop-noir post-irony post-Soviet post-pop post-punk (post peter piper pickled… I’ll post- anything, just try me!)
As most of the tracks, TyTy’s duple, by example, is carried by two of the fattest sounding drumkits, moving between groove and quite militaristic drumlines, tossing the downbeat to and fro in the interlude like it’s the 70s in prog rock. At times, the drums don’t quite lock with the low end, being too round, swollen, and unruly, and so they float over top like shards of rusting tin over black earth. On the subject of Новокузнецк (Novokuznetsk), I was forced to consult bass aficionados far and wide (we convene on Sundays)—the pumping bass synth in this track was deemed unanimously as “juuust unfair,” after which half of us set ourselves to “appear offline.” Towards halfway, the album opens up to earthier sounds and fresh air, and ends on a kind of cathartic lament.
Comparison is a futile exercise with Shortparis. It could be said there’s a little of that Joy Division brooding, with the instrumental layout of, say, New Order, the maddening claustrophobia of Swans, the visceral bodily appeal of Health, and the maximalist attitude of Death Grips (not a joke—video in link may actually cause seizures.) This is to say both something and nothing—as one article puts it, the paradox of Shortparis is that they “manage to remind [us of] everyone and no one at [the same] time,” that is to say, “[a genius] looks like everyone, [while] nobody looks like [them].” (Muzstorona) It seems more and more that the cutting edge in contemporary music is anything that enters into such a six wall mirror.
With a lively festival run, Shortparis has had plenty of opportunity to bring their modernist performance art to the stage, thought they often shun the traditional venue circuit to perform on “unprepared venues” (more on this in just a sec.) The prelude to this particular live performance for example, is a live on-stage feed of Nikolai and Danila gazing at the audience unwaveringly while the facial recognition cursor tracking their faces adds a figurative exclamation point to the already uncomfortable gesture of reverse spectation (does the audience come into its own spectacle status at a show like this?)
Nikolai’s stage presence is androgynous, closed-in, hip-heavy and pelvic, while Danila thrashes the drums full-armed, chest-popping with a certain femininity, engaging the auxiliary drumkit in a heavy, animated act. At other times, they both get into flailing, ragdoll gallivants, body sharp-shootin’ diagonals through space.
Their live show is about the body—it’s vehemently non-virtual, not cordoned off by the stage, and overflows into the audience. Komiagin has been into breaking the audience’s comfort zone in various ways, like resting his body against listeners, or hey, playing at grocery stores. The performers mix with the willing and unwilling public while transactions are still ongoing, and so the performance becomes both a kind of subversion of the space while simultaneously framed by it as a type of transaction. Can I get two bottles of kvas?
The first contact I had with this band was the music video for their most recent release Страшно (Google Translate says “fearfully”), which remains just as enigmatic and mesmerizing as it was upon first viewing. To do it any justice I’d have to write a whole separate article and deep dive into the Russian socio-political climate, but to help you delve in, I advise that you pop it into Infinite Looper while conveyor-belting the YouTube comments through Russian -> English Google Translate. I’ll just say, Aleksandr Galianov is cutting something mean on that guitar!
The totality of the Shortparis multimedia project is a postmodern high collision zone in which encounters between multiple and often conflicting popular musical tropes, aesthetics, and languages (these polyglots sing in Russian, English, French, Macedonian, French, Greek, and Kyrgyz apparently) curve out on unexpected trajectories. Charlotte Hayne of Gigwise says it best when she points out that Shortparis “speak not from the territory of life, but from the territory of the text […] investigate not the nature of man, but the interaction of contradictory contexts.” In this way Shortparis resists profiling. In the future whose roots begin in this postdigital age, all these things happen simultaneously—the filthiest grime sits next to the most polished thing only one Chrome tab distance apart. Shortparis strikes me at times as a few too many Chrome tabs open.
All in all, Shortparis is brazen, maximalist pranksterism. They dream “two dreams,” Nikolai says, “to be big rock stars [… and] at the same time […] to destroy the rock career” (Gigwise) in all its myth-spinning hollowness and fakery. But then how fully they live their theatrics! Therein, Shortparis seems something like a spectacle trying to invert itself, flip itself over, maybe even spectacularize the viewer. It is an alluring, closed-off network of symbols that holds the shape and appeal of a conspiracy without any of the content of one, but marks its fans as conspiracy theorists all the same.