Jurij DOBRIAKOV | An Attempt at Mapping the Lithuanian Underground Music Scene

Thinking about the phenomenon of the underground and trying to make sense of it never bores me. What fascinates me most about it is its incredible shapeshifting ability – it is hardly possible to determine the contours of the underground in any long-term sense. The alternative, non-commercial, DIY scene constantly mutates, migrates, changes its internal structure and escapes conclusive definitions. Yet one thing is certain: it exists somewhere in some form at any given moment.

Nevertheless, there must be some minimal conditions that make the underground what it is and set it apart from the ‘mainstream.’ I would dare say that one of them is a certain purism, which manifests itself in a twofold way. First, the underground, while constantly pushing the boundaries of what is imaginable and appropriate (in the case of this text, in music), resists trends and fads, which may be progressive at first but inevitably become mass-oriented and stagnant over time – only to be replaced by next trends. The underground music scene, then, must be paradoxically open and somewhat elitist at the same time to preserve its alternative core, refusing to go with the flow of changing musical fashions.

Second, the underground mentality is incompatible with self-interest and narcissism. Nothing would happen in the underground were it based on some logic of monetary gratification or meticulous construction of an outward image. As fluid and individualistic as it may be, the underground scene is first and foremost a close-knit community that cares primarily about collaboration and shared appreciation instead of profit or showing off. It is not only critical (of the mainstream culture) but also self-critical and self-reflective, which is precisely what distinguishes the underground from more hedonistic and pragmatic cultural domains.

It must be noted, of course, that the aforementioned characteristic traits of the underground scene are more of an ideal state than a real-life scenario. Like it or not, not all members of this community are that idealistic at all times, and the underground itself is constantly under threat of becoming a trend as well, when its audience gets watered down by outsiders who are not eager to become a part of the community, but rather act as onlookers attracted by the curiosity factor. Strictly speaking, each of the underground subscenes, be it metal, industrial or noise music, rests on probably several dozen ‘hardcore’ members who are not mere spectators but frequently the very same people who keep the scene going and produce its vital content. Which is perhaps only logical.

Furthermore, knowing how dynamic and genre-defying the underground scene is, it is sometimes hard to say exactly who belongs to which subscene, where the dividing lines between the subscenes run, and whether there is indeed a clear border between the underground and the mainstream. Sometimes it seems that any attempt at an anthropological exploration of the underground is doomed to failure.

All of the things said above perfectly apply to the Lithuanian underground scene. That said, it still seems worth trying to draw at least a rough ‘map’ of the various ‘tribes’ of this diverse milieu based on the approximate stylistic orientations and favoured habitats of each subscene.

Experimentation beyond genres and conventions

This niche is perhaps the most adventurous, freeform and performance-oriented. It does not stick to any particular stylistic current and is also in constant search for various peripheral cultural spaces in geographical terms. In the recent years it has enjoyed a remarkable upsurge thanks mainly to the activities of the record label and event collective Agharta, headed by Arma (also known as Bruzgynai) who is himself a prominent experimental performer and improviser. The sound of this subscene can be broadly described by keywords like free improv, psychedelia, ambient/noise, performance, leftfield, experimentation, electro-acoustic, drone, weird pop etc. Although a significant part of Agharta’s activity is focused on bringing foreign acts to Lithuania, it has also made a crucial contribution to consolidating the local scene and providing the latter with a platform for further development.

The most characteristic Lithuanian acts associated with this subscene include Tiese, Arma, Refusenik (Arturas Bumšteinas), Lys, Cutthroats, Flesh Flash, Sala, Sovijus, Gintas K, Devita, Gana2 (Antanas Dombrovskij), Verslo Rizikos Rezervas, Jaras Ramunas, Rumunija, OBŠRR, Vilkduja, Daina Dieva, Raimundas Eimontas, Sheep Got Waxed and some others. Needless to say, all of them are very different in terms of both style and level of activity, and some of them could easily be attributed to other subscenes, but they often share the stage during various events and a lot of them periodically collaborate with each other.

As already mentioned, another distinctive feature of this tribe is that it does not limit itself to established venues and big cities, instead actively exploring alternative spaces like underground clubs and bars, provincial and peripheral cultural centres (such as Kirtimai Culture Centre in Vilnius, or culture centres in smaller towns like Jonava or Ukmergė), and abandoned industrial buildings. This makes it even more decentralized and thus accessible mostly to those who know where to look for it, which surely adds to its underground aura. Although this subscene revolves primarily around small-scale one-off gigs and event series, two of the more visible events that represent it are the festivals Speigas and Sounds of the Underground (SOTU Vilnius), a collaboration with a Dutch festival of the same name.

Extreme pleasures for noise connoiseurs

Closely related to the subscene discussed above is the more sonically radical power electronics, harsh noise, dark/drone ambient and industrial niche. While more stylistically conservative, it is also more obscure and exclusive, as the sound it cultivates is definitely not for everyone’s ear and the associated visual aesthetic is accordingly not for the weak of heart. Although it frequently shares the same spaces and even same events with the more eclectic experimental scene, it is nevertheless quite distinctive, and has its own distribution platforms, such as the Terror and Autarkeia labels. In addition, the centres of attraction for this subscene are the larger-scale regular events like Nordic Audio Modern, Oct Hernia, Armageddon Descends (dedicated half to extreme noise and half to metal) and, to some extent, the aforementioned Speigas festival.

The most prominent Lithuanian projects in this category include Pogrom, Hassokk, Lapot, Oorchach, Oro! Oro!, Maldur Atai, Vidinė Ramybė, Fulmar, Body Cargo, McKaras/Ataka, Gys/Sable Mouvant, NULIS:S:S:S and Velemara. Some of the people behind them also have side or collaborative projects in a different vein.

Archaic industrialism

Particularly interesting is the diverse yet strongly like-minded circle of artists and listeners who swarm around the darkly esoteric archaic folk-tinged post-industrial current represented primarily by the label and event company Dangus, particularly through its much-awaited annual festivals and events like Mėnuo Juodaragis, Velniop! and Auszra 16. Drawing equally on such seminal international post-industrial and neofolk acts as Coil, Death in June, Current 93, Nurse With Wound etc. and the ancient Baltic pagan ambience as well as Lithuanian ethnic musical tradition, it is a genuinely tribe-like and well-established scene that has been around for nearly two decades and shows no signs of disintegration in the near future. Many of this scene’s members come from a metal background, yet have become interested in a much wider array of dark music styles along the way. The musical aesthetic of this milieu ranges from unaltered reconstructions of authentic Baltic folkloric material to more liberal excursions into the post-folk and post-industrial territories which are all united by their pantheistic sentiment for nature, mysticism and broadly understood archaic tradition.

Currently the most active representatives of this musical and subcultural community are the already mentioned dark experimentators Vilkduja, Sala, Daina Dieva, OBŠRR, Lys, McKaras, as well as Girnų Giesmės, Donis, Raguvos, Spanxti, Driezhas, Wejdas and Skeldos. The more folk-oriented, non-electronic acts include Kūlgrinda, Ugniavijas, Atalyja, Gyvata and some others, though many of them hardly classify as properly underground (yet they still occupy the same ethno-related symbolic cultural space). To some extent, goth acts like Commedia d’el Arte, Mano Juodoji Sesuo and Siela, though quite different in sound, belong here as well.

It is also worth noting the activity of the Moontrix organization, based in the small resort town of Anykščiai, which has strong ties with such major foreign projects as the Hafler Trio or Nurse With Wound and hosts the annual autumn event called The Machine Started to Flow into a Vein (a sort of tribute to Coil’s late John Balance), which brings together Lithuanian artists (including the local acts Morrigun and Ganzer Maschine) and the likes of the aforementioned international stars, and draws a dedicated audience from the cities of Vilnius and Kaunas.

The twisted side of metal

The metal scene has always been strong in Lithuania, and not only in big cities. However, in recent years it has become apparent that the more traditional and well-defined genres like black or death metal have become somewhat stagnant, so a whole new generation of more experimental yet equally heavy post-metal bands playing sludge, stoner/doom, atmospheric/shoegaze, heavy psychedelia, avant-metal etc. has emerged. One could argue that these bands define what is most interesting in Lithuanian metal-related music today, and typically the geography of their performances (in the sense of subcultural spaces and events) is wider than that of the ‘pure’ metal bands.

Among the bands central to this scene one finds such fairly new names as Au-Dessus, ne_, Greaves and Hellhookah as well as the more established acts like N R C S S S T, Sraigės Efektas, Extravaganza, Nyksta and Devlsy. The organizational ‘infrastructure’ that predominantly keeps it alive includes the promotion companies Charivari and ALT Events, as well as the venues nArauti and the legendary XI20. One may notice that recently there has been a considerable upsurge in the publishing and touring activity (for instance, Au-Dessus and Sraigės Efektas have just published their debut full-lengths) in this scene, which might mean that it is one of the most promising ones in the Lithuanian underground.

Beyond punk

In the punk/hardcore camp, things have also been developing outside the more conventional genre coordinates, so the sound of some of the currently freshest bands in this niche is fairly crossover compared to what the scene looked like five or ten years ago. They mix punk/hardcore, especially the more atmospheric screamo varieties, with metal, shoegaze, post-rock and other darker currents, so that the resulting aesthetic is more visceral than brutal and protest-oriented. The bands in question are the likes of Red Water, No Real Pioneers and La Chudra, and they often draw an audience that is not necessarily a typical one for punk concerts. Of course, the more straightforward grindcore (Faršas), hardcore/crust (Attaktix, ZLPGNR) and punk/oi (Lucky Strike, Toro Bravo, Netvarkoi) sound is still in high demand as well, and keeps its underground loyalty. The venues associated with this subscene – one of the oldest ones in the Lithuanian underground in general – are more or less the same as for the post-metal niche.

Dark synthetics

It is debatable whether the niche that could be characterized by stylistic keywords like synthwave, minimal wave, EBM, dreampop, post-punk revival etc. is really underground in the proper sense. After all, these musical currents are presently popular with quite a broad circle of urban youths, and do not generally occupy a particularly peripheral space, even though they are often presented as being alternative. Still, darker electronic dance music events organized by collectives like Sha: TRI: Ah, D.O.S. Club or Vilnius Psych Test attract a part of the crowd which usually frequents the more obscure musical happenings. There are not so many local artists working in this vein (one notable exception being the fairly new Vilnius-based project YXO), and the scene is more DJ-oriented (with Das Polyester, Analoginis Polivoksas, Aerobica, Unheimliche DJs and Paul Nevermind being among the most prominent), although live performances by foreign acts are not rare.

Others and elsewhere

There are at least several other Lithuanian underground subscenes, which I will not discuss in detail here due to either their fragmented and sporadic nature or my own lack of more thorough acquaintance with them. For one, there is something like a scene centred around performance-heavy free jazz, with figures like the New-York based Dalius Naujokaitis-Naujo, who regularly comes to Lithuania, and the versatile reed player Liudas Mockūnas (and their Traffic Trio project), or the noisy guitar virtuoso Juozas Milašius occasionally playing in different trans-genre line-ups at various underground spots, though most of these instrumentalists are also well-established in the more academic jazz domain.

The mostly club-oriented techno scene, which was once almost completely underground, is now fairly mainstream, but has its more experimental branches such as the gigs organized by Didžiųjų Agregatų Inžinieriai or the ambient-oriented events held at the industrial Cechas 48 venue.

Not much is known about the current state of the grittier side of hip-hop, as most of the scene is now focused on quite trendy and club-oriented varieties of urban beats and bass music (for examples check the Despotin Beat Club collective, MC Mesijus x Munpauzn or individual Djs/producers like Boyfriend and Jacques Gaspard Biberkopf), but there is occasionally word of some less promoted street-wise artists dwelling in more remote quarters.

Finally, there is some local activity in smaller towns that is not very visible from the big cities (even in Kaunas, the second largest city, there exists a long-standing performance-oriented avant-garde music tradition exemplified by Ramūnas Jaras, Raimundas Eimontas and the like, which is quite distinct from the Vilnius scene), as well as individual bands and projects that resist attribution to any particular scene or tribe, such as the avant-garde art rock band Ir Visa Tai Kas Yra Gražu Yra Gražu. One might argue that such obscure phenomena are as underground as it gets.

Again, I would like to stress once more that the distinctions between the scenes described in this text are highly speculative and in no way 100 percent precise. These subscenes overlap and merge, rejecting strict stylistic confines and divisions, which makes some observers speak of the rise of the ‘post-subcultural’ era, and this makes sense to some extent. However, I hope that this post-subcultural state does not entail the demise of the phenomenon of the underground itself, as it is precisely the latter that keeps the general culture vibrant from below and curbs the cultural homogenization and consumption-centred gentrification of the spaces of creativity.

STYLES & SCENES | Lithuanian Music Link No. 18