Belarus to Ukraine

 Russia's aggression in Ukraine is already recognised as a a water-shed event: it might signal the return of naked imperialism, with all the brutality and violence it involves.

It may seem lazy to compare Putin to Hitler, but clearly there are key similarities. Like Hitler, Putin's mission has been to restore national pride and what he thinks is his nation's standing in the world. Like Hitler, in Putin's world it does not compute that exerting power does not necessarily rely on force, threat, or concessions.

The other similarities are that it seems that close to 70, Putin probably feels he has little time to accomplish his "mission". Like Hitler, Putin seems to be a gambler, which means he'd go for broke. And like Hitler, Putin's gambles in Chechnya, Syria, Crimea,  so far have paid off, probably making him even more assured of his judgment. Like Hitler, it seems that Putin does not have real advisors around, but rather people that are selected based on their blind trust in him, or too acquiescent to raise any strong objection to his plans.

However, one of the reasons that many commentators seem to have overlooked in the process that led Putin to wage a war on Ukraine,  may have a lot to do with the last elections in Belarus and its aftermath.

In those election, for a long while, it had seemed possible to see the deposition of Lukashenko and the establishment of something resembling a democratic government in Belarus. That people took the street must have scared the shit out of Putin, because a successful overthrown of a dictatorship at Putin's doorstep would have been noted by Russians.

The flying of flags by Belarus protesters that referenced the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth probably added to Putin's nightmares: here were people that he would consider Russians taking inspiration from a republic in the XVI and XVII centuries that was known for being multi-ethnic, built on consensus, and tolerant. Why were so many Jewish people living in Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus before the Holocaust? Because, while religious wars ravaged across Western Europe, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was tolerant of different religions and welcomed Jews (but also Muslim Tartars). 

Despite the prospect of succeeding, the Belarus democracy movement had been violently repressed and stifled: it worked out well for Putin too, as Lukashenko, the aging Belarus dictator, realigned his policies and views to suit Putin. But Ukraine remained a thorn in Putin's side, a state that was increasingly democratic, aligned with Western views, and increasingly successful. As Belarus demonstrated, Ukraine's precedent was dangerous.

Dictatorships are intrinsically unstable, and Putin's might fear he has not built a system that can outlive him. Hence, a democratic state integrated in the EU view of consensus-based policy represents an existential threat to his idea of Russia. Hence his history essays that see Ukraine and other states as always Russian, denying any reference to the history of multinational and multi-faith mixture as well as all aspirations to openness and democracy

Songs of 2019 #3 Fontaines DC: Big

Fontaines DC wrote a bunch of great songs, most of which were in their debut album Dogrel. But to me Big is the one that stood out.

It's a fast piece along the long line of other punk or post-punk anthems. It starts with a compelling beat that keeps the piece going all along, and it's noisy and loud. 

And it's short, less than 2 minutes, and this is also in keeping with a post-punk ethos: e.g. hardly any song by a great post-punk band like Minutemen lasted over 2 minutes. Who needs 5 minutes when you can make an impact with less than 2?

The lyrics make this all the more impactful: Fontaines describe Dublin through the eyes of a pusher, and in an ingenious way touch upon threads like edonism, escapism, ambition, the link between the city's past as a colonial outpost and its present as a city of diverging, and at times contrasting trajectories. All that in less than 2 minutes, mind...

And it's remarkable how there is nothing contrived about this: Fontaines not only sound from the place, but their lyrics display empathy and love for the place, its history, its people. They do not "caricature", they do not watch people from afar... this is music from the people, to the people.

So, aye, this song really enshriened Fontaines in the heaven of great bands, and I will always come back to "Big" and Fontaines DC

Songs of 2019 #4: Too Real - Fontaines DC

Too Real - Fontaines DC

Well, Fontaines DC shouldn't need any introduction by now.

I had heard some of their earlier songs, but it is with Too Real that I really started to pay attention.

And I think it is with this song they really started to raise the bar in their game.
For one thing, they started to become noisier and more daring.

Too Real has a uncommon structure, with an inro of drum and bass guitar creating a crescendo, that is then followed by a dystonic guitar noise, created by sliding the neck of the bottle on the strings.
The "song" then settles into a more conventional structure before  returning to the guitar noise and an almost "Motorik" bass guitar and drum beat.  It has a lot layers all very cleverly and originally combined to create something that sounds original and magnificent.

This is also the song where all started to click for me. As in most of their songs, Fontaines DC talk from the perspective of some character. Their characters and stories are local, all based around Dublin, where they live, but by focusing on 'real' characters, they provide an insight into topical and relatable themes that feels authentic and never contrived.
In this case, they speak from the perspective of some disenchanted character getting to grips with the need/desire for material wealth. The line "None can revolution lead with selfish needs aside" strikes for its directness, and is somehow poetic in describing something quite prosaic.

In this song Fontaines DC also refer to a poem by TS Eliot. They accomplish that all in an aggro post-punk piece with references to noise-rock and other avant-garde music. Amazing!

Songs of 2019 #5: Don't Cling to Life - The Murder Capital

Don't Cling to Life - The Murder Capital

The Murder Capital are another new band that takes inspiration from Post-Punk. They are also Irish from Dublin, and while they are not singing specifically about Irish themes, their being from Dublin is evident in different ways. These characteristics mean they have been somehow overshadowed by another excellent Irish band like Fontaines DC (more about them in the future). Which is a pity, because The Murder Capital's debut album "When I Have Fears" is an outstanding piece work.

The title of the album provides a good clue about what The Murder Capital sing about, which is mostly existential themes. Their post-punk style is very well-suited to deal with these themes in an emotionally eloquent way. It is easy to spot some of their influences, most notably from Joy Division. And yet The Murder Capital combine these and articulate them in a way that provides sparks and substance.

There are some great songs on their debut album, like More is Less, and The Green and Blue. But a good example of what they are capable of is Don't Cling to Life. It's a song about death, inspired by the death of a band member's relative. Despite the dejected theme and lack of hope in an afterlife (Don't cling to life, there's nothing on the other side), it's a punchy song and has almost a celebratory tone of the fleeting moments and bliss we can engender in this world (Let's dance and cry, so we remember why we die).

They do all this with mastery and without sounding contrived. So enjoy...

Songs of 2019 #6

Patricia Lalor : Anymore

Patricia Lalor is a teenager from Ireland. She can be considered an apposite example of singers and songwriters reaching audiences from -literally- their own bedrooms.

As this article by Alexis Petridis points out, technology and social media have created opportunities for many to reach audiences directly, without any type of mediation. It is encouraging that this has created opportunities, and these have been taken particularly by young women, who can create music and songs without having to come to terms with an industry that -too often- exploits women artists and pressure them to comply with the rulebook of an industry still dominated by men and a patriarchal mindset.

As an admirer of the post-punk ethos of "do-it-yourself" and its subversion of music business, I cannot help hoping this may spawn more interesting and diverse music.

Patricia Lalor has gained many followers on YouTube thanks to her covers of songs from Mac DeMarco's Chamber of Reflection to Hozier's Take Me to Church. She has a melancholic and soothing voice, full of longing, and her rich tonal palette enlivens any song she sings.

She has also started writing her own songs, and Anymore is a very solid piece. The bittersweet melody and her outstanding voice makes it a wonderful song. And it is a very well written song. The quality of song-writing is particularly evident when the song is stripped bare of the arrangements, as in its live version.

Patricia Lalor is a very talented singer and songwriter, and I hope she will produce more great music in years to come.

Songs of 2019 #7

Pillow Queens - Gay Girls

Another all-female group, Pillow Queens come from Dublin. They also happen to be homosexual, and this fact is important to appreciate the meaning of their song Gay Girls.

In the song they sing about a girl growing up in a traditional catholic background while coming to terms with her homosexuality. It's all depicted in a sort of inner consciousness stream, with thoughts, phrases, and names mingling. It is subtle and clever.

The music opens with a melancholic and intimate tone, but evolves towards an anthemic finale. It's a great Indie song.

The video for the song gives another hint about the wider scope of the song: in it, a child finds comfort and solace from fraught family dynamics in friendship. At the same time, the video plays with the tropes of a catholic upbringing (Confirmation dresses, the Eucharist): it is defiant and impudent. And somehow, it seems an apposite commentary on the current attitudes in the Republic of Ireland: a country that, after a referendum that approved Equal Marriage, sees itself as being open and socially progressive.

Songs of 2019 #8

Powpig - Mayday

One among other all-female rock bands, Powpig come from Limerick in Ireland, and it is astonishing they are barely out of school.

Despite their young age, they demonstrate great aptitude at using some of the canons of pop music in original and inventive ways. And, together with this aptitude, they also display an 'in your face' attitude: they don't seem to care what you and I may think of them, they will keep doing their own thing and have fun while doing it.

Their sound and attitude reminds me of another all-female band, the Slits, but this might be a lazy and ungenerous comparison: Powpig may have many influences, but they seem intent in creating their own niche.

I saw Powpig play live this year: they supported Band Girl and opened their gigs in Dublin this November. On stage they displayed great competence and mastery: the drummer is particularly good, while all the other members swapped instruments from song to song, showing a further interesting side to the band.

Mayday is a particularly good song, with  jangling guitars, and a nice change of tempo by the end of  the song. Like many good pop songs, it feels as if it was just coming naturally on the spot, and all the sophistication that keeps it flowing is hidden from view. In mastering the art of making something sophisticated and clever sound simple and easy, Powpig seems to follow on the path of other great pop-groups like Orange Juice and Aztec Camera.

They have not yet released a full album, although some of the songs they played in Dublin indicate they are producing solid songs for further outputs.

Songs of 2019 #9

Drahla - Twelve Divisions of the Day

Drahla are, for wanting of a better word, a post-punk band.

Many other bands seem to get inspiration from that period between the end of the 70s and the early 80s when the ethos of punk and technological innovations allowed many bands space to experiment and reach new audiences. I think that the ethos and sound of post-punk is still relevant today, so I welcome bands like Drahla.

Twelve Divisions of the Day is a good example of the dark unsettling undertone of many of Drahla's songs from their 2019 album Useless Coordinates. I could have indeed chosen almost any other song from their album as an exemplar of Drahla's mastery, e.g. Stimulus for Living, or Pyramid Estate: it is a very solid album.

The heavy bass lines may remind of Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees, but the uneven, angular structures of the song, with the introduction of a saxophone to provide further sharpness, make their sound interesting. And it's a sound that it still relevant in conveying and emphasising universal, and yet very topical, feelings of alienation and estrangement.