Innovative, Spirited, Resilient—Ukraine’s Electronic Scene Stands Tall

Author : Chelsi Sherrell
March 25, 2022

Innovative, Spirited, Resilient—Ukraine’s Electronic Scene Stands Tall

Not long after Russian bombs started falling on Ukraine last month, Oleh Shpudeiko stuffed some socks and T-shirts in a bag, grabbed the bulky modular synthesizer he has spent the past few years assembling, and set off with his mother, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and cannot walk without assistance, for the Polish border. “It was hell,” says Shpudeiko, an avant-garde composer and electronic musician who fuses baroque counterpoint and ambient soundscaping under the alias Heinali.

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They found a driver (Shpudeiko can’t drive), spent 25 hours in the car, and went 50 hours without sleep, navigating checkpoints and roads clogged with fellow evacuees. Seven and a half miles from the border with Poland, they found themselves stuck in a line of cars moving just 300 feet per hour. Finally, the exhausted travelers found room in another car headed in a different direction, and he managed to get his mother across the Hungarian border the next day. The 36-year-old Shpudeiko was forced to remain behind: Able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 60 are prohibited from leaving the country.

“There were several times I was sure we’d perish on the road,” Shpudeiko says. “However, hearing stories of other Ukrainian families, I understand that we were extremely fortunate.”

“There were several times I was sure we’d perish on the road. However, hearing stories of other Ukrainian families, I understand that we were extremely fortunate.”

Oleh Shpudeiko

Listen: Heinali’s (Oleh Shpudeiko) Modular Synth Mix

In recent years, experimental musicians like Shpudeiko, and his peers in club music, have been steadily built Ukraine’s reputation as a crucial node in Europe’s electronic underground. The country’s scene began coming into its own after 2014’s Maidan Revolution, in which protestors seeking closer links with Europe ousted a pro-Kremlin president and ushered in a new era of democracy and reform. In the wake of those events, young ravers clad in secondhand ’90s fashion began carving out a new future underneath the slogan “poor but cool.”

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Since then, parties and clubs like CXEMA, Closer, and ∄ have helped Ukraine establish a reputation as one of the most stylish (and hedonistic) electronic scenes in the world. A recent New Yorker article about the devastating effects of the war even acknowledged Kyiv as home to “a techno music scene that is arguably among the best on the Continent.” But musicians who just a few weeks ago were playing all-night sets and tending to their Bandcamp pages are now forced to fend for their very survival. Clubs are shuttered. Some musicians have fled the country; others are delivering food and medicine to besieged residents, working as shelter coordinators, and shouldering weapons on the front lines.

Long-standing ties between Ukrainian ravers and their Russian counterparts are being tested like never before, too. Electronic music has always prized togetherness, but Putin’s aggression has shattered some artists’ idealism in the power of music to erase borders. Shpudeiko, who grew up in a Russian-speaking family, tells that, for him, “There can be no ties with Russian culture after Mariupol,” citing the besieged port city that has fallen under heavy Russian bombardment over the past few weeks. That possibility, he adds, “died with the thousands of (predominantly Russophone) civilians they’ve murdered.”

Whatever course the war takes, it is clear that Ukraine will never be the same. Like so many others, Shpudeiko is grappling with this new reality. “Death brings itself to the equation every day, and time feels less linear,” he says. In that fog, he finds his own musical tastes suddenly upended. Though he was always drawn to subtle, nuanced sounds, such ambiguities feel alien to him now. “There’s no flicker anymore, but a blazing flame that casts black and white shadows,” he says. “This war produced a clear, excruciatingly obvious distinction between good and evil. I’ve yet to realize how it will affect me as an artist—that is, if I survive.”

“This war produced a clear, excruciatingly obvious distinction between good and evil. I’ve yet to realize how it will affect me as an artist—that is, if I survive.”

Oleh Shpudeiko

He’s not alone. While many international labels and artists have been raising money for humanitarian causes, some Ukrainian musicians have responded to the crisis with benefit compilations, paeans to the national spirit, and, in one case, an anthology of a life’s work, should the worst come to pass.

Here is a selection of Ukrainian releases from the past few weeks, months, and years that testify to the innovation and resilience of the country’s electronic scene.

Listen: John’s Object’s (Timur Dzhafarov) ‘Life’

In late February, the Kyiv-based producer John Object (aka Timur Dzhafarov) posted a staggering, 58-song album to Bandcamp: a compendium of the past 12 years of his music called, simply, ‘Life’. A heartbreaking message accompanied the album. “My name is Timur, I am a Ukrainian, and Russia has sent thousands and thousands of soldiers into Ukraine,” he began. “Currently we are all being bombed. I have no idea what my life is going to be like tomorrow and how much longer I have, so it felt appropriate to share an archive of my 2010-2019 works, in case I never get to do that when I’m old.”

“I have no idea what my life is going to be like tomorrow and how much longer I have, so it felt appropriate to share an archive of my 2010-2019 works, in case I never get to do that when I’m old.”

John Object (Timur Dzhafarov)

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John Object’s music would be worthy of attention even without this sobering context. His very earliest productions demonstrate a keen musical sensibility: Just check the cycling loops of the melancholic ‘Draft,’ he made when he was only 14 years old. His early years oscillate between ambient soundscapes, ’80s-inspired synth-wave, and glitch-ridden techno. By his 20s, he’d moved into more experimental territory, suggesting comparisons to SOPHIE, Oneohtrix Point Never, or Mark Fell—and occasionally busted out disorienting edits of Drake or Beyoncé.

Since postingLife’ to Bandcamp, Dzhafarov, 26, has enlisted in the army; on his Instagram stories, he maintains a running commentary on the war. On a good day, he scores a vegetarian rations packet; on a not-so-good day, he endures hours of worry, having mistaken a photograph of a bombed-out apartment building where his mother lives. He pleads, day after day, for NATO to impose a no-fly zone. “I hate all of this,” he wrote on March 4. “My life has been broken in two.”

I hate all of this. My life has been broken in two.”

John Object (Timur Dzhafarov)

Listen: Various Artists by Label ВОЛЯ (Muscut)

Dima Nikolaienko founded the Muscut label in Kyiv in 2012, and over the past decade, it has turned into a crucial hub for experimental electronic musicians from the region, including Odessa artists Chillera and Mlin Patz. Nikolaienko currently runs the label from his home in Tallinn, Estonia, but he says that he and his wife are planning to return to Ukraine as soon as the war ends.

Released last week, this benefit compilation for Ukrainian relief and resistance efforts includes 17 tracks that map a broad spectrum of the country’s outer-limits electronic music.

Odessa producer Bryozone suffuses haunting ambient chords with smoky tape hiss; Kyiv’s Radiant Futur runs easy-listening chimes through infinite reverb, and Tofudj pairs eerie dissonance with scuttling noises suggesting underwater critters on the move. It’s not all so dark: Dub-jazz trio Chillera’s “Green flanger (live)” drifts on a weightless, psychedelic groove, offering a brief reminder of what peace could feel like.

Listen: Nikolaienko’s ‘Nostalgia por Mesozóica

Nikolaienko has described Muscut’s mission as a kind of “audio archaeology”—perhaps in reference to the dusty, cryptic air of the label’s music, which takes inspiration from the abstracted sounds that Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire were creating with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the ’60s.

On the label founder’s upcoming record, due out in May, Nikolaienko extends his archaeological obsession to the natural history museum. ‘Nostalgia por Mesozócia‘ is framed as an imaginary soundtrack for fossil exhibitions and dinosaur dioramas. Its nostalgia is many-layered: Analog chirps and liquid gurgles summon images of 200-million-year-old rainforests while wheezing organs and clanking marimbas evoke the easy-listening exotica made popular in the ’50s by artists like Arthur Lyman. Mingling with surrealism, it makes for an engrossing trip into the past.

Listen: Valentina Goncharova’s ‘Recordings 1987-1991 Vols. 1 and 2

In line with Muscut’s archaeological interests, Shukai—Ukrainian for “hunt” or “look for”—is their sub-label dedicated primarily to Soviet-era music for film and television. This two-part collection is dedicated to the work of Valentina Goncharova, a Kyiv-born composer who studied classical music in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) before moving to Tallinn, Estonia, and developing her own self-taught strains of tape music and electro-acoustic music. ‘Vol. 1‘ focuses on heavily abstracted electronics, while ‘Vol. 2 gathers drone-based pieces for violin, woodwinds, guitar, and voice; both are absolutely otherworldly.

Listen: Katarina Gryvul’s ‘Tysha’

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A mixture of strings, heavily abstracted electronics, and Katarina Gryvul’s bewitching voice, ‘TYSHA’ is a stunningly complex work that fuses avant-garde classical, ambient, IDM, and folk. The Ukrainian-born, Austrian-based artist may descend from a lineage of experimental musicians like Björk, but the sound of ‘TYSHA’ is startlingly original, its emotions at times overwhelming. Gryvul made the album—which was released just before the war and whose title is Ukrainian for “silence”—while still reeling from the effects of isolation during the pandemic. “It made me feel like I was torn between two realities, virtual and real, and did not belong to any of them,” she said of the experience. Today, that description might apply equally well to the unsettling duality felt by members of the Ukrainian diaspora around the world, as they watch the horrors of the war from afar.

Watch: Katarina Gryvul’s ‘Tysha’ (Music Video)

Standard Deviation, which published Gryvul’s album, is affiliated with the Kyiv club known simply as ∄, a central hub in the city’s acclaimed techno scene. It’s barely a year and a half old, but in that short time the label has put out a wide array of material, ranging from Omon Breaker’s trancey techno—representative of the fast, hard sound beloved by Ukrainian ravers—to mind-bending IDM from Diana Azzuz & Rina Priduvalova, psychedelic synth music from Voin Oruwu, and melancholicic ambience from Emil Asadow (bearing the eerily prescient title ‘A Home No Longer Exists‘). In March, Standard Deviation partnered with fellow Ukrainian label Mystictrax, run by the artist known as Lostlojic, to release ‘РАЗОМ ЗА УКРАЇНУ / TOGETHER FOR UKRAINE‘, a 65-track benefit featuring international artists alongside locals.

Listen: Koloah’s ‘Millennium Sun

Electronic music has long turned to dystopia for creative inspiration, and Kyiv producer Koloah was inspired by science-fiction films like ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Akira’ in creating his 2021 album ‘Millennium Sun’. Upon its release four months ago, he described the record as being “about the new era where science and technology coexist with wars and dictatorship, where world hunger exists alongside space travel.” In retrospect, those remarks seem almost uncomfortably prescient, and ‘Millennium Sun’ treats those ideas with the seriousness they deserve. A mixture of cosmic synths, pummeling breakbeats, and fractured glitch rhythms, makes for a dark, intense listen.

Listen: Poly Chain’s ‘Currency

Kyiv native Poly Chain (Sasha Zakrevska) makes pulsing electronic music infused with mystery. Her debut album, 2017’s ‘Music for Candy Shops,’ folded bittersweet ambient melodies with crackling rhythms reminiscent of ’90s IDM; on 2019’s album ‘+/-,’ a pair of 15-minute synth excursions rippled like cosmic waves.

Poly Chain’s most substantial release to date remains ‘Currency‘, released late in 2019 on Warsaw’s Mondoj label. Twitching and flickering, the album’s five tracks teeter on the edge between ambient music and techno: Monotone synths that fizz and feature harmonic rain falling like fireworks. Recently, she has been moving into the more aggressive territory: October’s ‘Lake Lemuria EP features four tracks of analog electro, while ‘Dogtooth, sinks into industrial-strength techno and fast-paced acid elements.

Listen: Heinali’s ‘Madrigals’

Heinali’s 2020 album ‘Madrigals‘ is a part of a recent trend fusing electronic music with folk and medieval styles. Inspired by a polyphonic choral style from the 16th and 17th centuries, the Kyiv composer designed modular synthesizer patches to create “generative counterpoint”—that has, complex, evolving harmonies—that he then fleshed out with viola, violin, oboe, and theorbo (a lute from the period). The four long, evolving tracks that his research yielded offer an entrancing blend of baroque tonalities, minimalist arpeggios, and new-age radiance in which synthetic and acoustic timbres fused and cute over and over again.

Listen: Konakov’s ‘RIP 90s’

Kyiv’s Bodya Konakov is not shy about his nostalgia for an earlier era of electronic music. Over the years, he’s produced so many songs referencing golden-age ambient techno like Aphex Twin’sSelected Ambient Works 85-92′ that on last year’sRIP 90s,’ he felt compelled to cut himself off. “Come on, we live in 2021! Don’t look back!” he exclaimed, admitting that he was “absolutely tired” of the vintage style, as well as his reliance on it. It’s possible he was being too hard on himself: This 33-track clearinghouse of sketches and demos may be steeped in classic sounds like Roland TR-909 and Yamaha DX-7 synthesizer, but it’s sumptuously textured house and techno is far too inventive to be mistaken for a mere exercise in retro pastiche.

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Konakov’s ШЩЦ (Ssshitsss) label, meanwhile, keeps pushing forward. Alien Body’s single ‘Мрія,’ released on March 1, pays tribute to a famous Ukrainian transport plane—the world’s largest aircraft—that had been designed to carry the Soviet space shuttle, saw years of service delivering humanitarian supplies around the world and was destroyed by Russian bombing in the current war. Proceeds from the single, the ambient-techno track, goes to Kyiv civil defense efforts.

Konakov has been living in London for the past six months; he was planning to return to Kyiv on the day of the Russian invasion, but that was impossible. In the meantime, he has thrown himself into Ukraine’s defense from afar. “I want to say thank you to the people who support Ukraine, make donations, go to demonstrations, and spread the truth,” he wrote in an email. “Together we will stop this war. It is a war between humanity and the Russian Mordor, and our power is unity.”

“I want to say thank you to the people who support Ukraine, make donations, go to demonstrations, and spread the truth. Together we will stop this war. It is a war between humanity and the Russian Mordor, and our power is unity.”

Bodya Konakov


Originally reported from Pitchfork