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15 European Pop Acts You Might Not Know, but Should - The New York Times

Posted by Brian Reyes on May 22, 2019
15 European Pop Acts You Might Not Know, but Should - The New York Times

Charlotte Hadden for The New York Times

Onstage at a grimy club in Poznan, Poland, Nastya Kreslina was done up like a funereal porcelain doll. Kreslina, the 23-year-old vocalist of the Moscow electro duo IC3PEAK, had black-painted lips, and a long braid ran down her front from the crown of her head.

Behind Kreslina, her bandmate, Nikolay Kostylev, was bent over a synth, his face painted white. Over distorted bass and whining synths, Kreslina’s cold, high-pitched voice veered from a whisper to a scream.

As the duo launched into its song “Death No More,” the crowd cheered. “I fill my eyes with kerosene,” Kreslina sang. “Let it all burn. All of Russia is watching me. Let it all burn.”

“Death No More” is IC3PEAK’s most popular song to date, and one of its most politically provocative. In the video for the song, IC3PEAK indulge in a series of subversive acts in front of Moscow landmarks, from self-immolation in front of a government building to feasting on raw meat outside Lenin’s Tomb. In one scene, Kreslina and Kostylyov pass what appears to be a joint between them.

It was meant purely as “ironic fun,” Kreslina said in a recent interview. But it has caused the band problems.

Since last fall, the Russian authorities have made numerous efforts to stop IC3PEAK from performing, Kreslina said. She said that agents of Russia’s main intelligence agency, the F.S.B., had ordered her and Kostylyov to leave the city of Perm, about 900 miles east of Moscow, and then trailed their vehicle. (The F.S.B. did not reply to a request for comment.) IC3PEAK often plays gigs in secret now.

“It’s like the older generation just woke up from a deep sleep — they’re afraid of our youth culture, and are using old Soviet methods to try to control it,” she said.

Charlotte Hadden for The New York Times

Gigs abroad, like the one in Poznan, usually run more smoothly, Kreslina said, but the band misses the adrenaline of the cat-and-mouse games with the Russian authorities. These were exciting — “even fun sometimes” — and helped to build interest in the band, she added.

But the type of censorship the band really fears is online, Kostylyov said. He and Kreslina make all their own music videos, in which they create a gender-fluid, extravagantly costumed fantasy realm of the macabre. For Russian bands, a strong visual identity is crucial for getting noticed: You can’t build an identity if your clips are blocked.

The Russian authorities appear to be “trying to build something like China’s firewall, to ban pages and videos,” Kostylyov said.

Although building a fan base abroad might give the band a way to get around the clampdown at home, Kreslina and Kostylyov said that it is Russian youth that they most want to connect with. They have moved away from singing in English, recording their last two albums in Russian. “You can see this language shift in all the underground music scene at home,” Kostylov said.

IC3PEAK attributed the focus on Russian audiences, ironically, to playing in the United States. “Everybody there was so focused on identity, and fixated on our being Russian,” Kostylyov said. “It was like looking through other people’s eyes at ourselves.”

He added that the “shame from all the usual post-Soviet complexes” lifted when the band realized their “roots are interesting to people.”

IC3PEAK’s latest album, “Fairytale,” is steeped in Russian folklore. “We have a very good Russian word: toska,” Kreslina said of the new album. “It’s untranslatable. It’s like really deeply sad, but also very beautiful, and you’re kind of enjoying that.” (The Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov once said that English had no single word to express the depth and complexity of toska.)

Like melancholy, perhaps?

“Nooo,” the band scoffed in unison. “Toska,” Kreslina said, is IC3PEAK’s “way of looking at the world.”

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