For 25 years, Μелодия could be found on the sleeves of all domestic records and reissues in the former Soviet Union. It stands for “melody” in Russian, and is the name of the only record label in the socialist state. A mammoth state-run operation, Melodiya oversaw all aspects of record making and marketing and was at one time one of the largest record labels in the world. Today, it is the richest archive for music from the Soviet era, with more than 230,000 sounds on record. It is next to impossible to fully explore this musical vestige in a single article, but through the sharing of music, we may begin to skim the surface. For a brief introduction to electronic music released by the label, Guus van Bentum shares his finds.
I was born in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell and the Iron Curtain was starting to pull back. As it turns out, musicians from the now-defunct USSR were making electronic music for years. Their sounds were unique, yet somehow quite similar to Western compositions.
Years later, when I started collecting records, I bought a 12” with edits from Soviet era disco and electronics (The Very Soviet Cut-Outs) and was intrigued. The combination of recognizable instrumentals with Russian vocals weirded me out in a very good way.
The thing with Soviet electronic music, or Soviet music in general, is that it was distributed by the state and released on state-owned record labels like the Russian Melodiya label. All state-approved records regardless of genre were released on Melodiya (Discogs currently lists a staggering 25,849 titles), so digging in their archive is a time-consuming task, especially if, like me, you cannot read Cyrillic writing.
Due to the heavy censorship placed on the label by the Soviet government, electronic music released on Melodiya did not share the same explicit sexual connection found on many American electronic records. In contrast, those put out by the label appeared in contexts that were a long way from sweaty basements and pounding club sound systems, such as music that promoted aerobics classes or ones that served as soundtracks for USSR cinema. The downside of heavy censorship is that a lot of music never got released and may still rest on private tape collections in former Soviet states. Some of it found its way around the country (and the outside world) through bootleg copies. For instance, the album Banana Islands by the band Vesyolye Rebyata (Jolly Fellows) with Yuri Chernavsky and Vladimir Matetsky made its way to the charts despite being banned by the state. It was later reissued on vinyl. Not all foreign music was banned however. A notable activity of the Melodiya label was that it did allow for reissued imports, provided the music did not possess disruptive ideas. The french band Space released their song “Tango in Space” on a Melodiya 7”; the band name and song title were translated.
Here I present you with a selection of seven Melodiya-released electronic pieces. If you ever come across a record with the Cyrillic Мелодия written on the cover, it might be worth checking out. You never know what Soviet curiosity might lurk beyond the cover.
Eduard Artemyev – “Охота” (Hunting) (1984, Melodiya)
Brilliant composer, ANS synth user and sci-fi soundtrack producer extraordinaire Eduard Artemyev wrote this piece on a Synthi 100 – a British synthesizer that somehow made its way into the USSR. An intriguing piece that remains interesting after multiple spins.
Zigmars Liepiņš – “Dance 85” (1985, Melodiya)
The 80s hit Russia hard; and the artwork of this album is probably about as 80s as Eddie Murphy posing for the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack cover. This Zigmars Liepiņš record is featured in the Sport and Music series that ran between ‘85 and ‘87 to be used as background music during sports events. This song was meant to be used as a backing track for sporting events, but the emotional chord change, the sci-fi elements and simply the summation of epic synth lines make this record particularly dancefloor-worthy.
Igor Len – “Expectation” (1991, Melodiya)
Experimental ambient track from the compilation Очевидные Вещи (Obvious Things, 1991). Eerie synths, distant muted voices and curious, metallic melodies make this a soundtrack for both inward and outward travels. Make sure you also check “Blues” from his ’89 album Here…, also on Melodiya.
Sven Grünberg – “Valgusõis” (1981, Melodiya)
Estonian composer Sven Grünberg on an exotic interstellar journey; from the album Hingus which apparently did pretty well at the time since it was repressed on Melodiya a whooping seven times.
Jaan Rääts – “Electronic Marginalia” (1981, Melodiya)
Another Estonian experimental electronic piece, but with a more classical taste to it. Sven Grünberg also contributed to this fascinating piece of swirling synths, organs and wind sounds.
Peeter Vähi – “Evening Music” (1989, Melodiya)
A hypnotizing, meditative piece that works well with burning incense. Bird sounds, drum solos, harp strokes and spooky Eastern synth melodies. What’s not to like?
Mikhail Chekalin – “Torn Page” (1989, Melodiya)
If you decide to call your album Post-Pop – Non-Pop, you either have a thorough dislike for music journalism, or a set of wonderful ideas that defy textual description. In the case of Russian composer Mikhail Chekalin, I’m leaning towards the latter.