Chris Kissel is represented by a Russian PR firm.
The Formanta Mini, the main keyboard used by Vladimir Karpov, is a small and extremely rare Soviet synthesizer. It’s a keytar, really—short and silver, decidedly toy-like, with a short keyboard and a stubby little neck. The notes it plays are airy and balmy, a bit slushy-sounding; a sustained chord on the Mini sounds like it’s full of pixelated water. The vibrato, controlled via a little black strip on the neck, is notably ray gun-like.
Karpov’s Mini, like all of the others, was manufactured in the late-‘80s at the Formanta Radio Factory in Kachkanar, in rural Central Russia. Long since shuttered, the Formanta factory produced a line of some of the most revered Soviet synthesizers during the Perestroika era.
Nowadays, Kachkanar, a city of identical white apartment blocks amid dense green forest, is dependent mostly on the oligarch-operated iron mines nearby. At the top of neighboring Mount Kachkanar, there is a Buddhist monastery, founded in 1995 by a veteran of Russia’s war in Afghanistan, where a small number of the devout eke out a meager existence.
Around the same time the monastery was founded in the mid-‘90s, Karpov, who records under the name X.Y.R., traded a bottle of vodka for his Formanta Mini. It was the first synthesizer he ever bought, and though it’s “defective and often breaks,” he never stopped using it. “It is more interesting for me to create music in certain frames,” Karpov says. “I think it makes music more real, honest and truthful.”
Karpov lives 1,300 miles away from Kachkanar in St. Petersburg, the city where Leon Theremin accidentally invented the first Soviet synthesizer in 1922. Amid the bustle of the city, Karpov chases much the same purpose as Buddhists of Mount Kachkanar: to achieve some measure of solitude; to plum serenity from the depths of chaos.
Karpov has released a number of instrumental X.Y.R. cassettes, with titles like Arktika and Mental Journey to BC, on small labels like Moscow’s Singapore Sling Tapes. His new album, Labyrinth, released on June 30, is his first full-length LP. Like all of his work, it was recorded mostly with the Formanta.
Labyrinth has less in common with the psychedelic colorfulness of St. Petersburg than it does with Kachkanar—brooding, desolate, chilly. Each track is a wandering through a shifting landscape. “Febribus”—“fever” in Latin—feels like flying over some scorched, negative landscape. “Arcana” and “Vicious Circle” have a kind of pacing rhythm, dour if not slightly menacing; on the other hand, “False Angel Lullaby,” with its light, gently-syncopated beat, feels almost akin to ‘90s style ambient exotica. Synthesizers ripple and tumble; melodies sprawl out and repeat like mantras for minutes on end.
Karpov calls his pieces “exotic islands.” “I create [them] inside myself to be alone with myself, with my thoughts, memories, dreams and new impressions… without external distractions,” he says. “To collect everything together and move on in the right direction.”
X.Y.R. is an abbreviation of “Xram Yedinennogo Razmuwlenuja,” or “Temple of Solitary Contemplation,” a phrase nabbed from Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls. Like a labyrinth, the album is a mechanism to go deep within one’s self. “This is a sort of inner mental process that calls to plunge deep into yourself to find the right path further,” Karpov says.
I ask Karpov if his music has political dimensions—the day of our correspondence happened to be the same day that Russia Day protests swept through his country—but he says his music is “beyond this politic. My music is about [something] more important.[It’s] about the individual’s internal politic.”
Solo synthesizer music is having a bit of a renaissance, in the underground, at least, with a particular vein of artists emulating some of the more adventurous new age sounds of the ‘70s and ‘80s. But Karpov follows his own path—these are melodic, almost folkloric-sounding pieces. They’d be more at home scoring a brooding epic about a crusader lost in a medieval forest than, say, drifting out of the speakers at a yoga studio.
“It’s hermetic music, but not in an affected way,” says Britt Brown, who runs the Los Angeles-based Not Not Fun Records, the label releasing Labyrinth. “It’s more of a world-conjuring aesthetic than, ‘I’m just tapping into higher states’—that’s not what he’s doing. It’s labyrinth music. It’s not Gothic but it does have that hypnotic, late-night, no man’s land mood.”
Brown found Karpov’s off-kilter Formanta adventures to be perfect for Not Not Fun, which has a reputation as unerringly reliable purveyors of original sound.
“I am interested in people who seem a little detached from a lot of what’s going on,” says Brown. “That’s a form of authenticity to me. They aren’t making this music to accomplish anything in particular. It isn’t technicaly aggressive or ambitious in this way, and it isn’t just experimental modular synth burble. It’s off on its own trip, which is always a quality I respond to.”
Brown insists that because of the internet, underground music has become, to a degree, unsiloed from the place where it was created. “I don’t really care where a person is from—I hear the tape and I think it’s incredible, and if it’s from L.A., amazing, if it’s from St. Petersburg, Russia, so be it.”But there’s something undeniably Russian about X.Y.R., too. Karpov identifies that sense with Soviet art and music—in particular music made for children’s TV shows—with the same sense of wonder and discovery that imbue his music.
“In the Soviet era, everything was a novelty.”Karpov says. “All technologies were in the initial stage of becoming, including music, and that’s why everything could be created a little naively, but sincerely .. and it really fascinates [me].”
It’s that same weird technical ambition—the flotsam, maybe, of the steam engine of Soviet progress—that produced his weird little synthesizer, too; the little silver keytar that, like Karpov, beckons to some lost peace amid the forests and shrines of the Russian countryside.