Issue 32 / 2017

Baba Vanga: No Boundaries

Paul Margree

Prague-based tape label Baba Vanga exemplifies the cross-cultural exchanges that typify the contemporary sonic underground. Since 2013 it has pursued a wide-ranging release strategy encompassing bruised techno, corroded industrial rituals, algorithmic rave deconstructions and brain-grating audio collage. And although its roster draws mainly from Central Europe’s current experimental diaspora—Budapest, Moscow, Bucharest, Belgrade and Tallinn are all points on the Baba Vanga map, as well as its native city—outliers from Tokyo and London add still more flavors to the label’s unique aural stew.

This diversity is deliberate, an attempt to move away from the rigid definitions and easy categorization pursued by labels and critics alike. “Every scene or underground is always a fiction to some extent,” explains Peter Gonda, co-founder of Baba Vanga with journalist Lucia Udvardyova. Continuing pressure to pin scenes to locations and ascribe unique properties to them can create a story that’s far from the truth. “The reality is never so simple,” says Gonda, and elaborates: “Any kind of attempt to round the artists, clubs, projects and their relations and connections into an easy-to-digest package that can be easily located and named should be taken with a grain of salt.” Hence Baba Vanga’s mantra: “The imprint specializes in anything that catches its fancy.” Further investigation of the label’s back-catalogue revealed that Udvardyova and Gonda practice exactly what they preach. The warped beat poetry of Benzokai’s Identities Too Abstract—in which the Tallinn producer’s sibilant rants hiss over mangled electronic crunches—nudges up against the wayward breakcore overload of Hungarian bedroom genius Lanuk’s vV and Maciej Maciagowski’s swirling, swooping Goddnadog without incongruity or imbalance.

Although all of its releases are available as digital downloads, Baba Vanga deals primarily in cassettes. It’s part of the ever-growing tape underground, a movement whose tendrils stretch across the globe, propelled by the enthusiasm of listeners for a medium once thought to be obsolete. But while cassettes are “a suggestive, romantic and practical physical medium,” according to Udvardyova, the label’s reason for choosing tape is pragmatic and can be summed up in a single word: budget. Indeed, there’s little nostalgia for some fairytale past of physical mixtapes and bootleg trading: “I remember the CD and CD-R culture,” says Udvardyova. Yet the label’s instincts are sound. Tapes are cheap and efficient to duplicate—factors that make it possible for underground labels and artists to run a sustainable operation while producing the physical products that their weirdo-music acolytes love to get their hands on.

The label’s nose for top-drawer output suggests a kind of curatorial second-sight that gives its name additional resonance. What better model for a label that prides itself in pinpointing the most brain-mangling artists from Central Europe and beyond than a blind clairvoyant mystic from Bulgaria who claims to have predicted, among other things, the breakup of the Soviet Union and the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York?

A better explanation for Udvardyova and Gonda’s rock-solid instinct is their immersion in the cutting-edge sound and art from across the region since the early 2000s. Before Baba Vanga there was Eastern Daze, a vibrant web platform the duo created to highlight up-and-coming independent Eastern European arts and music scenes. And before Eastern Daze was a dissatisfaction with the lack of awareness about what was going on across the region. For Udvardyova, living in London at the start of the 21st century, the catalyst was a feeling of dislocation from the culture and history of her childhood. “We used to hang out after parties at my friends’ places, and I’d tell them about communism, and what I remembered from my childhood. It sounded like sci-fi, even to me,” she explains. It sparked a renewed interest in what was happening back home. “Through distancing, I gained a new perspective and interest in the region I came from, and realized there’s no information about its music scenes anywhere. Everything was focused on the London—New York—Berlin axis.”

While Udvardyova was in the UK, Gonda was in Bratislava, working at a student radio station called Tlis. “During my days it was pretty alternative regarding the musics and culture that was promoted; now I have the feeling it is more mainstream,” he says. The two met for the first time in 2009 at Prague’s Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival, collaborating on a show about Czechoslovak experimental music for London’s Resonance FM soon after.

“We thought it was striking that there was no media outlet covering Eastern European music on a regional basis,” says Gonda. This thirst for discovery—plus a successful application to the Visegrand Fund, an organization supporting cooperation across the region—led to the pair heading off around Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Poland and the Czech Republic. The investigation into local scenes and connection with fellow explorers and mavericks was fundamental to the formation of Eastern Daze and sowed the seeds for a network of contacts and relationships that sustains Baba Vanga to this day. Crucially, this also helps to keep the label free from the poor-but-sexy-Cold-War-brutalism-Twitterfeed-ostalgie of many less discerning operators. “What’s important is that this interest is not the orientalist gaze of the West,” notes Udvardyova, succinctly.

With such deep roots, Baba Vanga’s output was always going to be compelling. The label’s debut, a stunning grab-bag of lysergic ruckus from home-grown producer Střed Světa, was an irresistible statement of intent, released after one of his friends sent Udvardyova and Gonda some examples of his work. “I remember listening to it on the train from Slovakia to the Czech Republic five years ago. Somehow you just know that this is something special,” Udvardyova explains. Gonda agrees: “His sound is unique and we think he deserves a much wider recognition. His music is, somehow, the defining moment for Baba Vanga too.”

Listening back to Střed Světa’s self-titled debut, it’s easy to sympathize. The tape’s 15 tracks lurch out of the speakers in a scrappy, addictive mess. Grotty synths writhe over belching rhythm tracks, their constituent elements tottering as precariously as a pile of dirty crockery in a truckstop kitchen. Beats are cluttered, their grainy stumbles better suited to crashing out under a table than heading off to the dancefloor. It’s a curious, sometimes baffling aesthetic, in which serendipity coexists with design. “A lot of details on my albums happened just by accident. I don’t know what mastering is. I don’t hear lot of the sounds in my tracks because I had volume set too quietly while I was making them,” Střed Světa explains over email. And as for fancy equipment? Forget it. “Mostly I use just a sampler, midi controller, the dictaphone on my mobile, maybe a few other things like an old Casio. A lot of percussion is recorded by knocking on a table with piece of wood, and lot of synth-sounds are just FM-noise from the radio,” he says. “All I need for music is just anything for looping and layering short audio-files. I don’t care about buying audio hardware.”

Another early highlight of the Baba Vanga discography is Laura Luna’s Isolarios, a mesmerizing dronescape whose crepuscular half-light occupies a transitional zone between waking and sleeping. Thick organ chords shimmer within the gloom, their sluggish progress mirroring a body’s sluggish nocturnal processes. Subdued drum patters and irregular metallic clunks signal like forlorn echoes from the everyday world. Luna (full name Laura Luna Castillo) says the album was “inspired by science fiction stories about lost cosmonauts and expeditions without return.” Pieces like Nor Slumber Nor Sleep, with its mix of field recordings, mournful electronics and extended ringing tones are imbued with a weary melancholia, the adventurer’s Adrenalin-fuelled optimism yellowing into numbed despair, the food and water long gone and the final oxygen cylinder gradually running out. The comfortable numbness of Oxytocin is appropriately hallucinogenic, its slow cascade of chirruping electronics and tectonic low-end rumbles tailor-made for implanting false memories into unwary human brains, the aural equivalent of Tarkovsky’s sentient planet in Solaris, its inscrutable rumble capable of all manner of psychological and emotional manipulation.

Castillo’s tape is a corker, alright. But it also, unwittingly, highlights an issue with Baba Vanga’s discography—of 19 tapes, only one is by a female artist. True, one of the label co-founders is female. But the numbers are still a little concerning. Over email, I ask Udvardyova about this. “When we receive a demo, or search on Soundcloud, we are not sure if it’s done by a man or a woman, often you see only a moniker and a link without any other info,” she replies. “Our next release is by a woman [Umbra, an alias for the Serbian artist Marija Balubdžić] and we would like to have more. We are of course open to women, men, and everyone else.”

Fair enough. This is hardly an issue unique to Baba Vanga. Almost every underground label has a higher percentage of male artists in its discography, and festival and gig bills around the globe are usually male-heavy. Mainstream electronic music is hardly and improvement—“Top 10” lists of DJs and producers feature few women, if any. Every time an artist such as Helena Hauff or Nina Kraviz plays a set, the dickheads come out of the social media woodwork, hollering baseless criticisms of technique or setlist (or both).

Despite these challenges, Baba Vanga nevertheless does a great job digging out non-conformists and outliers that don’t fit into local scenes—indeed, who exist without any local “alternative” or “experimental” music infrastructure. Says Udvardyova of the artists they release: “They stand out and do their own thing irrespective of any trends or hype.” Artists like Střed Světa owe as much to a virtualized sprawl of global interconnections as they do to any physical infrastructure on their doorstep. Hooked up to YouTube and BitTorrent, they drift in vast swirls of cultural debris, the detritus spewed out from centuries of global production, haunting these tidal deltas in search of vital fragments to reconstitute in modified forms. Marginalized by the totalizing glare of Western culture, the work of these artists enacts a complex and contradictory dance of desire and repulsion, kicking against trends and practices shaped in the dancefloors and recording studios of the West, but also distancing themselves from the complex histories of their own countries.

This perhaps explains why the Baba Vanga’s discography is relatively light on artists from territories with well-established underground scenes, such as Russia or Poland. There are exceptions, of course—one recent release, a thrilling assemblage of field recordings, found sound and noise rock, comes from the veteran St. Petersburg band Won James Won. Titled Prozrachnik (“a transparent psycho-magnetic deity, which was haunting schizophrenic dissidents all over the world during the Cold-War era,” apparently), this tape is not so much an album as a gateway to an alternative universe in which garbled horror-flick dialogue echoes down empty corridors and scattershot synths blink like searchlights across a rubble-strewn landscape.

Even better is Új Bála’s Boka, a collection of worn-out electronica and fucked-up techno that’s reminiscent of mechanized city in meltdown. Új Bála is the synonym of Gábor Kovács, a musician and artist hailing from Budapest – another city with a burgeoning underground scene of its own. But Kovács is wary of plugging himself into any defined group: “Previously I played in punk bands that weren’t punk enough for the punks, now I’m playing techno that isn’t techno enough for the technoheads.” With Boka, oozing into my headphones, I get it. While cuts like I Break Horses lay down juddering electronics and kickdrum-handclap syncopations in stern, groovy lines, the layers of intestinal squelch and distorted squeal that Kovács pours over them are enough to discombobulate even the most jaded basement raver. And even if the pops and locks of the epic Que Mala Suerte are bouncy enough to induce a sunrise endorphin rush, its melting, atonal synth loops soon transform joy into a slo-mo freakout.

Baba Vanga’s focus on under-reported artists from Central and Eastern Europe is laudable and important. But, for all that, Udvardyova and Gonda’s criteria aren’t draconian. So far, their tendrils have extended to Tokyo, courtesy of Nobuyuki Sakuma’s CVN project (“a very special and unique piece of music,” says Udvardyova) and London, with Calum Gunn’s Clipe. Both releases have a pristine toughness, their dense and fractured soundscapes coalescing into diamond-sharp clarity. Both artists twist sound into impossible shapes, Sakuma’s collisions of videogame noise, digi-speech gasps and blipvert cutup transformed into, as the release notes put it, “a disjointed sonic portrait of the ordered chaos of the Japanese capital.” In contrast, Clipe, is almost heart-stoppingly Utopian. Nagging bass drum patter and titanium synth lines mark out cortex-expanding grids. Glittery pulsations hiss and weave. Mechanoid handclaps hustle and dab, while code-wrenched chords drip into pastel-colored puddles. “I had a huge crush on glossy, high-definition synthesis and rigid patterns,” says Gunn of his compositions, which he created using the free, open-source SuperCollider platform in combination with Errorsmith’s Razor software.

Gunn is enthusiastic about working with Baba Vanga, citing the label’s openness to the work he produced. Gábor Kovács is similarly positive. He tells me via email how he first met Udvardyova and Gonda at a club night they’d organized in Bratislava. “I really liked the whole event and their attitude, as all the artists hung out together like a weird school class. I decided that if I ever come up with something interesting I would contact them.” That said, things aren’t exactly easy for the label or its artists. “It’s really hard to live from your music alone,” says Gonda. “The whole infrastructure is very fragile,” adds Udvardyova. Both she and Kovács tell me that three important venues for underground music in Budapest are threatened with closure. Yet Baba Vanga’s collegiate atmosphere and its co-founders’ network of ground-level connections established by Easter Daze give the label solid foundations for the future, not to mention the confidence to avoid chasing empty trends. Peter Gonda admits that “to define a scene or not-yet heard local micro-genre,” may have “an attractive and an alluring aspect to it” for labels and critics. “But it could easily lead to click-bait and sensationalism,” he concludes. Far better, as Udvardyova says to “release artists who are somehow different.”

Umbra: Unglued (2017)

The latest release, from Serbian artist Marija Balubdžić. “It is based on female voice and its processing, sometimes venturing into the territory of darkly romantic singer-songwriter stuff, but always having an interesting electronic, noisy edge,” says Udvardyova.

Superskin: Descent (2014)

Drowsy, dubby repetitive beats from this Austrian producer. Ghostly elevator music meanders over supple, skeletal percussion. Tracks move from the lounge to the echo chamber and into deep space.

Tlaotlon / Střed Světa: Split (2014)

The label deepened their ongoing relationship with Prague’s Střed Světa on this split with the Australian-born, New Zealand resident Jeremy Coubrough, aka Tlaotlon. Světa’s bumpy squelches merge perfectly with Coubrough’s data-scuzz in this long-distance meeting of minds.

Quarantaine: Lichtempfindlich! (2016)

A rare move into the archive for the label, with the reissue of this 1984 album of battered and brooding machine music from Czech duo Slavek Kwi and Jaroslav Palat. Says Udvardyova: “Despite its bona fide crudeness, Quarantaine’s music remains timeless.”