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2020 Ambient #5: X.Y.R — Pilgrimage

X.Y.R’s Vladimir Karpov describes the exploratory compositions that make up Pilgrimage as “trip’s in search of something”. The two longform compositions that make up the album, ‘Black Monk in the Dunes’ and ‘Echoes of Time’, are evocative of desolate landscapes — yet, what can at first be heard by the listener as “desolate”, gives way to meandering, labyrinthine paths, networking to lead the listener towards a source. It’s not exactly a hopeful album — just because the album ends doesn’t mean enlightenment has been reached — but it never gives up on its curiosity. I honestly can’t remember how I first stumbled across this album, but it has become a therapeutic release, full of hypnotic mysticism and droning rhythm.

Pilgrimage is inspired by the novel Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol, published in 1842, and heralded as one of the first great works of Russian literature. Dead Souls chronicles the tales of Chichikov, a con man, and the people and places he encounters. The name X.Y.R is an abbreviation for “temple of solitary reflection”, again inspired by Nikolai Gogol. There isn’t much on the internet about the record, aside from the Bandcamp page and a small review, so I discovered this information halfway through writing this post, by accidentally stumbling on Karpov’s Instagram page. My first reaction to this record, is that it’s the perfect soundtrack for exploring the nuclear tundra and deserts of Metro: Exodus — a game I played long into the night during the first lockdown. There’s the same feeling of devastation, adventure too.

The first two Metro games, Metro 2033 and Last Light, also based on novels, written by Dmitry Glukhovsky, became known for their post-apocalyptic, subterranean horror vibe. For those who may not have played the games, think crawling through semi-abandoned subways and sewers with a torch, that you must manually recharge, a gasmask, and a double-barrelled shotgun. Supplies are scarce, and there’s mutated monsters lurking around every corner. The third instalment in the series, Exodus, blows open the doors to the surface, allowing the player to finally explore the Russian wasteland without limitation — each level, as The Aurora crosses the continent, sees a shift in setting and season. The game, like Karpov’s compositions, is incredibly rich in detail and atmosphere, with vast, deserted plains to drive across, a lush forest level to crouch-walk through, and yet still plenty of creepy old caves and buildings to explore like in the previous games. As well as the change in environment, Exodus doubles down on the human experience. Some of my favourite moments are of the central character Artyom onboard the Aurora, holding his wife Ana in their private compartment, or the Spartan Ranger crew crowded around a fire and chatting, buoyed by the gorgeous sound of a balalaika. It’s a classic tale of a band of warriors seeking refuge, and finding that they already found refuge in each other.

Those two reoccurring motifs in Metro: Exodus — pilgrimage and refuge — are what draws me to this X.Y.R record. ‘Black Monk in the Dunes’ starts off cautiously, white noise rolling audio fog, gradually layering with synth pads, pan pipes (I’m not sure, but could be a Svirel? — a type of Russian flute instrument) and spongy tribal drumming. The track is never static, and despite not knowing where it’s going, it pushes forward with confidence. Around the ten-minute mark the track becomes slightly more percussive heavy, introducing vocal harmony incantations that give the impression of a call-and-response between the inquiring choral hums. The percussion — on both tracks — acting as the backbone holding the whole thing together. While the first track is more of a tonal drone, a mirage, ‘Echoes of Time’ is an ecosystem of sampled birdsong, modulated until its only faintly familiar, bubbling water, wind passing through holographic canopies of trees. ‘Echoes of Time’ is much more urgent that its predecessor, its kinetic energy again firmly driven forward by hand percussion, but it’s sounds are more alien. Karpov takes something familiar and distorts it until it becomes fantastical. While the effect can be unsettling, it makes you want to plunge in — to become a character on an adventure, your very own journey.

I think the comparisons between Pilgrimage and Metro: Exodus don’t stop at their themes of a spiritual journey towards refuge. They both evoke a sense of melancholic longing for Russia in better times — before apocalypse, or before the pandemic in this case. The urban decay semi-blanketed by snow in Metro’s bombed out Moscow, Karpov’s use of vintage Soviet instruments on Pilgrimage to conjure the past, while exploring personal and national identity. One such instrument is the Formanta mini, that is both very Eighties-looking but still futuristic. There is a disconnect between what designers and engineers in the 1980s expected of the present, and what the present actually is, that is disorientating but not uncompelling. The Formanta mini is mainly used for synthesizing timbres of wind and string instruments and can be used for glissando: a seamless slide between notes, either upwards or down, which gives both compositions on Pilgrimage a feeling of shifting time, of elegant textures drifting across the soundscape like smoke.

Pilgrimage was recorded in July-October 2019 — months before the coronavirus pandemic saw Russia enter lockdown and saw its economy rattled. It’s people are still trying to survive despite one of the highest death rates in Europe and insufficient state support. Despite Putin regenerating the economy since he came into power in 2000 — and creating a generation of politically apathetic youth in the process — the Soviet Era hangs over like a dark cloud. Protestors in Belarus demanding an end to the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko, an ally of Putin and the Kremlin, have been detained and subjected to torture. Some even lost their lives at the hands of police brutality. In 2020 Azerbaijan and Armenia went to war, over territorial and ethnic tensions that have existed since the late 1980s, with Russia eventually brokering a peace deal between the two states.

Overall, 2020 was a year of worldwide tension and conflict, with Russia not exempt, but Pilgrimage finds a path through the conflict and despair, reassuring listeners that the search for a better way of living is a worthwhile cause. The cuts, clicks, bleeps and glitches throughout the two tracks may be taken as metaphor for the hiccups in one’s own personal development — or that of a nation’s — but Pilgrimage is a prime example of the phrase, ‘it’s about the journey, not the destination.’

Pilgrimage by X.Y.R was released September 4th, 2020. X.Y.R's latest album, Anciente, was released September 3rd, 2021. Further Reading: X.Y.R's Vladimir Karpov interviewed for Tiny Mixtapes:

Felix Krawatzek & Gwendolyn Sasse on the Belarus protests for The Conversation:

'Generation Putin' by Henry Foy for The Financial Times:

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