In the 2018 mini-documentary Let It All Burn, the Moscow duo IC3PEAK are about to play a show in the Russian city of Voronezh when health inspectors and police arrive to shut the venue down on suspicion of food poisoning. Although the alleged incident has taken place the day before the band’s arrival in town, the officers demand to speak to the band and their manager. This is the latest obstacle on a tour where every stop has been plagued by interference from government officials. As the club director is interrogated, the sound engineer and the duo’s manager sneak fans through a backdoor into the dimly lit room where IC3PEAK members Nastya Kreslina and Nikolay Kostylev launch into their song “Сказка” (“Fairytale”): “I come from a Russian horror fairy tale/It doesn’t matter where you come from,” Kreslina spits. “I do not play your games/Someday you will die.” At the end of their short set, a sizable crowd, most of whom didn’t even make it into the venue, lingers in the cold outside, singing along to their favorite IC3PEAK songs. Kreslina and Kostylev join them to sing the controversial hit “Смерти Больше Нет” (“Death No More”), which may have set off the government’s ire to begin with: “I fill my eyes with kerosene/Let it all burn, let it all burn/All of Russia is watching me/Let it all burn, let it all burn.” With their politically brazen lyrics about police repression and state hypocrisy, as well as a fierce, highly stylized goth maximalism, IC3PEAK is one of the most exciting bands to come out of Russia in a while—and Russia’s youth and officials both know it.
The duo’s latest album, До Свидания (Goodbye) was released with the tagline, “It’s going to get darker.” That’s a hefty challenge for a band whose first major hit was called “Sad Bitch.” But До Свидания delivers. Sounding at times like a cross between Eartheater and Deli Girls, IC3PEAK’s music oscillates between pitch-black hymnals and twisted club bangers, often in the same song. Kreslina is indeed something out of a gothic fairy tale—sometimes a ghostly child reciting a menacing nursery rhyme, sometimes a vengeful banshee. Her vocal toolkit incorporates seething whispers, operatic flourishes, chilling high falsetto, and melodic, radio-friendly toplines. It is important that the band sings in Russian, but Kreslina emotes so effusively that their message touches even those who don’t speak the language. “[In our early tracks] there was this idea of the universal language, which is the language of the scream,” Kreslina told sports journalist Yury Dud in an interview for his pop-culture YouTube talk show, vDud. Kreslina’s screams are balanced perfectly by Kostylev’s impeccable production: restrained soundscapes always ready to attack with a well-timed drop, danceable wobbling trap beats, and abrasive industrial screeching—a natural evolution from performing at underground bunker raves in Moscow in their early years. Once upon a time IC3PEAK would have fit neatly under the witch-house umbrella, but they set themselves apart by wedding its aesthetic to a sharp political consciousness. Postcolonial scholar Achille Mbembe coined the term “necropolitics” to discuss how state power renders some lives disposable, thus creating “death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead.” With a mouthful of dirt and blood, IC3PEAK weaponizes this already-dead positionality, conjuring the silenced, repressed, and murdered subjectivities that haunt the autocratic patriarchal regime.
On До Свидания, IC3PEAK continue to touch on political themes. In “TRRST,” featuring former 6ix9ine songwriter ZillaKami, they address censorship (“Mama, they say I’m a terrorist (what?) I did nothing wrong but I got on a blacklist”). “Марш” (“Marching”) deals with the suppression of democracy (“Without an invitation they come into my house/[With] a new word and a new law”). And “Плак-Плак” (“Boo Hoo”) deals with domestic violence, decriminalized in Russia in 2017: “I was always good, I was never bad/All my life like a good girl I obeyed the rules/I’m tired of crying, tired of suffering/Either way I won’t be able to predict my own death.” In the video for “Плак-Плак,” a somber child with Kreslina’s iconic braids opens a blood-red diorama and mimes her parents (played by Kreslina and Kostylev in doll form) fighting, only to frighten when the Kreslina doll comes to life and takes vengeance into her own hands by murdering her husband with a butcher knife. But the record is full of more universal subjects as well: loneliness, betrayal, love, death. Each is handled with the same heavy-handed melodrama, to various degrees of effectiveness. There’s a wealth of necro imagery and sinister voltas (“I kiss your corpse/I thought you were my friend”; “I want to hug these mountains/I want to lick the sky/I will kiss the water/I will cover my head with earth”) which can feel both mall-goth maudlin and archetypically black metal. When Kostylev really lets rip, it sounds as deliciously apocalyptic as the Body, and though the heavier songs can feel eclipsed by the focus on the ballads, they are definite highlights.
The metal affinities are not just in the lyrics but also in the aesthetic: desaturated photos emphasizing pale skin, black formalwear, and red accents (lipstick, blood) set against the Russian forest or dystopian brutalist cityscapes. IC3PEAK have always envisioned themselves as an audiovisual project, directing and producing high-concept, relatively high-budget music videos that give their music dimension and expand their audience to millions. Thanks in part to multi-platform exposure, their reach has expanded internationally: They have played Berlin’s CTM festival; toured through the U.S., China, and Brazil; and even caught the ear of Skrillex, who has dropped a remix of “Sad Bitch” in his sets. On До Свидания, an unprecedented number of features suggest the extent of their growing reach. ZillaKami’s unmistakably gravel-voiced verse is the biggest surprise, but the record also includes contributions from Russian rapper Husky (who has also experienced show cancellations and even imprisonment for his music) and horrorcore Florida rapper GHOSTEMANE, a former affiliate of Lil Peep in Schemaposse.
Throughout Let It All Burn, both IC3PEAK and their fans seem unflustered by the police interference: This is just how things are. But the weight of it lingers—after all, it is one thing to sing abstractly about state violence and another to be personally targeted by it—giving До Свидания a more vulnerable and forlorn tone than previous albums. Still, amidst the record’s mortal desperation and corpse worship lies a vehement refusal to accept the psychic death implied by total resignation, further proving to IC3PEAK’s commitment to fearlessness at a time when state power feeds on fear and silence. “You buried me beyond the MKAD/Fed me dirt/But I crawled out of hell/And came back for you,” oozes Kreslina on the swerving “мкАД” (“Moscow Automobile Ring Road”). Even necropower can’t keep the undead down.
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