The Ukrainian groove metal phenoms explain how a period of isolation and lockdown resulted in a self-therapeutic metallic masterpiece.
How does a band grow without the sunlight of touring? It seems a lot to ask any band to thrive during a pandemic. So it’s been fascinating to watch Ukraine’s Jinjer blossom over the last eighteen months – with a series of online play-throughs, a superb live album called ‘Alive In Melbourne’, and now metal’s first true lockdown masterpiece: ‘Wallflowers’.
‘Wallflowers’ makes for uneasy listening. Call it ‘progressive’ if you want, but that term flattens the peaks and valleys – the idylls and nightmarish visions – of Jinjer’s music. Their dizzying musicianship has alway been hook-driven and accessible, but on this album dissonance lurks around the corner as an ever-present threat.
The album’s first single, “Vortex”, is a wrestling match between their rich melodies, carried by vocalist Tatiana Shmayluk, and the worry expressed in the music of a mind in disarray: ‘Like a feather I travel down (a spiral staircase)’.
‘The moments of dissonance are used in order to create distress,’ says bassist Eugene Abdukanov. ‘To create a certain atmosphere, whether you may steer a listener into it or just bring a bit of anxiety into the atmosphere of the song.’
The musical construction and imagery of “Vortex” suggests the surrealism and multi-dimensional impossibility of an Escher drawing. The protagonist, ‘with a left shoe on his right foot’, evokes the frantic Underground Man in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1864 novella ‘Notes From Underground’. In it he proclaims that ‘a great deal of consciousness, every sort of consciousness, in fact, is a disease.’
‘Wallflowers’ expresses the perils of interiority. A little solitude can be a good thing, but it can also be addictive. Addictions tend towards the destructive.
‘Once you feel safe in your four walls, then it’s really hard to go outside and interact with people,’ says Shmayluk. ‘You start to truly dislike every person that you meet.’
‘Wallflowers’ presents a series of anthems for the introverted. But they are mighty, undeniable songs which unfurl a little bit more with each listen. They are, perhaps, more aggressive than on Jinjer’s previous albums, a band never afraid to bare their teeth or show you their softer underbelly.
‘I’m a deep swimmer,’ says Shmayluk. ‘If we’re talking about psychology and self-analysis, I can go really deep within myself. But then I can find a true darkness where there’s no way out. You need to know where to stop and go up to the surface.’
With her huge vocal range and ability to transition between the guttural and the lofty, Shmayluk is our guide. Like Ariadne from the myth of the minotaur, she unravels a trail of thread behind her so we can navigate the mini-labyrinths of Jinjer’s songs.
On “Teacher, Teacher” from 2019’s ‘Micro’ or “I Speak Astronomy” from 2016’s breakthrough album, ‘King of Everything’, her clean singing gives a deceptive sense of simplicity. At other times she is a demonic psychopomp, with a roar that contains multiple tones at once. It sounds similar to how the possessed Linda Blair was overdubbed in ‘The Exorcist’ – Shmayluk is the Melissa McCambridge of metal. In this mode, she sounds like she wants you to falter – to fail to solve Jinjer’s musical riddles.
‘I think that we used to look at our music, or perceive our music, like a puzzle,’ says Abdukanov. ‘In the past, at least for me, the way I compose, I used to look at it as a puzzle. But now things have changed. Over the last two records, we changed the way we write music. Now, each song comes from one of the members.’
Each song is treated as a standalone composition – from introduction, through interludes, to culminating in climax(es). Alongside drummer Vladislav Ulasevich and guitarist Roman Ibramkhalilov, Abdukanov believes that music should tell a story in its own right. They know Shmayluk will bolster any lulls in the songs with her own musicality.
As well as dissonance, there is a chunk of simpler grooves on ‘Wallflowers’. The songs ‘Disclosure!’ and ‘Copycat’ pound and tighten the noose in a way that recalls Pantera and Lamb of God. These are influences that have long been there but shine through the surface more visibly on this album. ‘Vlad is a big fan of Pantera, as we all are,’ says Abdukanov. ‘There is nothing really strange about the fact that we stamp it on certain parts of our music […] the most important thing is that it sounds good.’
The band hand the completed compositions to Shmayluk. In Abdukanov’s eyes, she brings cohesion to the project. She adopts the song, or adapts to the song, depending on the demands it imposes. But she is her own huge talent – one of the greatest working in modern metal – and is more than capable of bending Jinjer’s music to her own purposes.
‘I don’t like to analyse music. I analyse everything, especially people’s motives and behaviour. But music, I just listen to it,’ says Shmayluk. ‘Composing to Jinger’s music, the vocal parts, is not very easy. And I wish I was really into that kind of progressive music, like every day listening to it, but I just can’t… it gives me so much anxiety. I can even burst into hysteria when I cannot do it. But it’s like everything that I face in my life. It’s like a storm. I just close my eyes and jump into the storm. And, finally, I survive. So it was the same situation with the recording of this album.’
The album’s second single, “Mediator”, also closes it. It’s a roll call of things Shmayluk wants to change or influence in the world around her: ‘I wanted a loser to win’ is a repeated refrain. She exerts her control over the song. Shortly after its introductory bars, she barks ‘Stop!’ (which the band obeys) and then ‘Go!’. The ‘Go!’ in “Mediator” joins the ‘Go!”s in “Slaughter of the Soul” by At The Gates and “Before I Forget” by Slipknot as one of metal’s great starting-pistol shouts. But throughout the song, there’s a sense that this wished-for control is beyond her grasp. Shmayluk wants to be a benevolent tyrant but needs a mediating influence, and even then inner peace might be just out of grasp.
It’s brutal, honest stuff. Sardonic resignation is strewn across the album, from opener “Call Me A Symbol” to the ornate “Pearls And Swine”. All this while the band goes harder than ever at each other. Jinjer, like Opeth, are one of those bands who seem incapable of writing a boring chord or musical sequence: ‘I never really stick with one or the same musical solutions,’ says Abdukanov. ‘I actually try to look for different ways to play over the guitar and drums.’
Abdukanov plays the beautiful, fragile bass introduction to “Wallflower”, the band’s love song to solitude. But it’s a love song with a stark warning about the pride in locking yourself away and licking your wounds. It warns about hesitating to say what needs to be spoken. It’s a song about breaking up with society. ‘This life is a lockdown!’ Shmayluk cries in the chorus. The ‘sick, sick world’ is unattainable. Here, the shrinking violet is a poisoned flower.
‘A true artist, of course, expresses themselves,’ says Abdukanov. ‘But we must admit that the reality around us always reflects in the art, and it is impossible to avoid this. And such a situation as the pandemic, lockdown, all our lifestyles changed entirely over the last eighteen months. Such events have an impact on the art. If it is true art, events are reflected in our music. I love how multi-layered Tatiana’s lyrics are, because she actually sings about her internal feelings, emotions, thoughts. But I really love seeing how life around her is reflected in this way.’
Shmayluk has dedicated a lot of her previous writing to the outside world and the deficiencies in the stories it tells itself – war (“Home Back” and its allusions to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine); the environment (“Ape”, ingeniously narrated by a sentient Earth); and religion (“Noah”, which flips the biblical tale on its head). She is at her best when she combines this with her personal concerns. An example is “Perennial” from ‘Micro’, where she examines self-renewal through the analogy of the changing seasons. The narrator stands next to a tree ‘undressed’ in its winter state: ‘From the ashes of my roots/The new me will rise to live again’.
‘Wallflowers’ is like a manual for understanding herself. One she feels she had mislaid. ‘I need self-therapy for myself,’ she says. ‘So I need to spit out everything that I’ve collected for all these years of mine. I just thought, okay, now it’s my time just to take… not to take care of myself… but to explain myself, what I feel, where I come from. So, yeah, it’s absolutely like instructions to Tatiana from my psyche.’
When I listened to the album, I thought of “Pit of Consciousness” from 2019’s ‘Macro’. Particularly the way it articulates a diminished self locked inside one’s head: ‘I’m a miniature/I’m a sketch forfeiting outlines’.
‘For me, “Pit of Consciousness”, lyric-wise, could fit into this album perfectly,’ says Shmayluk. ‘Because it basically has the same vibe as most of the songs from the new album. So maybe with the next album, I’m going to have a spiritual awakening. And there’s going to be something very positive.’
If Jinjer’s discography is a spiritual or psychological journey, ‘Wallflowers’ is about acknowledging the Known Self and understanding its problems. The Johari window is a technique developed by psychologists in the 1950s, where the subject must face up to The Known Self (the things known about the subject that everyone knows), The Hidden Self (those things known by the subject that nobody knows), The Blind Self (what is known about the subject that they themselves don’t know) and The Unknown Self (what no one knows about the subject).
I don’t know how far through the Johari window Jinjer want to look. Shmayluk and Abdukanov both agree that following this current trajectory their next album should be about healing, and the one following that – rebirth.
In a year of strange remote performances and live streams lacking an audience, Jinjer’s Hellfest At Home performance was the most extraordinary.
Performing on the festival site in Nantes, France, on a huge stage in front of an empty field, they delivered a typically tight performance. They tell stories in the way they order their setlist as much as within their songs. They ended the night with “Vortex”.
Like Olympic athletes performing in empty stadia, Jinjer were performing at their peak to no-one. Well, not quite: a vast virtual audience has lapped it up afterwards, with almost half-a-million views since it was published on YouTube in June. In the finished video there are drone shots of pyro erupting across the empty festival site. Then there’s the deafening lack of noise between songs, filled only by the soothing chorus of cicadas. Watching it feels like they have turned the crowd-less gig into a new art form.
It took the band back to playing their earliest shows, when there was total silence between songs – not even cicadas for consolation. Onstage on the night, Shmayluk stared into the darkness and pictured ‘a lot of people, even maybe more people than Hellfest could handle. So that’s the perks of a good imagination.’
‘It was really fantastic,’ adds Abdukanov. ‘I have to admit that the silence in-between songs really hit me hard. It was straight to the face. When I play I enjoy the music, it moves me, and then I stop and there’s silence.’
Like Pink Floyd’s ‘Live At Pompeii’ 1972 concert film performed in an empty amphitheatre, the video of the gig is so good that it is probably the envy of many of their contemporaries. The irony is not lost on Jinjer that it would have been impossible to capture during the chaos of the festival proper.
Soon, that Hellfest audience, along with all the others, will re-materialise in real life and will step out of the collective pit of consciousness for good. They won’t have imagined the enlargement of their fanbase either. With ‘Wallflowers’, an album born out of lockdown but that wants to be free, Jinjer are stepping through the looking glass into another realm entirely.
‘Wallflowers’ is released August 27th via Napalm Records. Pre-order the album – HERE