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Anton Ponomarev’s Language of the Avant Garde

P​/​O Massacre recorded their second album Aural Corrosion in Moscow last February, just as Russia was preparing to invade Ukraine. Neither member of the expansive noise duo, which consists of saxophonist Anton Ponomarev and guitarist Anton Obrazeena, is new to exploring extremes; it’s difficult to imagine the horrors of war not finding their way into the music. 

“Anti-War Music” is split across two sides of an LP, unraveling with a foreboding cascade of metallic sweeps, butchered guitar strings, and rapid kicks. The Japanese noise legend Merzbow guests on the track, contributing a cyclone of brutal electric pulses that evoke the disorientating horrors of warfare without ever eclipsing the sonic field. “Chanting The Resonances Of Atrocity”—also split across two sides—features Swiss composer ​​Alex Buess. His frenetic beats encircle Ponomarev’s mournful saxophone and Obrazeena’s repeating guitar motif, imbuing the composition with an adrenaline-soaked panic.

Neither Ponomarev nor Obrazeena now live in Russia, but bearing in mind that dissent can land you in prison there, I ask Ponomarev if, for him, noise is a form thereof. “First of all it’s an outburst of emotion,” he explains from his home in Zürich. “It is an expression of protest, but it also brings you pleasure to make and listen to strange sounds that someone else might find torturous. It’s a search for a new language.”

Ponomarev’s interest in novel forms of communication developed from his love of metal. Bands like Sepultura, Pantera, and Slayer instilled in him an appreciation of extreme sound. It wasn’t until he became interested in jazz—in particular, the work of John Zorn—that Ponomarev decided to play. “I didn’t think too long about which instrument to choose,” he says. “The alto saxophone was in first place.” Picking up the instrument in his 20s, Ponomarev was self-taught initially and then attended the Moscow College of Improvised Music. It was diving into the Russian underground music scene, however, that propelled him onto his current trajectory. 

In 2008, Ponomarev joined Brom, a group of revolving personnel led by the bassist Dmitry Lapshin. Brom is an aggressive vehicle that mixes elements of hardcore, jazz and improvised music. Their eponymous debut—if you discount a couple of prior self-released titles—came out in 2011 on Long Arms Records, a label founded by late stalwarts of the Russian avant-garde Sergey Kuryokhin and Nick Dmitriev. In the dozen or so years that Ponomarev played with the group, Brom recorded a wealth of material and toured across Russia and Europe. The band’s most recent two albums, Sunstroke (2018) and Dance With An Idiot (2020), were released by the Peter Brötzmann-affiliated Austrian label Trost Records.

Parallel to his work with Brom, Ponomarev was very active in the improv scene, playing with the likes of Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, the Norwegian free jazz bassist, or guesting on Obrazeena’s unforgiving noise rock project JARS. “It was a positive time,” Ponomarev recalls. “With every year that passed, there were more and more interesting musicians or bands; we were organizing concerts and festivals. Despite the music not being at all commercial, the scene was thriving.” He goes on to say that the war has decimated the Russian underground; many musicians have left the country.

During this time, Ponomarev also formed the group Teufelskeller—German for “devil’s cellar”—with bass player Konstantin Korolev and drummer Andrey Kim. Their debut self-titled album, released late last year on WV Sorcerer, is infused with a heavy, restless energy that is drawn from the band’s improvised performances and metal influences. “We spent a whole day in the studio, from morning to night, just us in a room,” Ponomarev says. “Everything was recorded live. There was about two hours of material, from which we chose six tracks. Four of those ended up on the album.” 

Although Teufelskeller are performing in Stuttgart in May, the future of the band is uncertain. An injury forced Kim to leave the project (Maxime Hänsenberger is stepping in for the upcoming show) and for Korolev, who still lives in Russia, travelling to and from the country is problematic. 
Ponomarev remains prolific, however. He has other projects in the pipeline, such as a duet with Chinese guitarist Li Xing. Last year, he toured with Riot Days, an award-winning theater production based on Maria Alyokhina’s memoir detailing her time with Pussy Riot. The tour was in support of Ukraine, and raised funds for Ohmatdyt children’s hospital in Kyiv. “It was one continuous tour that lasted for months,” he says. “A crazy amount of concerts. It was a great experience and done for a very important cause.”

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Bandcamp Daily, February 2023

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