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Avant Festival 2011
Artplay na Yauze 
By Martin Richardson
Very occasionally even the most jaded of gig-goers hears something which harks back to that mysterious ground zero and recalls the day when music leapt beyond the Top 40 and became something which mattered. These mini-epiphanies can happen anywhere, but the more unlikely the venue, the more powerful the resonance. And so, towards the end of Asobi Seksu's Saturday night headline slot, a cover of The Jesus & Mary Chain's "Never Understand" suddenly transported this reviewer back to a formative teenage trip to a converted ice rink for an evening of feedback-driven, shoe-gazing noise.

The New York band, fronted by diminuitive Japanese singer Yuki Chikudate had already shown a good grasp of My Bloody Valentine-based guitar overdrive. Throw in some slightly ethereal vocals - at times it was unclear whether the lyrics were in English, Japanese or some hybrid of the two - and you get a striking soundscape which is perhaps three parts solid indie to one part Bjork-inflected otherness. And the Mary Chain cover somehow brought the whole set full circle.

It was the first time Asobi Seksu (the name loosely translates as 'playful sex') had ventured into Russia, and claiming a 17-hour journey (from New York? did they come by seagull?) they had to tackle jetlag and a smattering of culture shock. But, rising to the challenge admirably, the only thing which gave them cause for alarm was the ever-present tide of 'pukh' drifting across the outdoor stage. "What is this stuff? I can hardly breathe up here!" protested Chikudate in between diligently practicing her 'spasibos' for an indulgent crowd.

The contrast with Sunday's headliner, Chinawoman, could hardly have been greater. Set up by Canada's Michelle as a YouTube hobby band, it's basically a one-girl show. But from the moment she came on stage, toting a retro radio set like a character from a St. Etienne B-side we were embraced by a set which resembled more of late-night cabaret recital than a bill-topping festival slot. While critics have likened Chinawoman's debut album to a Velvet Underground-related faded grandeur, the on-stage effect is closer to a sequence of contemporary torch songs. Along the way, Moscow audiences might be forgive for hearing a hint of Alla Pugacheva in full 70s balladeering bombast: Michelle is a child of Russian emigrants, and some of the old songs made the trans-Atlantic trip along with Mama and Papa. Performing in Russia for the first time, she enjoyed a good reception, but the set perhaps ran out of steam a little too early.

The same couldn't be said of Finland's On Volcano, a female-fronted pop-rock outfit which could be one killer hook away from becoming the next Blondie. Their current crop of songs has the same cruel cool that Ms Harry and the boys used to tout back in the day, with all the benefits of an updated sound that leaves the 70s behind. Most of the components are in place, and once they stumble upon that truly memorable, can't-get-it-out-of-your-head chorus, this volcano is set to well and truly erupt.

Beyond the headliners, one of the great thrills of any festival is unearthing something new and unexpected - and Avant Fest provided three diverse treats from the ranks of hopefuls on the undercard. And the good news is they are all fairly regular visitors to Moscow, and are likely to be back again in the foreseeable future.

From Belarus, a land not noted for its fine pop sensibilities, Kassiopeia don clownish fancy dress for an adult fantasia of lewdly perverse lyrics supported by strangely memorable keyboard-heavy riffs. From the reggae-inflected "Yesli" to the catchy "Kinzhal", with its shout-along chorus, their Sunday afternoon set marked the point where the crowd's attention switched from beer to stage. Vocalist Ilya Cherepko-Samokhvalov was back later on Sunday evening with his rockier Petlya Pristrastiya, but it was Kassiopeia who made the greater impact.

Petersburg, long regarded as the spiritual home of all that's interesting in Russian rock, kept up that reputation with two diverse but fascinating shows. Surtsey Sounds, with a name evoking a volcano, combine a post-rock ensemble with a classical string trio to great effect: imagine the likes of Alexei Aigi's 4'33" shackled to the likes of 65daysofstatic and you're getting there. From a slow start this music builds and builds to a shattering conclusion of overwhelming sound, like an ocean storm refusing to blow itself out.

And the northern capital's other star contributor, Chikiss, is another slow-burning. Female singer-songwriters tend to get alligned into a narrow set of stereotypes: either kooky Tori Amos late, strident Kristin Hersh-alikes or self-consciously weird Nordic types prone to inexplicable bouts of incoherent shreiking. Chikiss, despite a piano which points alarmingly towards Amos, avoids the worst excesses of all three, delivering tight, well-constructed songs which burn slowly but powerfully, like a conversation accompanied by autumn rains blowing against a twilit window.

Eight years in, and now with a permanent home in the Artplay na Yauze complex, Avant Fest is going from strength to strength. This year's edition, kicked off with a blistering set from British Sea Power, maintains the happy tradition of combining the best of the local alternative scene (the real one, not the version that A1 TV pretends is alternative) with a well-chosen selection of international acts which are committed to making music which is interesting rather than commercial. The crowd - perhaps a bit self-conscious in their hip-ness to begin with - lapped it up; bring on Avant 2012!

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