Zen Sounds 038: Evian Christ
His »Duga-Three« concept mix is a singular entry in the experimental trance revivalists discography
Ten years ago, I was dealing with rap music all day. I worked as the editor-in-chief of a hip-hop magazine in Berlin, and for a couple of years, it had been fun.
I had never been a musical purist – I’ve always loved music from all sorts of genres –, but hip-hop had been one of the most important influences since my youth.
Shortly before I left my editing job at the magazine, I discovered a recording that would prove extremely influential for my future musical taste. It was a 20-minute concept composition about a shortwave radio signal called the »Russian Woodpecker«. It sounded weird and dark and interesting, and most of all, it was beatless.
Its creator, a young English producer by the name of Evian Christ, was part of the global bass music scene. He was mostly known for hard-hitting electronic beats with a trap and dancehall edge to them. But »Duga-Three« marked completely new territory for him. For me, it felt like a whole new world had finally opened.
Superficially, it might seem like a random piece of experimental electronic music from ten years ago. To me, it’s way more than that – it completely changed the way I looked at music and gave me access to a world of musique concrète and electro-acoustic composition.
For the next decade, I would embark on a journey into ambient and experimental music, so without »Duga-Three«, this newsletter probably wouldn’t exist, at least not in its current form.
(Dummy, 2012 / Tri-Angle, 2013)
When music magazine Dummy reached out to Joshua Leary, alias Evian Christ, to hand in a mix for their website, the 22 year old producer from a small town near Liverpool was one of the hottest newcomers on the UK beat scene.
The aspiring teacher had just released his critically acclaimed instrumental mixtape »Kings And Them«, was freshly signed to Tri-Angle records, then one of the most daring labels in the world of underground electronic music, and was rumored to contribute to Kanye West’s upcoming »Yeezus« album (he would actually land co-production credits on one song).
But when the editors at Dummy received his »concept mix«, it must have left them dumbfounded. Instead of a traditional DJ mix, Leary delivered a 20-minute piece of original music consisting mostly of a throbbing noise, drones, static and Russian voice samples. A short note from Leary on the composition read:
»Duga-three is a four-part piece of music I wrote after reading about a Soviet signal transmitter of the same name. It was characterised by the repetitive tapping sound it broadcast, which was sufficiently powerful enough to intercept transitions across the world. After 28 years of transmission, the Duga-3 array was abandoned as mysteriously and unexpectedly as it had appeared.«
As Evian Christ confirms here, »Duga-Three« is built around samples of the »Russian Woodpecker«. This static radio signal was transmitted from the Soviet Union during the cold war, starting in the 1960s.
At first, nobody knew where it came from, so it became subject to much speculation. In the 1970s, Western authorities found out that it was broadcast by a huge over-the-horizon radar, probably part of the USSRs early defense missile warning system. During the disintegration of the Soviet state in the late 1980s, the signal eventually disappeared from radio waves.
The title of Learys composition, »Duga-Three«, might be a bit misleading, as only two Duga radars exist – Duga-1, located near Chernobyl and Chernihiv, Northern Ukraine, and Duga-2 in Eastern Siberia. (The original Duga radar, which had been built in Southern Ukraine, was demolished.) The term »Duga-3« most likely refers to Station 3 of Duga-1, which is the one near Chernobyl.
These days, the Duga-1 radar remains a large, abstract-looking ruin within the Chernobyl exclusion zone. You can find videos online by people who illegally climbed it, or waded through its abandoned control rooms. Near the radar ruin, there’s also a huge underground complex that was apparently used for military research, surveillance, communication, and defense.
Personally, I find the story of the radar extremely intriguing. However, not much is known about the mission of the Duga radar and the »Russian Woodpecker« signal. The level of secrecy around it spawned several conspiracy theories. A celebrated 2015 documentary by director Chad Gracia even suggests the Chernobyl nuclear disaster was intentionally initiated by someone of Moscow’s higher-ups to cover up technical problems with the radar.
What fascinated Evian Christ enough to write a whole piece around its tapping shortwave noise – I don’t know. Back in 2012, he had given an interview about the »mix« to Dummy, but it has since vanished from their website. [NOTE: A reader pointed out you can still find it here.]
Still, what’s at least as interesting as the backstory is the music itself. It didn’t bear much resemblance with the beats on Leary’s breakout mixtape. I remember that in the disappeared interview, the producer mentioned being really into experimental musicians Ben Frost, Grouper and Tim Hecker at that time. (I think he was also namechecking electro-acoustic composer Ezekiel Honig and Swedish Soundcloud producer 1991.)
In 2012, I had not heard much about the aforementioned artists, but because I really liked Learys work, his statement made me research their discographies and, along the way, discover some of my future favorite albums: »By The Throat«, »Dragging A Dead Deer« and »Ravedeath, 1972«. All of these were beatless and roughly fit into the experimental ambient category.
»Duga-Three« might fall under the same category, but it also referenced musique concrète, years before Claire Rousay picked up her field recorder in Texas and made this form of composition accessible to a whole new generation.
Like all the greats before him – Pierre Schaeffer, Luc Ferrari or Iannis Xenakis come to mind –, Leary utilized classic montage techniques, using recorded sounds as raw material, processing and looping specific parts of the recordings. But instead of tape loops or cut-up collages, he worked with music production software Cubase.
As Leary mentioned in his blurb, his composition can be roughly divided into four parts which seamlessly blend into one another, their transitions usually marked by the introduction of a new element, for example the characteristic synth drone or the unintelligible, Russian-speaking voices that stay with the listener almost until the end.
To be very clear, this is no feel-good ambient providing an innocuous backdrop for studying or hanging out. On the contrary, »Duga-Three« conveys an uneasy atmosphere, dark and unsettling, but strangely fascinating. To me, it still remains Learys most refined artistic statement. Every few months, I listen to the piece in full, and it has never failed to grab me. It also doesn’t seem to age in any way.
The composition was first released on Dummy’s Soundcloud page in 2012, to little fanfare. Until today, it hasn’t been played more than 10,000 times, and only received a handful of comments. I think of this as a sign that it really went over people’s heads, at that time more than ever. For Record Store Day 2013, Learys new label Tri-Angle pressed up a one-sided LP in a limited edition of 500. These days you can scoop up a mint condition copy for a couple of pounds or euros on Discogs.
Funnily enough, since those days, Learys career pivoted towards DJing. It seems like he has been one of the key drivers of the ongoing trance revival in electronic music. In the years before the pandemic, he threw popular trance parties across the UK and occasionally co-produced beats for rappers like Danny Brown or Travis Scott, but he didn’t release much of his own music.
In 2014, he had produced his second EP for Tri-Angle, which combined his love for instrumental hip-hop and dancehall beats with his interest in more experimental sounds. In 2020, he came back with »Ultra«, a dramatic ambient rave tune that he built as an intro to his live sets, as a stand-alone single on Warp.
Since then, Evian Christ has withdrawn into relative silence again, aside from the occasional co-production or remix credit with Visionist or Bladee. He still DJs at festivals though, bathing in strobe light and churning out self-made Charli XCX trance edits.
The top comment under the »Ultra« video reads:
evian christ is currently a school teacher in a remote village in England. he just makes music sporadically as a hobby now.
Whether it’s a troll’s joke or the actual truth – both seems equally possible.
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