There is a Russian idiom, “Don't judge a watermelon by its rind.” Good advice, but not for Teufelskeller. When watching the trio on YouTube, the players really advertise their influences: leader/saxophonist Anton Ponomarev has the shaggy tresses of a seventies European free-jazzer; electric bassist Konstantin Korolev, tall, bald, and bearded, screams extreme metal; and drummer Andrey Kim, lanky and shirtless, recalls the glory days of eighties–nineties NYC hardcore.
Teufelskeller was formed in late 2020 and released its first album last fall on WV Sorcerer Productions, a self-titled slab forge-welding the Sonny Rollins Trio with Animosity-era Corrosion of Conformity, with serrations of more recent bands like The Thing and Cactus Truck. They are scheduled to tour Europe in May of this year, presuming no bureaucratic or conscription complications from the ongoing Russian war on Ukraine. The name translates from German as “devil's cellar”—it comes from a folk legend from a forest in Baden, near Ponomarev's adopted home of Zürich, in which a princess is captured by ghosts and trapped in a chasm full of barrels, turned into a tree until a monk helps restore her humanity through a Christian icon.
Ponomarev offers this history of the band:
I wanted to collaborate with Konstantin for quite a while before, so once I suggested that we meet and play together and to see what we can do. It is important to say that Konstantin lives in Nizhny Novgorod, four to five hours by train from Moscow, and he was coming to Moscow just for rehearsals. I really think Konstantin is the best bass player at least in Russia, in fact maybe even more than that. It's a great chance to play with him!
After a couple of rehearsals, we thought that we wanted to invite a drummer to play with us. We tried three or four different ones, but Andrey was the best fit. We have known each other for quite a few years already, collaborating a lot… Andrey left the band soon after we recorded the album. As I live in Switzerland now, I found a local drummer for the band. Konstantin still lives in Russia, so to make a tour he will come to Europe.
The members were all born in 1991–92, just as Perestroika was coming to an end in Russia and the freewheeling oligarch period under Boris Yeltsin was starting. They weren't even ten when Vladimir Putin started his reign. When asked about his own feelings about Putin’s war against Ukraine and a statement legendary German free jazz saxophonist Peter Brötzmann made about his music being a response to the Nazism of his parents’ generation, Ponomarev replied:
So many years have passed and not a lot has changed. I can declare exactly the same as Peter. You can always notice the fabric patch saying, “This saxophone kills fascists” laying or hanging somewhere near me on the stage when I perform… It is just very, very important that the artists have a clear anti-war position and that they clearly show it!
The four pieces on the album are caustic, electric bass in particular sounding apocalyptic. The titles, “Persecution and Clemency,” “The Archfiend,” “Torrential Outbreak,” and “Indecent Exposure,” can either be taken as descriptive or just another layer—death-metal style—of brutality. Extremity in music, ranging from black metal, grindcore, jazz-punk and noise-rock, is what the three share, with Ponomarev specifically referencing bands like Slayer and Napalm Death as influences. “It was not so difficult for the three of us to find common ground,” he says.
Ponomarev has been finding common ground with a wide array of players over the past decade-plus, not only compatriots in bands like Бром, Moscow Composers Ensemble, and Speedball Trio, but also international collaborators of varying generations, from late trumpeter Toshinori Kondo and alto saxophonist Ryoko Ono, both from Japan, to Americans such as guitarist Henry Kaiser and late pianist Burton Greene. “To me it is just important to collaborate,” Ponomarev says. “You always can find something interesting and new in the styles of different musicians, regardless of their nationality or age. You can learn from them, get something new for your own style, adopt some experience.”
For those leery of electric bass in jazz contexts, Korolev doesn’t have a smooth, funky, tropical or Jaco Pastorius-like moment. He seems to battle the instrument, willing the strings to defy him so he can just assault them harder. Kim is one of those drummers who disprove the impossibility of a perpetual motion machine, a blur of activity. Over, under and through it all is Ponomarev, blending Brötzmann with the guttural vocals of Slayer’s Tom Araya, further strafing the cratered earth Korolev and Kim have left in their wake. This forty-three-minute album has no fairy-tale ending. The princess remains a tree, impervious to faith-healing, cursed to rot slowly in the abyss over the centuries.