From Latvia with Love by Kaspars Zalāns

The Latvian contemporary music scene: the sound of pines, sea and melancholy.

It’s always a bit perplexing being presented with an article that not only describes a very specific music scene, but a scene from a country you might not even have heard of. But, alas, there is such a country, Latvia, a pearl of the Baltics. Known, if known at all, by the revolting bloodshed it suffered through during the 20th century, a very strong modern theatre tradition that keeps on growing and the fact that the capital, Riga, is the European capital of culture 2014.
Sadly, it’s also home to multitude of bands that rarely are known outside its borders, which as a native I hope to mitigate in this article. Thus, I present to you just a few of the music acts I see as noteworthy, letting you, dear reader, decide for yourself which bands deserve your time and how deep to you dare to delve into the oozing swamp of Latvian music scene.

Skyforger
A band that is almost stereotypically patriotic, playing a brand of folk-metal, sang entirely in Latvian, that often incorporates folk instruments of all shapes and sizes. And they dress as ancient Baltic warriors during live shows, of course. Despite the very local nature of the band, they are very popular in the German and Scandinavian metal scenes, with there rarely being a metal fest without their presence. And, if metal isn’t your plate of blood sausage and chips, don’t fret, they’ve released an album of pure folk music, letting you experience first-hand what we Eastern Europeans sing in the shower.

Metal, Ayeee

Folk

Sanctimony
The second most well-loved Latvian metal band of the moment playing death ‘n’ roll. Yes, you read that right, death ‘n’ roll; a malformed fetus-baby of a one night binge-stand between death metal and rock and roll music that the former is still attending therapy for, and of which the latter has recently developed this strange itch in its nether regions. While originally they were content with playing old-school death metal, their love of eighties hard rock came through, leading to an Asking Alexandria-esque evolution. Their live shows are infamous for creating mini whiplash epidemics amongst fans for months.

It’s in English, YAY

Tesa
The last entry in the metal genre, this band is almost as uniformly loved in the local metal underground as much as Neurosis are in the US. A mainly instrumental act, they are known for mixing sludge metal, noise rock and post rock into brain cell killing walls-of-sound (seriously, their live shows are infamous for being borderline bone breaking). Tesa is one of those epitome bands that couldn’t care less about the mainstream, releasing abstract one song albums, where the only border between movements is indicated by roman numerals.

Tesa IV

Brainstorm
Doubtlessly, the most popular genre in Latvia, like a lot of places elsewhere, is indie rock (though the “indie” aspect is often discussable with a lot of these bands). Although Brainstorm started as a mainstream alternative-rock act, they have taken a sharp and rather unexpected left-turn into Mumford & Sons land with their latest releases. Not just a popular rock band, they’re the most popular band in Latvia, PERIOD. And have been so for over a decade, with the most ardent fans buying all their concert tickets a year ahead.

Judge for yourself

The Sound Poets
Just barely three years old, The Sound Poets have already released two studio albums and seem to be one of the more likely candidates to not only dethrone Brainstorms tyrannical reign of the scene (they’re pretty swell guys in reality), but also pillage the mainstream. The inclusion of a cello in their sound as well as the falsetto of the vocalist gives them a Sigur Ros vibe that is yet more upbeat and has a certain East-European Autumnal sadness to it.

“Over the Mountains”

IndyGo
While they like to describe themselves as progressive rock, they’re not averse to using a few shades of indie in their broad palette that also includes alternative, metal and anything in between. Their live shows paint them as a band that not only doesn’t take itself too seriously, but isn’t afraid to incite a few moshpits in the crowd by themselves, their beerguts and chest hair proudly exposed (it’s a Latvian thing, don’t ask).

“Decoy”

Instrumenti
A classically trained art-pop duo, they gained mainstream recognition in Latvia while taking part in our equivalent of “Britain’s Got Talent”, wearing oversized panda masks on their heads (as said, it’s East-Europe, don’t look so perplexed). As pretentious as it sounds, they haven’t yet set any borders for their sounds, mixing elements of trip-hop, indie-pop, dance music and even some classically tinged piano ballads or two. Disliking them might result in you being sent to a penal colony to comb pandas for five years. WTH YOUR TOES!

“Don’t hold on to me”

Mellendig
Last on the list, Mellendig were once known as The WOW, which was certainly the reaction they got from me when I first heard them. Unlike a lot of Latvian bands they have an unashamedly feel-good groove and sensibility steaming from a heavy eighties pop-influence and love for all things electronic. Warning! Listening to this band might result in uncontrolled urge to get down that might result, but is not limited to, dehydration and long-lasting catharsis.

YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED

Kaspars Zalāns

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