Singer, songwriter and flutist Elizabete Balčus has, in a short while, become a notable and creative voice in Latvian pop music. Initially performing with Latvian ‘indie pop fairy’ group Sus Dungo, Balčus shortly thereafter began her solo career. Her debut EP – Wooden Horse – won the Latvian Music Recording award for best debut in 2011.
Balčus has now followed up that effort with her first full length album entitled Conarium. Released in 2016 by the indie UK label Liminal Noise Tapes, it provides a showcase for Balčus’ creativity and musical versatility, with its collection of quirky and cheerfully odd songs.
Balčus’ music has been described as avant garde pop, neo-psychadelia, dream pop, among many other descriptions, but it is difficult to find an accurate label for it. Though quite often displaying refined pop sensibilities, the music can often still surprise, but can also be jarring and opaque, and might occasionally remind the listener of the Icelandic singer Bjork. It is music that does require active listening, as Balčus’ arrangements are carefully and intricately woven, providing an appropriately dreamy and ethereal listening experience.
The album’s title – Conarium – has two meanings. One refers to the pineal gland in the brain, that produces both melatonin during sleep and serotonin during the day, and, as per the notes in the CD booklet, this keeps us ‘happy and buoyant’. The word can also mean ‘the earliest larval state of the Velella velella’, a type of jellyfish that floats upside-down. Though those are two radically different definitions of the word, both seem quite appropriate for this collection of songs.
The songs, all but two of which are in English, evoke a child-like, yet mature approach. The song “Out”, begins with the sound of a small woodwind ensemble, then Balčus sings with a dreamy naiveté lyrics like ‘butterflies in the winter – I see – they are alive’, as the song then progresses into an atmospheric vocalize that is complemented by Balčus’ flute performance.
The lullaby “Negribas iet gulēt” (lyrics by poet Ojārs Vācietis), is a tender and beautiful ode about a child that is reluctant to go to sleep. Balčus melds the words of Vācietis with a lush musical tapestry, revealing the effective simplicity of the text and resulting in one of the most memorable songs on the album. One does wish that the artist had recorded a few more songs in her native language though, as this song and “Vienīgais ceļš” (with lyrics by Aspazija) are two of the strongest tracks on the record.
Balčus’ lyrics often have a stream of consciousness feel to them, adding even further to the dreamlike atmosphere, such as “Behind the Castle”, where she sings ‘in this city pure desert dimness fills all the shapes’, then repeatedly singing ‘is the castle real?’ as the song fades out. Though her usage of vocal effects is very effective throughout the album, the vocal echo does seem to be occasionally overused – though it does enhance the etherealness of the album, there could be more of a balance with the singer’s natural voice without effects.
One of the truly avant garde (or perhaps just odd) songs is “Jellyfish”, which is an occasionally discordant collection of sounds and somewhat nonsensical lyrics like “sneaky creepy royal harlot tangle jangle is your knowledge”, and then becomes less of a song and more a sonic experiment with non-sequiturs like Balčus declaring “I’m a vegetarian” as well as “eat a jellyfish!”, making for a rather tangled, but intriguing performance.
Balčus’ talents are not limited to music – her design for the CD booklet is one of the most intricate and beautiful booklet designs in recent memory. Filled with photographs, drawings, translucent pages, and the song lyrics in various forms, it is clear that much preparation was put into this artistic presentation. The booklet provides a visual representation for many of the songs, and is appropriately whimsical and esoteric.
Conarium is an accomplished album from the young Latvian talent, engaging and involving the listener from its opening to its conclusion. The songs, though often eclectic and diverse, flow together to provide a thoroughly satisfying listening experience. Ranging from curious experiments to more traditional melodic and vocal approaches, Elizabete Balčus displays an extensive creativity throughout the album, not just in the vocals and lyrics, but in the album booklet as well.
For further information, please visit Elizabete Balčus’ website.
Liminal Noise Tapes, 2016
- Behind the Castle
- Negribas iet gulēt
- They’re coming
- The Moon Asked the Crow
- Purple & Gold
- Dusk & Recession
- Vienīgais ceļš
- Luna City
- The Hanging Garden