Manta’s album “Karaliene Anna” stretches musical boundaries

Guitarist, singer and songwriter Edgars Šubrovskis has been, for decades now, a leading figure and creative force in the Latvian alternative music scene. With groups like Hospitāļu iela, Gaujarts, and, most recently, Manta, his distinctive vocals and creative songs have found a large audience in Latvia and elsewhere.

Manta’s self-titled debut album was released in 2014, and, with its quirky, catchy songs, at times humorous, at times menacing, as well as its retro electronic sound (courtesy of producer Ingus Baušķenieks, of Latvian electronic music innovators Dzeltenie pastnieki), was a landmark in Latvian alternative music. In fact, the album won the Zelta mikrofons award for best alternative album.

Manta returned with their follow-up album – Karaliene Anna – in 2017, again recorded and mixed by Baušķenieks, and which continued the development of the group’s sound and music in multiple different directions, some expected, and some unexpected and difficult. On the record, Šubrovskis is joined by Edgars Mākens on keyboards, Oskars Upenieks on synthesizers, and Raitis Viļumovs on percussion.

Even before the first listen, the album cover and booklet immediately give warning that this will be a darker and bleaker album. With its dark tones and blurry pictures, it is clear that this may be a challenging musical journey for some. Somber keyboard tones open the first track – ‘Zīme’, a song simply chronicling the staggered journey of a drunken man along the street, eventually collapsing. With its sound effects and dark, atmospheric sounds, this song sets the stage for the album, with Šubrovskis’ vocals at once dour and resonant.

The group certainly has more ambitious musical plans on Karaliene Anna, stretching musical boundaries, such as on the nearly nine minute space rock epic ‘Pārestības’. The lyrics, tinged with bitterness and sadness, provide the introduction to the extended jam that concludes the song, perhaps indicating a solitary journey in the vast emptiness of space.

The titular queen Anna has died, and the song is presented as a requiem for her (though, as is often the case in Šubrovskis’ songs, who might this queen be and why her death is so significant is unclear), however, the song is one of the most beautiful on the album, with its haunting synthesizer tones on top of a mournful piano melody.

The intentionally archaic electronic sounds frequently heard on the album are used with great effect on the song ‘Eva Eva’, a song that again has a twinge of romantic sadness, particularly in lyrics like ‘Pāris sadodas rokās. Tas ir tik skaisti. Bet mēs tie neesam.’ (A couple join hands, that is so beautiful – but it is not us).

One can perhaps see parallels in the progression from their 2014 album to Karaliene Anna in the progression of Šubrovskis’ earlier ensemble Hospitāļu iela. Their 2004 album Pilnmēness was also full of quirky, catchy songs, but subsequent albums (2005’s Nav centrs and 2007’s Pūķis became more and more eclectic and challenging). Perhaps Šubrovskis gravitates towards bleaker themes and sounds, as his singing style in many songs makes them sound like funeral dirges, with their slow and weighty vocals. Though Karaliene Anna was clearly meant as a gloomier, weightier album, one does miss the occasional flash of humor that appears in Šubrovskis’ songs.

Listeners who were hoping for a continuation of the unconventional yet catchy songs on their debut album may find the musical turns on Karaliene Anna to be difficult to follow, if not overly dreary. The album is also a far cry from the often light-hearted tunes from the earlier days of Hospitāļu iela. With its bleak and sorrowful songs, the album is emotionally draining to listen to. Still, those familiar with all the aspects of Šubrovskis’ long career will still find much familiar here, as well as many new sonic explorations and creative arrangements. With its dark tones and color palette, Karaliene Anna is often challenging, periodically rewarding, and another unexpected twist in the musical career of Edgars Šubrovskis.

For further information, please visit Manta’s Facebook page.

Karaliene Anna

Manta

Biedrība HI, 2017

Track listing:

  1. Zīme
  2. Rudensziema
  3. Halo
  4. Tьматериатьизм
  5. Krīspadsmit
  6. Pārestības
  7. Karaliene Anna
  8. Eva Eva
  9. Kaste ar sirdīm
  10. 8 bitu halo
  11. Bērni

 

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area who lives in Rīga, Latvia. When not working in the information technology field, he sings in the Latvian Academy of Culture mixed choir Sõla, does occasional translation work, and has been known to sing and play guitar at the Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs in Old Rīga. Kaljo began listening to Latvian music as soon as he was able to put a record on a record player, and still has old Bellacord 78 rpm records lying around somewhere.

Auļi team up with Tautumeitas to create powerful sonic tapestry

Drum and bagpipe ensemble Auļi have long been a major force in Latvian folk music, with their driving beats complemented by the powerful sounds and tones of the bagpipes. A newer group on the Latvian folk music scene is Tautumeitas, who, as their name might indicate, is a collection of young Latvian women singing in a traditional style. In 2017, these two combined their talents and recorded an album entitled Lai māsiņa rotājās!, an album with songs about engagements and weddings.

As Auļi has ten members, and Tautumeitas has six singers (and one bassist), the united ensemble has seventeen musicians and displays a true strength in numbers, with the drums, bagpipes and multiple vocalists coming together to create a broad sonic tapestry, which is at once both traditional and modern. One of the most effective examples of this is the song ‘Dzied’ papriekšu, brāļa māsa’, where the traditional Latvian singing style is meshed with the thundering drums to make for a powerful performance.

Latvian folklore is full of references to the inability of a bride and her groom’s mother to get along, such as in the song ‘Benķa kāja’, where the bride sings “ja tu man’ par beņķa kāja – es tev – veca raganiņ’” (If you say that I am a bench leg, then I will call you an old witch.”) With their confident, expressive singing, Tautumeitas make it clear that the bride will be no pushover, no matter how little the groom’s mother thinks of the dowry.

The hard working, independent young Latvian woman appears in the song ‘Manā lopu laidarā’, where the young woman defiantly turns away a suitor, saying “Kā es varu tava būt? Netīk manam prātiņam!” (How can I be yours? You are not my type!) The extensive and intricate vocal harmonies of Tautumeitas make for an authentic interpretation of this song – in fact, many of the members of the group are ethnomusicologists, another reason that their singing is so very genuine.

The album does have the occasional softer, calmer song, such as ‘Es jaunā būdama’. Tautumeitas are not just vocalists, they also bring quite a few instruments along with them, such as the violin and accordion, and these additional elements, along with the sounds of Auļi, enrich this song and others on the album.

There are also songs from the Latgale region, such as the vigorous ‘Sēdēja muoseņa aiz galdeņa’ and ‘Voi vacuokīs buoleliņi’, with its lively string introduction then followed by an ever expanding vocal group supplemented by the indefatigable drumming of Auļi.

The combination of the two ensembles is a highly effective one – with the masculinity of the drums and the femininity of the vocals, a memorable balance is achieved. As the album is about engagement and weddings, it is then appropriate to have both of these perspectives in the songs. One might even interpret the album itself as the older brother (Auļi) leading the debutantes of Tautumeitas into wider society (this is, after all, Tautumeitas’ first album).

The driving drums and bagpipes of Auļi along with the energetic, potent vocals of Tautumeitas makes for a dynamic combination on Lai māsiņa rotājās! In fact, this album was awarded the Zelta mikrofons award for best folk music album of 2017. Though steeped in tradition, the songs still sound fresh and robust, with, once again, thanks to the skills of producer Kaspars Bārbals (a producer of many such folk music albums), who ensures a full and rich, but not overwhelming sound on the record. The union of these two groups has made for a particularly enjoyable and significant entry in the field of Latvian folk music.

For further information, please visit the Auļi website and the Tautumeitas website.

Lai māsiņa rotājās!

Auļi/ Tautumeitas

Lauska, LAUSKACD072, 2017

Track listing:

  1. Manā lopu laidarā
  2. Neviens mīļi tā nebrauca
  3. Dzied’ papriekšu, brāļa māsa
  4. Netīšāmi es iegāju
  5. Sēdēja muoseņa aiz galdeņa
  6. Nu ar Dievu
  7. Ko zinu gaidīt
  8. Es jauna būdama
  9. Dej, eglīte
  10. Voi vacuokīs buoleliņi
  11. Ama jama muosenis
  12. Beņķa kāja
  13. Aulejas klezmers

 

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area who lives in Rīga, Latvia. When not working in the information technology field, he sings in the Latvian Academy of Culture mixed choir Sõla, does occasional translation work, and has been known to sing and play guitar at the Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs in Old Rīga. Kaljo began listening to Latvian music as soon as he was able to put a record on a record player, and still has old Bellacord 78 rpm records lying around somewhere.

Carion Quintet’s new CD features works by Latvian composers

The Carion Quintet, a woodwind quintet that brings together musicians from Denmark, Hungary and Latvia, has been performing together since 2002, and, in their fifteen year history, have become one of the premiere wind quintets worldwide. Though they have been active recording artists, up until recently, their recordings were focused on Danish composers. However, in 2017, after encouragement from the Latvian national record label Skani, the ensemble recorded an album of works by Latvian composers. Entitled Northwind, it gathers recordings of works by Imants Zemzaris, Pēteris Plakidis, and Pēteris Vasks. The album is part of the Skani series celebrating the Latvian centennial.

Carion is formed from the following musicians – Dóra Seres on flute, Egils Upatnieks on oboe, Egīls Šēfers on clarinet, David M. A. P. Palmquist on horn, and Niels Anders Vedsten Larsen on bassoon.

The compositions on this CD were all written in the period between 1975 and 1985, a period when the Woodwind Quintet of the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra was actively performing and inspiring artists to compose for them. It was also a time of artistic upheaval (some small creative freedoms were being allowed by the Soviet authorities), and the works display a number of different styles and approaches, even though they were all composed in a similar period of time.

Composer Imants Zemzaris wrote ‘Four Preludes on a Theme by Alfrēds Kalniņš’ in 1981, on the 30th anniversary of the composer’s death. The theme is one of Kalniņš’ sacred songs, and the result is melodic and spiritual. Zemzaris blends together both classical and more modern elements in the preludes, lyrically bridging the divide between the two eras with gently flowing melodies and harmonies, and all the various elements are beautifully rendered by the members of the Quintet.

Zemzaris also is represented by his work ‘Voice’, and, as the title would suggest, it is a composition for a single instrument, the voice of the clarinet. Šēfers provides a compelling interpretation of the piece, with its meditative and quiet beginning, which then grows and expands to cover the many dynamics and aspects of a voice, and with the jumps in tone, can almost seem like a conversation.

The late composer Pēteris Plakidis makes full use of all the instruments of the quintet in his energetic and driving ‘Prelude and Pulsation’, with its alternating short bursts of sound and longer and occasionally shriller tones creating a layered sonic painting. This is then followed up by Plakidis’ ‘Two Sketches’ for solo oboe, and Upatnieks’ expressive and nuanced performance makes for a memorable rendition of these works.

The album concludes with two works by Pēteris Vasks. The first is ‘Music for Fleeting Birds’, an aural representation of migratory birds in Latvia. Carion create a dramatic, ornithological landscape, as the birds gather and sing, and then depart in preparation for the coming cold winter. Each instrument has its own, unique birdsong, There is also a considerable amount of tension in the work, perhaps reflecting Vasks’ own interest in ecology and conservation and the threat to the birds from humanity and industry.

The second work is perhaps Vasks’ most tragic composition – ‘In Memory of a Friend’, a work dedicated to bassoonist Jānis Barinskis, who perished in a fire in 1980. The terrifying work, with its all too real depiction of rushing and rising flames in the instruments, then concludes with a despairing moan, as if to symbolize one’s final breath.

The CD is accompanied by extensive notes on Carion, the composers and their works in English, German and Latvian.

The Carion Quintet show themselves to be a truly talented and versatile ensemble on Northwind. Though the compositions were all composed over the course of just a decade, each one is stylistically different and unique, and Carion bring out the individuality and personal characteristics and inner beauty of each of the works. As a result, Northwind is an exceptional document of some of the most compelling Latvian chamber music to have been composed, and the Carion Quintet, with their innovative and resonant performances, has brought new life and energy to these works.

For further information, please visit the Carion Quintet website and the Skani website.

Northwind

Carion Quintet

Skani, SKANI050, 2017

Track listing:

  1. Imants Zemzaris – Four Preludes on a Theme by Alfrēds Kalniņš
  2. Imants Zemzaris – Voice
  3. Pēteris Plakidis – Prelude and Pulsation
  4. Pēteris Plakidis – Two Sketches
  5. Pēteris Vasks – Music for Fleeting Birds
  6. Pēteris Vasks – In Memory of a Friend

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area who lives in Rīga, Latvia. When not working in the information technology field, he sings in the Latvian Academy of Culture mixed choir Sõla, does occasional translation work, and has been known to sing and play guitar at the Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs in Old Rīga. Kaljo began listening to Latvian music as soon as he was able to put a record on a record player, and still has old Bellacord 78 rpm records lying around somewhere.