February 04, 2006
Orchestral string instruments are cool. They are cool whether they are being used to play the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Vasks or any other composer dead or living. And they’re also cool when used in nontraditional ways, such as when playing cover versions of Latvian pop and rock hits. That’s what the Rīga-based cello trio called Melo-M does on its debut album, the self-titled Melo-M.
The group released the compact disc last June on the Platforma label. The 10-track album may not be what listeners initially expect. Rather than rock music stripped down to mellow cellos, Melo-M sounds like almost full-on rock, but without the vocals. These guys get some amazing sounds out of their instruments. When I first listened to the album, I could have sworn keyboards and a guitar also could be heard, but I have been assured by the group’s manager that only cellos and drums are used.
Formed in late 2004, Melo-M plays what is described as “instrumental cello rock.” It’s part of the “classical crossover” genre popularized by groups such as Finland’s Apocalyptica, a cello-playing trio perhaps best known for its interpretations of the music of heavy metal band Metallica. On the day Melo-M released its album last year, the Latvian trio warmed up the audience for a concert by Apocalyptica in Rīga’s Skonto Hall.
Melo-M’s members include three cellists with classical training: founder Kārlis Auzāns, who also plays guitar with the pop group Autobuss debesīs; Valters Pūce, whose father Valts leads the Marana vocal group, and Antons Trocjuks, who, like Auzāns and Pūce, has done well in international cello competitions. Trocjuks has replaced Kristaps Bergs, the original third member of the band who appears on the album. Vilnis Krieviņš plays drums on the album. Melo-M is short for melomanija (melomania), the excessive passion for music.
For listeners unfamiliar with the history of Latvian rock music, some of the tracks on the CD may not immediately register. That’s the case with the opening song, “Rock on the Ice,” a composition by Jānis Lūsēns. Today Lūsēns is known in part for his work for theatre and rock opera, but in 1980 he was a founder of Zodiaks, an electronica and disco group that gained wide popularity throughout the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. “Rock on the Ice” is off the group’s landmark album, Disco Alliance.
I will admit that I didn’t immediately take to “instrumental cello rock,” especially when cover versions are involved. Invariably I tried to imagine what the original recording sounded like, and in a couple of instances was not happy with Melo-M’s version. Pagan metal band Skyforger’s “Kad Ūsiņš jāj” (“When Ūsiņš Rides”, from the band’s Pērkoņkalve album) needs the guitars, the heavy bass and the growling vocals. And Linga’s “Atdodies man” just isn’t the same without Gvido Linga’s voice.
But the third track, “Dzimtā valoda” (“In the Native Language”) by Ainars Virga of the Liepāja guitar rock group Līvi, comes off sounding like a true anthem, the cellos pulling on the patriotic heart strings. The song, released in 1985, gained popularity as Latvia’s push for renewed independence gathered steam. It’s followed by “Dzejnieks,” another Līvi tune, in which Krieviņš and his drums nicely set the pace for what the cellos do.
I could have done without “Kvazimodo dziedājums” (“Quasimodo’s Song”), composed by Zigmārs Liepiņš for the rock opera “Parīzes Dievmātes Katedrāle.” I enjoy the song, but would have liked Melo-M to take on another more traditional rock tune instead. Raimonds Pauls’ “Undīne” also seems out of place on this album, but does show the range of material Melo-M is willing to cover.
The eighth track is the only one featuring a vocal, and that’s just in the introduction to “Sapumpurots zars” (The Budding Branch), also known as “Dziesma par sapumpuroto zaru,” a song by the rock group Pērkons composed by Juris Kulakovs. Melo-M’s version is a good take on the classic.
Also covered are “Trubadūrs” by Imants Kalniņš and “Zem diviem karogiem” by Jumprava.
Melo-M tours the United States during February, with concerts scheduled in Rockville, Md.; Cleveland, Ohio; Kalamazoo, Mich.; Minneapolis; Chicago; Seattle, Wash., and in Los Angeles. The tour also was to include Autobuss debesīs singer Marts Kristiāns Kalniņš, son of composer Imants Kalniņš, but he was forced to pull out on a doctor’s advice.
If you get a chance, take in a concert and decide whether “instrumental cello rock” is for you. If it is, Melo-M is worth adding to your collection.
Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000-2012 he was editor of the website.
Melo-M includes three classically trained musicians who play “instrumental cello rock.” (Photo courtesy of Melo-M)