Reviews

Instrumenal cello rock may not be for all

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

Melo-M includes three classically trained musicians who play “instrumental cello rock.” (Photo courtesy of Melo-M)

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Details

Melo-M

Melo-M

Platforma Records, 2005

PRCD 150

Melo-M

Comments

paul conquest

Hello i had the chance to visit the wonderful country of Latvia two weeks ago and was blown away. It really is amazingly colourfull and diverse. While there i went to two city celebrations Valmieras and Cesis (apologises i dont have a Latvain keyboard!) On stage were Melo-M at both of these celebrations. The crowds reaction along with my girlfriends when they played certain songs was amazing! They loved Melo-M and to be honest so did i! I couldn't belive that they could only be playing the celo! Awesome is what i would describe there performances. As an English man who has never heard the originals i thought all the materail sounded brilliant!! I will definatly buy there albums if i can find them somewhere on the internet! Melo-M labi!!

18 Jul 2006 (Great Britain (UK))

Dick Sanders

Is the young cellist Kristaps Bergs related to the famous Latvian merchant of the same name (1843 - 1907), who founded Bergs Bazaar? If so, how?

05 May 2007 (Australia)

rosalie kirsch

On July 23 in Los Angeles I heard Kristaps Bergs playing Peteris Vasks Book for Cello Solo. It was spellbinding! This audience composed mostly of Senior Senior Citizens (myself included) were almost hypnotised by the music, and it seemed to me that Kristaps himself was almost hynotised by it. It was an experience I would love to be able to repeat. However, when I asked Kristaps if there were any recordings available, he seemed to be very shy as he replied modestly, "well, not yet." I'm hoping there soon will be more opportunities to hear this most remarkable musician. If you ever hear of such opportunities, I would appreciate your getting in touch with me: rosaliesk@earthlink.net.

30 Jul 2007 (United States)

Alysa C.

I love Melo-m!

06 Apr 2008 (United States)

Breanne France

This group is amazing... It's nice to see such success out of a Latvian group, my family is from Latvia and they absolutely love them! I've never heard anything like them, they've truly made art out of classicaly music. When I go to Latvia next summer I'll be sure to go see them in concert! I'm having a hard time finding their cd here in Canada though:(

12 Jun 2008 (Canada)

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