On the evening of May 4, my friends and I stumbled out of the Latvian National Opera in a silent stupor. We had just seen six-man a capella group Cosmos give a two-hour performance showcasing the new album, Turbulence. And I, for one, felt like I had just been explained quantum theory and had actually understood every word. I therefore had little objection (or choice) when, on the following Tuesday, my friend grabbed me and shook me like a rag doll outside of the Randoms music store in Rīga saying “Gasp! Cosmos! New CD!”, and steered me through the shop doors. I had the album set on loop for the entire next week.
Though Turbulence only hit shelves April 16, the tracks have been available online for preview and purchase since the beginning of April. The group’s last compact disc was released in 2005. However, in complete contrast to its previous work, Cosmos has stepped out of the standardized a capella box and done something quite uncharacteristic: The group put together a collection of almost 100 percent original material.
Cosmos is Jānis Šipkēvics (countertenor), Andris Sējāns (countertenor), Juris Lisenko (tenor), Jānis Ozols (baritone), Jānis Strazdiņš (bass) and Reinis Sējāns (vocals, rhythm). The group’s beginning can be traced back to 2002. Cosmos is well known for its renditions of pretty much any pop song, its Christmas album and cutesy Latvian theatre pop. Among other accomplishments and victories, the group in 2004 won the international “New Wave” competition for young singers of popular music and in 2006 represented Latvia in the Eurovision Song Contest.
The album, apparently stemming from turbulence in the individual lives of the group members, does anything but make you reach for the nearest sick bag. If you’ve been following Cosmos since Day 1 and are comfortable with it being just another great a capella group, be prepared to step out of the box yourself. The guys have put their vocal skills to a whole new use. Literally something people of all ages and walks of life can enjoy, Turbulence is a mish-mash of subgenres, all squeezed under a single roof called a capella. Don’t pack up your fan bags and run just yet. It’s worth sticking around to see what they can do.
The first track of the album, “Aptieka” (Pharmacy), is an airy, upbeat song accompanied by thematic pen scratching and bottle tinking. I can’t say that the song immediately draws you into the album, but because it moves so fast, it prevents you from becoming immediately bored. Otherwise, there is really nothing wrong with the track: It’s a whirlwind of catchy, simple sounds and manages to be simultaneously pro-love and anti-“medicated nation.”
The second track, “Maskava” (Moscow), should have been the first. I’ve heard some people say it’s “the song” of the album. It’s a picturesque, haunting composition that lulls you into an almost familiar feeling and seems more appropriately a capella than most of the other tracks on the album because it has a more “classic” feel to it. The subject matter of the song, as well as its sound, is a contrast to the previous track.
If you’ve regained a sense of Cosmos’ genre, “Parasta/neparasta diena” (An Ordinary/Unusual Day) will freak you out. This track is the epitome of experimentation. It starts out slowly and gradually builds up, kind of like a spring storm. At 3:42, the song breaks loose, working into a frenzy led by Reinis Sējāns’ beat box skills. Think the song uses synthesizers? Listen closely and you can hear the guys taking breaths between the crazy sound effects. Then the storm dies down again, reaching an almost lethargic state. I’m confused as to why the song starts out with a short spoken introduction in Latvian and then switches to English later on, but I guess turbulence is as turbulence does. I don’t dislike it, but as one of the stranger tracks, “Parasta/neparasta diena” definitely takes some getting used to.
The fourth track, “Vindo”, is one of my favorites from the album. I can always go for some good tribal or folk stuff. “Vindo” takes yet another turn from stereotypical a capella and adds one more subgenre to the album’s makeup. The song would be perfect for yet another Lion King film if, God forbid, Disney decided to make one. It starts out with a Jew’s harp (bad for your teeth, great for your music) and heads into a repetitive chant. More rhythm effects are put to good use here and the style of singing makes you want to stand on a mountaintop and shout at the top of your lungs, but in a good way. If anything, this one merits turning up the bass.
Ah, yes, Track 5. “Tu kā, es kā” (You’re Like, I’m Like), is a new a capella-born bubble-pop love anthem, so to speak. It’s the simplest song on the album and by far the people’s favorite. The extensive list comparing the narrator to his sweetheart isn’t the slightest bit annoying or boring, as there are normal comparisons—“Tu kā dāma, es kā kungs” (“You’re the lady, I’m the gentleman”)—to more unusual ones—“Tu kā auzas, es kā kombains” (“You’re the oats, I’m the combine”). Toward the end of the track, verbal dexterity is tested as the music speeds up for two increasingly faster re-caps of the list. Another nice aspect of the song is that it gives each Cosmos member a solo, the final items being sung by Strazdiņš, whose voice gets to your bones. However, for as simple as the song seems, the similes hold deeper meaning than may initially appear; there are things that physically fit together and things that conceptually fit together. Simple, deep, endearing, humorous and it rhymes? You might as well make it your new ringtone.
Although Track 6, “Trejdeviņi slepens” (Infinitely Mysterious) is my favorite song on the album, it’s worth mentioning that there is a one-and-a-half minute intro of anti-climactic vocal effects. It’s not until the effects are paired with the melody that they cause some goose bumps. In addition to really liking the beat of the song, the main reason why I adore it is that it screams old-time Latvian folk tales.
…sirmais bārdainis ar platu smaidu sejā
Tik ogļu melns un trejdeviņi slepens
bij’ vīra stāsts.
To visu dzirdēju un laimīgs gāju projām
Trejdeviņi is decidedly one of my favorite words. It’s so Latvian and it’s a single word that, in combination with a phrase or just by itself, elicits so many meanings or feelings of bravery, valor, pride, romance, fear, etc. It could be trejdeviņi pits of pickled beets and I’d still go nostalgic. The word choice combined with the vocal accompaniment threw me back to my childhood when I was read Latvian tales at bedtime about things like magic pike helping maidens in distress, evil stepsisters growing horns as a repercussion of being evil and how, each time you chop off the head of a multi-headed devil creature, three heads will grow back to replace it. Of course, the song contains no such gore, but the undercurrent is loaded with the past.
The next three tracks don’t take anything away from the album, but they’re not as dynamic as the rest. Track 7, “Vienreiz” (Once), has a very clean and clear sound in a laid back setting. It’s also the kind of song that would, on a normal basis, make me roll my eyes and check my watch. Sort of on the sappy side, the song is about patriotism: As a people we should collectively pay attention to and fight the good fight, but also (collectively) know when to not get involved. The only reason I am tolerant of the subject matter this time is because I first heard it in Latvia on May 4, which made it more material and closer to home. Basically, I was tricked.
The next track, “Destination: Heaven,” is another strange one and makes me kind of uncomfortable. I’m pleased with the auditory aspects of the song, but find the lyrics to be somewhat creepy. If that was the goal, bravo, they’ve done it, they’ve successfully written a creepy song. Once again, we’re given a simple subject matter with text that strikes true, accompanied by sweeping hand rhythm and vocal echo effects.
The last original track on the album, “Pasaules galiņš” (The End of the World), completely reminds me of Prāta vētra or Reigani (or are we all still in denial that they weren’t one and the same?). One reason could be the prominent presence of a drum set. This song is also catchy, complete with whistling. It is not only a huge contrast to the previous track, but to the rest of the album as well. If “Destination: Heaven” was a melancholy song about accepting or not accepting death, “Pasaules galiņš” is its “Tra-la-la, I’m the end of the world, are you ready?” opposition. I am amazed by the lung power of the Cosmos members, but am not so thrilled with the ending of the song, which sounds more like a football (soccer, for you Western Hemisphere folk) crowd cheering off-beat after one too many cheap beers.
That brings the album’s original material to an end. The final and only cover track is Muse’s “Unintended.” I’ll admit that had I not read the CD jacket, I wouldn’t have noticed the difference, save the flawless English. Some more solos are passed around and impeccable harmonies displayed. The song is the perfect ending to the album—another haunting and wholly emotional song that Cosmos absolutely makes its own.
There is no room to take a breather during Turbulence and it’s not necessary. The collection of songs offers something for everyone, proving it’s OK if an a capella group sings something you’ve never heard before. And to all the nitpickers who say there is no real continuity in the album, I ask you to take a second look at its title. Need I say more? I’d say the guys of Cosmos have set up a pretty solid defense and have done exceedingly well, all without having to borrow material from someone else.
Where to buy
Purchase Turbulence from BalticShop.
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