One of the most amazing statistics in the Latvian music world is the Soviet-era success of composer Jānis Lūsēns. The instrumental ensemble Zodiaks, which he formed in the 1970s, sold a staggering 20 million copies of the 1980 album Disco Alliance in the Soviet Union—an unbelievable amount for that time. To put in perspective, this was a hit on the level of Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
However, this review has nothing to do with the Zodiaks of that period, but with a reimagined Zodiaks—this time with vocalists—and its album Mirušais gadsimts, first released in 1995. The purpose of the statistic was to give an idea of how popular Lūsēns was in those times and how, when he turned to vocal music, his magic touch remained. The new Zodiaks, formed in 1987, had its heyday in the time of Latvian reawakening at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s—the perfect time for the group and its often patriotic lyrics, which were often taken from classic Latvian poets. Lūsens, besides composing all the music for the group, also played the keyboards.
This is a compact disc I have been waiting for a very, very long time. Many of the bright spots of the Mikrofons records of the late 1980s were Zodiaks songs. For example, Mikrofons 88 had the melancholy ballad “Tautas laiks” (lyrics by Imants Ziedonis), featuring perhaps the most impressive vocal performance of singer (and violinist) Zigfrīds Muktupāvels’ career. There was also “Taisnība” (lyrics by Edvarts Treimanis–Zvārgulis) from Mikrofons 89, with the line “Nāc ārā no metāla zārka” (Come out from the metal coffin)—words that rang true then, at the eve of Latvian independence. Years later, I managed to get hold of the long out-of-print 1990 album Mākoņi, which had a number of other great songs on it.
Thankfully, as part of its extensive republishing of classic Latvian albums and songs, MICREC earlier this year released Mirušais gadsmits, a collection of 17 of the best songs from the vocal era of Zodiaks.
Besides Lūsēns and Muktupāvels, the group included Aivars Gudrais and Dzintars Sāgens on guitar, as well as Maija Lūsēna on vocals. As Lūsens was the composer and keyboardist, many of the songs have a strong keyboard and synthesizer base, but not always. Since Muktupāvels was also a violinist, some of the songs featured his violin work. Perhaps the best example—and one of the stranger songs the group performed—was “Mirušais gadsimts” (lyrics by Klāvs Elsbergs), which features Muktupāvels on violin in the introduction.
As mentioned, many of the songs featured lyrics by classic Latvian poets. These included Vilis Plūdonis (“Manas mīļākās puķes” and a personal favorite, “Bohemiešu dziesma”), Kārlis Skalbe (“Staburags un saulesmeitiņa”), and, of course, Rainis, whose poetry was used for the song “Daugava,” yet another one of my favorites on this album.
Sadly, the group as a vocal and instrumental entity was short lived. After a tour of the United States in 1990, the group broke up. Muktupāvels went on to found the group Bet Bet, which Gudrais also joined for a period of time. Lūsēna still sang some of the songs of Zodiaks with Dāmu pops. Lūsēns himself remains busy with composing. Perhaps his best known work is the rock opera “Kaupēns, mans mīļais,” which remains one of the most popular examples of that genre in Latvia. However, the instrumental version of the group still does periodically perform together.
Packaging, as with many of these releases, is minimal. No lyrics, but there is a short biography of the group, as well as some pictures that I’m sure would look much better if they didn’t have a dreadful orange tint to them.
To say that I am overjoyed at having all these songs finally on CD would be an understatement. There are many classics here, many of which still are popular today. As an example, the a cappella group Cosmos covered “Tautas laiks” on its first CD. Mirušais gadsmits is an essential recording, with many timeless songs, and is highly recommended.
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