With a population of fewer than two million people, it’s hard to imagine Latvia coming to dominate the musical airwaves of Britain or America, but this is the country of Rothko and the Singing Revolution! Only brilliant countries have that sort of combination. Latvia had an incredible capacity to nimbly operate and influence conversations despite its size. Since the Soviet Union, music has been central to shaping resistance and cultivating a dynamic, youthful culture that continues into today. The country is home to a host of music festivals, including the excellently curated Skaņu Mežs, held yearly in Riga. It a country that is rich in talent and its musical output demands some attention.
We’ve put together a list of bands that are producing music that is exciting us and that is indicative of Latvia’s diverse sound. There is no Latvian sound nor is there an overarching narrative that bounds them together. Instead, each of these musicians are marching to the beat of their own drums, which in many ways is far more exciting than some tidy concept. Make sure to follow them on social media and if you have a bit of cash left over from Christmas then make sure to purchase some of their work.
Apparently, when the Soviet Union was going through a period of economic stagnation, the country became pretty efficient at mass producing synthesizers, which enabled tonnes of Soviet kids to easily get their hands on them. Throughout the ’80s there was a pretty decent synth-pop scene in the USSR and it seems like Ansamblis Manta is keeping that sound alive. Utilizing old-school synths to give their sound that particularly tinny, yet paradoxically organic sound, Ansamblis Manta make fantastic retro-inspired music with a nice sense of irony and philosophizing that has attracted plenty of critical praise in Latvia. Their 2014 album Manta even won the Best Alternative Album of the Year Award in Latvia.
Perhaps I was feeling dark the day I first heard this band, but I initially read their name as “Rigor Mortis”, which is especially horrifying once you hear their music. They make the music you wished your schooling experience had been sound-tracked to. It’s the type of music for when the good guy wins in the end and gets the girl of his dreams. They are the band for when everyone shows up at some unsuspecting individual’s house and throw the greatest party ever. Of course, this doesn’t ever happen in real life without serious consequences, but if you throw on Pieķerti Nozieguma Vietā at a house party, then maybe – for a brief moment – it will feel like it is.
Elizabete Balčus is certainly one of Latvia’s most imaginative and creative talents. Her music and visuals have a nightmarish quality that is both perverse and challenging to the listener. Her avant-garde style mixes experimental pop, performance, and visuals that she herself designed. On top of that, she plays the flute and composes music for children’s shows. With Riga’s angelic scenery and Latvia’s reputation for moderation, she offers an insight into the nightmares that exists beyond the façade.
Howling Owl is the Latvian-Serbian collaboration of Evija Vebere and Lav Kovac. They released a fantastic experimental pop EP in 2016 that included the track Tic Tac, which is guaranteed to add some energy to your day. Mixing child-like vocals with spasms of drum roles and low-fi keyboard, they are a group exploding with colour, energy and excitement. They provide an original approach to the avant-pop genre.
Marija Mickeviča, aka MNTHA, became famous through her appearance on a TV musical competition, but her latest work is a far cry from anything you would find on talent shows. Her hypnagogic style offers a deconstruction of pop music. Listening to her cover of Britney Spears’ Toxic does not act so much as a remix or a rehashing but instead a revealing of the inner structures of the music. There is something very realistic and factual about her output. In a post-truth existence, her eternal sound offers a sense of how detached and intangible life has come to feel.