Skaņu Mežs, Hanzas Perons, Riga, Latvia, October 6-8, 2023 | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Thursday, April 18th, 2024  

Peter Ablinger, Sylwia Zytynska and LYRA workshop team

Daniel Blumberg, Negativland, Violent Magic Orchestra, Stian Westerhus

Skaņu Mežs, Hanzas Perons, Riga, Latvia, October 6-8, 2023,

Oct 15, 2023 Photography by Arturs Pavlovs (main photo) Web Exclusive
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Sudden, challenging and adventurous are three epithets that sum up the line-up of the boutique festival in Riga, finds Under The Radar.

A roaring maelstrom of noise nearly sweeps away the visitors at Hanzas Perons in Riga. Accompanied by 8-bit electronics and explosive visuals, two vocalists front the six-piece band. The male member, with striking skull make-up and spike-like antennas attached to his head, moving wildly as he does his jack-in-the-box dance, and the female singer, dressed in pink teen clothes, walking slowly towards the edge of the stage. Standing there with her eyes down, she puts up a microphone and produces a deafening growling sound.

Violent Magic Orchestra, also known as Vampillia, hail from Japan. Hence, the relevant cultural references such as mythology and anime can be traced in their make-up and eccentric dance. Their presence is wild and challenging. Despite being described as “black metal meets Kraftwerk and Aphex Twin”, the live version of VMO is beyond any labels.

Violent Magic Orchestra (Photo by Arturs Pavlovs)
Violent Magic Orchestra (Photo by Arturs Pavlovs)

Launched in 2003, Skaņu Mežs (translates as “forest of sounds”) has a reputation as the biggest experimental and avant-garde festival in the Baltics. Perhaps, for the country that has been producing impeccable disco and pop acts such as Zodiac and Brainstorm, the status might be less expected than in neighbouring Estonia. During the Soviet era, Latvia was home to the Baltic analogue of Eurovision – Jūrmala Young Pop Singer Competition (known these days as Jūrmala Festival), initiated by composer and the country’s former minister of culture Raimonds Pauls. A casual visit to local record stores confirms this impression (“Latvia is a country of pop music”, a staff member at VINYLLA.lv informs Under The Radar). Nevertheless, the programme at Skaņu Mežs suggests this can be a perverted viewpoint and shows an alternative realm. The previous editions featured notable ambient folk and electronic experimentalists such as Julianna Barwick, Grouper, Julia Holter, Marissa Nadler and The Haxan Cloak, to name a few. Taking place at Hanzas Perons, formerly a cargo railway warehouse converted into a swanky concert venue, this adventurous event can be seen as a twin of St. Petersburg’s EthnoMechanica and Reykjavik’s Extreme Chill.

Negativland (Photo by Elīna Matvejeva)
Negativland (Photo by Elīna Matvejeva)

Pursuing an attempt to reposition Latvia on the global music map, the festival features a considerable number of local acts. Still, it’s first and foremost an international event. This year’s edition embraces unconventional talent from the UK, Norway, Japan and Greece. Openness for collaboration as well as the all-inclusive nature of Skaņu Mežs is manifested by such projects as Shape+ and Lyra. The latter is aimed at a younger audience and is done in partnership with the Norwegian festival Insomnia. Preceded by a series of workshops, the subsequent results are presented during the free-admission programme on Sunday. One of the shows features twenty local children of different age groups. It starts with a slow procession around the similarly juvenile audience. The whole thing, accompanied by rustling percussion, seems to be a metaphor for the Children’s Crusade. Once getting on the stage, the young performers take multiple instruments and play them as they please, occasionally posing in Bill Viola-esque slow-motion fashion.

Testing the audience’s limits, to what extent they can tolerate quirky art, seems to be an essential part of Skaņu Mežs. As the programme balances music and sound art, some acts can be more challenging than others. A theatrical performance by composer Anna Fišere, visual artist Miķelis Fišers and writer Andris Kalnozols throws down a gauntlet to the visitors’ expectation of a typical Sunday entertainment. Announced as a “pneumatic therapy session”, the show begins with Fišers inflating a balloon until it loudly pops to an uproar of young children in the audience, taken aback by the sudden burst. Shortly after, the artists manipulate a so-called “soul cleansing device”, a peculiar pumping system producing funny sounds by puffing balloons up and deflating them. As Fišere brings a basket with balloon dogs, the stage is invaded by dancing cacti toys. The performance culminates with a walking toy dog destroying the balloon animals and a toy cobra “chasing” the artists. An unusual entertainment indeed.

Coby Sey (Photo by Arturs Pavlovs)
Coby Sey (Photo by Arturs Pavlovs)

Different shades of weird co-exist with an eclectic music programme revealing gems that would otherwise remain hidden. Although London-based Coby Sey has been endorsed by the UK press, his appearance at Skaņu Mežs discloses a new side of the project. Seen by the writer earlier this year, Sey made an impression of an introspective artist with his voice deeply submerged in the water-like texture of the music. This time, his presence is more engaging. Moving from intense grungy sound, powered by his dub-inclined bass and bebop-esque saxophone parts, to sparser atmospheric bits featuring vibraphone, Coby Sey and co captivate the audience.

Well-known in the experimental jazz scene in Norway, Stian Westerhus has collaborated with a wide range of artists from Trondheim-based psych-outfit Motorpsycho to Susanne Sundfør. The latter recorded vocals for “White Foxes” from The Silicone Veil album with the help of Westerhus. At Hanzas Perons, the musician performs alone with his vintage Gibson ES-335. Traversing the material from his latest work, Sott in an improvisatory fashion, Westerhus follows the “less is more” principle. His dramatic vocals, the guitar and effects pedal balance the sparse and dense, bringing to mind Jeff Buckley and early Sigur Rós.

Stian Westerhus (Photo by Arturs Pavlovs)
Stian Westerhus (Photo by Arturs Pavlovs)

Although celebrating art for the sake of it, Skaņu Mežs is not detached from reality. Social commentary, sometimes in a grotesque form, is present. Jon Leidecker aka Wobbly from the San Francisco-based project Negativland employs sound collages as well as samples and PlayStation imagery to draw a parallel between consumerism-driven unbearable lightness of being and the multilife scenario of computer games. Violent scenes on the screen and dispassionate voiceover commenting on them feel a bit chilling, especially in the light of the Palestine-Israel conflict and terrorist attacks unveiled on that day.

Alongside global politics, there are personal matters. Similarly to Stian Westerhus, Daniel Blumberg pursues minimalism, yet his world is somewhat darker and more matter-of-fact. At Hanzas Perons, Blumberg performs Gut, his recent album, in full. The sequence of compositions, permeated with the drone of bass harmonica, abstract percussive elements and layers of vocals, deliver the sense of unease caused by health issues and the imposed solitude of the pandemic. Each song has bodily references both in the titles and lyrics seemingly inspired by absurdist poetry, e.g. Daniil Kharms. Imbued with intensity, the live rendering of Gut has an immediate and long-lasting effect.

Daniel Blumberg (Photo by Elīna Matvejeva)
Daniel Blumberg (Photo by Elīna Matvejeva)

With its strange acts galore, Skaņu Mežs might be a challenge for unprepared ears. Quite often context is needed to comprehend what goes on. A day before their enigmatic and mostly silent John Cage-esque performance, American string ensemble The Mivos Quartet provided insight into the music during a workshop at The Art Academy of Latvia. Perhaps it would be good if such events were included in the official festival programme. Otherwise, for those who are ready to go with the flow, Skaņu Mežs is full of wonders and undoubtedly worth diving in.




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