Stronger than Love: A Primer on Latvian Extreme Metal
Welcome to the third installment of the Baltic Metal Primers. Earlier this year, I discussed Lithuanian black metal and Estonian death metal, which included brief overviews of metal in context of Baltic history and culture. These primers primarily focused on Baltic metal in the 1990s shortly after the countries’ independence following the collapse of the USSR (and subsequently ending several hundred years of outside rule), which birthed a wave of metal bands evocative of the Baltic nations’ ability to express themselves in their unique languages and cultures without the fear of a ubiquitous, state-imposed Russian cultural hegemony.
This primer focuses on the Latvian extreme metal scene at large. The first section gives a brief overview of Latvian geography; the second, a discussion on the state of Latvian metal compared to Lithuania and Estonia. The third through sixth sections discuss black, death, thrash, and doom/sludge. The seventh and final section discusses labels and compilations. Unlike the primers for Lithuania and Estonia, this one will not include a separate section on Latvian culture in relation to metal; that is easier to discuss in context of specific bands for which a generalized overview would not be appropriate. Most of this primer will discuss the curious aspect of Latvia’s metal scene as being so different from its sisters.
As with previous primers, this article will focus on the early Latvian extreme metal scene that took place primarily in the nineties, although notable bands from the turn of the millennium and beyond are also featured. It’s difficult to pin down the exact years of this scene due to its spontaneity; it may be roughly delineated from 1991 to 2000.
Latvia is the
middle child center of the three Baltic states, located north of Lithuania but south of Estonia. The country is roughly divided into three physical geographical areas: the eastern forestlands, the central farmlands, and the western peninsula. The Gulf of Rīga is located in north-central part of the country, separating the rest of Latvia’s northern coast from Estonia and joining it with the Baltic Sea. In addition to its large swathes of forests (which significantly influenced Latvia’s pagan heritage), Latvia is inundated with numerous marshlands, rivers, and small lakes.
The most significant city in Latvia is Rīga, the nation’s capital and cultural center. Rīga is the largest city not only in Latvia but also the entire Baltics region, comprising one-third of Latvia’s entire population and one-tenth that of the Baltics. As with many old coastal Baltics cities, Rīga was a former member of the Hanseatic League, and its old town holds some of the oldest permanent structures in Eastern Europe. Daugavpils is Latvia’s second-largest city; it is located in southeastern Latvia near the borders with Lithuania and Belarus; unlike Rīga, Daugavpils is overwhelmingly Russian in language and culture, which leads to some clashes with the Latvian government (and for that matter, Russia itself) as the Baltic states continue to reestablish their linguistic and cultural heritage. Other notable cities include Jelgava, Liepāja, and Krāslava.
As with its sister countries, Latvia has a history of political and social domination stretching back to domination by Catholic sects such as the Livonian Order in the late 1100s. Unlike Lithuania’s commonwealth with Poland, Latvia had little history as an independent state until the fall of the USSR at the end of the twentieth century. The area had seen several hundred years of political domination by other nations such as Lithuania, Sweden, and Russia; nor did its citizens escape intense cultural assimilation after almost three centuries of Russian rule. As such, Latvian cultural history is not an uncommon thematic source; additionally, many Latvian bands sing in Latvian, even only a few years following the dissolution of the formal USSR.
The Special Case of Latvian Metal
Whereas Lithuania and Estonia had firmly-defined sounds and aesthetics associated with interrelated projects (e.g. Lithuania’s Pabudimas and Ha Lela) or regional scenes (e.g. death/thrash in Tallinn, Estonia), Latvian metal did not have a cohesive stylistic element. No subgenre or compositional style dominated Latvian metal (extreme or otherwise), and although bands such as Skyforger would become quite well-known in the Baltics (and abroad), they lack sister projects or same-country imitators.
Latvia has the smallest metal scene of the Baltic states. According to Metal Archives at the time of this writing, Estonia has 200 metal bands and Lithuania has 177. By comparison, Latvia only has 107 metal bands despite having almost 50 percent higher population than Estonia (1.93 million vs. 1.32 million) and land mass just slightly below Lithuania (63,500 versus 64,599 square kilometers). It’s arguable that the sheer lesser amount of bands makes Latvian metal less aesthetically or thematically cohesive, but Iceland has a comparable number of bands (127) and is home to close-knit black metal scene. For whatever reason, metal did not inspire the formation of as many bands in Latvia as the other Baltic states due to whatever curious intersection of music, culture, and history.
Lithuania and Estonia both contained several cities that birthed unique scenes or were home to notable bands. In Latvia, the vast majority of metal bands are based in the city of Rīga, which is not only Latvia’s capital but also its cultural, population, and historical center. According to the Metal Archives, 77.5 percent (83/107) of Latvian metal bands are based in or began in Rīga. This is wildly different from Lithuania, where the relatively small town of Utena birthed or was home to notable black metal bands such as Ha Lela and Zpoan Vtenz, which had distinct stylistic similarities. In comparison, bands stemming from Rīga had much less in common with each other, and rarely did musicians play in each others’ bands as with Lithuanian black metal.
This is not a negative comment on the state of metal in Latvia. Far from it – what Latvia may lack in stylistic unity, it makes up for in vibrancy and sheer eclecticism, owing to the scene’s paradoxically fractured yet geographically centralized milieu. Extreme metal is grossly representative of Latvian metal. A number of death, black, and thrash metal bands have toured internationally, and a couple (such as the aforementioned Skyforger) rank among the most successful musical exports in modern Latvian history, whether that’s judged by album sales or Last.FM scrobbles. However, extreme metal by far dominates Latvian metal. Power metal and doom metal are practically nonexistent in the country; black, sludge, and death metal represent over half of all Latvian metal bands per those listed in the Metal Archives, Discogs, and Latvian fansite TrueMetal – an excellent resource if you speak Latvian.
Black metal is the most represented subgenre in the Latvian metal scene, although it was not the first. Despite Lithuania and Estonia having active black metal scenes well into the early nineties (a few bands beginning before the fall of the USSR), only four Latvian black metal bands are documented as having released any music at all in that decade. Two of them – Skyforger and Maze of Cako Torments – began in death metal and industrial metal respectively. In fact, the vast majority of Latvian black metal releases occurred in the mid-2000s and within the last four years (since 2015).
Whereas Estonian and Lithuanian black metal bands often wrote lyrics in their mother country’s tongue, early Latvian black metal was mostly written in the English language, with pagan-themed Skyforger being the notable exception. Interestingly, Latvian has become the language of choice for most modern Latvian bands, whereas the trend is the opposite for the majority of Lithuanian and Estonian bands that have generally preferred English.
Whereas other Baltic black metal scenes utilized Baltic pagan or folk imagery, the majority of Latvian black metal bands (regardless of time period) generally focus on themes of darkness, death, and contemporary social issues. This makes Skyforger – by far the biggest band in Latvian metal history – a major outlier, given its exclusive focus on historical Baltic paganism. For what historical reasons is Latvian black metal so different from the other Baltic countries? At the moment, I have no idea. Someone should write an article on that one day.
There are four notable bands in early Latvian black metal (1995-2000):
- Skyforger – Mentioned several times already in this primer, Skyforger is – without any doubt – one of the most popular bands in Latvian musical history and the entire Baltics region. Formed in 1995 from the ashes of death/doom band Grindmaster Dead, Skyforger has released six full-length albums and several demos revolving around Latvian history, with particular focus on conflicts between Latvian paganism and Christianity in addition to native Latvian tribes and other Germanic tribes. (As with Lithuania and Estonia, the Latvian tribes were some of the last peoples in Europe to convert to Christianity.) Skyforger exclusively records and releases music in the Latvian language, however English translations of all of their lyrics are available on their website. Skyforger started off as a fairly straightforward volkisch black metal band with significant influences from second-wave Scandinavian black metal, but by the their third album Pērkoņkalve (nominated for the 2004 Latvian Music Awards), they had mostly changed to a folk metal style with extreme metal underpinnings. Start with the Semigalls’ Warchant demo (1997) and full-lengths Kauja pie Saules (1998) and Kurbads (2010).
- Heresiarh – A great example of the eclecticism inherent within Latvian extreme metal, Heresiarh combines European power metal and black metal to make self-styled “romantic dragon metal”. Heresiarh was strongly influenced by high medieval fantasy with lyrics about dragons, shield-maidens, and sexual liaisons. The band is notable for utilizing two vocalists – one gruff male, the other clean female – with both playing straight and subverting typical fantasy tropes as the female tends to save the day as often as the male. Heresiarh released two albums before breaking up in 2002: the seven tracks on demo Dragons of War (1998) were reworked for the greatly expanded full-length Mythical Beasts and Mediaeval Warfare (2000). The demo’s tracks feature a stronger black metal influence; the full-length, European power metal.
- Blizzard– A kvlt Latvian band if there ever were one, Blizzard was active from the early-mid nineties to 1997 as Alfheim, until the band split with the other half forming Heresiarh. More than any other Latvian group, Blizzard fit the second-wave black metal typing to a “T”, heavily utilizing corpse paint and grim shrieks akin to Lithuania’s Winter Night Overture. Their music was released almost exclusively on cassette, and there are currently no digital uploads. According to an interview with Heresiarh vocalist Morgueldar Dragonseye, the first demo Servants of the Winter (1997) was never released due to “incompetent” drumming. Copies of The Path to Spiritside (1998) are a bit easier to find.
- Maze of Cako Torments – This provocatively-named solo black metal project mixes the noise influence of industrial music and black metal. Maze of Cako Torments was founded in 1996 and was one of the most active extreme metal bands in the early Latvian scene, receiving placement on several compilations such as Dark Fire Dancing III (the most comprehensive compilation of Baltic black metal and neofolk in the 1990s) and features on labels such as Beverina Productions. However, the band burned as quickly as it appeared, releasing two demos before bowing out in 1999. Nuli Med Salthahaz (1996) and The Demonic Songs of Yellow Water (1997) are worthwhile listens for fans of experimental, noisy black metal.
In the mid-2000s, Latvian black metal experienced a sharp increase in activity despite the relative dearth of bands in Lithuania and Estonia. The following four bands are best representative of Latvian black metal in quality and diversity (2002-2006):
- Urskumug – Formed in 2002, Urskumug was significantly influenced by Swedish black metal with muted guitars, background synthesizers, and bassy production – techniques also utilized by Estonian sister bands Assamalla and Kalm. As with Skyforger, Urskumug wrote lyrics associated with Estonian paganism, although Urskumug’s lyrics tended to be focused on esotericism and darkness rather than the historical nature of Skyforger. Urskumug went on an extended hiatus after the release of Am Nodr (2006), but recently reformed to release the EP The Throne for My Ego (2017) on Beverina. Listen to Pāreja (The Passover) (2003).
- Agares – Akin to Blizzard, Agares plays black metal that’s highly influenced by second-wave Norwegian black metal with lo-fi production and gravelly shrieks. Agares showed significant promise within the early noughties, releasing a demo and live album (recorded at the Katvia nightclub) in 2003. A full-length titled Last Sacrifice to the Ancient Gods was released in 2004; it included covers of Burzum and Darkthrone songs. Sadly, the band ended following the suicide of drummer Frostmourn, who hung himself in a forest outside Rīga at the age of 18 in June 2004. Agares recorded but did not release a 23-minute EP titled In Memory of Frostmourn. Two band members would later play in industrial band A.N.T.I..
- Nycticorax – Named after a genus of night ravens, Nycticorax is one of the few Latvian extreme metal bands formed prior to the current decade that still makes music as of this writing. Nycticorax started off as a grim black metal group and gradually introduced melodic aspects while adopting vampiric themes – a bit cheesy, but hey, they’ve been quite successful in their home country. Umbra Mortis (2004) is the best-recommended albums, although potential listeners should prepare themselves for tinny vocals by Lodbrok.
- Dark Domination – Originally formed in 1997 when all members were young teenagers, Dark Domination released their first demo in 2001 and their first full-length in 2005. Dark Domination is “orthodox black metal” alongside Katharsis and Antaeus, being supremely anti-Christian and blasphemous in lyrical and visual content (per the CD liners). The band features former members of Nycticorax and Urksumug. Check out second full-length Rebellion 666 (2006).
Latvia stands with Estonia in death metal being its most vibrant scene – well, at least in the nineties. Starting even before the fall of the USSR, Latvian death metal bands were already playing live shows and making tentative steps toward their first recordings, with Grindmaster Dead’s 1993 demo Through the Vault of Sadness being the first recording by a Latvian death metal band to receive distribution in the underground. Several major releases followed in 1995, with bands touching on death/thrash, death/doom, and brutal death metal.
In addition to the common tropes of death, destruction, and body horror, Latvian death metal also predominantly included pagan themes and history, which stands out among the other Baltic scenes. The cover art of Mirušās kaijas by Dzelzs Vilks (1995) features a painting of an old Latvian woman in traditional dress. Nine Pages from the Moonstone Book by Dies Irae (1995) references the Battle of the Saule in 1236 AD, in which pagan Samogitians of pre-Lithuania soundly defeated the Catholic Livonian Order and inspired a wave of rebellions along the Baltic coast. This similarity with Latvian black metal shows that although Latvian metal bands were aesthetically disparate, most of them were deeply informed by a common cultural heritage that – in the case of Dies Irae – extended across lines on a map as a source of common Baltic pride.
The following six bands best represent early Latvian death metal (1991-1999):
- Grindmaster Dead – Not only was Grindmaster Dead one of the earliest death metal bands in Latvia, they were one of the country’s earliest extreme metal bands at all. Formed in 1991 before USSR troops has fully left the Baltics, Grindmaster Dead played a folk-influenced style of death/doom similar to Estonia’s Whispering Forest and Discrucior (although predating those bands by several years). Grindmaster Dead played extremely slow tempos with prominent acoustic guitars and flutes. All lyrics were entirely in English. In 1995, the band decided to completely change styles, dropping English in favor of exclusively Latvian lyrics and playing black metal inspired by paganistic themes. This inspired a subsequent name change, and Grindmaster Dead became Skyforger. Despite their limited run, Grindmaster Dead released a well-regarded demo and a full-length. The band also recorded several rehearsals through their limited span, although none of these have come to light. However, this is not due to embarrassment from their past – although the albums have not yet been reissued, they are easy to find on-line in digital format, and Skyforger band members have not shied from discussing their death metal heritage. The full-length Stronger than Love (1994) is extremely recommended; demo Through the Vault of Sadness (1993) suffers from highly muddled production, but is a worthwhile historical artifact in the history of Latvia’s biggest metal band.
- Dies Irae – Like a lot of the early Latvian bands, Dies Irae burned bright and hard and then disappeared. Dies Irae is aesthetically similar to a lot of Finnish death metal released in the mid-1990s, although with a dusty production quality that matched the ancient Latvian history in the lyrics. Their only notable release was Nine Pages from the Moonstone Book (1995), from which two tracks were taken for the EP/single Make My Grave Clean from the Cross (1995). Despite relative its obscurity upon release, the full-length is a popular item among Baltic metal tape-traders and collectors.
- Dzelzs Vilks – Founded in 1991, Dzelzs Vilks has been continuously active for almost three decades – and only four of those years were in metal. Of the band’s fourteen full-lengths (as of this writing), Mirušās kaijas (1995) was a slab of death/thrash metal in a style that was completely abandoned upon follow-up Palodze (1998). Hailing from the small town of Sigulda northeast of Rīga, Dzelzs Vilks has since enjoyed a moderately successful career in pop music and has collaborated with several Latvian folk artists throughout their history. Hey, good for them.
- Remains – Another one-and-done band, Remains was the brainchild of Jānis Levits, a vocalist/guitarist who has also been a member of Huskvarn, Sanctimony, and Rūsa. Remains’ only album was the full-length Kā mūžība, a fairly traditional old-school death metal album that featured lyrics entirely in the Latvian language.
- Sanctimony – Along with Dzelzs Vilks, Sanctimony has enjoyed a nearly three-decade long career, although theirs has been entirely as a death metal band. Unlike their contemporaries, Sanctimony exclusively writes English lyrics, and they gradually took on a death-n-roll aesthetic similar to Entombed on Wolverine Blues and Morning Star. Sanctimony is one of the only Baltic metal bands to have their early material readily available on physical format: their 1996 demo When the Sun Was God is readily available on CD and digital format, and is the best representation of their early sound. Other recommended albums include Eternal Suffering (1999) and Unholy Five. Skyforger is close friends with Sanctimony, and they often advertise Sanctimony’s albums.
- Barbarossa – It’s pretty ballsy to name your band after one of the most destructive military operations in your country’s history. Barbarossa was a brutal death metal band from the coastal town of Liepāja that was only active from 1996 to 1999. Their lyrics (all in English) primarily dealt with social issues and political fragmentation. Their discography consists of two independently-released cassette demos: Dead Body River (1996) and Inferno Unleashed (1997).
Thrash metal has experienced minor continued success in Latvia since the late eighties, with bands like Huskvarn remaining active well into the 2010s. As is common with thrash metal, lyrics are almost entirely about sociopolitical issues although rarely directly referencing Latvia or the Baltics at-large. Most Latvian thrash metal is strongly influenced by death metal, leaning closer to the chunkiness and somewhat progressive song structures of Desecrator instead of the clean heavy metal influences of Turbo. This makes thrash metal probably the only subgenre in the Latvian metal scene to have some unifying sound or aesthetic outside of just playing in the same subgenre. Early thrash metal from Latvia tended to come from ethnic Latvians; contemporary thrash is almost exclusively Russian.
There are four bands of particular note, two early (1989-1996) and two fairly recent (2009-present):
- Huskvarn – Named after the Swedish chainsaw manufacturer Husqvarna AB, Huskvarn played a mix of death/thrash not too far removed from Russian contemporaries Аспид. Huskvarn began in 1989 and was active until 2013. Despite their longevity, Huskvarn released only two full-lengths during its career, both in the early-mid nineties. Both albums feature somewhat long songs with stitched-together riffs that flow somewhat chaotically into and out of both verses and solos – again, not too different from Аспид. Their debut album On the Road (1991) is probably the best example of Latvian thrash metal as well as being a solid bit of thrash with death metal influences.
- Invasion – Like Dzelzs Vilks, Invasion’s metal history lasts only for the first few years of their existence, when they played socially-conscious thrash metal before switching gears to American-inspired alternative rock. Invasion released music and toured for sixteen years from 1995-2000; they reformed in 2007. Debut full-length To the Eternity… (1996) is thrash with a somewhat progressive but cleaner sound than Huskvarn; I have yet to find a digital edition, although cassettes infrequently pop up on Discogs.
- Asthma – Are they death/thrash or thrash/death? Asthma is a Russian band from Daugavpils, and for some time they were known as Балагуры (not to be confused with the Latvian folk/pagan metal group of the same name). Their recordings are heavily death metal-leaning with guttural vocals, but their lives shows often incorporate more thrash metal elements with a punkish delivery, making them one of those bands that play different subgenres depending on the live show. Oh well. Debut Most Evil (2009) is better mentioned in the same breath as Remains or Dzelzs Vilks; EP Trigger Happy (2013) shows off the thrash a bit better, with hardcore punk-esque vocals.
- Saintorment – Another group from Daugavpils, Saintorment started off in 2013 as a cover band that expanded to original material with debut album Well of Sins (2015). Sophomore release Defective Mind (2017) features significant influence from modern American thrash metal groups like Havok in addition to being heavy in breakdowns before and after solos.
Like thrash metal, doom metal was one of the first metal subgenres latched onto by Latvian metal bands, although its popularity has been much more intermittent. As with Latvian black and death metal, there is no single unifying style that makes Latvian doom and sludge metal uniquely Latvian; bands run the gamut from gothic doom to noisy sludge to stoner metal. All but one doom or sludge metal groups in Latvia are from Rīga.
The following bands include one relatively early band (1993-1999) and three modern (2012-present):
- Heaven Grey – Along with Grindmaster Dead, Heaven Grey was one of the first Latvian extreme metal bands to form after the fall of the USSR. The band was originally active from 1993 to 1999, during which they released two demos and a single full-length that held elements of death/doom like early Paradise Lost. The band reformed in 2007 and has since released two additional full-lengths plus a compilation of rare and unreleased material from their first run. The post-reformation albums are much more aligned with contemporary gothic metal like latter-day Katatonia. Check out the demo Memory River (1996) and full-length Northwind (1998).
- Solaris – This post-metal outfit hails from Skrīveri, a small town of less than three thousand located in central Latvia. Solaris was active from 2005 to 2011 during which they released two full-lengths. Their long, noodly albums often incorporated synthesizers and repetitive krautrock-esque jams not unlike American band ISIS. Listen to The Truth Can Only Be Learned by Marching Forward (2011).
- Tesa – Although they started off as a mix of post-hardcore and metal (although not “metalcore”), Tesa’s current incarnation is as an abrasive mix of sludge and doom metal that incorporates noise music, similar to American bands like Lesbian and Indian. Check out the progressive sludge of 4 (2012) and the instrumental album *G H O S T (2015).
- Saturn’s Husk – This band likes bass. Saturn’s Husk is a mix of progressive sludge metal and stoner metal, although without any references to marijuana. As with Tesa, Saturn’s Husk releases tend to incorporate lengthy instrumental sections. Their albums have individual tracks but are better treated as single compositions. Listen to debut The Great Malefic (2015).
Latvia was home to several labels in the nineties and early noughties, mostly releasing limited-run cassette editions for German and Baltic bands. Of these, Beverina Productions stands out as being not only one of the longest-lasting labels in the entire Baltics, but for also being home to several influential Baltic artists such as Dark Domination, Ha Lela, and Poccolus. Beverina also released a series of compilations called Unto a Long Glory in the late nineties that – along with Dark Fire Dancing from Dangus Records – provide in-depth snapshots of the Baltic extreme metal scene, especially black metal. Of these, the third compilation provides one of the best starting points for little-known Germanic, Russian, and Baltic black and death metal bands. Elven Witchcraf released notable late-nineties releases by bands like Heresiarh. Aghast Recordings is a fairly new label that releases death metal from bands like Sanctimony.
Latvia stands as a special case in lacking a unifying concept, aesthetic, or circle of bands. Lithuanian black metal had the Kaunas Four of Anubi, Poccolus, Nahash, and Valefar; whereas Estonian death metal had strong aesthetic trends in death/thrash, brutal death metal, and death/doom. Latvian extreme metal was kind of all over the place in individual style, which was probably exacerbated but not entirely explained by Latvian having the smallest metal scene of the three Baltic states. Still, this did not stop Latvian metal bands from exploring their own definitions of metal, leading to a preponderance of highly creative bands that are resisting loss to the sands of time through an active tape metal scene and the tendency of Latvian bands not to shy from their early history, even if such bands (like Dzelzs Vilks) wildly changed styles as their career progressed.
As a closer not only to this primer but also the Baltic metal series as a whole, it is worth repeating that the Baltic metal scene is one of the most diverse and engaging metal scenes of the nineties. It is this author’s hope that increased interest in Baltic metal may facilitate preservation of an extraordinary musical climate that reveled in its distinct flavor through pagan themes, eclectic and occasionally progressive song structures, and the establishment of a cultural identity about what it means to be Baltic as newly free states after centuries lacking self-rule.
BONUS: Latvian Heavy Metal
Heavy metal (or “traditional heavy metal”) is not a strong part of modern Latvian music, although there are two bands in particular that were both influential and are important aspects of Latvia’s overall musical heritage.
- Līvi – Formed in 1976 in Liepāja, Līvi was the first band in Latvian metal history and one of the very first in the entire Baltics. Līvi experienced a thirty-five year-long career, breaking up following a final regional tour in 2010. They have posthumously released a compilation of early material and a live album in Spring 2018. Līvi played straightforward, hard rock-influenced metal throughout the eighties before slightly mellowing out in the nineties and later. Their lyrics (exclusively Latvian) started off exploring social concepts – no small feat given the increasing military presence of the USSR in the Baltics around this time. Start off with Iedomu pilsēta (1985) and Līvi (1988).
- Rūsa – Another one of the earliest Latvian metal bands, Rūsa formed in 1987 but did not release their first album until twenty years later in 2007. Like Līvi, Rūsa plays a mix of hard rock and heavy metal, although Rūsa tends to be a bit slower tempo with occasional ballads. Check out debut full-length Uz pērkoņkrēsliem (2007).