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Organic Intelligence V: Latvian Cosmic Pop
Daryl Worthington , January 25th, 2022 13:49

In the first subscriber-only newsletter of 2022, Daryl Worthington delves deep into the murky world of the experimental Latvian underground of the 80s to bring you a selection of bangers

NSRD, courtesy of The Latvian Institute Of Contemporary Art

We’re not luddites, we just feel you deserve better than some unsatisfying algorithmical advice when it comes to music. This is the fifth edition of our Low Culture subscriber’s newsletter, Organic Intelligence, which features tQ’s favourite people taking a deep dive into their record collections to offer you DJ bag gold, Discogs bargains and all-back-to-mine nuggets. This month Daryl Worthington unearths five gems from the world of Latvian cosmic pop. You can listen to the fifth Organic Intelligence playlist on Spotify, Apple and Tidal (and remember that all your monthly playlists, as well as your exclusive essays, can be found on the Low Culture Quietus page). To get access to the Organic Intelligence newsletter, you need to sign up to our subscriber system via the Steady checkout below.

Listen to the Organic Intelligence Latvian Cosmic Pop Playlist on Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal

Latvian cosmic pop is as much a story of a train track as it is of psychic escape. Starting in 1980, Hardijs Lediņš and Juris Boiko (both members of NSRD, aka Nebijušu sajūtu restaurēšanas darbnīca, Workshop for The Restoration of Unfelt Feelings), along with Imants Žodžiks annually embarked on a seven-kilometre hike along the Bolderāja railway. It’s a route I’ve wandered along myself, and even now it seems to exist in permanent liminality, suburban Riga blending into untouched forest via intense blocks of industrialisation.

For Lediņš et al these walks were artistic interventions. Documented through photo, sound and video they aimed to disrupt the everyday. Each journey down the line following different rules, rituals and actions. These journeys tie together a few things in what we’re calling here Latvian Cosmic Pop.

At the mundane level, the majority of this music was created in Riga between the late 70s and early 90s. There’s substantial crossover between the people involved. Lediņš came up with the name for Dzeltenie Pastnieki (Yellow Postmen). 19 gadi pirms sākuma featured members of both Dzelteni Pastnieki and NSRD, and their debut was released on Dzeltenie Pastnieki founder Ingus Bausknieks’ label.

Over three years living in Riga I heard more and more about these bands, even if physical recordings were tough to find. What’s always struck me is how they manage to fire exquisite pop music through otherworldly sonics. Analogue and synthetic textures coming together in totally unfamiliar ways. For me it’s always felt firmly tethered to Riga’s diverse psychogeography. Jugendstil grandeur blending into concrete monoliths, melting away into wooden houses and untouched woodland. Yet it’s also bolted to an escape vector, a desire to reach beyond the everyday.

Reissues and compilations have documented some of this stunning music, Dark Entries compiling tracks from Dzeltenie Pastnieki’s six albums. StroomTV releasing separate, career spanning compilations of NSRD, 19 gadi pirms sākuma, and Ingus Baušķenieks solo recordings. But they can only cover so much, with absolute bangers such as this kosmiche minimal wave oddity from NSRD tough to get hold of.

Dzeltenie Pastnieki – Zaļais Garais Vilciens

The first song from Dzeltenie Pastnieki’s debut album, this disco-propelled space rock jam has lyrics from NSRD’s Boiko. The album’s title, Bolderājas Dzelzceļš [Bolderāja Railway], references that railway again. Dzeltenie Pastnieki’s founder, Ingus Baušķenieks, explains: “It is the line lying between mine and Hardijs’ living places. So, the title of the album is a sign from this time and place.” The song’s title, meanwhile, translates to Green Steam Train. Dzeltenie Pastenieki’s origins were a group of school friends trying to replicate prog rock sounds, before drifting into New Wave territory. Zaļais Garais Vilciens sits on the border of both. A slippery bassline and spiky, funk guitars dominate, but they’re surrounded by a universe of rippling percussion, spacey textures and strange shifts to make this track feel like a world in itself. The album, which veers from meandering prog into reggae, is available on Bandcamp.

NSRD – Augu Nakti. Kādā Rītā. Šovakar

NSRD are an endlessly fascinating enigma. Equal parts performance art collective, musicians, and theorists of art and philosophy. They were influential curators and organisers in Riga, not just organising the railway hikes but happenings of experimental sound and visuals in the city. Beyond all this, NSRD also had a magical knack for crafting synth pop oddities. ‘Augu Nakti. Kādā Rītā. Šovakar’ [All through the night. One morning. This evening]. This actually brings together two tracks from NSRD’s 1985, urgently in need of a reissue, album Medicīna un Māksla [Medicine and Art] – ‘Augu Nakti’ and ‘Kādā Rītā’. This 1992 interpretation transcribes them to epic proportions though, a buoyant ten-minute odyssey where ruptures of bristling synth arpeggios get into borderline acid house territory, while Lediņš’ voice sounds on the verge of falling into itself as the track hurtles to its desperate conclusion.

19 Gadi Pirms Sākuma – Nakts Ir Mana Zemapziņa

When I spoke to 19 Gadi Pirms Sākuma’s Inguna Rubene a few years ago she told me that the band’s own compositions “sometimes surprised them”. That’s not hard to believe with this glorious piece of shuffling space funk pop, whose title translates rather beautifully to ‘The night is my subconscious’. The tone of the synth bass at the start sounds like it’s beaming to us directly from Voyager 1. The blasts of trumpet and saxophone are absolutely filthy. About two minutes in it completely switches gears, heading from lounge grooves into a full pelt. 19 Gadi Pirms Sākuma have a remarkable knack of melding together a vast array of instruments into highly effective, highly unique pop. They create something which genuinely doesn’t sound like anything else. An additional compilation of their material, from 1988, is available on Bandcamp.

Edīte un Ingus Baušķenieki – Guvernante - Diversante

As well as the founder of Dzeltenie Pastnieki, Ingus Baušķenieks is a highly prolific, mightily resourceful solo artist, crafting intricately layered cosmic pop gems in his home studios through the years. Guvernante Diversante is an oneiric epic from 1988. As Baušķenieks explains: “It was made from multiple overlays using two Casio CZ101 synthesizers only. The drum fills were made splicing tape pieces with recorded single beats.” From these sparse means it flies into brilliantly alien territory, something only amplified by the subtly surreal video, also conceived by Baušķenieks, and filmed by Igors Meirāns. There’s a bunch of Baušķenieks solo recordings available through Bandcamp. If Spotify is more your bag, the Spoki compilation captures a swathe of gold from across his career.

Yaputhma Sound System – Thru The Space

Yaputhma Sound System come a bit later than everything covered so far, their album Rigas Disco recorded in 1996, and the lyrics here are all in English. Yet they feel connected through more than just geography. A sprawling collective (eight members plus assorted backing vocalists are credited on Rigas Disco) they hit 3am rave epiphany through unconventional means, a jazz inflected, electronics augmented space pop band leaning into pure ecstasy. ‘Thru The Space’ is a sonic transcendence machine, eight minutes of relentless propulsion and endless levitation which bends electronic chimes into spiritual brass, before sidestepping into a space prog synth-guitar dance off. Its trance summoned through rock instrumentation, euphoria ripped from the cosmos and made to light up the earthly plane.