Who said intelligent rock music is dead, especially in the Baltics? Among the myriad of air-headed Euro-pop stars, ageing blues-rockers and overactive teenyboppers, Holy Lamb stands out in the Latvian music scene as a powerful, intelligent and rather unique band. And slowly, they are earning a following in their homeland and abroad, waking up older fans from their 1970s daze and introducing their intellectual and challenging music to new and receptive minds.
Within a few short years, the band went from being harassed by Estonian police for an impromptu acoustic guitar jamming session to being called "simply the best symphonic rock band around... stunning!" by Finland's progressive rock society Colossus. Their many concerts in Latvia since the release of their debut CD, Salt of the Earth, in 1999 by Italy's Mellow Records, have been paying off with a gradual revival of the music genre in Latvia. Their hard work has also paid off, with attention coming from as close as the Netherlands to as far away as North America.
Half way into the recording of their second CD, the band already possess a trademark sound that is recognisable from the first few seconds of each song. The music is strongly guitar-based, with the duo of Aigars Červinskis and Uldis "Ludis" Ēlerts creating mind-tingling harmonies. The band has a firm command over loud, heavy riffs and soft pastiches in perfect juxtaposition. The perfect balancing tool to the dual guitar attack is the skilful and clean keyboard playing of Juris "Advokāts" Rāts, whose preference for the a clean piano sound adds the right texture to the trademark Holy Lamb sound.
Bassist "Kuba" Zemītis is steady and creative - a difficult balance for bass players pulled off successfully each time by the bearded one. Finally, the young drummer and newest member of the band, Miks Rullis, proves to be the biggest surprise to those who have never seen the band - excellent technique, solid timekeeping, eager aggressiveness and the stage presence of a veteran drummer twice his age.
However, many people find the vocals - performed by guitarist Červinskis - to be the most unique aspect of the band. Clearly in the "love it or hate it" category, Červinskis boasts a very unique voice much in the vein of legendary singers Peter Hammill and Fish (however, more reminiscent of their solo works rather than of their former careers with Van der Graaf Generator and Marillion respectively).
Though Červinskis often insists he is not a singer, his vocals are clearly the lodestone that is attracting people to the band - especially in concert. Each concert is like an emotional experience - again bringing to mind the Hammill and Fish comparisons.
In the beginning...
The band was founded, ironically, within a few weeks of the restoration of Latvia's independence in 1991 as a thrash metal band. But Červinskis remembers that in 1992, thanks to a good friend, he became enamoured with the genre of music he later learned was termed "progressive" rock.
Becoming a die-hard fan of the genre's best, like Genesis, Camel, King Crimson and Yes, Červinskis eventually managed to bring that influence into the entire band in the following years. Despite some change in membership, the band drifted more and more towards the intelligent side of rock and away from its dark roots.
Červinskis remembers a strange moment that really marked the transformation of the band, when he was sacked by the band - which included his brother, Ēriks, on drums. However, it all worked out for the better months later when the Červinskis brothers were reunited - alongside bassist Kuba and guitarist Ēlerts - to focus on more complex material, "something that would be interesting to play live," Aigars Červinskis said. And with the joining of keyboardist Rāts in the middle of 1997, the core was finalised.
The core gels
Eventually, the band managed to record material for their debut CD, Salt of the Earth, including the ambitious 16-minute epic - full of Bible passages - "The Sea." The haunting instrumental "The Lingering Dream" features a soft but powerful melody from the guitar of Červinskis, while the emotional "Rainfall in your Heart" contrasts with the manic "My Star Untouchable" - both vocal and instrumental gems. However, original member and drummer Ēriks Červinskis left the band during the production phase, to be replaced later by current drummer Rullis.
One surprising aspect about the pieces on Salt of the Earth is the extremely well thought-out and fascinating lyrics, written by Aigars Červinskis, an English language and literature major at university. He explained that it was not just standard English literature that opened its infinite methods of expression within the language, but:
I realised that [Peter] Hammill's and [Peter] Gabriel's song lyrics were full of metaphors, epithets, similes, oxymorons, etc. Although I had made attempts at writing English lyrics before that, my new findings encouraged me to write even more. Over the years, this has led me to having a huge file of poems in English, part of which was destined to become Holy Lamb song lyrics.
The band played heavily throughout Latvia during the period leading up to the release of their debut CD, Salt of the Earth, and following that as well. Červinskis remembers a 1997 music festival where they got a surprisingly warm reception for their 20-minute short set. "People obviously needed something different," recalled Červinskis.
The band now has a large loyal following throughout Latvia and continually uses the festival scene to find more fans. At a recent music convention in Rīga, a well-timed and -placed performance (at Town Hall Square, right next to a trolley-bus stop) they managed to stop more than a dozen people, drawn to the unique sounds of the band.
Charged on negative emotions of frustration, Červinskis never gave a better vocal performance, turning it into positive emotion for the stunned and mesmerised audience. The number of elderly chemistry professors and students on bicycles (the concert was at a science institute outside of Helsinki) that stopped and became fixated at the stage was a testament to the ability for the band to bring in new fans to it and the genre as a whole .
Where goeth the Lamb?
Hard at work on their follow-up CD, Beneath the Skin, the band is now setting out to challenge the music establishment itself. Calling it a "conceptual work based on a modern-day fairytale which deals with the music industry," the band is breaking out into various experimental schemes with both music and lyrics. The demo material so far is very promising, with a brilliant storyline that could well be as relevant for today's Latvia as Pink Floyd's The Wall was relevant for the world's youth drenched in misplaced angst in the early 1980s.
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Even the name of the band, Holy Lamb, has drawn some ire from religious groups. Once the band was criticised for "inappropriate usage of the Holy Name" by a Christian radio station - not knowing that the name of the band is partly influenced by a song from the band Yes about saving the world's environment. Nevertheless, the name is an attention-drawer, at least in the progressive rock community, solely due to its source.
All in all, Holy Lamb is one of the top up-and-coming progressive rock bands in all of Europe. The fact they are from Latvia makes them somewhat of a novelty for others, sometimes becoming an advantage. If that advantage is seized, they will have a long future ahead of them. In a few years, when no one will remember Prāta Vētra (Brainstorm, the Latvian "sensation" from the Eurovision song contest), Holy Lamb will be reaping the rewards of their hard and intelligent work.
Mel Huang, 10 July 2000
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