What do you think of when you think of the Baltics? Perhaps it’s lush fields, maybe towering mountains or pristine seaside hamlets? Maybe it’s cities older than my country, rich with history and culture both familiar and foreign? Maybe it’s all of that, or none. I’m willing to bet, though, that it’s probably not what you hear when you throw on Veliu Namai’s Alkai, but maybe it should be. On their fourth full length release, the Lithuanian trio dive deeper into the history and mysticism surrounding their Baltic heritage, all the while stretching the limits of what they can do musically.
What initially began life as the solo project of multi-instrumentalist Julius Mite has recently blossomed into a full blown trio with the addition of a full-time percussionist and guitarist in the form of Gintaras Aleksandravicius and Jokubas Krasauskas, respectively. As always, the mission statement with Veliu Namai has been to tap into dark, hypnotic and transportative neo-folk, touching on themes of death, war, Baltic paganism and the darker side of nature. The band also states that the music is “only enacted in a ceremonial and ritualistic context.” I’m not exactly sure what that means, but it sounds really cool and it makes sense when you listen to the music. And speaking of the music, the usual suspects of acoustic instruments take up the majority of the sound, from shamanic drums and jaw harp to guitars and lutes to more esoteric choices like the oud, the Turkish baglama, the Latvian giga and the Lithuanian kanklės. That might make sense in the context of a neo-folk band, but where Veliu Namai set themselves apart from their peers is how they put it all together; all of these instruments are layered together over the structure of electronic music. The tracks on Alkai read much closer to techno or breakbeat than folk music, except it’s performed mostly on acoustic instruments (although “Ableton” is one of the instruments Mite is credited with playing on the album). The end result is something that feels both familiar and foreign at the same time: sounds that you recognize in a context that they, upon first glance, feel like they *shouldn’t* belong in. Therein lies the beauty of Alkai, though; everything feels like it does belong.
There is something so incredibly and undeniably cool about Alkai. The blend between modern electronic production, bass thrums and occasional drum samples and the old-world, comparatively prehistoric instruments is seamless, with each supporting the other in a way that makes the whole thing feel very much alive and full of rich depth. In the same way that Osi and the Jupiter can take pagan instruments and blend them with warm, gorgeous synth washes, Veliu Namai can take traditional Baltic aesthetics and marry them to haunting, evocative electronic underpinnings in a way that transports you to a very particular place and time. Take, for example, the track “Invocation of the Nine-Horned God;” it starts off with echoey, spaced out arpeggios on a folk instrument over slow, subtle trap drums, but the layers continue to build, some acoustic and some electronic, until the end of the track absolutely pops off with jaw harp and synth weaving in and out of each other over a Zaytoven-type beat. And hey, if you make it all the way to the end of closing track “Nott,” you can have yourself a little atmospheric black metal, as a treat.
Alkai is a wild ride from start to finish, but one that is really worth digging into. When I first saw that this album is a meld of techno and traditional folk, I was a little bit skeptical, but I have no notes for Veliu Namai. This is wholly unique, warm and alive and a meditative experience that is gonna stick with me for a while, and I don’t know how they’ve slipped under my radar all this time.