Cult Classic: Sven Grunberg-Hingus.

From the sixties, right through until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Eastern Europe was a musical hotbed. The problem was very few record buyers in the West heard that music that was being released during this period.

Sadly, that  to some extent, is still the case today. Most music lovers have yet to discover the music that was recorded and released in Eastern Europe during this period. This music came courtesy of a myriad of talented artists and groups who sadly, were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Across Eastern Europe, the Communist Party ruled with an iron fist and musicians like writers, poets and artists were seen as a threat to the status quo. Musicians had to be on their guard as they never knew when the state censors would arrive at concerts. Some bands became experts at avoiding the state censors who were known to chastise a group for singing: “yeah, yeah, yeah.” This wasn’t exactly the best environment for creating music and making money.

In many parts of Eastern Europe, releasing albums was neither possible nor profitable. This was something the the members of the Estonian progressive rock band Mess realised in the seventies. The story began in 1974 when Mess was cofounded by Sven Grünberg and Härmo Härm.

By then, Sven Grünberg was eighteen, and studying composition at the Tallinn music school. He became Mess’ songwriter, keyboardist and lead vocalist. Härmo Härm who was twenty five, invented a variety of devices that Mess used to make music. They would play an important part in Mess’ sound.

Gradually, Mess’ lineup took shape and their lineup would eventually include Andrus Vaht, Elmu Värk, Ivar Sipra, Matti Timmermann and Sven Grünberg. Mess were soon a popular and prolific live band whose reputation  grew as they toured the country. However , as their popularity grew they attracted the ire of the state and the censor.

Mess were an outspoken group and their music contradicted Soviet ideology. This was a dangerous road to go down and impacted on Mess’ career.

While Mess were a prolific live band they never released a studio album. That’s not to say they didn’t enter the recording studio. They did but the problem was, they couldn’t release their music. It wasn’t until well after the Berlin Wall fell that they finally released an album.

That came in 1995. That’s when German label, Bella Musica released an album of Mess’ recordings entitled Sven Grünberg’s Proge Rock Group Mess. At last, progressive rock fans were able to hear Estonia’s legendary prog rock Mess. This however, wasn’t the end of the Mess story.

Another nine years passed and then another album of Mess’ music was released. This was Küsi Eneselt which  was released on Strangiato Records. It featured seven tracks originally recorded between 1975 and 1976, at Eesti Raadio, by Lepo Sumera and Sven Grünberg. Küsi Eneselt was like being transported back to another time and place. Mess like so many bands across Eastern Europe during this period, were articulating what the ordinary people were feeling and thinking. 

Back in 1976, Sven Grünberg must have becoming frustrated by Mess’ situation. With Mess not being able to release an album, people were unable to hear who Mess had grown and evolved as a group. They had come a long way since 1974. So had Sven Grünberg. 

His course at Tallinn music school helped him improve as a musician and composer. He had come a long way in the last two years. What he needed was a showcase for his talents. Especially now that it looked like Mess wasn’t going to showcase his skills.

That proved to be the case. By 1977, Sven Grünberg decided to embark upon a career as a composer. This would prove to be a stylistic departure for him. 

In 1978, Sven Grünberg wrote his first film scores. They weren’t for blockbuster films though. Instead,  Linalakk ja Rosalind and Klaabu were short animated films. That didn’t matter as he had a foothold in the Estonian film industry.

A year later, Sven Grünberg’s big breakthrough came. He was asked to penned the score to Hukkunud Alpinisti’ hotell. It was directed by Grigori Kromano, and when it was released in August 1980 it was well received by critics. Sven Grünberg’s career as a composer was going places.

As a new decade dawned, he was back writing the score for short, animated films. This included Nike Kutse and Karsumm which were released during 1980 and provided a showcase for his musical talents. However, by now, Sven Grünberg was looking to broaden his horizons.

Still he was composing the scores for films and in 1981, he provided the score to Avo Paistik’s short, animated film, Klaabu kosmoses. However, now Sven Grünberg felt was the time to release his debut album, Hingus on the U.S.S.R. state label Мелодия.

For Hingus, Sven Grünberg had written and recorded three tracks. Breath (1979-1980) is an epic track featuring four movements; I, II, III and IV. These four movements last twenty-three minutes. Following Breath is Journey (1980). That’s a fitting title to what’s a captivating musical journey. Closing Hingus, is Flower Of Light (1978), another epic. It lasts nearly eighteen minutes. These tracks were recorded in Estonia’s capital, Tallinn.

In Tallinn, Sven Grünberg played every instrument on Hingus and becomes a one-man band. He plays keyboards, synths, harpsichord, hand-bells, tambourines and castanets and engineered the Hingus sessions. Seven years after forming Mess, Sven Grünberg was about to release his debut solo album, Hingus.

When Hingus was released in 1981, the album was popular is some quarters. A new generation knew Sven from his film scores. However, still Sven Grünberg was remembered as a member of Mess. They were still remembered as one of the best progressive  rock bands in not just Estonia, but the rest of the U.S.S.R. Unsurprisingly, former fans of Mess embraced his debut album Hingus and while it was very different from Mess’ music, it proved popular. So much so, that Hingus was repressed in 1982, 1984 and 1985. No wonder.

The main theme on Breath (1979-1980) is a man and the world around him. Over Breath’s four movements, a variety of sounds emerge. There’s the sound of a waterfall, a brook and the earth breathing. Sven examines how we face the universe in Breath. It’s cerebral and pensive piece of music in four movements.

As Part I opens, washes of dramatic, bubbling, sci-fi synths can be heard. Underpinning the arrangement is an acoustic organ. This brings to mind the sound of a cathedral. The sound is big and bold. Hovering in the middle of the arrangement is a buzzing sound. It’s as if a U.F.O. has landed. Especially as the arrangement takes on a sci-fi sound. From there, it becomes mellow and laidback. However, there’s still an ominous sound lurking in the shadows. As sounds flit in and out, the acoustic organ dominates. These sounds might be in its shadow, but it provides as cinematic sound. So do a myriad of bubbling,shimmering and pulsating sounds. Later, the arrangement veers between ethereal and dramatic. By then, it’s apparent that for the four years before releasing Hingus, Sven was composing soundtracks. He’s capable of creating cerebral and cinematic music. 

Part II  of Breath opens with the sound of the organ playing in the distance. Gradually, it grows in power and drama. Sven stabs of the organ, and gushing gasps of music emerge. Soon, this begins to dissipate, and the music becomes crystalline and elegiac. Later, it becomes mellow and pensive, before reaching an explosive crescendo.

Flourishes of harpsichord open Breath Part III. Its elegiac sound is  a contrast to the sheer power of the acoustic organ. It bellows out washes of music, before giving way to the harpsichord. Gradually, the arrangement takes on an Eastern sound. Synths are shimmer, before rumbling ominously. That’s the signal for the acoustic organ to make its entrance. Just like previous tracks, there’s a prog rock influence. That’s the case when the glacial synths, harpsichord and bells unite. However, you’re always aware that the raw power of the acoustic organ will roar in. It does. As it dominates the arrangement, the other instruments are unable to Breath. It’s as if the organ represents the state in the U.S.S.R as it crushes the hopes and dreams of musicians like Sven Grünberg.

As the fourth and final part of Breath unfolds, the sound of the acoustic organ dominates the arrangement. That’s until a cymbal crashes. From there, an ethereal wash of music descends. So does what sounds like a helicopter. It hovers above the arrangement, as the organ makes a comeback. By now, the listener is expecting it roar back to life. That’s not the case as Sven Grünberg seems to be toying with the listener. Elements of ambient, avant garde and experimental music play their part in the understated, genre-melting arrangement. By the end of Part IV, nature is merging with the human soul. So not only is this is Part IV mellow and understated, but cerebral.

Journey (1980) ibuilds on the Part IV of Breath. It’s no ordinary Journey. Instead, it’s a Journey to the most remote part of infinity, where a journey can begin again. With the backstory in mind, the listener is captivated as another understated, meandering arrangement unfolds. Washes of synths shimmer and glisten. A drum pulsates and lo-fi synth glides across the arrangement. It’s your guide on this captivating Journey. The synths are elegiac, ethereal and glacial. They’re mellow, understated and ambient sound cocoons the listener. It’s also a meandering,mellow and understated arrangement that’s sure to captivate. Without doubt its  ethereal beauty is the highlight of Hingus.

Whereas Breath was an epic in four parts, Flower Of Light is a near eighteen minute epic, consisting of six parts. Again, the music is cerebral and cinematic. A droning, futuristic, sci-fi sound beeps and squeaks. The first of a trio of melodies unfolds. They merge into one, creating an otherworldly soundtrack. From there, Sven creates an understated moody but still futuristic sound in part two. Space is left within the arrangement as the synths are like yin and yang. By the third movement, the arrangement becomes more complicated. Gradually, a dramatic, space-age five-part polyphony emerges. It’s hard to believe this track is thirty-four years old. If The Orb or Underworld created it today, they would be hailed conquering heroes. Sven it seems, was ahead of his time, creating music that was innovative and timeless. As part four unfolds, a change occurs. A buzzing, bubbling, pulsating sound emerges. Washes of synths shimmer. Then part five takes on an understated sound. Musically, Sven creates the sound of flower blossoming. In the background, birds cheep, creating a hopeful, even joyous sound. There’s a similar sense of hope and joy in part six. Here, Sven reflects on the past and the future. New opportunities arise as the door is firmly open. All the listener has to do is go through the door to the future. Flower Of Light  an innovative and enthralling musical journey, brings to an end Hungus, Sven Grünberg’s debut album.

Sadly, when Hingus Sven Grünberg released Hingus in 1981, very few people in the West were aware of the album. That’s still the case. It was only when  the Berlin Wall fell on 1989, that Eastern Europe opened up to Westerners. While those from the West of Europe have embraced much of Eastern culture, Eastern popular music seems to have been eschewed. That’s a great shame.

Back when Sven Grünberg released Hingus in 1981, Eastern Europe was a musical hotbed. Very few people in the West realised this. That, to some extent, this still the case. Most music lovers have yet to discover the music that came out of Eastern Europe during this period. Ironically, Eastern Europe had an equally eclectic and vibrant music scene. Much of it was underground, given the supposed anti-establishment nature of some of the music. This had been the case with Sven’s previous group Mess. However, after Mess disbanded Sven Grünberg reinvented himself as a composer for films, television and theatre. 

That’s what he has been doing since graduating from Tallinn music school. He was already establishing himself as an up-and-coming composer. However, still he wanted try and establish a career as a solo artist. Hingus was the first step in Sven Grünberg’s solo career.

With its fusion of ambient, avant grade, electronic, progressive rock and cinematic sounds, Hingus was a groundbreaking album. Sven Grünberg took the music from his past and present, and created music that could’ve been created in the future. Flower Of Light sounds like a lost track from The Orb or Underworld. It’s not. It was created by Sven thirty-four years ago and is a truly timeless and innovative track. That’s the case throughout Hingus.

From Part I of Breath, right through to Flower Of Light, Sven Grünberg pushes musical boundaries. In doing so, he creates music that’s variously cerebral, elegiac, ethereal, futuristic, hopeful, melodic and otherworldly. Other times, the music on Hingus is ambitious, bold and dramatic. Always, the music on Hingus is captivating and enthralling. That’s why Sven Grünberg’s debut Hingus  deserves to be heard by a much wider audience.

When Sven Grünberg released Hingus in 1981, it was on the U.S.S.R. state label Мелодия. While it found an audience within the U.S.S.R., very few people in the West heard Hingus. If they had, Sven Grünberg might have enjoyed a much more successful solo career. While he released three further albums, 1988s OM, 1993s Milarepa and 1995s Prana Symphony, it was as a composer for film, television and theatre that Sven Grünberg became famous for. However, at least belatedly, Mess, the group Sven Grünberg formed in 1974, and his cult classic Hingus are beginning to receive the recognition and find the wider audience that they deserve. 

Cult Classic: Sven Grunberg-Hingus.




  1. I have never heard of Mess or Sven Grunberg-Hingus, it’s not my kind of music but good to learn about different genre’s. Thanks for writing this post.

    • I’m glad that you enjoyed the review. Hingus is a good album that I came across many years ago.I always enjoy unearthing albums like this and writing about then. I’ve eclectic taste in music and enjoy most types of music.

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