Monday, April 8, 2013

Tengger Cavalry - Black Steed (2013)

Folk metal, far too often, is constricted into a tiny cross section of the whole. The Finnish humppa and Celtic varieties float to the top, while many of the other styles get left out. When one of those alternatives makes its way to your ears, it often results in a revelation of sorts. By infusing their native instruments into a rousing blackened folk foundation, Tengger Cavalry are doing something that is far and beyond anything I've come across in the current folk scene. The Beijing four piece, headed by mastermind Nature Zhang, describes their unique style as Nomadic, or Mongolian Pagan folk. nd while that combination of words might not mean much to you now, by the time the album has wound down and ended, they will take on new meaning. For it is on "Black Steed" that melodic, detailed, epic folk metal becomes less of a dream, and more of a blooming reality.

The intro track, "沙场," is a beautifully orchestrated symphonic work, albeit painfully short. There is a majestic quality to it that deserves another minute or two to hash itself out in full. But as it fades and "千骑" begins, the mood changes completely. Immediately, the combination of ethnic instrumentation and traditional folk metal is demonstrated and perfected. Striking a balance of this nature is always a challenge, but one taken on with great care and skill. From the grating vocals of the verse, to the more epic expanses of the chorus, the band finds a middle ground in everything it does. What follows isn't just a lesson in folk inspired metal, but a show of some of the most deft and detailed guitar work you will find contained in the genre. And it is in their enthusiasm that you feel something special, as in the pounding gallop of "出征." The grunts of the vocals take charge of the early moments, while the beautiful string work comes in and out throughout the track. The way it is layered atop the sea of thundering drums and distorted guitars makes it stand out all the better. The solo section here highlights not only the skilled musicianship, but also the crystal clear production and mixing effort. The outro alone would be worthy of a head nod or twelve, with the paced slowed to a crawling finish.

To say that "黑骏" finds the band at their aggressive best is not only a true statement, but a telling one. Even in their harsher moments, they still find a place for melody and meaning. It proves time and again that the two styles, while contrasting, can coexist and boost one another. You would have to look far and wide to find a better example of modern folk metal than this. With all of the thunder and beauty thus far, it would seem hard to believe that the music could get any better. But on "战马," it does exactly that. It becomes difficult to pinpoint what it is about the song that makes it stand out so prominently from the rest, but the combination of native instrumentation and blaring guitar work seems to transport you to another time and place; it's as though you are sitting in the middle of an artsy martial arts film, like "Hero," that has been mashed together with the famed "Metal: A Headbanger's Journey." There are so many subtleties to enjoy, scattered throughout. The same could be said for "风雪中" and the massive thrashing sections. There is a continued show of versatility and depth to each movement, as well as the way the album flows together. With those magical strings talking over lead roles time and again, it changes the entire dynamic of the song. How successful the finale is depends more on your perception of what a closing track should be. The overwhelming beauty that is "故乡谣" defies description or summary. It isn't lacking punch, either, thanks to the booming of kick drums.

It is easy to find fault; it is much harder to find something that embodies perfection. Through repeated listens and intense scrutiny, it became a near impossibility to find something not to like in Tengger Cavalry, or the music these four like minded individuals make. They've managed to take the tenets of folk metal - the sounds, imagery, and story telling - and make them their own. Each sweeping string passage makes you see colors. No, not in a drug induced haze or alcohol fueled bender; but in a profound, almost mind altering sort of way. They incorporate a piece of their country's history into each and every movement, giving you, the listener, a taste of what traditional Chinese music sounds like with a modern metal twist. And though the album stands at only seven tracks, and may feel far shorter than it actually is, it delivers in ways that other folk metal albums fail to. This piece of work, this "Black Steed," is far deeper than you might think.


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