Saturday, August 8, 2015

Album Review: Ego Fall/Tengger Cavalry/Nine Treaures - "Mongol Metal"

Occasionally in life, you encounter something that in the moment of revelation seems so obvious you can’t believe no one thought of it before.  To wit, “Mongol Metal,” a collection of twelve folk metal songs from three different bands assembled and put to print by a group operating from within Inner Mongolia, China.  Of course there’s Mongolian folk metal, it’s so clear now.  For all the genre loves to talk about Vikings and pirates and centurions, how have we overlooked the most powerful cavalry force of its time?

So what’s different here?  Well, for starters, the three bands, Ego Fall, Tengger Cavalry and Nine Treasures are taking their heritage to heart and there’s a distinct influx of traditional Far East music elements, ranging from the magical allure of old-world strings to the mystery and alien-like qualities of throat singing.  All of these elements in conjunction make “Mongol Metal” more than just a split record of artists who are trying their hand at imitating a genre.  No, “Mongol Metal” is something more than just another power metal record from an exotic locale – it is an immersive experience into the talent and cultural convictions of the musicians involved.

Ego Fall comes up first on the buffet of artists, which is convenient, because no insult to the other two bands who are also very good, Ego Fall offers the most varied and diverse listening experience.  From the very beginning of “Wind the Horn,” we see the band’s full arsenal on display, the placid plucking of native strings standing in distinction from the surprisingly catchy melodic riffs and the insistent but not overbearing drums.  The vocal presentation is a workable mix or throat singing and more common metal screaming, each working in its own section through being paired with music that fits the timbre.  Just within this one leading track, we see the pulse of power metal woven through with measures of traditional rhythm, each balancing against the other to create to a unique sound, followed closely by an electronic, practically danceable outro.  It’s a dizzying mix that works because the musicians of Ego Fall have done the necessarily calculations to make it work; these elements don’t come together into a proper stew by happy accident.  That same study and care is provided in earnest again from the very launch point of “Back to the East,” another electronically draped piece built upon a steady latticework of conventional metal.  Through four tracks, Ego Fall comes off sounding not all that different from a power metal version of Children of Bodom, utilizing a lot of similar cadences and structures to the Finnish powerhouse.  Naturally, what separates Ego Fall into a distinct experience is their ability to tie the musical mores of their homeland so seamlessly into the concoction.  A true marvel.

Next up on the hit parade is Tengger Cavalry, who may have the most pure energy of anyone on the split, commonly weaving tales concerning the vaunted history of Mongolian, well, cavalry.  Of all the aspects of Mongolian history during their imperial age, the most romanticized is the steadfast hardiness and riding ability of their horsemen, a nomadic tradition whose blood still runs in the veins of the modern day culture.  It is in this idiom that Tengger Cavalry focuses exclusively, as their four songs on the album are entitled “War Horse,” “Expedition,” “Horseman” and “Legend on Horseback.”  Now, if you’re going to commit, commit all the way, and Tengger Cavalry does that by incorporating the feeling of a galloping charger into each measure of their four works.  Not so different from the lofty orchestrations of Turisas’ epic “We Ride Together,” “Expedition” in particular lays down a thumping drum to simulate the hooves while the bursts of riff conjure images of the noble animal’s beating heart.  Traditional strings fill in the gaps, coloring in the rushing wind and majestic, powerful mountains of the Steppe.

That leaves Nine Treasures, who perform the most boilerplate version of this music.  That’s not to say that they’re subpar or not worthy of being on the record, just to say that they play with the fewest frills.  “Tes River’s Hymn” actually has some hallmarks of classic riffs like “Seek and Destroy” which makes for an interesting twist.  “Fable of Mangas” is another song in the same vein that plays more into the stereotype of early thrash than it does into power or folk metal.  The song’s second half plays out like some of the great metal classics of yesteryear, with an easy double kick and some six-string artistry that compliments the refreshing addition of traditional instruments.

What all these bands have in common and what’s most important to the collection of songs as a whole is the concept of ‘folk’ in ‘folk metal.’  Prior to its assimilation in popular music by the often politically-conscious counter-culture songwriters of the 1960s, folk music was primarily a showcase for just that; the music of the folk who played it.  The genre began as an extension of the music of a single cultural group, their endemic identity stamped onto the notes and measures and structures.  ‘Folk metal’ has been co-opted to the point where we identify the genre as power metal that’s had some non-guitar stringed instruments added and is even more steeped than its parent genre in magic and fanciful lore.  What works so well for “Mongol Metal” is that each of these three bands are playing folk music, in its original form, that happens to be metal.  We’ve talked about the impression that the throat singing and idiomatic instruments make, but they are moreover important to the identity of the production.  This isn’t just folk metal by Mongolians, it is truly Mongolian metal.

In music it’s sometimes easy to fall for an album that simply sounds different than the albums surrounding it, succored by an easy gimmick that wears out over time.  For “Mongol Metal,” it doesn’t feel like that’s the case, as the gimmick isn’t so much that as it is an influx of a cultural expression.  While the three bands have variances in quality, all of them are entertaining and Ego Fall in particular brings an entirely new palette to the conversation.  “Mongol Metal” is worth a spin for their tracks alone, and oh, there’s two other pretty good bands on there, too.

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