Sunday, January 22, 2017

Tengger Cavalry - kAAn

The Army of God experiences a crisis of faith

I've been hyping the shit out of Tengger Cavalry since 2013.  It seemed like everything Nature Zhang (as he was known at the time) touched turned to gold, and things only improved after Cavalry Folk when he expanded the band into a full lineup instead of a one-man band.  Up through Ancient Call, I was hooked.  Whether he be focusing on soothing, ritualistic tracks, rife with traditional Mongolian instrumentation and throat singing, or riffing your face off with simple yet effective melodeath/folk metal corkers, he was on fire, I wanted more and he/they consistently delivered.

Then Nature moved to New York and restocked the band with all new members, and suddenly things changed.

Their output after solidifying the new lineup exploded.  Since the move, they've released a mindboggling twenty five releases in barely three years, mostly consisting of singles, live albums, and rerecordings of previous full lengths.  We haven't had a "true" new Tengger album since Ancient Call, and if I'm being totally honest, I haven't bothered listening to most of these new releases.  I mean, I've already heard Blood Sacrifice Shaman, why do I want to hear it again five years later?  I can just listen to the original.  Sure I'll check out Mountain Side, but only for the title track, since the release is otherwise full of remixes and rerecordings.  So with that in mind, I ignored everything until this new EP, kAAn, since it's the first thing in a long time to consist album entirely of new material.  And upon first listen, something seemed... different.  Something about the Tengger I love was missing, and I couldn't initially place my finger on it, so I finally went back and listened to all those rerecordings I've been ignoring for years.  Then it hit me.

They're whitewashing everything to all but eliminate the harsh vocals.

I don't know if Nature blew his voice out and needs to exclusively utilize the throat singing that lent so much character to the band early on, or if it's a conscious choice to focus more intently on the cultural heritage of the band and eschew the more "normal" metal elements, but either way a lot of power is missing from the band now.  This worked on some things, the reworked version of Blood Sacrifice Shaman is excellent, if wholly different from its original incarnation, and Hymn of the Earth (the new Ancient Call) sounds pretty good if a little disappointing on some of the heavier and more aggressive tracks now missing that vicious snarl.  But around the time of Cavalry in Thousands (a rerecorded version of The Expedition, which was already a rerelease with a few changes of Black Steed from a few months prior), even the production seemed to fall off and just sound less massive and powerful.  This all ties in because it telegraphs kAAn very well, as it's a decent enough EP that retains the band's spirit quite well, but a lot of the tertiary elements that helped make the good band a great one are missing.  The production feels kinda flat, it's missing that propulsive oomph that helped kick the previous albums into overdrive when the songs called for it.  That's a shame because there are some awesomely aggressive numbers on here, like "Accused" and "Struggle" that feel like they're missing that extra gear they're trying to reach.

Musically there isn't exactly a whole lot to complain about, it's the same style of pummeling fury entwined with the cultural quirks and twangs of that god damned beautiful horsey fiddle I'll never fall out of love with, but the fact that each song falls short of three minutes and end on fadeouts, it just sounds underdeveloped.  Like they have great ideas and wicked riffs to present, as kAAn is chock full of them, but the songs were never exactly finished and just kinda fizzle out in the middle of a cool section.  This is, ultimately, what the band's main achilles heel at this point in their career, as they're fully embracing the digital age and pumping out singles and EPs at an almost alarming rate.  The catch is that very few things sound finished.  They've recently been releasing covers of classic songs that all run for about half of their original runtimes (the Metallica one (Master of Puppets) has a cool reworking of the chorus but otherwise sounds pretty ehhh, though the Motorhead and Megadeth ones are great), and that's true on kAAn as well.  It sounds like everything should be doubled in length, like there's a lot more song to get to before it just fades out and starts the next one.  They're recording and releasing every idea that falls out of Nature's head, regardless of whether or not it's fully fleshed out, and that's disappointing coming from a band that released like five classics in a row in the first half of the decade. 

The good parts are still here, the riffs are mostly a satisfying gallop and the folk instruments and throat singing add a ton of flavor to the otherwise simplistic riffs to great effect, but with the production polished so tightly and the explosive growls completely excised, it sounds like half a band releasing half an EP full of songs only halfway finished.  What I want most out of the Tengger camp is for them to simply slow down.  They're delivering an astounding quantity of music but the quality has dipped sharply.  As inherently simple as the backbone of the music has always been, it's just not working the same way it used to, and I feel like it's mostly because they're just doing too much too quickly, releasing first drafts of every new song and reworking old ones with new ideas and just nothing sounds finished.  kAAn has a lot of potential, with some songs being ridiculously cool (most specifically "Accused", "Mind Raid", and "Struggle") but just failing to follow through with their ideas.  I hate to be so harsh on Tengger because I was such a huge fan previously, but that's exactly why I'm so disappointed.  I know they can do better, and really all I want is for them to chill out and release some fully fleshed out songs for a change.


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