Sunday, August 24, 2014

Tengger Cavalry - Ancient Call

They call me Guan Yinping, The Shit Wrecker

So China is pretty underrepresented in the grand scheme of things when it comes to the wonderful world of heavy metal.  I'm not even kidding when I say that the only two bands I can think of right now are The Nine Treasures and the subject of today's rambling, Tengger Cavalry.  Lord knows why, but I do know that traditional Chinese music is god damned gorgeous and I could listen to those silly horsey fiddles all day and never get tired of them.  And while I'm in the region, you know what else is awesome?  Mongolian throat singing.  You know that thing where you open your throat wide enough to choke on a coffee can and then moan like a mixture of Popeye and one of those guitars you'd make in grade school out of a tissue box, cardboard tube, and rubber band?  Yeah, that shit sounds awesomely ethereal.

Boy oh boy do I wish that these three things were all somehow related!

Okay, that's the most hamfisted intro I've ever fisted, but I've got not other way to lead into the thesis of this review; that being that Tengger Cavalry is probably the freshest and most interesting band out there right now.  And really and truly, all they're doing is just writing songs for the Dynasty Warriors games.  Really, longtime readers of mine have probably noticed that I've namedropped the DW4 soundtrack more than a few times, and that's because it's full of legitimately great heavy metal and hard rock songs with smatterings of traditional Chinese instrumentation over them, and it becomes instantly memorable with those twangy, flittery melodies permeating through your skull.  Tengger Cavalry does that exact same thing, except they push every limit while doing it.  All the songs are faster, heavier, catchier, or more endlessly hummable.  Nature Zhang is kind of an oddball character (follow the band on Facebook and you'll see as many pictures of him dressing up in traditional Mongolian garb, hanging out with sheep, and talking about My Little Pony as you will actual updates regarding the band), but he filters his mad genius through the lens of simplistic extreme metal adorned with the cultural acoustic instruments that are clearly so important to him.

Folk metal in general tends to either put the folk elements at the forefront and just back it with distorted guitars (like Korpiklaani or Finntroll), or just be regular metal with some folky keyboard patch accentuating some melody (like Northland or certain Ensiferum songs), and if Tengger Cavalry here leaned to either side, it's definitely the former, but don't be alarmed, there's clearly a shitload more thought put into "Battle Song from Far Away" than "Trollhammaren".  The strength in Tengger's songs is most definitely the interplay between the guitars and the folk instruments (mainly the dombra and the horse head fiddle).  At any given time, all three of these instruments will be playing, and they will all be playing off each other brilliantly.  Nothing is used as a gimmick, there's a huge amount of restraint when it comes to flaunting the folky side of the band.  The throat singing and the acoustic twanging you'll hear over the deep chugs and double bass all work together as one cohesive beast in a way that still stuns me to this day.

One thing about Ancient Call that kind of put me off was the fact that it really didn't grab me on first listen like The Expedition did last year.  My first run through this ended with me saying "Well that was more of the same.  I guess 'Hymn of the Earth' had a really cool melody but the rest of it didn't do much for me".  Then a month later it became "Well 'Brave' was really high octane and energetic, and 'Summon the Warrior' was just crushing and epic as fuck, so they've got a couple song stretch in the middle that's really good but the rest of it is disappointing".  Which later became "Okay dammit just this whole thing rules".  I hate it when people try to sell an album as it being a grower.  No, damn you, I shouldn't have to listen to something I don't like several times before I like it, that's just like winning a battle via sheer attrition, but Tengger pulled it off somehow with Ancient Call.  Remember how I mentioned that Powerwolf kept making the same album over and over again and I was cool with it because I really liked their sound before I finally got sick of it on Preachers of the Night?  Tengger Cavalry is basically still in the middle of that slack zone, because this is essentially a carbon copy of The Expedition, but I couldn't care less.  I fell absurdly in love with that album, naming it my AOTY for 2013, so of course I wanted more of it.  Nature Zhang delivered exactly that, and I couldn't be happier for that.

There's a surprising amount of variety here too, with "Galloping Towards the Great Land" and "Brave" being absolute rippers that you'd need to be physically restrained to keep from headbanging to, and "Summon the Warrior" just rides on this low, pummeling groove that sounds like the musical manifestation of a Mongol war march.  If I think about it, actually every single song utilizes a classic galloping riff in some incarnation.  It makes complete sense with the theme of mother earth and horses and whatever the hell else Nature goes on about most of the time, but there's a very earthen, animal spirit vibe going throughout everything, so the fact that the music itself tries to manifest itself as such is only natural.  The closing track, "Legend on Horseback" is also this monstrous epic, with grand sweeping atmosphere over extremely grounded riffing and lively melodies.  That really could sum up every song if you wanted to get super simplistic about it.  I'll be the first to admit that you could trade half of the songs on this album and the previous and it'd be very hard to tell which ones were moved, but it ends up not mattering much because the quality of these songs are so staggeringly high, regardless of the fact that we've already heard them before.

Basically I'm just completely in love with this fucking band.  Every single melody hits bullseye, they're all very lively and flowing across very simple (yet effective) riffing.  The simplicity is part of the reason I fell for the previous album so hard, and Ancient Call just carries that tradition flawlessly.  There's no need for showboating or flashy bombast, Tengger Cavalry instead just keeps everything where it needs to be.  If you watch Kitchen Nightmares, you'll surely see that every episode involves Gordon Ramsay saying that the restaurant's menu is too complicated, so he always shaves it down to just a handful of items, and that's what Tengger Cavalry does.  They walked into folk metal, saw all these twangy instruments and bands with twenty fiddle players and said "Guys what are you doing?  Just get a metal band and supplement it with one or two folk instruments and keep your songs focused on what's important: good songwriting".  Then they set up shop (well, Nature set up shop, this didn't become a full band until a few albums in) and just proceeded to show every single shitty band how it's done.

RATING - 94%

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Hoth - Oathbreaker

I look for love in Alderaan places

Hey BH! Your ragepost about Jari Maenpaa got a lot of circulation around the internet! It showed up on Reddit and MetalSucks even wrote about it! It became the most viewed page on your blog by a longshot within one day! How are you gonna follow that up? Another response to Jari's second cry?

Nah fuck it, let's talk about Star Wars.

Hoth here is a band I checked out for all the most obvious reasons.  I mean come on, look at their logo!  Clearly, these dudes didn't give a fuck about taking themselves too particularly seriously.  If you wanted to name your band something that brought to mind dead, frigid landscapes, Hoth isn't a bad choice.  It's an icy wasteland from a well known fantasy universe, it's not uncommon for metal.  But then shaping your logo like a fucking Tie-Fighter??  Oh hell yeah, let's rock this shit.  Let's have some fun and play some god damned metal, yo!

And that's where I was wrong, because this is played straight as an arrow, with all the dead eyed seriousness of a veteran soldier.  And you know what?  It fits fucking perfectly.  I suppose the darkness of the Star Wars universe has kind of been downplayed in my memory, because for some reason I couldn't possibly imagine this theme being anything other than bombastic and silly.  Apparently The Phantom Menace is all I can recall on a whim.  Fucking trash tainting the classics and yadda yadda this isn't about that.  The point is that Oathbreaker is an incredibly mature album for having such a massive scale to it.

What I mean is that there's a stunning amount of tastefulness and craftsmanship to be found in the songwriting.  The music is put against the backdrop of fighting Robot Jesus, Lord of the Space Gestapo and all of the songs are pretty long (nothing is shorter than five and a half minutes), but the two dudes in the band manage to do the same thing that Gotsu Totsu Kotsu does so well; they keep the songs simple and let them grow organically rather than meticulously structure and orchestrate their direction.  They keep everything grounded and focused instead of just throwing a bunch of shit at the listener in some futile hope of conveying some epic atmosphere.  It's hard to explain but it's something that seems so obvious to me when I hear it.  There are actually a fairly wide variety of styles on display, and none of them ever feel forced or awkward.  You're gonna think I'm crazy, but hear me out on this... Hoth reminds me a lot of Ensiferum.

Stop laughing, I can explain.  Yes, the band is listed everywhere as "melodic death/black metal", and that's not wrong, but the melodies that permeate the foreground of the whole record sound straight out of Markus Toivenen's book.  Ensiferum helped make folk metal popular by blending it with power metal instead of black metal like most bands at the time did (and still do), which gave it a hugely bombastic nature that few bands were really championing back in 2001.  Hoth take that folk/power metal blend of Ensiferum and put it back in a black metal template, if that makes any sense.  Melodic black metal is probably the easiest way to describe what's happening on Oathbreaker, but if you wanted to touch on every genre that makes a prominent appearance, you'd have to say something ridiculous like "Epic Melodic Technical Progressive Atmospheric Black/Death/Thrash/Folk Metal".  There are a shitload of ideas at play here, and they almost all hit bullseye.  Each track seems to have at least one lead melody that carries the song throughout most of the duration, and each and every last one of them runs the risk of getting stuck on loop in your head for days at a time.  And underneath that melodic forefront, you can have songs like "A Blighted Hope" that take a merry melody and twist it into something sorrowful and depressing before throwing it over a very bouncy and triumphant rhythm, completely changing the mood and theme of that melody without changing a note of it.  Contrast that with songs like "Unending Power" that are so visceral and punishing that it could easily be mistaken for a Skeletonwitch song.

The smorgasbord of stylings on display would mean nothing if the songwriting itself didn't also rule, and of course, it does.  It's hard to really put into words, but I touched on it a bit earlier.  Everything about this just feels organic and well thought out.  The songs are all structurally interesting, never falling into trenches of repetition, and even though every song has at least one extended clean section, they never feel obligatory or needless.  It's just... this is the only place the song could have logically gone from here, so that's where it went.  There's really not a whole lot to complain about here, Oathbreaker is a very solid album that takes vast swaths of several different styles of extreme metal and manages to tie them all coherently together with strong melodies.  I mean, the riffing is pretty decent and the drumming is excellent, but it's really the melodies that make the album worth listening to.  It's impressive how they manage to make it seem like so much is going on while keeping everything simple and never overdoing layers upon layers of bullshit like many bands are prone to doing.  Just listen to the fucking thing already, I pinky promise it's super good.

Also fuck Star Trek, I'm glad Kirk got crushed by a bridge.  Screw you, Tailgunner!

RATING - 89%