Sunday, April 24, 2016

Tengger Cavalry - The Expedition

I didn't make a Dynasty Warriors reference

Remember when I gushed for days over Ancient Call?  Well The Expedition here is what started it all for me, and if you want to just skip all this shit and read my review for the followup album instead, not much will be different.

Tengger actually shares a bizarrely specific trait with Nile of all bands, and that's that both bands took the metal and non-metal influences of their music and blended them masterfully into a truly unique beast that nobody could possibly imitate.  Then, they both separated those two influences (Tengger with the Cavalry Folk double album, and Nile with the Karl Sanders solo album, Saurian Meditations) by almost completely excising the metal elements of their music and focusing on the folk portion.  The difference here is that when Nile came back with Annihilation of the Wicked, while it's pretty easily my favorite album of theirs, the Egyptian folk flavoring and ambient/booming passages are almost completely gone, or at least separated cleanly between tracks and albums, whereas Tengger Cavalry managed to return with Black Steed, which took both sides of their Cavalry Folk double feature and just blended them together better than ever before.  I think that by focusing on their metal side and their folk side separately, they (or rather Nature Zhang/Ganganbaigal, since the band is basically him plus whatever hired goons he employs) learned exactly what makes each side work, and learned how to take the best elements of each and twist them into a fucking gorgeous helix of twangy headbanging fury. 

Now, there is something of a problem with The Expedition, and that's that it is note for note almost completely identical to Black Steed.  Like six tracks are literally identical, not rerecorded or anything, and the tracklisting is just slightly modified and a couple interludes and acoustic tracks are different, otherwise it's essentially the same album.  This would bother most people, and admittedly it should probably irritate the hell out of me, but I heard The Expedition first, so it turns out to not matter to me at all (though the band would seem to follow this pattern and rerecord Blood Sacrifice Shaman two years later).  So consider this a review for both albums, if you will. 

I was hooked on the opening track, in the opening seconds.  Less than thirty seconds into the album and you're blasted in the face with everything the album plans on throwing at you.  There's an extended explosion of distortion, overlaid with haunting Mongolian throat singing and that fucking beautiful horsey fiddle I never shut up about.  After about twenty seconds of setting the stage with a punishing and slow overture, the fiddles give out a cry clearly meant to imitate a horse's whinny, and then shit just fucking explodes.  I don't know if you've ever heard the most perfect riff in history before, but it's right at this point where it decides to show up.  It's pretty clear that there are two things about metal that I love more than anything in the world, and that's simplicity and bombast.  The two don't always go together outside of something like Amon Amarth, and their songwriting skills are generally mediocre so there are only a handful of tracks here and there that really encapsulate the splendor I enjoy so much.  Otherwise you'll get awesome simple bands like Jungle Rot who can just pummel you to death forever with the stupidest riffs imaginable, or awesome bombastic bands like Rhapsody who just throw caution to the wind and throw in a million layers of choirs and horns and whatever they can think of to make the most epic shit imaginable.  Tengger Cavalry learned here how to perfectly mix both of these qualities, because that main riff to "Cavalry in Thousands" is just the most beautiful god damned thing I've ever heard.  It's a midpaced, heavy fucking metal riff that just mashes your faces with gauntleted smacks, forcing you to just slam your head against the nearest surface until you concuss yourself into gibbering idiocy.  Then the bridge comes, and it slows down a bit with a really simple straight eight note chugging riff and a soothing horsey fiddle melody, before it just suddenly breaks.  It's a simple Metallica styled "chug chug pulloff chug pulloff" riff that you've probably heard hundreds of times, but the interspersed hammering of the drums just signify that shit is about to break loose, and after a repeat or two, the drummer lets out a slick fill and then FUUUUUUUUUCK.  This god damned solo is so stupid.  It's just really fast picking and changing your fretting hand's position every bar or so with a random high note and a quick descending run part, and it climaxes on a harmonized melody that would make Iron Maiden weep, and all throughout the world horses just lose their minds and trample the fuck out of gophers.  I love every second of this solo and by extension this song and by extension this album if I'm being honest with you.

Almost every song follows that basic pattern, nothing really goes above mid paced other than sections of "Expedition" and "Hymn of the Wolf", and the fiddles never really shut up, but it's a good thing here because they add such a distinct flavor to the riffs and melodies throughout the album.  Between the fiddles and the throat singing, Tengger is determined to never let you forget where their inspiration comes from, that being the green steppes of Mongolia.  Every god damned second of The Expedition sounds like the soundtrack to a war across the grasslands, from the tense nights in camp, unsure of when the next assault with take place, to the victorious raids on the unsuspecting enemies while they sleep in their villages.  The band hasn't really done a whole lot in the way of changing what they do since Cavalry Folk split things into two camps and identifies the strengths of each, but I can't think of any way I'd ask them to change.  Everything here sounds massive, it's the backdrop to a bloody war on horseback.  That's really how it should be, it's simplistic metal riffs with I guess a sort of melodeath flavor thanks almost entirely to the vocals, while the guitar just stomps and gallops its way to freedom with a backdrop of booming mysticism.  It's not for everybody, about half of the fellow metal fans I've showed this band to have said it was just simple and dumb and lame and had nothing going on in it besides irritating folk melodies and nothing-riffs, but there are the chosen few who just got swept up in the majesty the music presents.  You should be one of those two, if you pick out "huh, this riff is okay I guess but it's not all that advanced or adventurous", you'll find yourself staring at Stonehenge and saying "Well I mean there's nothing special about this stone, it's just a stone".  It's all about the big picture, it's about the soaring greatness that the riffs and melodies pull together.  If there's anything at all wrong with the album, it's that the vocals are really pretty standard, which wouldn't be a problem normally, but when stacked up against the creativity that permeates every other second of the album it kinda stands out, and that the album is structured weirdly, with the last four tracks being a midpaced metal instrumental, a clear majestic outro with distorted guitars shoehorned in, and then two acoustic folk songs.  So really there's only like five traditional metal "songs" to be found here out of ten tracks, which doesn't bother me really, but I can see how it could be a negative to others. 

Overall just shut up and listen to Tengger Cavalry already.  Basically every album is amazing, but they really hit their stride starting with the Cavalry Folk double album, and The Expedition here is smack dab in the middle of that hot streak, even if it is for all intents and purposes just Black Steed with different outro tracks.  Who cares, listen to this, it's amazing.

RATING - 93%

Friday, April 15, 2016

Scanner - Hypertrace


I've mentioned before that German speed metal is pretty much unequivocally the greatest short lived subniche of the entire heavy metal family tree, and despite my raging fandom for it, I've never been exactly sure which album to recommend to somebody who has no idea what it sounds like.  Running Wild's seminal Gates to Purgatory is far and away the best album of the style in my eyes, but it's a weird starting point because the lyrical focus stakes itself firmly in the grimy satanism of Venom, while the runner up album, Helloween's Walls of Jericho, fits all the themes and hits all the tropes, but it always felt like an album of two or three magnificent songs and a bunch of merely good ones in accompaniment.  That's why, after six seconds of deliberation, I have decided to bestow the title of "Absolute First Fucking Speed Metal Album You Should Ever Hear" upon Scanner's 1988 debut, Hypertrace.  Why you ask?  Why not something a little more obvious and relatable like the first couple Blind Guardian albums?  Well that's easy.  Scanner may not be as good as Blind Guardian or Running Wild, but let me tell you, they are ten trillion times more awesome.

Really, nothing makes me giddy on the level of a seven year old after his twentieth Oreo like a high speed, spacefaring concept album narrated by a coked up wolverine possessed by the spirit of Udo Dirkschneider caught in a bear trap.  Seriously, I raved for eons about how much I loved the unhinged ridiculousness of Bride's vocals, but Scanner tops even those.  Michael Knoblich's glass shattering wail is used about as liberally as Nutella in a hipster's studio apartment, and I love it.  It's never been a secret that I think subtlety is overrated in the context of metal, and I'm much more prone to loving the shit out of something shamelessly fun and ridiculous.  Hypertrace is that in spades, it's just non stop speed and over the top wailing and blistering fretwork from the get go and it basically never lets up.  But again, none of that matters, listen to the vocals.  They're so over the top ridiculous, so full of overt cheeseball silliness that I seriously can't decide if he's playing it totally straight, stoically imposing his will on the stage like the vocalist of Belphegor while wearing a Terminator mask and Deathworld suit, or if he's this little ball of energy, bounding around everywhere, shooting his toy laser gun into the crowd and swinging the microphone stand like a noob Kilik player, belting his heart out so hard that blood squirts out of his eyes before he passes out at the end of every show with a six foot wide smile rigor mortis'd onto his face.  They're so perfect, I want Knoblich to sing to me on my birthday.  LOCKED! OUT!  uuuWAAAaAaAaAaAAAHH!

So yeah, I could write forty thousand words about how fucking perfect the vocal performance is, but the music and songwriting is pretty much spot on phenomenal as well.  There is basically no album opener as great as "Warp 7" in all of metal.  Really, for the blast of energy it provides, coupled with how obnoxiously infectious it is, it rivals something like "Painkiller" or "Exciter", and most of the album follows suit.  "Terrion", "Locked Out", "Grapes of Fear", "Wizard Force", basically every single song is a high speed burst of enthusiasm that manages to be as ear catching as any 80s anthem.  Despite how fast and over the top the album is, it never actually seems "aggressive", so to speak.  It's not sinister or vicious, it's just fucking fun.  From the explosions and corny sound effects that are sprinkled throughout the album, to the fist pumping singalong monuments, everything hits bullseye in a way that most of their peers would kill to achieve.  Despite the over the top speed taking up a large portion of the album, there are definitely spots where the band shows they aren't afraid to slow down a bit to show off their songwriting skill.  Nothing here really approaches a ballad, per se, but songs like "Killing Fields" and "Across the Universe" tone down the barnburning ridiculousness in favor of arena deafening anthems that are no less over the top and entertaining.  Both of the aforementioned songs have some of the best singalong moments in all of speed metal, rivaling the mighty Blind Guardian in terms of catchiness and complexity.  Early Manowar, despite being kings of this kind of thing, still weep at the fact that they never wrote anything as indisputably immortal as the chorus to "Across the Universe".  So my claims of nothing but non stop speed are slightly facetious, as the band does an excellent job of throwing in an abundance of Screaming for Vengeance-isms.  Despite the variance in tempo and execution, it's never anything less than Evel Kneivel level over the top bombast.  From the screaming guitars to wailing shrieks of the greatest vocalists to ever take the stage, everything is the musical embodiment of a wild haired scientist jumping the entire width of France in a rocket powered Star Wars speeder.

So basically, Hypertrace can be summed up as "charismatic".  It's a goofy sci-fi concept backed by over the top theatrics and a vocalist who sells everything by singing ridiculous nonsense with as much conviction as anybody ever has.  Everything that comes out of his mouth just sounds like the MOST AWESOME THING EVER and I can't find myself arguing against it.  In the grand scheme of things, this was sorta lost in the shuffle and Scanner never reached the heights of Helloween and Blind Guardian, despite being every bit as magical.  The only reason I can think of for this being the case is simply that they were a little late to the party (Speed metal of this specific niche only lasted what, five or six years?  It was basically gone by 1990 and Hypertrace came out in 1988) and missed the intangible of being "influential" instead of just "amazing".  Maybe if they'd've transitioned into full on power metal as their career went on like the genre progenitors did, they'd be remembered by the general populace as one of the greats.  But as it stands, they're just a cult classic, known widely by the people who matter and basically nobody else.  And really, that's probably the way it should be.


(but really, 97%)