Article By: Kira Schlechter ‡ Edited By: Leanne Ridgeway
The versatility and adaptability of metal are well-known, of course. But nowhere is that more clear than with Tengger Calvary, the New York-based nomadic folk / Mongolian folk metal band.
Fusing native overtone singing and the Mongolian horsehead fiddle (the morin khuur) with blast beats and distorted guitars, they formed a sound so unique, it caught the ear of non-metal publications like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and CNN.
But after releasing six albums in rapid succession, their latest via Napalm Records, ‘Cian Bi,’ is proving to be their swan song. The quintet – singers Nature and Ulziimuren (who also play the Mongolian fiddle), guitarist Pat, bassist Ray, and drummer James – announced they were breaking up mere days after the new album’s release.
While their demise is a real and tragic loss to the metal scene, they leave us with a terrific effort to remember them by.
The morin khuur has a beautiful, haunting, mournful tone, and the foreboding instrumental that starts the album, “And Darkness Continues,” is led by it. It’s played without much ornamentation, so it has a liquid-y, warm, earthy tone, unlike any other fiddle. It is the perfect counterpart to the brittle, crisp guitars and erratic native rhythms.
The title track blends the two cultures — the metal and traditional, the Western (or European) and the Eastern – in a completely fascinating way, unlike anything you have likely heard before. The monotone, robotic throat-singing is about as metal as it gets. Anyone can do the Cookie Monster thing, but when you can throat-sing, you’re on a totally different plane. It’s occasionally paired with straight clean singing, as well, but it’s that mesmerizing drone that distinctively marks Tengger’s sound.
Another hallmark is the music’s ever-changing moods and tempos; the instrumental combinations that switch on a dime, the brief, intriguing tangents they explore. Their lyrics are stream-of-consciousness – if their meanings are not completely clear at first glance, it’s probably intentional.
That technique makes them such a part of the music because it too is so experimental and free form. “Strength” is a beautiful example of this, laced by ribbons of the gorgeous fiddle and de-tuned guitars.
“Chasing My Horse” is an instrumental that sounds exactly like its title, with a galloping, twisting rhythm – you can almost follow the action as the chase begins, proceeds, slows, and speeds up again. The presence of such instrumentals like this one and “Electric Shaman” is not a distraction in any way – they seem such a part of the band’s fiber and being, probably more than anything with words and vocals is.
The band doesn’t belabor anything. There are a lot of songs on the album, granted, but they are brief and to the point and pack so much into each one – electronica, the fiddle, the guitars, the insane native and metal drumming – that each sounds completely different.
“Ride Into Grave And Glory” is clearly a farewell, a looking back, but not without regret: “If tomorrow we gonna die / We looking back, what have we done?” they ask. “Give or take, you question yourself / What do we do, what do we do,” they ponder.
But they raise a defiant fist with “Redefine,” which is exactly what they have done to the genre, no matter their ultimate fate – “Redefine yourself, don’t let them take you down,” they urge.
The societal division they describe in “The Old War” is offset by the message of unity in “One Tribe, Beyond Any Nation” — “We have each other / We will fight them all,” they sing. “One-Track Mind” is pointed, biting commentary on how polarized society is, but again is buffered by the majestic “You and I, Under the Same Sky,” a plea for unity and solidarity.
A final instrumental, the stark “Sitting In Circle,” quietly closes the album in a soulful acoustic fashion, ultimately driving home the roots and soul of their sound.
A bitter post on Tengger Calvary’s Facebook page explains some of their reasons for splitting. If they are indeed true, the industry has a lot to answer for in terms of how this one-of-a-kind band was treated. May they go on to better things and higher ground.