When most people think of ‘Folk Metal’, the general consensus is that it’s mostly performed by bearded folk who draw inspiration from myth, legend, national folklore and the period of history which predates the Georgian era (Mid 1700’s).
Of course there are bands that lack the aforementioned beardies, opting to be fresher-faced or, indeed, maidens fair. The lyrical inspirations are inevitably the same, incorporating topically tradition and pre-1700s. Musically, it also follows a very similar blueprint. There’s emphasis on ‘traditional’ instruments like lutes, mandola/mandolins, accordions, wind instruments like whistles and flutes, interesting percussion elements and ‘stringed’ instruments (notably fiddle variants). There’s also a very heavy significance given to melody – flowing melodic sequences which have a very memorable and highly infectious nature, derived from what we call ‘traditional’ (aka historical, classical etc).
The above generally applies to European and American Folk Metal bands. For the purpose of this article, they will be referred to as Western. Elements of Latin and South American, African, Mediterranean, Middle-Eastern, Oriental and Aboriginal music which feature in Rock, Blues and Metal tend to be deemed as ‘exotic’ and moments of flair. These themselves can be deemed forms of “folk (insert genre)”. This brings us to the band Tengger Cavalry, a Mongol-Sino group based out of New York City.
Started originally as a one-man project in 2010 by Nature Ganganbaigal, a Chinese native of Mongol ancestry.
Tengger Cavalry draws from elements of both national cultures, leaning heavily towards the Central Steppe cultural angle, particularly Mongol and Turkic. Incorporating a variety of traditional regional instruments – the Horsehead Fiddle (Morin Khuur), 2-stringed lute (Topshur), Sanxians, Igil (2 stringed bow-lute), Ozark Harp and Overtone singing (commonly known as throat singing) in combination with distorted guitar, bass and drums, it makes for a rather unique and different musical experience. Having already received high praise for previous releases, ‘Cian-Bi’ is the band’s sixth studio release. With it, the band has been described by the American music press as ‘Nomadic Folk Metal’.
The first thing of note is that this release is very atmospheric. This is hardly surprising, given how Nature G is a known composer who leans towards cinematic and videogame soundtrack work. He also has a Master’s degree in film soundtrack composition. From this perspective, it’s easy to notice (after several listens) how the dynamics between elements presented in each track help guide it along and have a significant impact on the overall sound. The way the bow-string instruments sing out with a distinct sharpness to them, even in the slow and less animated tracks like the instrumental opening ‘And Darkness Continues’, a rather pointless dead-end minute of ambience.
Title track ‘Cian Bi (Fight Your Darkness)’ is where the release truly starts. As the album’s lead single, we’ve already seen this paired with a very fancy, hi-res bit of choreographed cinematography. Musically, it’s rather promising. Strip away the traditional elements and you have some raw sounding, fast paced metal which wouldn’t sound out of place as a B-side to an Amon Amarth release. Add in that twanging jaw harp, the hollow plucking noises of the lutes and the wails of the fiddle and you’ve got a very intricate and hypnotic slice of Metal with some serious flavour to it. The dose of throat singing adds a strange touch, one which is very hit or miss. Overall, pretty solid.
This track sets the basic framework for the rest of the release. The usual trio of guitar/bass/drums makes up the standard ‘Metal’ component – handling the main rhythmic aspects, the punishing and meaty tone and the heavy groove, helped along by the interesting vocal approaches. The ‘Traditional’ instruments handle the more melodic aspects of the track – fitting, as a three-stringed lute would sound rather strange stuffed through the distortion channel of a Marshall stack! This blueprint rings true for many aspects of Folk Metal across the globe, yet works extremely well in this context given how the premise can be considered to be a (to invoke a terrible cliché) clash of cultures. It’s little surprise to see why ‘mainstream’ elements of the American music media have jumped on the novelty presented by this band.
the bow-string instruments sing out with a distinct sharpness
‘Strength’ is a pretty hard hitting, fast paced Metal-friendly track which has a surging, gallop-feel rhythm to it. ‘Chasing My Horse’ follows and builds from this. ‘Electric Shaman’, to put it bluntly, is fucking weird. It’s a strange take on Electro-Industrial Metal but with a Folk presence. ‘Redefine’ is a straight up heavy number, which again has that industrial Rob Zombie feel to it. On the other hand, ‘The Old War’ places more emphasis on atmospheric and emotionally charged elements.
Despite the apparent diversity, it’s still very samey. Each track has a very similar feel to it and, whilst the melodic sequences are varied enough, they all start to sound the same by the end of the release… Basically, it’s like a lot of Folk Metal. It’s a novel experience you can partake in once in a while if you’re not a fan of it. Unless you’re especially into your niche subgenres, World Music, extremely open minded or find this to be your thing, ‘Cian Bi’ is background music at best. Hardly surprising from the man behind the music for the Civilization games series – which, for the record, has some great ambient backing music tracks throughout the series!
‘Cian Bi’ by Tengger Cavalry is out now and available for purchase and streaming via the usual suspects. Unfortunately, the band has since decided to disband due to contractual disputes.