Since the late ‘80s, Amsterdam's Kong have been peddling an infectiously unique brand of thought-provoking music that nabs bits and pieces from metal, progressive rock, dance, techno, ambient and industrial. "An instrumental band that travels, tours and plays live with a quadrophonic P.A. system set up in the middle of the venue while the band members play on four separate platforms/stages," the original billing read in a feature that appeared in a 1990 issue of Metal Forces promoting the band’s then-debut, Mute Poet Vocalizer. I was hooked immediately.
Thirty-three years, nine albums and a few EPs later and I'm still hooked, still sporting their merch to unknowing stares, still pitching unconvinced editors, still talking up each round of new material with the same aplomb as I have since the beginning. That I'd go all in on the bet that 99% of you have no idea who Kong are, and because when you type the band's name into the search engine of choice different bands, dog toys and monkey movies clog up the results, goes to show the very limited ability and reach of my trumpeting lo these many years.
But the band keeps trucking along, as does my support of them. Traders of Truth is the band's ninth full-length, their first since 2014's Stern, and was reportedly cobbled together over the course of four years in the band's own KONG Studio, various attics in their home town and a monastery in Amersfoort, a handful kilometers southeast of the original sin city. The album continues to put on vivid display the band's unique ability to layer heartbeat battery and loping overhead smashes of rock/metal riffing with foley soundscapes and electronic melodies.
One of Kong's many strengths has always been their ability to seamlessly meld contradicting musical worlds into a sound that's instantly recognizable (though I concede that "instantly recognizable" comes in light of the fact this band hasn't left my personal playlist for over three decades). And now with "newest" member, drummer Oscar Alblas (he joined in 2013) holding a degree in classical percussion and backstopping the cavalcade, the rhythmic sensibility has developed more nuance that adds to, and matches, the flavorful depths provided by samples, sound manipulation, effects twisting and otherworldly blipping and blooping.
"Radiance" opens the album with super-stacked conglomeration of in-the-pocket groove, classic industrial samples worked into the palm-muted doom-lite riff chug topped by orchestrated collection of bends straight out of the guitar hero ‘70s. The quiet, mid-song slow down may detract from the initial momentum which, for an album opener, is a bit of a sonic kick in the dick, but the glorious crescendo of factory-floor noises and distorted guitar parries that close out the song's second half more than make up for that bit of judgment lapse.
Despite this, the masterful talent the band has always exhibited for dexterously weaving samples into the riffs/songs so that seemingly errant noises are actually an essential component, not just a frivolous or textural adjunct, is on high display. The result of the meticulous restructuring of noises into workable sound continues to make listening to Kong an adventure in discovery.
Songs like "Hit That Red" and "Chaos as Law" post up with guitars grinding out Hardwired-era, mid-paced Metallica-inspired rock augmented by dynamic cymbal clanking and electronically modified sounds and voices that fade in and out like Ministry and The Young Gods at their hungriest. In contrast, the moves that are made with "Ripper" are delightful, as the heaviest riffs of the record are complemented by some seriously awesome mechanical melodics that abruptly spill out into a glorious AOR moment that Journey, Toto and/or Chicago could turn into an upbeat hit.
The band opens up the spaciousness with "Fringing" utilizing sweeping chord voicings and appropriate keyboard swells that conjoin to deliver an epic, soaring-over-the-landscape feel to their interpretation of metal, whereas "Rök" references chill room squeaks and creaks with an almost Parliament-like swagger to the drumming and massive guitar chords paving the way for more chorus catchiness. It is also with this song that another of Kong's strengths is crystalized. For an instrumental band, they have an uncanny knack for writing riffs and creating melodies, sampled and otherwise, with the power to worm into the listener's brain and remain hummable after the fact.
A more subdued tack is taken with "Mirrorizion" and "Grasslands" which both employ sturdy, Jan Hammer-like keyboard and guitar themes which are again accented by a menagerie of sounds and effects, including what sounds like remnants from '80s Wax Trax recordings and nascent new wave in the former, and possible modified brass and a didgeridoo in the latter.
And then there's "Stray Marks," which has counterpoint melodies created by a combination of early '90s alt-metal guitar distortion and washes of massaged sounds all given a spine by a disco-like steadiness and groove to the hi-hat and ride cymbal work.
Realistically, despite Traders of Truth being another strong showing by the Dutch demons, it likely won't be the record to break them to a wider audience. Not because it's unworthy of attention and doesn't exist as another robust work in the overlooked canon of a singular outfit, but because for a few years now, Kong have appeared content to do this by themselves and for themselves.
If jokers like me want to come along for the ride and experience the frustration of the majority of the world's obviously poor taste, then so be it. I have no problem continuing to hovel up with some of the most consistently singular and diverse takes on extreme music in its history. Feel free to give it a shot yourself.