Tengger Cavalry, which roughly translates to “the army of the sky god” in Mongolian, has been popping up all over the radar mainly due to the full embracing of their unique ethnic identity. Never before had I heard of a metal group with Mongolian/Central Asian world music blended within. Granted, there has been an increase in the fusion of non-conventional instruments and styles with metal due to the inevitable focus and acceptance of the globalization of the genre. Fronted by Nature Ganganbaigal, the group formed in 2010 and has previously released four full-length albums and a couple EPs. Bassist Alex Abayev, tovshuur player Chineeleg E. Borjigin, Morin Khuur player Uljmuren De, shanz player Robert McLaughlin, and drummer Josh Schifris are also included in the lineup and while a few of those instruments mentioned are likely never before seen words to most of our readers, you can check out the group members discuss their instruments here.
Opening instrumental "Snow" is a stunning string and piano arrangement with cinematic qualities. Uljmuren continues his mastery Morin Khuur flow onto the next piece, "Die on my Ride," but the musical qualities take a strange turn. The repeated chorus stands out for the bass-y groove metal riff juxtaposed with the Mongolian throat singing. As much as I respect an act willing to push boundaries, I'll admit that this was a hard pill to swallow. As the experimentation proceeded through the form of an array of unfamiliar instruments to my ethnocentric ears, it becomes even more difficult to digest the music as they clash with alternative and death metal foundations. Interesting nonetheless, but undeniably unusual, especially when contrasted to decades of acts restrained to just guitar, bass, drums, and "normal" vocals. I'd like to make clear that I am not opposed to heavy music meshing with Eastern influence, but there are a few fusion moments that feel a tad awkward in my opinion. While the songs grew on me with gradual open-mindedness and understanding where the blend of the styles met in more unison, I still felt as though their non-conventional instruments and vocal delivery didn't exactly make up for the fact that it seemed as if something was missing.
On the other hand though, there were certain songs such as "To the Sky" and "Prayer" that caught me off guard in a very positive manner. Their subdued aspect allowed for each instrument to be showcased in a more detailed fashion. Similarly, "Ashley" and "The Choice of My Mind" had atmospheric qualities that were aesthetically pleasant. The vocal range on their heavier songs aren't too large, however on these mentioned tracks, Nature was reassuring of his ability to create interesting vocal melodies. "Me Against Me" was the closing piece and honestly one of the strongest tracks. I believe part of the reason that I favored these mentioned tracks is because they mostly lacked guitar. On a majority of the guitar-driven songs, the production seemed to muddy the guitar while placing a focus on the other instruments instead. I've noticed this similar situation in past Tengger Cavalry releases too, so hopefully in the future there will be a solution to even out the mix between the Eastern string instruments, vocals, guitar, and drums.
It is a strange situation when you find yourself critiquing music connected to a country and culture that you have not yet experienced. While watching performances of other artists use the Tovshuur, Morin Khuur, and Shanz instruments as well as the throat singing technique, I still can't fully embrace the tones created, but more importantly gained an appreciation for the artistry. I find it so important to express this as many other individuals listening to this album may share my frustration in that they can't connect to a musical style that has been completely foreign to their listening palette for the span of their lives.
The most common factor in this album is the musical stylistic inconsistency, which is prone to both pros and cons. Tracks range from groove, death, and folk metal allowing for diversity and listener engagement, yet the unpredictability is sometimes so vast that it misses the mark. Personally, I could assume sludgy and psychadelic aspects would even further enhance the style that Tengger Cavalry has brought to the table. Overall, I view this band as an extremely important act as they have forcefully cast a spotlight upon the need for Eastern influence and involvement in metal. Although their blend of styles is sometimes lost in translation, I believe that there has been definite progress from their 2010 debut and their ability to take risks and fully commit to them is an attribute I wish upon all metal bands.