Thursday 29 April 2021

Nine Treasures - Awakening from Dukkha (2021)

Country: Mongolia
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Mar 2021
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I don't usually review compilation albums at Apocalypse Later, because there's far too much good new music to talk about instead. I'll make an exception here, though, for three primary reasons.

One is that I'd be shocked if many of you have heard the first three albums by Nine Treasures, who are a Mongolian folk metal band currently based in Beijing, China. They were formed in 2010, as were the far more prolific and sadly now disbanded Tengger Cavalry. That's six years before the Hu, who were a lot of people's introduction to Mongolian folk metal, but six years after Hanggai, a folk punk band of renown, who built on the folk music traditions of bands like Huun-Huur Tu and Altan Urag. And yes, if you're interested in Mongolian folk music, all these bands are well worth checking out.

Another is that, if you decided to seek those three albums out now, you wouldn't be able to find them, as the band weren't happy with the recording quality and pulled them from Bandcamp. All you'll find is this compilation, which features twelve songs taken from those earlier three albums but recorded afresh by the current line-up of the band in consistent style and with consistent production.

And that means that, for three, to the mind of the band members, this is a new album as much as it's a compilation, one that certainly looks to the past but also celebrates a rebirth, one that reflects the band as it is today and one that they can use as the bedrock from which to move forward. So, if this is new music both to Nine Treasures and to you, it fits here. My mission at Apocalypse Later is discovery and covering this album would seem to meet that.

If your exposure to Mongolian folk metal is, like most people in the west, limited to the Hu, you'll find that Nine Treasures are faster, heavier and more metallic, but just as inherently rooted in folk music. Just check out the opener to this album, Black Heart, which has guitars as crunchy as in the Hu's cover of Sad But True, but feels more like a speed metal playing a jig. The song doesn't stay that fast, but it isn't an unusual speed for them and they stay this heavy throughout, meaning that they often sound as similar to a band like Korpiklaani as one like the Hu.

Like most Mongolian metal, this features delicate finger picking strings and a bowed instrument that sounds kind of like a violin playing over the crunchy metal riffs that underpin everything. The latter is a morin khuur, a massively important instrument in Mongolia that we would call a horse head fiddle. I doubt you'll find much Mongolian music that doesn't feature at least one of these in their group. The former, however, isn't the tovshuur, or western Mongolian lute, that the Hu use, but a balalaika, which adds a neat touch to their sound.

And, over the top, of course, are the rough vocals that most Mongolian metal bands have. There's not as much in the way of throat singing here as other bands but four out of the five members sing as well as play their chosen instruments and they all sing in Mongolian. Their voices are clear and clean but in varying degrees of harsh texture and often deep. There are hints of drone and lots of rolling Rs, so it's very recognisably Mongolian singing. If you were enthused by the vocals on the Hu's Wolf Totem, you will be very much at home here.

What surprised me is that my favourite songs come from all three of the band's source albums for this compilation. Only two songs here come from their 2012 debut, Arvan Ald Guulin Honshoor, but I adore that album's title track, which is very much like a Mongolian Korpiklaani. Six are sourced from 2013's Nine Treasures, including the bookends: the frantic Black Heart and the more bouncy Three Years Old Warrior. I particularly like The Dream About Ancient City, which is a classy instrumental. That leaves a quartet from their 2017 album Wisdom Eyes, which all have opportunities for the balalaika, including its gloriously subtle title track and The End of the World, which features an excellent intro.

I can't remember how I got introduced to Mongolian metal. It certainly wasn't the Hu, because it was much earlier. I was a fan of Huun-Huur Tu and some YouTube algorithm showed me something heavier, probably either Tengger Cavalry or Nine Treasures. Like most people, I haven't looked back since, and this is a great way to be introduced to Nine Treasures. I hope it serves as the rebirth they so richly deserve and that they're soon on as many people's radars as the Hu and for many of the same reasons. Hey, they covered Metallica in 2012, with their debut album including their take on For Whom the Bell Tolls. The world's just catching up to them.

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