Album Review: Tengger – Spiritual (Seendosi/Extra Noir, 2017/2019)

My first encounter with Tengger’s work came when I was reviewing the first Extra Noir compilation last year. There, the track the Seoul-based duo, comprised of  Itta (on harmonium and vocals) and Marqido (on analogue synthesizers) submitted (‘Breathe In, Breathe Out’) was dark and haunting, which fitted in well with Extra Noir’s witchy darkwave aesthetic. When given the space to define their own sound, however, Tengger favours a more fuzzed-out, sunburnt sound, exemplified in their album Spiritual, an eight-track array of synthesizer jams and garage psychedelia. Tengger first released Spiritual back in 2017, initially sold as a digital album and cassette tape combo produced in collaboration with arts collective Seendosi (the tape version is, sadly, no longer available). Thanks to Extra Noir, however the album is seeing a re-release, with a limited-run vinyl edition (at the time of writing, only 5 records are left up for grabs!). 

The titular opening track is all about repetition, pairing a chugging bass riff with Raga-reminiscent synth chords and… not a whole lot else. Snatches of crooning female vocals add some colour to the track’s final third, but beyond that, all of the track’s sense of progression is textural (or vertical, if that’s your preferred terminology) rather than melodic; the same rhythms and patterns repeat ad infinitum, but subtle changes in the substance of the sounds themselves keep it from growing stale or boring. This sets the trend for the rest of the album, which follows a similar path, and uses a similar sonic pallet. On Track 2, (‘Luft’), however, the bass groove is far funkier, and the thick waves of feedback and reverb that Tengger spice things up with seem to channel the wide-eyed and inventive spirit of a stoned teenager playing with effects pedals in Guitar Center. The vocal on this track, when it does put in appearance, is almost lost in the sea of sound, feeling more like a splash of sonic colour than an instrument per se. It’s followed by ‘Earther’, whose analogue arpeggios and harmonium keys and chord progressions sound reminiscent of both medieval music and the soundtracks of 1970s nature documentaries. The fourth track, ‘Barabonda’, is much more heavy and raw, centering around a sludgy distorted riff that acts as a counterpoint to a wispy, ethereal vocal warble. Bursts of feedback (a crucial element in Tengger’s sonic repertoire, it seems) complete the picture, setting the track up for an epic extended breakdown jam towards the end.

Footage of Tengger performing at a Spiritual album launch gig in 2017. 

This is followed by ‘Jongsori’, more a kind of brief interlude than a “track” in its own right, featuring the faint hiss of field recordings, the sound of what could be gongs warped and mutated by the dark sorcery of analogue technology till they’re almost unrecognizable, and the ominous sound of chanting voices. The sixth tune on the album, ‘Dancing’, is much more upbeat. Here insistent two and three note synth patterns spiral like the arms of galaxies around one another while an unassuming Pong-like blip keeps time. The real surprise, however, comes when Itta begins to play a jaunty sea-shanty-style tune on the harmonium. Considered individually, all these elements shouldn’t really work together, but somehow Tengger manages to pull it off. On Track 7, ‘Morgen Tempei’, percussive elements (which up until now has been either relegated to the background or entirely absent) take on more of a prominent role, with a rounded kick drum sound providing the rhythmic backbone of the tune. ‘Morgen Tempei’ is a cinematic and uplifting track; There is a pleasing sense of point and counterpoint between a clear, gentle bleeping sound and more ragged and energetic synth chords, and at different points in the track I was reminded both of the soft and poignant techno of The Field and also, for some reason, of Radiohead.

Tengger - Gatefold Outer

The outer sleeve design for the Spiritual vinyl release.

Spiritual finishes off with an epic, almost 15 minute long odyssey of a closing track, entitled ‘Dodeuri’. The track begins with some heavy-handed, loose bass and key rhythms, that sound like they’ve been recorded from an ancient grand piano rather than on a synthesizer. A high-pitched shuddering synthetic hum, however, reminds the listener that this is most certainly still electronic music. Female vocals whisper and chant, while low, fuzzed-out synth stabs lend the tune something approaching a “bassline”. At around 11 minutes in, ‘Dodeuri’ fakes out the listener, fading into near silence before kicking in again with a vengeance for the album’s last stretch. It’s clear that Tengger intended ‘Dodeuri’ to be the crowning moment of the album, an epic psychedelic voyage, which makes it a pity that, for me at least, it falls a little flat. It seems like there just aren’t enough ideas here to sustain a track of this length, and the chaotic jumble of elements at play feels less like a raw surge of musical energy than it does simply under-produced.

Despite my disappointments with the final track, however, I still think Spiritual is a good album, a showcase of how you can wring a lot of emotion and narrative out of very simple, abstract electronic sounds. The whole album feels played, rather than produced – there’s a loose, live kind of atmosphere that permeates throughout – which makes me even more keen than I was before to try and catch a live Tengger set sometime.

Spiritual is available for purchase over at Tengger’s Bandcamp. You can order a copy of the vinyl release from Extra Noir

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