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

Extra Noir Volume One, the inaugural release on (currently) Daejeon-based label Extra Noir, is a bit of an oddity. The label is an extension of the Extra Noir podcast, which in turn grew out of a planned (but never fully materialised) radio show on Texan co-operative radio station KOOP Radio; label founders Andrew Wilbur and Laura Francesangeli had originally envisioned running a show for industrial, minimal synth and post-punk music, but moved to Korea before the show could really get off the ground and thus decided to launch the podcast (and later, label) as a way to showcase the music they’d originally wanted to promote on the show. What’s surprising about all this, given how disjointed the label’s genesis has been, is the way in which – judging by their first release, at any rate – Wilbur and Francesangeli have managed to create such a strong sense of coherence and identity around a label whose contributors are both geographically separated from one another and working within very different genres.

Album opener ‘Sign Spinning School’, by Texan multi-instrumentalist Aadm Our Hatley, is an evocative piece of experimental music defined by heavily reverbed guitar chords, hollow drums, low voices and, best of all, a piercing whistle that put me in mind of the soundtrack of a Sergio Leone western. The closest point of comparison I can think of is with English artist Forest Swords, whose sophomore album Compassion was released to critical acclaim last year. It’s followed by a groovy, dirty industrial disco track from Glasgow outfit Total Leatherette, ‘Work Harder’, which combines clattering percussion, demented whoops and a rumbling, rough-around-the-edges bassline, all of which sound ever so slightly out of sync with each other. It’s a ferocious beast of a tune, and the inclusion of an indecipherable call-and-response vocal hook makes it sound like some kind of Cthulhuesque re-imagining of Tiga’s ‘Bugatti’. The next track, ‘Bridges’ by Kübler-Ross, is one of the compilation’s most straightforward, though no weaker for it, a gothically funky (or should that be funkily gothic?) slice of contemporary minimal synth.

The following two tracks are the compilation’s only contributions by Korean artists, and interestingly enough both take things in a slightly more ambient direction. Track 4, ‘Onujih_10’ by Airy Textile (a duo comprised of Seoul-based producers Seonggu de Kim & Eajik) is an epic, cinematic work, running over 10 minutes in length, that presents listeners with a haze of flickering signals, at turns soothing and unnerving. Occasionally, clear tones of retro, 80s-sounding synths manage to break through the sonic gloom, like a John Carpenter soundtrack being beamed to a distant outpost through the blackness of space. It leads almost seamlessly into ‘Breathe In, Breathe Out’ by Tengger (another Seoul-based duo), who layer blunted synth arpeggios and rhythmic analogue squelches under harmonium chords and breathy vocal refrains to hypnotic, witchy effect.

Following this extended ambient (ish) interlude, the compilation hits us with what may be it’s hardest, most dancefloor-friendly track: ‘The Velvet Hand’ by Xander Harris, a storming outsider techno banger with clear post-punk influences that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Silent Servant set. The tone of the compilation simmers down a bit with the next track, ‘unlocked’ by British producer Pecht, an exclusive remaster of a track from his debut album. It’s perhaps the weirdest track on the compilation, an eccentric sort of tune that maintains the retrograde 80s industrial aesthetic of the rest of the compilation but bolts it onto the skeleton of a soulful dub number. I had to listen to it a couple of times before it really ‘clicked’ for me; definitely a grower, not a show-er. The compilation is rounded off by ‘Hirvi ja viiniköynnös’ by Cucina Povera (Maria Rossi), a Finnish-born, Glasgow-based musician and DJ. The real star of the song is Rossi’s voice; her singing (in Finnish) takes centre stage, the minimal instrumentation and back-up vocal fading into the background. It’s a sombre, almost poignant end to the compilation, a refreshing palate cleanser after all the gnarly darkwave preceding it.

Extra Noir Volume One represents a strong start for the fledgling label. Selectors Wilbur and Francesangeli have managed to pull off the not inconsiderable feat of gathering together disparate artists with divergent sounds and moulding their contributions into a smooth and seamless whole, producing a debut compilation that works as well as one continuous listen as it does a selection of individual tracks and tunes. There’s a clear sense of vision and intent behind the release, something which bodes well for the label’s future output.

Extra Noir: Volume One is available for purchase at Extra Noir’s Bandcamp. Also, if you’re reading this on Thursday night or Friday, they’re having a launch party on Friday May 11 at Strange Fruit

Dub music has had a long and storied history, one that spans several decades, cultures and continents. From recording studios in Kingston, Jamaica in the 1960s to warehouse parties in London, England in the 1990s, the dub sound – with it’s emphasis on heavy, sinuous sub-bass, hazy rhythms and cavernous reverb – has found fans around the globe, and had an enormous influence on the development of electronic music – hell, on the development of modern music in general. It should come as no surprise, then, that even in the distant reaches of eastern Asia, among the mountains and skyscrapers of South Korea, dub has its acolytes. One such acolyte is Christopher Wing, aka mcthfg, originally hailing from the USA but now based in the southern coastal city of Changwon. On Korean Dub: Volume One, mcthfg provides three dub remixes of tracks by South Korean producers. It’s a brief but tantalizing glimpse into the curious niche of dub music on the Korean peninsula.

The opening track, a remix of “November, March” by Kuang Program, centers around decayed steel drum chords playing over shuddering waves of sub-bass, to the accompaniment of percussion that sounds like it was sampled in a third world junkyard. A kaleidoscopic array of intricate digital sounds completes the track and gives it a trippy, psychedelic feel. It’s followed by a “Brkn Replacment Dub” of mdbrkn’s “Shutted”, which provides listeners with a slightly more innovative take on the standard dub formula. Bitcrushed Nintendo-like squelches form the backbone of the piece, while the other sounds that duck and dive in and out of the mix could just as easily be processed field recordings as they could be digitally sculpted waveforms; the track blurs the line between the worlds of natural and computer-generated sound. The collection finishes off with “Spiritual (Floating Alone in the World Dub)”,a remix of a track by psychedelic electronica duo Tengger. It’s a suitable title; eerie vocal samples and raga chords give it a New Age ambience, though around midway through the track mcthfg picks up the pace a little, throwing in chiptune synth blasts, Morse code bleeps and a long extended breakdown that’s eventually swallowed by a rumbling two-step bass rhythm.

All three tracks are special in their own way; mcthfg clearly has some serious chops as a remixer. For anyone interested in dub music or in electronic music from the Korean peninsula, Korean Dub Volume 1 is a must-listen.

Korean Dub: Volume 1 is available for purchase at Dubmission‘s Bandcamp .