Eight men in leather tunics, pointed boots and long ponytails stood on stage at Newport Music Hall Tuesday night, plucking away at traditional Mongolian instruments.
A morin khuur fiddle brayed and whinnied like a wild mare. A jaw harp, or tumur khuur, bounced and sprung, clenched tightly between the teeth of a man who would look at home riding across the grassy steppes of central Asia. Another performer — stocky and imposing — growled, whistled and bellowed guttural chants with traditional Mongolian throat singing techniques. Throat singing is polyphonic, meaning one performer can produce multiple notes and sounds at once.
One would expect the audience at such a performance to quietly observe the cultural significance of these peaceful, ancient arts. Instead, they were thrashing, moshing and headbanging to the Mongolian folk metal stylings of The Hu, an international viral sensation that has updated the music of ancient warriors with the brutal sounds of western rock. Their debut album, The Gereg, refers to the passports of the Mongolian empire, and their music has indeed taken them all across the world.
The evening started off with a far more recognizable style from opener Crown Lands, of Oshawa, Ontario. The duo took to the stage in skin-tight pants and bare chests. Both had some of the longest, prettiest hair I have ever seen, looking like two different versions of white Jesus and delivering a satisfying facsimile of the best that dad rock has to offer, with clear influences from Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.
Skilled drummer Cody Bowles delivered the classically crooning, wailing vocals, while Kevin Comeau filled out the ensemble with guitar, bass and keys. Comeau’s clever use of pedals and four different guitars throughout the half-hour set made it easy to forget that there were only two of them on stage and that it wasn’t 1970. Bowles’ several-minute-long drum solo confirmed that these men have no idea what decade it is, and I didn’t mind a bit.
After a long intermission, the headlining act appeared, basking in the hoots, hollers and chanting “Hu”s of the crowd.
Galbadrakh “Gala” Tsendbaatar, lead throat singer, tuned his morin khuur, or horsehead fiddle, and began the echoing drone that would provide a base for most of the evening’s songs. Joining him on stage were Enkhasaikhan “Enkush” Batjargal on morin khuur, Nyamjantsan “Jaya” Galsanjamts on jaw harp and flute and Temuulen “Temka” Naranbaatar playing the topshur lute. Backed by more standard guitars and drums, the group launched into two hours of war cries and ancient chants that would unleash the inner warrior of even the most timid concertgoer.
While The Hu certainly lacks the chugging wall-of-sound effect that gives most modern metal its distinct brutality, there was something more primal to its appeal. The lyrics, all in Mongolian, reference bloody wars, continental conquest and the great emperor Genghis Khan. The group’s music offers pride and — at times — solemn contemplation over a past that Westerners are eager to condemn while singing the praises of the Roman Empire.
The band’s message is delivered primarily through traditional Mongolian throat singing. Mongolian methods involve simultaneous high-pitched whistles and rumbling roars. With eight vocal mics on stage, there were as many as 16 different tones ringing forth from the group, lending to an otherworldly effect. The technique serves as a precursor to the growling and screaming vocals so common in western metal and felt right at home next to the distorted guitars and heavy drums that also occupied the stage.
The Hu blasted through a few initial bangers in its set, then mellowed out with ballads about women and warriors before an explosive finish. Pausing between songs, they hyped the crowd with terse rock ’n’ roll phrases like, “Let’s rock!” and longer Mongolian monologues that elicited cheers from the few Mongolian members of the audience. The rest of the crowd was comprised of a cross between metalheads and graduate-students types. It was a diverse bunch, for sure.
That is the big draw for The Hu, after all. Much like their predecessors in the Mongolian Empire, the members draw influences from across the world, and it shows in the massive international acclaim the group has found. Looking around the Newport and seeing swathes of people coming together to chant along to songs from halfway around the world was a wonderful experience. Getting shoved by a guy in silks was fun, too.