Tengger Cavalry + Felix Martin + Malphas @ Hard Luck Bar, Toronto on June 5, 2017

Dreaming of being a Viking is so passé! How about being a Mongol Shaman? Mongolian folk metal gallops into Toronto yet again tonight. Following their show last year, Tengger Cavalry return, their brand new album Die on My Ride in tow. Formed in 2010 and with an impressively extensive discography already, this Chinese-origin band does an excellent job of breathing life into the folk metal genre that too frequently depends on clichés and cheesy overcooked imagery. Despite their creative approach, they have received too little international exposure and tonight’s show is woefully ill-attended, despite boasting a diverse collection of artists.

Philadelphia’s Malphas began in 2012 with a demo and an EP to their name, welding black metal to melodic death metal. The four-piece infuse the likes of Amon Amarth and Children of Bodom with later Immortal and Dimmu Borgir. This produces epic soundscapes, a brooding rhythm section and sharp clean guitar melodies. The band is technically proficient, utilizing elaborate duelling guitar solos that effectively contribute another dimension to the songs and drive them forward. A taped keyboard fleshes out the music further but mixes with the live instruments poorly thanks to the venue’s sound. The Americans are humble and thankful to the sparse crowd between songs and receive solid applause from those scattered around the venue. Their contemporary metal is unique and could quickly reward them with a loyal fanbase if presented to lovers of melodic death metal.

A far cry from the sounds of Malphas is the next act for the night, virtuoso guitarist Felix Martin. Martin was educated at the prestigious Berkley College of Music and divides his time between his native Venezuela and Boston. Armed with a beast of a 14-string guitar and a backing band, he proceeds to dazzle the attendees with jazz-flavoured prog rock. Sounds alternate between delicate melodic passages and time-bending speedy sprints. His fingers whirlwind up and down the fretboard as he taps with both hands, commonly delving into unbelievable tempos. Occasionally, the music absorbs a metallic influence and echoes the efforts of Dream Theater’s later releases. Despite the sometimes furious technical precision, the music is relaxing and not something usually experienced at a metal show.

Finally headliners Tengger Cavalry are up next. After forming in 2010 in China, main man Nature Ganganbaigal relocated the band to New York four years ago and amassed a new line up. Live on stage, the only Central Asian instrument in use is the tovshuur, a Mongolian guitar that fuses with the typical metal instrumentation to create something truly unique. Ganganbaigal’s use of khoomei, Mongolian throat singing, recalls a rich heritage and sounds so metal that it’s almost a surprise the two are not paired more often. The music gallops along, avoiding the pitfall that many folk metal bands fall into – relegating the guitar to redundant metallic plodding while the folk instruments steal all the attention. Ganganbaigal’s guitar is bombastic, frolicking, and frequently dives into melodic death metal leads. The tovshuur is used to fantastic effect, working with the taped morin khuur (a horsehead fiddle) evoking romantic scenes of nomadic Mongol warriors.

New album Die on My Ride was released last month so a notable chunk of it is represented tonight, including the heroic-sounding title track, the rallying “Independence Day” and the soothing yet experimental “Me Against Me”. Older songs presented include the crunchy “Cavalry in Thousands”, the wholly headbangable “Warhorse”, and the amusing “Wasted”, all flawless odes to the Orient. Given the morin khuur’s scale of use on the recordings, it feels like it should have been a live instrument rather than just taped but the tovshuur is a treat to watch. There may only be a handful of metalheads but that doesn’t prevent them from indulging in a mosh pit, which seems more suitable for Tengger Cavalry’s warrior themes compared to other metal bands.

The low turnout doesn’t deter the headliners from putting on an emphatic heavy metal performance with Ganganbaigal being nothing short of courteous and appreciative for those who came out on a Monday night to glimpse their special take on the genre. When the band finishes, a thunderous ovation overtakes the Hard Luck Bar. There are innumerable metal bands that do nothing beyond cannibalizing the loud genre but Tengger Cavalry truly have something new to bring to the table and have proven time and time again through musical progression that they are far from a one trick pony.