Tang Dynasty - Thorn (2013)
Reviewed by Sebastian Kluth
Imagine if the most popular metal band in the most populous country in the world decided to throw most of its trademarks overboard and deliver an surprisingly modern, technical, and highly experimental record somewhere between aggressive and critical Dream Theater-styled progressive metal, the prog rock tendencies of Pink Floyd, and odd sound collages hearkening to Amon Düül or Tangerine Dream. Cool story, bro! Well, this story is a fact. Welcome to the new world of Tang Dynasty, which has finally released its fourth album in twenty-five years.
When I first listened to the surprisingly aggressive title song “Thorn”, with its bumblebee bass guitar parts, cold and technical riffs, weird breakdowns, unusually low and chaotically overlapping vocal tracks, and nerve-firing guitar solos supported by a weird video criticizing the horrors of the Iraq War and other contemporary conflicts, I didn’t believe my ears (In fact, I was sure that it was a weird prank or a mislabeled video). This song didn’t have anything to do with Tang Dynasty’s epic folk metal hymns, or much of anything at all to do with prior albums. With an open-minded attitude, a lot of patience, and multiple spins, I really started to find a connection to the chaotic, uneasy, and unorthodox opener. Today, it’s a song I often listen to and which I find fascinating. When I finally listened to the entire album, I was puzzled to realize that this song is among those that are easier to digest on this courageous record, wherein the four musicians are radically trying out new things.
The most stunning passages of the record can be found in its middle. “Water Lilies” is a chaotic, overlong, and unpredictable instrumental track with strange atmospheric breaks and an uneasy atmosphere that drags on for more than eight minutes. “Elephants Do Not Complain” is as strange as its title might suggest. The limited main riff reminds me of Survivor’s “Eye Of The Tiger”, while the unexpected floating, puzzling, and slow middle part recalls elements from the band’s own classic “The Sun”. This track is completely unpredictable and inaccessible from its menacing beginning to the aborted ending.
What then follows is another bizarre move as the band comes around with a weird acoustic folk song called “Plum Gift”, which feels like an uneasy breakdown during a drug trip on opium. Despite its calmer tones, the melodic clean vocals, and the dominating flute sounds, the track doesn’t feel calming at all, but rather disturbing and even scary to me. It’s hard to explain, but this atmospheric piece of music must be among the strangest things I have ever heard in my life, and I can’t even tell you if that’s rather positive or rather negative.
The quartet of oddness is completed by a weird collection of city-versus-nature sounds mixed with a few acoustic guitar tones that drag on for over five minutes. The whole thing is entitled “Purple Leaf”. This kind of song would fit on the most dystopian of records by King Crimson or Voivod. The song is pure uneasiness, but it’s oddly brilliant in its radical execution.
Apart from one or two exceptions, (like the almost conciliatory album closer), this perfectly entitled record is a radical change for Tang Dynasty, and tries out many new elements in a way that I find very admirable. The album includes the band’s most aggressive song, as well as their calmest track ever; it includes their shortest and their longest instrumental songs; it includes completely folk-driven and unusual instrumentals as well as modern and technical metal; and it includes some very melodic passages balanced with chaotic, low, and noisy vocals and instrumental parts. The record is filled with an overdose of strange ideas and pitiless experiments, but lacks catchy hooks or truly magic moments. A lot of veteran fans will feel irritated about this record, while a select few might hail the band’s progression. I guess that most people might just feel as confused as I am right now. In a weird way, I think that I ultimately like this record. This very unique piece of art is a grower, and I know that it will take some patience and time until this album will ultimately unfold for me.
This is definitely the weirdest record I have heard for quite a while. I would call it by far the strangest and probably the most interesting record of the year. I hate to say this because it sounds slightly arrogant, but this album truly is for very open-minded people only. If you don’t know Tang Dynasty yet, you have really missed out on something special, but you shouldn’t start with this album to get to know them at all. Discover them chronologically and you might understand my mixed feelings about Thorn.
On a closing note, I know how hard it is to get your hands on this record in the Western world and that’s why I might suggest you a link to a site where you can try out the songs of this record.