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TENGGER - Spiritual 2 Music Album Reviews

The Seoul duo taps into devotional music’s focused intensity in trance-inducing pieces that draw on new age, krautrock, and folk.

A fascination with devotional sound-making is at the heart of TENGGER’s music. In a list of inspirations for their new album, Spiritual 2, the South Korea-based duo of itta (harmonium and voice) and Marqido (analog synth) includes a video of Zen master Shunryu Suzuki speaking about sound in Zen practice, as well as recordings of medieval organ music and shamanistic rites. Their Minishiko cassette collects sounds from a pilgrimage to the Japanese island of Shikoku, layering the ambience of 88 Buddhist temples. What joins all of these things is sound’s ability to point the mind toward the unseen—to express what lies beyond the reach of everyday human perception.

The duo’s music, largely indebted to new age, krautrock, and various strains of Asian folk, is built around immersive drones and trance-inducing repetition. These are characteristics common throughout many different devotional styles, from Hindustani classical music’s use of tamboura to the ecstatic call and response of gospel. Though synthesizer is their primary tool, there is a naturalistic feel to the pieces on Spiritual 2, which unfold slowly and deliberately. Even when the tempo is fast, as on opener “High,” which is underpinned by an incessant motorik beat, elements enter and recede at a defiantly gradual pace.

Spiritual 2 is best at its most nebulous, when the music focuses predominantly on texture and immersion. “Kyrie,” named for a Popul Vuh song, from Hossiana Mantra, that features Korean singer Djong Yun, is a remarkable slow build, with gossamer, high-pitched synthesizer pads cyclically ceding to waves of bass-heavy harmonium. Each successive crescendo becomes more harmonically complex, tones stacking incrementally, joined in the final swells by itta’s wordless intonations. The album’s centerpiece, the 16-minute “Wasserwellen” (or “Water Wave”), has a similar structure of recession and expansion, with overlapping drones building almost imperceptibly to an arpeggiated crescendo that slowly decays throughout the last half of the piece.

TENGGER's evocation of ecstatic states is less effective when they draw more explicitly from krautrock's rhythmic template. The repetitive motorik beat is inherently minimalistic, but it can become tedious. “High” and “Ajari” feature virtually identical drum-machine patterns and bouncing synth lines that share more than a passing resemblance. In Shunryu Suzuki’s seminal text Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (which itta and Marqido reference as an influence and guide), he describes repetition as the basis of enlightenment: “Actual practice is repeating over and over again until you become bread.” But here repetition feels less like the path to enlightenment and more like a lack of substantive development beyond a few basic musical building blocks.

There is a renaissance happening in the wider Asian psychedelic music scene right now, building on the legacies of bands like Les Rallizes Denudes, Ghost, and Far East Family band, with labels like Guruguru Brain, which released TENGGER’s 2017 album Segye, leading the charge. TENGGER have the potential to be a major force here: Their music is conceptually rich and frequently rewarding, and on Spiritual 2 they come close to fully integrating the lessons from the devotional styles they admire. The further they drift towards formlessness, the more effective they become.

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