Hello, another covers album of old rock songs. Hang on though. Khöömei singing? That’s throat-singing, as practised in the mountainous lands of Tuva, Siberia and Mongolia. Chances are, if you’ve heard this musical form, then you’ve heard Albert Kuvezin, late of Huun-Huur-Tu and now of Yat-Kha. And you can probably still vividly recall the vibrations in your feet and stomach.
If you’re oblivious – well, throat-singing involves holding long bass notes in your mouth while supplying harmony through the nose. The human voice has surely never been recorded in a lower frequency without the aid of studio gadgetry. It really is like nothing you’ve ever heard. This music is so far out there, it feels like there’s no way back.
Albert Kuvezin was part of a generation that – to the dismay of the Tuvan Communist Party – sought out Western rock’n’roll records from Moscow (three days’ travelling from the Russian capital – and that’s before you go anyplace else – you could say Tuva is a pretty remote place). Several international tours later, Yat-Kha revisit those songs that first inspired them. Joy Division, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, Kraftwerk, Hank Williams and Motörhead, to name a few. It’s an eclectic selection, delivered in spare arrangements using stringed instruments like the igil and the morinhuur (a Mongolian harp), with rhythms that are beautifully spare and uncluttered.
Musicians have been delving into ‘alien’ territory for years – everyone from The Bad Livers and Hayseed Dixie to Alexander Balanescu and Laibach, they’ve all had a go at knocking round pegs into square holes, tongues planted varying degrees into cheek. There’s no question that Yat-Kha’s intentions are entirely genuine, but how far exactly can you take this thing?
Well, admittedly not everything sticks. Hearing Love Will Tear Us Apart – a song that’s already been mangled and abused by all manner of tin-eared clods – shorn of its original dynamic and delivered in a bear-like growling monotone, rather destabilises its emotional core. It’s merely a weird thing to behold. On the other hand, Led Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks (a track from a band never shy of looking East for a few ideas) reveals the universal pull of blues, and makes perfect sense.
A remarkably faithful rendering of a Rolling Stones B-side elevates the lyric to places it never imagined: “So don’t play with me, ‘cos you’re playing with fire”. Brrrrrr…you’d better believe it. Hop it, Mick. Even better is the percussive and positively funky take on Captain Beefheart‘s Her Eyes are a Blue Million Miles, complete with Sailyk Ommun’s wonderfully contrasting female backing vocals. In an imaginary world without Crazy Frogs, this could be number one.
This is an extraordinary record, in a time of so many mundane and unimaginative re-hashings. If you’re looking for something ‘different’ (the word seems somehow inadequate), then buy this now. And then get Huun-Huur-Tu’s 1996 collaboration with the Bulgarian Voices, Fly, Fly My Sadness, and try standing upright. You’ll believe there’s magic in those mountains.