Call me closed-minded, but the musical category "folk metal" sort of struck me as a silly oxymoron. Then, on a recommendation from a friend, I listened to something from the Mongolian band Nine Treasures and I thought, this actually works.
I had a chance to meet with two members of the band at a bar in Beijing this past November. Askhan is the 26-year-old lead singer and guitar player. Orifung is 25 and plays bass. Both are soft-spoken Mongolians who went to college in Hohhot. Their parents are coming around to the idea that they want to play music for a living.
Askhan and Orifung told me they aren't the first band to try and blend Mongolian folk music with metal. But they might be the most successful.
Last year, Nine Treasures took second place at a huge, annual metal fest in northern Germany called Wacken Open Air.
The folk elements of the band's music mostly come from two instruments: the morin khuur, a traditional two-stringed Mongolian fiddle; and the balalaika, a triangular Russian folk instrument that sounds a bit like a mandolin and typically has three strings. With the proper mic, both acoustic instruments can cut right through the sound of metal guitars. And they give Nine Treasures a distinct sound.
"One hundred percent heavy metal is pretty boring," Askhan told me. So, instead of sticking with "destruction guitar" sounds and a purely heavy metal style of singing, Askhan said, "we have to make [our sound] a little bit softer."
Orifung and his bandmate both got their first exposure to heavy metal via bootleg tapes from America. Metallica and Guns N' Roses were early influences. But so were some of the Mongolian metal bands of the early 1990s. One was called "Khurd," which means speed in Mongolian.
Askhan said most of the band's lyrics are in their native Mongolian. "It's our mother language," he said. "No matter what language you sing, listeners will understand what your emotion is."
He might play the bass, but Orifung is also a trained opera singer. I asked him how that helps him as a metal musician. "I haven't figured that out yet," he admitted.
When I asked what they thought Genghis Khan would be listening to if he were alive today, Askhan and Orifung didn't want to boast. But they suggested that a certain folk metal band from Mongolia would be the obvious answer to that question.