I’ll admit it. When it comes to the metal and instrumental music I listen to, I often tend to gravitate towards the serious, complex, and more cerebral side of things without taking into serious consideration something as basic as whether it’s actually fun to listen to. Not that the music I like isn’t fun or enjoyable at all, but sometimes I take for granted that something can be heavy and well-executed without requiring many listens just to unlock its secrets. Occasionally I’ll hear a band or piece of music that reminds me of this though, that can just take me on a fun ride for a while without requiring too much mental processing power but that still has more than enough going on to keep my attention.
New York instrumental band The Hsu-nami are a perfect example of this. I’ve actually known about the group for quite some time as I used to work with the drummer at my first job in NYC (a job both of us quit at roughly the same time because it was the kind of place you put your time into as an entry-level person and got out as soon as you could find something better), but I’ve been waiting for them to release something new for years before writing about them. At their core, the band can be described as a fusion of American classic rock and 70s heavy progressive rock with Chinese traditional music. Founder Jack Hsu plays the erhu, a traditional Chinese two-stringed violin that has a very distinctive and expressive sound resembling the qualities of the human voice. Placed as the centerpiece of an otherwise conventional rock ensemble, Hsu not only utilizes the erhu as a lead melodic instrument replacing the conventional lead guitar, but he heavily incorporates the tonality and compositional traditions of music suited for the instrument into the group, creating a unique instrumental prog sound that is upbeat, fun, and surprisingly compelling.
Their first two albums, 2007’s Enter the Mandala and 2009’s The Four Noble Truths are fine examples of this fusion, if not a little rough around the edges, especially in the production department. Their latest effort, however, simply titled Hsu-nami, is a real tour-de-force of what the group is capable of. Though perhaps a little less heavy and reliant on modern instrumental metal sounds than their previous work, the music is far richer, polished, and emotionally resonant than anything they’ve done before. Somber pieces like “The Black Tortoise” and “Reincarnation” call to mind the more cutting string-laden work of post-rock tearjerkers Mono, as Hsu really leans into the emotional capabilities of the instrument with a compositional acuity uncommon to the kind of more straight-forward rock that the band and bands like them specialize in.
Most of the album demonstrates just that, though, as the band rip their way through all sorts of 70s-drenched prog riffs and grooves with knife-edge proficiency. When they go all out like on “Rise of the Vermillion Bird,” “Celestial Wolf,” and “Ride the Open Seas,” it’s just the kind of pure joy that reminds me a lot of the now-defunct Tennessee post-rock/metal Ocoai or the kind of classic guitar shred cheese that made Haken‘s Affinity one of the best albums released so far this year. Penultimate track “Dragon King of the North Sea” is a wonderful combination of both of these sides, starting as a slow-paced technical string burner before fading through all the various styles of prog, proto-metal, and more that the band pull off with aplomb. It’s a lengthy album at 65 minutes, but it all goes down very smoothly, making Hsu-nami a great record to throw on in the background or to blast at full volume.
As of now it appears that the album is only available for streaming through Spotify (or, if you’re one of the few like me, Google Music), though I’ve been told that it’s region-locked, so apologies to our non-US readers. You can stream their first two albums on their Bandcamp though, and you can follow them on Facebook.