Bring together a dark ambient artist and an ethnomusicologist and give them an ancient Tibetan kingdom as their theme, and you get Zhang Zhung. This release offers two long tracks that cover an hour and twenty minutes, time spent deeply immersed in the sounds of ritual and the sense of the endless vista of the landscape. Gabbasov brings in a host of Tibetan instruments, from airy flutes to the wonderfully cacophonous silnyen (Tibetan cymbals). The ritual would not be complete without throat singing/chant, so you get that as well. The first track, “Bon Sacred Rituals,” carries more of the call-to-prayer aspect. Reminiscent, for me, of the work of Nawang Khechog, the track opens with plaintive cries over a rising drone backdrop from SIJ (Vladislav Sikach). The duo go on to paint a cold and windswept landscape where horns echo in the distance. Sikach’s drones are steady and just a little ominous; they shift and change but never give up that mildly off-putting feel. Gabbasov’s instruments move away just a bit, then ease back in like we’re traveling from one temple to the next across marginally inhabitable lands. At the end, the chant returns to drop us into reverence and meditation. I have always loved this sound, the throaty croak and eerie one-voice harmony, and this section of the track pulls me right in. “Tengri” takes its name from the sky-god of the Bon religion, and as such feels a wider and more open than its predecessor. It’s no less dark at the outset, with Sikach pulling grating, scraping drones out of his gear. Flutes enter carefully, like light pushing tentatively through storm clouds and assume the lead for a long, very meditative stretch. Sikach’s sounds become like the hum of abandoned machinery. This track is an album unto itself at 43 minutes in length, with its own fully realized dynamic flow. The duo move in and out of passages where the tone and intensity change, and there’s no need to rush on into the next phase. Every step of the way has time to flesh out, and the change between sections is seamless and organic. When new elements come in to offer a fresh direction, the do so quietly and without a bump. This is true of both tracks, and it’s a beautiful thing to listen to. There are also great stretches where the flute winds its way through a wash of sounds that have an edge of dissonance to them. It’s that sound that seems just off to Western ears, but which is such a hallmark of much Eastern music. The flute seems assuring in the “normalcy” of its tone when compared to the jangling, tinny tone–a term I am using in a good way–of the background sounds.
Zhang Zhung is a beautiful album, but it takes an open ear to appreciate it. It is meditative, but perhaps only if your meditative practices embrace the dark places as well as the light. The drone work is definitely hypnotic, and the ritual elements do exactly what they should and bring us toward a state of spiritual rapture–again, if your mind is tuned that way. This release has a lot of elements that I personally love, from the chants to the flute to, yes, even those clattering cymbals. I love the ritual beauty of them, and I love their role in the overall tone of Zhang Zhung. Mileage will vary on how listeners feel about this work, but it has taken this listener deep within himself several times over. Carve out some time and let this one happen.