I’m very fond of The Hu.
I heard about them first when Wolf Totem dropped in November 2018 and was immediately taken by this novel fusion of Mongolian folk music and crunching hard rock. The Hu are masters of rhythm, and their singles are often marked by distinctive rhythms, whether it is the patterned call and response of Wolf Totem, the cowboyish syncopation of Yuve Yuve Yue or the intense pulsing forward motion of The Great Chinggis Khaan, the Hu’s infusion of rock instrumentation into a sonic landscape dominated by throat singing, Morin Khuur and Tovshuur was a fresh and exciting change from what folk metal had offered before. Even other Mongolian metal bands like Tengger Cavalry and Nine Treasures hadn’t managed to hit quite that right note as they both leaned harder into the tropes of heavy metal and ended up becoming more a sort of international folk metal with a Mongolian flare.
But no, the Hu are something unique. They aren’t just folk metal only with horse stuff; there is a terroir to their work that could only come from the steppes. The fact that they allow the folk aspect of folk metal to be so predominant, and their deliberate and pervasive engagement with Mongolian metaphysics is how the Hu, rather than any of these other bands, managed to produce something as singular as Song of Women. Or as Sad But True.
But wait, you might say, Sad But True is a cover. It’s a Metallica song. It’s from the Black Album. Surely you’ve heard of it.
And yeah. But just have a listen:
I mean, yes, it’s the same song. But the changes to the arrangement are a precise example of the destruction of transformation. The trembling, tenuous and sharp screech of the three-stringed fiddle in the Hu’s arrangement draws out the intro. The first drum hit of the key motif of Sad But True is 22 seconds into the Metallica song. It’s 41 seconds into the Hu arrangement. The extra 18 seconds not only gives time to introduce the elemental symbology of the visual aspect of this work of art but also establishes an entirely different sonic palette. The Hu chant over the introductory riff, a simple, multi-voiced repetition: “Hu Hu-hu,” in counterpoint to the guitar. It adds additional layers to the rhythm of the section. The Hu arrangement is sharper, it has been shifted subtly to allow the inclusion of the delicate treble of the Mongolian strings and when they finally begin to sing in earnest, the Hu roar like lions.
Don’t get me wrong. James Hetfield does justice to the vocals here but he’s unable to hold a candle to the vocal force of these four powerful singers. Everything about the Hu arrangement is bigger, sharper and more open. It broadens out and refreshes a song that has become foundational to metal in a way that breaks apart the original and shows us something entirely new.
This also operates on the aspect of the visual presentation of the song. The lyrics are a translation close enough to almost constitute a gloss. But the Hu have created a video that takes this lyrical content along with the auditory motifs they introduce and weaves it into an abstract parable about reincarnation, karma and the eternal return.
In it our protagonist reincarnates into a garden and disregards the beauty around him in favour of gold. He is alone in the garden aside from the psychopomp but despite his solitude he systemically destroys the garden to draw gold out of the earth. Each reincarnation he views the garden with new eyes and finds joy or sorrow in it. Each death is marked by sorrow and the watchful eye of the psychopomp. The psychopomp allows the man to be tormented by demons (the band) in a state of Bardo before he is born again and again and again. In the final reincarnation of the song, the protagonist weeps at the desolation of the garden and discovers just one little shoot of green left. He devotes the rest of his life to caring for this sapling weeping his final breath beside it. The fate of the sapling is uncertain at the end of the song, it shivers as if it were an animal struggling in the cold. But we know what comes next – the man will reincarnate again and will destroy, or heal, again.
The Metallica video for Sad but True is concert footage.
The Hu end their video with a text message in English. It reads, “Like millions of people around the world , Metallica has been a huge inspiration for us as music fans and musicians. We admire their 40 years of relentless touring and the timeless, unique music they have created. It is a great honor to show them our respect and gratitude by recording a version of ‘Sad But True’ in our language and in the style of The Hu.” It is clear, brilliantly and evidently clear, that The Hu love Metallica and this song. They say as much.
This, then, gets to the heart of the idea of loving destruction. The Hu’s Sad But True is theirs. You cannot deny that it is derived from Metallica’s Sad But True but it is equally impossible to deny that it is a singular work of art. This singularity, this difference, is stark both in the song-as-a-song and in the song as a work of multimedia audio-visual art. So much, from tone, to vocal style, to instrumentation, to symbolism has been changed between Metallica’s work and this that there is hardly anything left. Despite Metallica being masters of rhythm (Lars Ulrich is undeniably a masterful drummer) The Hu take the familiar beats of Sad But True and make them new again. They draw out and open up the song in novel and appealing ways. The Hu infuse a sense of shamanic weight into what is otherwise a relatively shallow song about agency which happens to have an incredibly catchy hook. But here’s the thing: I’m walking a tenuous line between bashing Metallica and praising them not because it’s uncool to like Metallica but because I want to make the paradox here clear. The Hu can only destroy Sad But True as thoroughly as they do, they can only take ownership of this song as completely as they do, because they love it. And there is undeniably some cruelty in that love. To create Sad But True, the Hu must bring the song to Bardo. It is tormented by the vocal force of four unified singers, by the screech of the Morin Khuur and by the weight of the symbolism forced upon it in the video. It is reborn anew, a unique creation.