Taoism originated in Chinese antiquity and spread across East and Southeast Asia over subsequent millennia, meshing with regional folk rituals, animistic beliefs, and artistic traditions. This type of cultural diffusion informs the aesthetic contours of Taiwanese duo Mong Tong 夢東, whose latest, Tao Fire 道火, continues a syncretic project of merging psychedelia and ambient electronics with a local, if mobile, set of referents from pan-Asian myth and folk tradition.
After a riff-heavy invocation on opening track “Mystery Death,” Tao Fire picks up Mong Tong’s median sound: patient yet exploratory, effervescent, and elegantly structured. It coheres like a film soundtrack, consistent with the band’s holistic approach to their craft: a careful assemblage of music, design, and a crypto-Taoist dress code of stark black and white and red.
The throughlines of Tao Fire are rudimentary percussion, ritual repetition, and an affinity for the timbres and tempos of Southeast Asian folk music. It weaves thudding gamelan rhythms, percussively strummed phin (a Thai/Lao lute), and street-level field recordings into otherwise mostly guitar- and synth-based compositions, to mesmeric effect.
One of the most energetic and representative tracks is “Areca,” where a bright guitar trills quick triplets over a cutting synth stab before making way for a syncopated, constantly panning frame drum beat. A groggy melody takes the lead, eventually giving way to gamelan bells and vintage psych guitar flourishes. Many of the sonic elements across Tao Fire have an underwater feel; key lead melodies or ambiguous vocal anchors, like the reverb-misted incantations on “Gold Earth,” are buried in the mix. Plastic, Casio-esque tones add a compelling retro touch to the sonic palette, as on “Mountain Pond,” where a fuzzy keyboard pounds out a layer of grit that balances the tranquil flute and clean pads that open the track.
The cumulative result is enchantment, that out-of-time feeling engendered by the best psychedelic music. If there’s one moment when the spell is broken, it’s on penultimate track “Ghost Island.” Extensively sampling recordings of Hanoi Hannah—a North Vietnam radio personality whose broadcasts were designed to demoralize American troops during the war—“Ghost Island” counters Mong Tong’s sonic cocoon with grim exhortations: “G.I., your government has betrayed you…Your rich leaders grow richer while you die in the swamp, G.I.”
The contrast is jarring, evoking a past proxy battle between imperialist powers to subtly hint at potential future conflict. But to assess Tao Fire through the frame of geopolitics would be foolish. Lexical ambiguity is baked into the project: Mong Tong’s name is a derivation of their childhood nicknames, signifying different things in Chinese, Cantonese, and Burmese. Fittingly, the album ends with an inchoate chorus of voices frothing together like sea foam on “Rain Maker,” fading out for a full minute of silence before a brief coda ends the journey as cryptically as it began.
Tao Fire is Mong Tong’s latest ticket to a sonic space that’s familiar yet otherworldly, a half-dreamt subtropical archipelago one senses they’re only beginning to map.