Perhaps updating the Chinese alternative music manifesto on a five-year plan is both appropriate and sustainable. Since the first version was written after my stint in the Peace Corps, there is little to report other than stumbling upon a rock bar in Shanghai, near the Chinese tobacco museum and attending the U.S. debut of Carsick Cars (punk), Xiao He (experimental), and another rock group in a trendy DUMBO bookstore in NYC. The collection has grown, however, and it’s ready to be reviewed more thoroughly before iTunes and eMusic catch up. Better yet, the meteoric rise in Youtube uploading means that there is a reasonable chance of finding at least one song from most of these artists online. After a radio show on KUCI last “winter” playing Chinese and Japanese alternative music from 4-6am (prime time in Asia!), “The Diaoyu-Senkaku Alternative” (for peace in the Pacific), clearly I’m the most qualified person in the country to be updating the manifesto.

Modern Sky continues to be the most reliable label for innovative Chinese music. Much of their output in recent years has latched on to the surge in dance rock in the West, with bands like Casino Demon leading the way. Two bands which shamelessly imitate the off-kilter vocal stylings and angular sound of Pere Ubu to varying degrees of success are the Brian Eno-produced Re-Tros (4.5, heavily hyped on for reasons unknown to me) and Shanghai’s P.K.14. My personal favorite find has been Rebuilding the Rights of Statues 重塑雕像的权利(2016 edit...was not aware at the time that they are the same as Re-Tros as the acronym...the two albums seem lightyears apart to me!), a dancey mix of post-rock which would not feel out of place in hipster circles in the West (9, I don‘t remember if they‘re actually on Modern Sky, though). Hedgehog is another notable entry in this vein, and their occasional female vocalist can be either soothing or incendiary, not unlike the front woman of Queen Sea Big Shark. While calling Wednesday’s Trip (星期三旅行)a trip hop band would be a stretch, many of their songs on “Secret Mission” (6) evoke a starry sky, and the female vocalist does a surprisingly good job of matching English lyrics to the music. A-Z 组合’s album “然后“ has the enviable and elusive distinction among the female-fronted groups of being both eclectic (accordions, instrumentals, etc.!) and listenable all the way through (6.5). Another one that’s easy on the ears is Super VC, with a lot of happy tunes with actual potential to be appreciated by the pop-preferring masses (6). Although I haven’t yet bought the new album from New Pants (it’s a double-disc which stores all seem to mark up), one of its videos does an amusing tribute to Bruce Lee’s “Game of Death”, and we all know from LMF that this is every Chinese musician’s best route to fame and fortune.

While Modern Sky’s folk artists may be less exciting, they’re also a fair measure more listenable for those who can’t handle any abrasive noise at all. Kidney (腰)takes a unique fusion approach with a wild flautist (6.5). He Li (何力), Hong Qi (洪启), and Zhou Yunpeng (周云蓬) all have rather more traditional crooners, and their sparse instrumentation lends itself to artful longing which usually avoids the sappiness of avowedly “sad” Chinese songs.

I’m admittedly late to the game for a lot of hard rock, still probably the most popular form for young Chinese rockers to feel the power. Iron Kite (铁风筝) and Sand (沙子) both take a straightforward approach, about as heavy as Modern Sky bands get. Another Badhead entry from Sound Fragment (声音碎片) unfortunately reminds me of Dili’s disappointing “Delirium” album for being rather uncompelling (both a 5).

Thin Man’s 2008 album “The Seventh Day” is more straightforward, less experimental, than “Beijing Dream”, but somehow also more bombastic (5.5).

Finally happened upon a Dou Wei (窦唯) cd in a NYC dollar bin, and I’m sorry to say he’s burdened by rather primitive keyboards, though somehow appropriate to a sound which may aspire to hair metal awesomeness. Ditto for Peace fling (腾乐队), whose album 侯强 (Hou Qiang) somehow manages to sound both under- and overproduced (3.5). Among the Chinese metal albums I’ve heard recently, the only one I can imagine listening to in its entirety is Sick Pupa’s “Release Me (放开我)”, as it at least mixes things up a bit in between all the rocking (6).

While on the topic of metal, it’s worthwhile to step out of China for a moment to mention a few bands which will almost certainly never be treated as representatives of their own countries’ musical palette. From Mongolia, the German-produced Haranga is both extremely cheesy and awesome for its combination of wild guitar solos and old keyboards. From Burma, The Ants have a few good harder songs in addition to the uniquely Asian problem of having to make some really sappy pop music to sell any albums. Ditto for Emperor, though they didn‘t have a really outstanding song like The Ants to offset the cheese. Also, an actual Burmese death metal band, Subjugate, is certainly loud enough, but a bit too formulaic to reach the heights of, say, Yaksa. Any shortcomings of these entries can certainly be overlooked for rocking in an even harder place than the PRC.

I’ve heard a few other Chinese rock bands on other labels in the past few years. From the venerable Jing Wen (京文) label, a rather dark rock album by The Swamp (沼泽)called “Falling into the Humid Haze” has really grown on me(7) , easily among my top 10 favorite Chinese artists. An art rock band to watch for, on the Maybe Mars (兵马司) label out of Beijing, Snapline’s 2007 album “Party Is Over, Pornostar” is a fairly tight mix of synths and guitars definitely aiming for the cool crowd (5.5). Lonely China Day (寂寞夏日) has a mixed rock and electronic sound (5.5), like a much mellower, morose, and meandering 张震岳. Another artist on either a Beijing or Tianjin label, Gu Su (谷僳) resembles the Taiwanese A-Yue for being a stylistic chameleon on his (5.5) appropriately titled “Who Am I (我是谁)” album. 麦田守望者 (Maitian Shouwang Zhe) plays pleasant rock music, sometimes with awkward English lyrics (5). Wang Wei (王威)doesn’t sing so much as growl with a gravelly, low voice, and he should probably stick to Chinese, as his fairly simple song structures make bad English lyrics very painful (4).

I’ve unfortunately little to report from the world of Chinese hip-hop, except to say that tickets to Jay Chou’s show in LA were far too expensive. I’m skeptical whether any distinction between rap and pop music is tenable. LMF has apparently reformed for a few new songs, but I haven’t followed closely enough to know if an album is forthcoming. Pu Tao (葡桃)‘s album of “un hip-hop” is fast but fairly grating; hard rock elements don’t make it any easier to listen to (4.5). Probably my favorite hip-hop discovery in the past few years has been FAMA, another Cantonese crew whose style on their 2002 album could be described as a lighter LMF, though their rallying cry of “one Asia“ seems dubious (6.5). It’s possible I’m just biased against any hip-hop I have any hope of understanding.

Somewhat more in the electronic vein, Yu Fei Men (与非门)have gone a long way to satisfy my unrequited need for synth rock with a female vocalist (still haven’t been able to track down Editec). Finally, I actually bought Supermarket’s album “Concert” on iTunes, and it’s a lot less experimental than the previous three (6.5).

No manifesto is complete without a call to action. To fight the advancing forces of syrupy Cantopop and histrionic drinking songs about lost love, with which all of these bands are locked in woefully futile competition for airplay, spread their sound, and do try to support the artists as much as possible. Flying to the PRC to buy a cd may still be the only way to procure some of these titles, and this combined with the difficulty of finding them even once you’re there makes this cause a fight against time, indifference, censorship, and even media itself. Beijing’s 音像商店 (audio-visual stores) are a shrinking shadow of their former selves, and I’m not optimistic that internet technology will improve these bands’ distribution and promotional prospects. Even if these tunes don’t loop in your iPod on a daily basis, the sounds and ideas which their creators stand for is worth the challenge!

Julian Lee
U of CA, Irvine
Summer 2011

Modified genres 2016: Pop Rock, Experimental, Synth Rock, Folk/Singer-Songwriters, Hard Rock/Metal, Punk & Garage Rock, Hip-Hop, Electronic

Another 2016 edit is to give a numerical RATING for all albums I mention, from 1-10, usually in parentheses near the album description. While part of me wants to cut Chinese artists some slack b/c it's especially hard to make one's living as a band/musician in the PRC's alternative music industry, that'd require even more explanation, and I'm sure your textual tolerance is already stretched thin!

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