Manifesto #4: 四 A Great Dying of Live Venues & CD Stores? 死

Roughly in order: Pop Rock, Folk/Singer-Songwriters, Hard Rock/Metal, Punk & Garage Rock, Hip-Hop, Electronic

As my new Chinese music links page amply points out, globalization has served alternative Chinese music fairly well, but it seems like most of it exists in a kind of artistic/commercial limbo of native and foreign appeal. Is anyone besides Hanggai really doing well? Is it accurate to speak of a “scene” in Beijing and Shanghai today? Unfortunate for my ears but thankful for my lungs, I must find time to write these lengthy entries from afar, only able to visit Beijing but once or twice a year for no more than a couple weeks at a time. If there's a philanthropist out there who'd like to give me about $10,000, I'd be a pig in mud and dedicate a full year to write a book reviewing every last piece of (alternative) Chinese music I could get my paws on in great detail (in the vein of SPIN's Alternative Music Guide), but until then...

Being in China for the 2015-2016 academic year has provided ample opportunity to dig deeply into the alternative music catalogs, but it’s clear that all is not well. Album prices regularly top out at 100 yuan or more, which is great if it reaches the artists, but I must assume that some of it comes from greater financial pressure on cd stores in China.

Since the advent of the mp3, file-sharing, and streaming, cd stores worldwide face a precarious existence. In China the pressure is likely to be especially great because stores which carry a selection of alternative music at all are likely to be located almost exclusively in Beijing and provincial capitals, where rents are rising to prohibitively high levels. Losing Beijing’s MAO Livehouse in Nanluo Guxiang is a sign that all independent sources of art and culture are under a shared financial threat that could well become political again. For my purposes, this means that the three cd stores in that neighborhood need continuing or increased support in order to survive the coming years. The proprietor of Free Sound near the PingAn Li subway station claims that Beijing as a whole now has fewer than 10 stores still selling this kind of music.

Elenore's psychedelia was playing at MAO Livehouse when I bought their album (6); unfortunately my train out of town was the same night, and I didn't want to risk missing it. Settled for the album instead of the concert, and it was probably the right choice for me. I have no particular fondness for classic rock, and the tracks that aren't way “out there” make up the majority of the album. English lyrics are not offensively simple, but they're not exactly poetry either. The band clearly aspires to cross over and attract Western fans while building a Chinese following at home, and I'm not sure the music is quite transcendental enough to do that. It's moving, rocking, loud but not hard. Not being an expert in psychedelic rock, I'm not confident in name-dropping comparable bands. Definitely more guitar-based than The Beatles, sharing some similarities with the Dandy Warhols, and the organs/keyboards are not quite up to Western standards (it could be the mix doesn't emphasize them so much). Fuzzed-out distortion digression sessions share space with garagier and acoustic tunes for variety, but what the album is missing is a definitive, longform statement that establishes them firmly in the camp of psychedelia. These are almost all three or four minute songs, hardly enough time to tune in and trip out to any particular one. Where's the spaced-out 10-minute coda? I can't be the only one asking. But there is definitely a wall of sound sufficient enough to fill a room and a listener's mind. They had another show in summer of 2016 after my summer camp in Beijing, but I failed to find the venue on my rented bike; returning with a smartphone in fall '16 is definitely on the to-do list.

The Swamp commemorates the original 20th-century Chinese revolution on “1911” with lengthy post-rock led not by a guitar but a gu qin (6.5). I've remarked before that I love 沼泽 and am a huge fan of post-rock, but I kinda wish they'd stick to alt-rock because there isn't enough of it being made at their caliber. Clearly they didn't hear my pleas and instead released “远”and “变形记 [The Metamorphosis],” the former being post-rock (6.5) and the second (7.5) a mainly electronic collection of remixes by “friends” of the band, as a Free Sound employee and the packaging explained repeatedly. The proper Western band to compare “The Metamorphosis” to is, with some hyperbole, Massive Attack. It's full of dark, brooding moments and chord progressions which make the uplifting moments all the more stark in contrast. Also like Massive Attack, a variety of vocalists are employed, with the perfectly capable lead vocalist for The Swamp holding court over slightly more than the others. Given that The Swamp is a rock or, lately, post-rock band, it's immensely surprising that they (or their largely no-name remixers) had it in them to come out with one of China's best trip-hop records to date.

It was probably inevitable that my preference for independent, alternative music would come to cusp in China with the fact that syrupy pop music can also be independently produced. I never would have guessed that the band to force the issue would be 坡上村, one of my favorites of recent years. The opening track on 孙老师与失恋的故事 (5.5) is virtually indistinguishable from the slow-paced, cheesy Chinese quasi-R&B that convenience store clerks and trains around the country seem to prefer—while the elements of love and the vocal tunefulness were never absent, I hadn’t imagined they could abandon rock and roll so completely. Thankfully, the rock returns softly and in symphony on the following tracks, though following unfortunate trends like fast-singing (a la Barenaked Ladies) and a cheesy feeling that never completely subsides. This is poppy, upbeat music, to be sure, but I perhaps nostalgically remember the last album holding pop conventions at a distance rather than embracing them. The songs show a great deal of craft, and it’s still easy to feel uplifted by all the melodious pomp, but I feel strangely guilty about listening to a whole album that sells out so frequently and completely. The hooks aren’t tight enough to be a Chinese Jack Johnson, and there’s thankfully more instrumentation involved, but one gets the feeling that by approaching pop songs from various styles, triangulating that guy might be just what they’re now striving for. I’ve got no problem with reaching, but if they just became another pop act looping in a Chinese youth hostel, it’d be a pyrrhic victory for them, IMO.

自然卷Ziran Juan’s album 破卷而出 blends an unusual number of acoustic and electric or traditional rock instruments in poppy songs that have just the right amount of polish and production. The lead vocalist sings in a high register that doesn’t reach quite reach falsetto range and is often backed up by a subtlely blended female voice. Many songs twinkle and shine, and even without understanding (all) the lyrics the listener can glean a certain sense of humor carried over from the colorful album artwork. At times they resemble Belle & Sebastian, and they never really pursue a harder edge, despite plenty of drums and electric guitars (6.5).

The self-entitled debut of LITTLE WIZARD came recommended for fans of Modest Mouse and math rock, but their sound on the album must emphatically be said to be in the instrumental vein (6.5). While much Chinese alternative music gets by distinguishing itself with competent if not virtuoso instrumentation paired with strong Chinese elements (either lyrics or traditional instruments), this album has nothing of the sort and survives instead on the strength of its guitar work, rhythm and song structures. And let’s be clear: the fact of not having a singer does not automatically assign this music to post-rock. Several of these tunes could just as easily have lyrics, but the clear point is that they don’t NEED them and might lose more than would be gained. Immediate comparison to Western instrumental, guitar-based music lends itself easily. Darediablo, The Mercury Program, Instrumental Quarter, and Pele are the first that come to mind, and Little Wizard’s best songs compare favorably with each. Unfortunately, the already brief album is not quite consistent from start to finish. There’s nothing offensive or (worse and more likely for instrumental groups) boring here that prevents playing the whole album, but some tracks are definitely more interesting than others. Overall, their existence is a strongly positive development in Chinese rock, showing that the PRC is firstly hearing newer and more obscure kinds of rock but also able to make and hold its own.

衣湿乐队The Wet Clothes' “The Genie Dictionary” album (6.5) looks and sounds like it was recorded well before what iTunes says, 2014. It's rock music full of dramatic vocals, vocal harmonizing, and prominent use of traditional flutes, strings, and percussion in the vein of acts like Su Yang. They don't rock as hard as Buyi or have as obvious a reliance on tradition as Hanggai, and I don't find them quite as interesting or varied as Shanren. Clearly, their path of minyao is well-traveled. Songs early on in the album in which all members don't all sing “heeeeeeey” at some point are in the minority, but every minyao band needs to have dozens of different ways to do so. Titles like “Gang Fight” and “Urban Management Officers” match some unusual tunes highlighting different Chinese cultural specialties and make me wish I could understand the lyrics (I suppose I could probably try reading them). Certainly, few Western singer-songwriters would pen a solo acoustic guitar number called “The Law of Pig Head” with as much emotion as the lead singer musters here. Playfully throwing in some bluesy Mozart and many variations of “The Answer Is Blowing in the Wind” near the end shows their breadth without detracting from the depth of everything preceding. The Wet Clothes' knack for crafting compelling songs earns them a right to stake out what the subgenre can do, but they are less interested in veering in new directions than making straightforwardly epic, mood pieces. And that's perfectly fine! The world still does not have nearly enough bands which can blend old and new China with rock & roll; no, the problem is that the world does not appreciate the growing number in existence. Which band will be the one to really break through this bamboo ceiling and become so globally popular as to make most of the world think they invented the sound themselves? It probably won't be The Wet Clothes, but again, such a goal is of dubious merit, ignoring as it would so many unique tunes as theirs.

Six years is an eternity between Smart Kin漂亮親戚 releasing “隱藏的合諧” in 2004 to 2010's “Hello!漂亮親戚”. I'd venture to say that the average band doesn't last half as long in China or anywhere. Have the years treated them well? Has the lead singer's English markedly improved? Let's not overthink this. Smart Kin's second release is just as twinkling, sunny and probably more consistent, and there's even a couple of songs in Chinese this time. The singer's voice and themes will probably still be too cheesy for Western listeners (see “Litte Happiness”), but it's all quite pleasant and harmless (6). Even a “dark” song like “Die in Peace” comes off as candy-like.

布衣乐队 unfortunately seems to be running out of ideas on its expensive but plodding 2013 album “出发”(5) heading to a destination somewhere between (and below) Tom Petty, Collective Soul, and The War on Drugs. The songs are straightforward, samey, and without the same cultural flair as previous outings. It's almost as if their music is on an opposite trajectory of 痛仰, heading toward generic hard rock rather than away from it. On many tracks here, as on the opener, the band is content to sing “Oooooh” in succession, add a hard guitar riff, then call it a night and go drinking. On others, the vocalist yells hoarsely over yet another rousing but somewhat unearned chorus, and I miss the songs when that voice would semi-croon over softer, acoustic instruments. Overall, both the lyrics and instrumentation seem more repetitive, and I struggle to listen to the whole album. A duet with a female vocalist on “彩虹”offers only brief relief from the hard guitars while piling on the repetition. One gets the feeling that any one of these could have closed out the album with an anthemic chorus that might also go well at the end or encore of a live set. But stacking nearly every song the same way makes for an exhausting listening experience. I recommend sticking with “Buyi” and “Autumn” and leaving the guitar, bass, drum combos to metal bands whose vocalists can scream in falsetto without coughing up a loogie. Perhaps if one plays in bars long enough, one becomes a bar band. I can easily imagine a bar full of patrons swaying in approval to this set played live, but outside of that arena or a long Chinese roadtrip, I doubt I'll ever listen to this album again.

NanWu 南无 have released something every few years or so, and I couldn't be more pleased. 2012's “I Am Your King Kong 我是你的大猩猩”is a fine EP which solidifies them as one of my favorite Chinese rock bands (7). Leave it to them to find new ways to sing “La la la” on every album, as on the catchy first track of precisely that name. Those looking for connections between them and Second-Hand Roses should note their similar vocal inflections but unfortunately can also point to breaking out into “We will, we will ROCK YOU!” seemingly at random. The swirly synth on “I Don't Know” also somehow manages to sound like one of those gourd flutes. These guys are great! Another EP from 2009, 南无文艺宣传队儿 , is very brief and separate apparently for its quieter, more acoustic bent, though that doesn't explain why these two tracks are paired and called an EP (6).

Unfortunately, I didn't hear 2015's 春来了 from南无 until July, because it perfectly captures the rapture of spring's arrival after a year in the frigid Northeast. The album also achieves something well nigh impossible in being at once harder, louder, and flutier without the flutes getting shrill, gimmicky, or annoying (7.5). Quite frankly, when the singer waxes poetic about spring on the title track, this is not something you'll hear any other rock band do, whether Chinese or not. His delivery is truly remarkable on the whole album, in fact, mixing fast-past semi-skatting with soaring, warbling “heeeeeeys” and “wooooooos” only metal and pop vocalists are supposed to get away with. On another track, he's unsatisfied with the speed of his recital and calls for a second take, while on yet another he playfully chides his bandmates for not harmonizing with him at the end of a song. Whether this is all an act or not, the world needs more playful groups like Nanwu to liven up a dreary world!

It's not at all clear how Proximity Butterfly(變色蝴蝶) and its album “The Antikythera Mechanism” (one among others I'm unlikely to spring for) is Chinese or related to Chinese. The band members and lyrics are not Chinese, as near as I can tell. The style of music could be described as something like middling prog rock (5). If I find out they're just one of an increasing number of Western groups masquerading on a Chinese label, I'll remove this entry.

After seeing 二手玫瑰 Second-Hand Roses live, I get the hype. They are great performers, and the lead singer's get-up—a shirt made of tiny mirrors and apparently no pants—was unforgettable. Their outdoor set was worth the price of admission alone. Their 2013 studio product “一枝独秀”solidifies their status to be only classifiable as celebratory Chinese rock & roll (9). Not metal, not soft rock, not alt-rock. Just let them be, and the listener is bound to be impressed by the variety and range of their songs, instruments, and voices. They're clever, wild, goofy, and lots of fun. They will make you shake it. They are at once unmistakably, inimitably Chinese and so far out there that most people's stereotypes of “communist China” will lead listeners to question whether a band like them can even exist in the PRC. Each track on the album will speak to you differently, and if you're not square, you'll dig. Nevermind if you understand no Chinese words or find the affected whine of the vocalist odd and against your preconceptions of tonality. Theirs is a universal language of gettin' down! (And they can be slow-paced and sentimental, as at the end of the album, but generally no song here stays slow for long.)

gave the world a worthwhile work of folk-tinged rock in 2012's “清波街上空的幽灵”, but don't expect the crowd-pleasing style of 洪启. Though with similar instrumentation, this is deeper, brooding stuff for a world that beats us down. That's not to say these are all downers, by any means, but the vocalist is generally sober even when harmonizing. Don't let the greater use of electric guitars scare you; this is still folksier than not, excepting a nod to The Residents on “荒谬的规则”and the dreamy/spacey final track. If the vocalist and the songs in general are not extraordinarily distinctive, I'll still say this is much preferred for its listenability from start to finish over padded albums carried by a pandering, radio-ready single or two (6.5).

冷酷仙境 Cold Fairyland's album 地上的種子 works best when the impressive pipa playing is in conversation with the drums and strings alone. As a singer, the bandleaders still seems to be toeing the waters, unsure if she really wants to make a pop song for people to sing along to or to venture into artistic experimentation. The songs with lyrics kinda sound like she just decided to say/sing some stuff over the music. Undoubtedly a fine live act capable of jamming on stage, this studio effort feels a little adrift in terms of when a song ends and another one begins. Maybe I just don't understand how they craft their songs, but when all the musicians glance at each other knowingly to signal a particular song has run its course, it doesn't translate to an album as well. “Why stop?” is a question I ask myself while listening to this album, entirely composed of 3-5 minute compositions except for the rather meandering closer whose vocals epitomize my earlier critique. What I'm saying, I guess, is that “jam bands” with the musical chops Cold Fairyland clearly have tend to have at least one longer song where they “let it all hang out”--or maybe that's the whole approach to recording an album, to find a groove and ride it as long as it's interesting. These clearly aren't pop songs, even with singing, so cutting them off at 3-4 minutes doesn't seem to give them full space to develop into much. All these things said, their music is still highly unique, quintessentially Chinese, and well worth your time (6.5).

Thumb Girl 拇指姑娘 is cheerily twee and all folksy whimsy on “诞生了 EP” . Not all of it is very interesting, but they're not necessarily trying to change the world with their comic book-music pairings (5.5).

赵牧阳Zhao Muyang’s 回家Hui Jia album was recommended as a favorite of Free Sound’s Beijing owner, and it is the best single example I’ve found of the folk sounds of the Northwest. I don’t remember if the artist—and it seems just to be one man with a traditional stringed instrument—is from Gansu or Ningxia, but while the themes often mix contemporary lyrics, the sound is unadulterated frontier Chinese antiquity. Matching the sparseness of the dry Northwest in his raspy, stark, but highly expressive voice, Zhao evokes a time and place that may be disappearing with both modernity and desertification. If you want to be as authentic as possible, put this album on while you eat your Lanzhou beef noodles (8.5).

Are you ready for boisterous Chinese mouth harps? 戏班Xi Ban’s “就是這個調調” is more than ready to supply you with them in abundance. The real surprise is that an entire album’s worth of them doesn’t get the least bit grating, instead being the ultimate authority that you’re listening to something truly unique. Vocal stylings and instrumentation are supremely Chinese, right down to the blending of their extended twang. One could call this folk music because the instruments all appear to be acoustic, but rare indeed are folk songs like these that sound too unique to be traditional, too jubilant to be the same style as “kumbaya”. Quite simply, this is folk music with the same or greater urgency and catchiness—the demand to be heard—than most pop music from any country. Anyone who thinks the PRC’s politics is stifling artistic creativity needs to hear this group NOW, though it could well be true that China’s system of disseminating music dooms mold-breaking greatness like this to obscurity. Choruses and slower numbers follow the uproarious opening tracks, and the level of artistry is no less, though they sound rather more like traditional torch songs to the native lands. And then they cut seamlessly to dub and pick the pace right back up with a didgeridoo. What to make of a confrontational, aggressive “folk” song sung with an ominously low growl to “拿出来” your baby? Is the band going to play music or cannibalize your children? Another song, another innovation: a building intro spoken with a rising tone (sounds like a question in English) over vocal percussion followed by a soft yet driving dancefloor beat. The “Very Simple” closer is a rare (?) example of Afro-Chinese music. Were it not so diversely experimental, one could imagine a Chinese “country music” scene erupting from this album alone (9.5).

Haya's album Wolf Totem is guaranteed grassland-ready for any tour (7.5). I can't vouch for the authenticity of these well produced songs, but they certainly do stir the soul. Excepting one vocal track in the middle and one near the end, these are mostly instrumental or accompanied by someone singing something not recognizable as Mandarin. Mongolian is the running favorite. Strings and electric guitar go surprisingly well with grassland music, and the production never goes off the rails into cheesiness, as would be very very easy to do.

One of my favorites in recent years,蒋明Jiang Ming , returned in 2013 with “罔极寺.” The opener veers dangerously close to Japanese blues rock, but he finds his footing soon afterwards. Those who liked the 2011 album will be pleased overall (6). This is well produced minyao mixing disparate elements of traditional China with accordion and electronic beats, sometimes within the same song. Personally, I think raising the production values to sound slicker puts more focus on his voice in the mix, so I'm not sure I prefer this one over the previous release. Inviting more collaborators would help, but the choice of “friends” to help the artist “say goodbye” on track 10 doesn't add much, unless you're a sucker for choruses and cute kids. The piano closer also feels like a misstep, however deeply felt.

I picked up 邵夷贝Shao Yibei 's creatively packaged “灰色人種”on the basis of its single collaboration with GALA (the one with 李志turns out to be not bad either), and I'm not too disappointed (5.5). Her music is very upbeat but doesn't generally go overboard, except for the third, fourth, tenth and probably some other tracks, IMO. Overall, there's poppy sentimentality without getting syrupy. This one's ready to loop endlessly in Chinese youth hostels.

洪启's “红雪莲”is for folksy folks who like their folk singers deep-throated and earnest. Some Chinese banjo and other Chinese elements round out a standard acoustic guitar-bongo combination for nine perfectly fine tunes that take their sweet time. The second, title track switches to a female vocalist singing to a lost love over an almost classical-sounding guitar and will either endear or repel. That's just a one-off, but the mildly affectionate tone carries throughout the album. In short, this is a safe album for those who are easily offended, but plenty of listeners like myself will be turned off by just how inoffensive this is (5).

吴卓玲Wu Zhuoling’s “我最亲爱的海My Dearest Sea” begins with a kind of slow piano march, and from there the waters only stay murkily subdued. Simple piano melodies are repeated with a welcome variety of other instruments on top of them, and some tracks eventually feature breathy, soft female vocals after the unhurried build. The results are quiet but perhaps more distressed than soothing. The songs sway slowly like the tides, the waves, or a lurching craft on the high seas at night. The songs never quite “tip over” into despair, but the threat to do so seems to be a recurring undercurrent. At times, the sea and rain are not just a theme, but an instrument, as the middle section de-emphasizes the piano somewhat in favor of trumpet and strings. A couple of minimalist piano/spoken word pieces lay on the poetic drama rather thickly for my, and presumably most tastes. As a unified album, the subtle shifts make sense, and we can fully expect that something that would appear out of the blue on this one will appear on another one. As a drifting exploration of Chinese nautical melancholy, we have a definitive piece of work (5.5). Slow down El Perro del Mar (a fitting coincidence to mention the sea once more) for a clear Western reference in tone and shared elements/instruments.

耳光乐队, “known” in English as “Slap” (耳光 literally means “a slap in the face”) a truly underground sensation, is one of the best examples of highly creative and genuinely Chinese collectives in music today. Their vocalist is highly distinctive while also quite similar to the lead singer of Second-Hand Roses (I'll be embarrassed to learn that he's, in fact, one and the same). I almost missed their 2010 album “艺术男儿裆自强” (8.5) and am not really sure how many more they have because Free Sound seems to have trouble keeping them in stock (got their last copy of this one). They are, to my knowledge, most famous for a song whose chorus includes the either approving or awestruck Chinese exclamation for “hard core!” (牛逼! B, NB, etc. ), on the profane 9th track, “让牛逼的.” Once that novelty wears itself out, there's plenty else on the album for those who can understand Chinese as well as those who don't. Their apparent preference for self-releasing material may well have to do with deliberately trying to fly under the radar of official censors, as many of their lyrics are political (though my song-listening comprehension isn't good enough to follow what they're saying without close study). 耳光乐队Erguang’s 18 & 狼局长十八MO are a pair of clearly related (and I hope not just remixed) long-form Chinese ballad/wisdom dispensaries (6.5 for both). They'd probably be a lot more interesting if I could understand them word for word, and I imagine that they'd be a little samey for someone who can't understand the lyrics at all (most people reading this). There's apparently a third one in the series which I haven't picked up yet (at 100 yuan, it's pricey and I'm not sure I'm able to appreciate them as they're intended). Those expecting another 艺术男儿裆自强 rock album will be radically redirected, if not necessarily disappointed. The albums are basically a much more traditional Chinese sounding folk group, singing in the style of a traveling minstrel who might go from village to village like a shadow puppet theater sharing tales of the picaresque and possibly subversive. Or at least that's what I'd like to imagine is being conveyed with all that twang. I admit I can't follow the stories, but as songs to listen to, there's clearly a lot of artistry, and the sounds aren't unpleasant.

痛仰 Miserable Faith's “愿愛無憂”from 2014 goes even further than 2008's 180-degree tonal shift to show that some Chinese nu-rock bands just need to get the screaming and metal out of their system. The first real song on the album leans heavily on an accordion, for goodness sakes! And it comes back repeatedly with brass and other decidedly non-metal sounds to make sure your ears aren't deceiving you. I sure hope that “Hallelujah” is just a nice, softer song and not a sign that Miserable Faith have converted. The bouncy, upbeat chorus of “Starless Night” will have listeners who don't even speak Chinese singing along after a few spins. Once again, this is one of relatively few Chinese albums I will seek out to play all the way through even when I'm not in reviewing mode (8).

补弦translates awkwardly as “Supplementary Chords” in my online dictionary, so I'll stick to calling them Buxian in pinyin. From the harder end of the rock spectrum, the album 路上 features soaring vocals and a sometimes interesting mix of electric and acoustic guitars that unfortunately always congeal into fairly standard metal headbanging material (4.5). This is somewhat disappointing, given the creative liner notes featuring a stand-up bass prominently, among hijinx. This complaint aside, the music’s certainly engaging and driving in its ambition. Quieter numbers, one including an inexplicable novice violin part, start deceptively so and inevitably build to rocking. The title track is appropriately epic, but The Swamp does a better job overall and more consistently without resorting to metal.

There's no telling how long the 炽焰 album by Nugget had been sitting in the store waiting for its number to come up, but as a 30yuan full-length album it was bound to happen eventually. From the looks of the artwork, heavy guitars were to be expected, and those are delivered. I'm happy to report also that the songs are more than just a speed guitar showcase, and they do have a softer side that doesn't get too cheesy. A vocalist often chimes in, as on the piano-based second track, and that alone is enough to elevate. The album, with rather dated keyboards plaguing many a Chinese hard rock album, actually sounds like metal from another planet with the way it alternates between epic guitar (and, yes, keyboard) solos and kooky flourishes that might confuse some listeners. Only the sixth track is really abrasive, with death-metal vocals. The last one, nearly ten minutes long, is all over the map. This is no masterpiece, and Western metal fans aren't likely to cross over to become Nugget fans. It does, however, offer enough interesting takes on hard rock to be worth a listen (5.5).

游海州 's variations of hard, fast distorted guitars over drum machines on was worth another 20-30 yuan, I suppose (5). The songs are swiftly begun, noodled, and over with aggressive precision, not unlike I imagine many Western superstars do theirs. This is not an album I keep on heavy rotation or that I'd recommend to anyone but Sinophilic instrumetal enthusiasts.

成震 Cheng Zhen's “The Door Not Lock” [sic] is a guitar showcase with drum backing tracks that are more electronic than most, but still clearly rock and not electronic music. The guitar is front & center on each track, and it would be hard to imagine vocals squeezing their way into the mix. The speed of rhythms and riffs is comparable to 游海州's albums, but the hardness is perhaps a notch lower. Is it still metal? The hard but not always driving guitars and greater use of electronics put it at odds with pure metal, but overall I'd still call it that. Not all songs fit the label, but even softer numbers are all about speedy solos (5).

P.K. 14's “1984” continues to explore somewhat artsy, post-punk themes, and they're not going to gain many new admirers who weren't already OK with the stylings of the lead vocalist. After so many albums that I haven't really sat down and listened to with great care, I will admit they are starting to blend for me (6). For those who think guitar-led rock combos have exhausted the possibilities of the form, think they all sound the same, or (like myself) eagerly await more from Rebuilding the Rights of Statues, P.K. 14 will more than suffice. Start with the earlier albums, and one can hear a progression of sorts in their sound, though my favorite album remains “City Weather Sailing.”

八眼间谍(8 Eye Spy) makes a lot of noise with their voices and guitars on “到饮马巷到底有多远?(How Damn Far To Yinma Lane?)” , and the female vocalist does an admirable job of mixing yelling and singing on the very short second song. From there, the album is very much a mixed bag of high-energy punk experimentation and wallowing in washes of guitar noise. I'm sure there are Western acts that sound like this, but I'm not so sure the band is just trying to imitate them, and that's definitely a plus. It's definitely not as repetitive musically as Snapline or as noisy as Red Scarf, but I imagine most listeners will prefer small doses at most (5.5).

22Cats are a garagey rock band, and their album “She Will Eat You” sounds deliberately rough around the edges, even when harmonizing, as on the opening male/female duet. The vocalist's English pronunciation is something to behold, and what sounds like Cantonese on the Chinese-titled tracks is also unusual. Unlike many punk bands, they've got a 7-minute epic in them, and most of the songs are over three minutes rather than stretched to two (a short, playful instrumental also keeps things fresh). While the middle section of the album tones down the guitar noise considerably, the songs remain off kilter and surprising (5.5).


高峰G-Eleven's self-entitled full-length album of 2012 follows an EP in 2009 which is also, confusingly, self-entitled and opening with slightly different versions of the same song. The band clearly isn't interested in titles or labels; they just want to bring the full-brass funk and the good times. All the crowd-pleasers I saw on stage in 2011 in Beijing are on here, and they mostly translate well from the stage to the studio if you turn up the volume high enough. It doesn't hurt, of course, that the English chorus for one of their biggest numbers happens to be the only word most Chinese know. Some of the deeper cuts would naturally be out of place in their bombastic live act if only for their reduced arsenal of instruments. The lead singer (Mr. Gao?) has clearly studied a lot of smooth hits to write songs like these, and I'm sure that if he were singing in English I wouldn't listen to them (basically, it's R&B). As they stand, though, it's interesting to hear something that sounds like this in Chinese that's definitely romantic without being Cantopop. Western comparisons that comes to mind, at least musically if not vocally, The National Trust and Jamie Lidell for their mix of smooth funk and R&B while obviously not being urban in the same sense (I.e. black) as the usual purveyors of this kind of music. G-Eleven does more than either of them in terms of urban authenticity, however, for occasionally breaking out into rap unpredictably in the middle of several songs. Mr. Gao's English, featured on at least a few songs, shows no obvious signs of Chinglish, for better or worse, but it's hardly effortless. I'm just thankful he's of today and not an alternate-universe open PRC of 40 years ago—otherwise this definitely would have been China's most successful disco album (6).

Itsogoo albums “It's All Good” & “It's No Good” (both 7) are classified as both Jazz & Hip-hop by the curators of the Drum Tower music store, and while that may be a bit of a stretch (unless “jazz” is defined very loosely and entirely sampled), this group definitely has the best backing tracks I've heard from China. Too often, due partially to my own tastes, a Chinese hip-hop album will shoot for the stars on U.S. pop radio, resulting in an album which might seem novel or even bridge “catchy and edgy” as good rap music should but almost inevitably fall short. Itsogoo has interest in neither pop stardom (apparently) nor especially imitation. Both albums are long and chock full of loungey interludes which help the MCs flow immeasurably, making them the rarest of the rare: a hip-hop album that holds together as a single whole rather than a collection of (would-be) singles. They create diverse music that alternates between smooth and aggressive, and the MCs, refreshingly, have plenty to convey. This includes, incidentally, some MF-ing English profanity near the end of the earlier album, seemingly added for good measure. The latter, newer album (whose songs and interludes feel a bit wordier) was the store's last/display copy, so they must be held up as a marginally commercially successful group, also raising the strong possibility that I miss out on the “best” (or at least best-selling) stuff with my yearly shopping sprees. Undoubtedly some of the most popular albums have sold out before I could get to China in time, and this pains me while also adding to the completist quest.

Dragon Tongue Squad is indeed “Crazy 4 Hip Hop,” but will you be crazy for their 2006 album? Their squad is certainly lively, and their flow on the mic is quite aggressive, including vocal imitation of gunshots. Guest female backround singers in English on the title track are very eager to please, but their vocabulary and pronunciation leave much to be desired. Like the Icing Dolls 糖衣娃娃, they have a fondness for 1983 which softens their tone considerably. For 2008, by contrast, they feel great anticipation. On “中国菜”they appropriately Sinicize their backing track, but otherwise the beats are pretty standard and occasionally below that, with few surprises and lots of repetition. “Love Anthem” includes some unintentionally humorous moments, as the group attempts to appropriate some R&B stylings, climaxing in a feeble attempt to urbanize the word “bitch.” Lots of filler material in the second half of the album doesn't help them make their case as a vital crew that will endure. All in all, the album strikes me as more anthropologically interesting than musically (3.5).

中国说唱兄弟 The Chinese Rap Brothers open “2013” with an aggressive rap-rock statement and continue to rely heavily on hard guitars and turntables without relenting their high-speed vocal onslaught. Some songs sing their choruses while getting more sentimental. There are a few slower numbers, but the “brothers” know their preferred style and stick to it (5).

Supermarket/超级市场 gets extra respect after I saw them perform live outdoors in Beijing in summer of 2014, probably in support of their Black Eclipse墨蚀 album . They could have done a dance set or stuck to their more accessible numbers, but noooo! They performed in bright orange Dickies construction gear to a perplexed audience which grew smaller and smaller as the set went on. By the end, there were still several people right on the fence in front of the stage, but unlike any other main-stage act, there was not even a second row behind them. To their credit, the dwindling audience didn't seem to phase the performers in the least. They were there to give the performance they wanted, and that was achieved apparently without compromise. If anything, I myself felt awkward standing alone in the dark and applauding after the set, possibly acknowledged visually by the bandleader (if I recall accurately, they didn't stay long) though inaudible over the nearby sounds of the other five stages in the concert field. Of their many albums, Black Eclipse incorporates more of a particular, traditional Chinese instrument than any other, which on paper might make it a good candidate for a live show. In point of fact, although there were definitely some deeply affecting moments, there's very little even in terms of songs with a beat for concertgoers to latch onto. And that's not to say that ANY of the other albums are poppy in the least (6.5). Limit Infinity 有限无限(6.5) may have been released at nearly the same time, though I only happened upon it in 2016. I distinctly remember its third track “我们人类”from the concert, in any case. Glad to say the man behind the keyboards still seems to have plenty of sonic ideas, and it's high time to consider the act not only as a seminal Chinese electronic one but as one of the most prolific and consistent electronic experimental groups PERIOD. I know no better examples, Western or Chinese, which can better span the gray area between soundscape and song, almost never becoming mere noise. Just don't bring your expectations about what an outdoor, electronic music concert should be to their performances, and you'll have an experience worth recounting for years to come.

The album Ocean by the band or artist iimune (not a typo) is among the best of China's melodic techno (6). Clearly keyboard quality is top notch because every track highlights a different “instrument” that almost certainly was synthesized, and even the drums sound like a real set but probably aren't. One thing worth avoiding in short electronic music is the feeling that we're just listening to an unchanging series of loops, even if that's what songs actually are. Iimune employs most of the tricks in the book with the mixing, fading in and out before we get tired of anything, and overall there is a pretty clear sense of variety that nonetheless isn't going to sway anyone who's still prejudiced against the whole of electronica. Do achieve this without any vocals at all is no small thing these days. Does it compare to other, Western electronic acts? I'd say the melodies and rhythms compare favorably to knob twiddlers from the late 1990s and early 2000s, definitely more diverse and interesting than Mucho Macho or Land of the Loops but not up to the cinematic, orchestral mastery of Deadly Avenger or IDM classics from Aphex Twin, u-ziq, and Plaid. I guess I'd compare the sound to Anchorsong, with touches of Money Mark, perhaps a less urban/sample-based Blockhead.

I bought马海平's “The Day of Perpetual Night” for its clever artwork, and happily the music on it is also interesting (5.5). Abstract electronic with added guqin (or other strings) and rather dark to befit the title, the four apparently unnamed tracks could complement art installations or lurk anywhere minimalism is the operative mode and a beat would be an unwelcome intrusion. The term “illbient” never really caught on to describe dark ambient music, and certainly more abrasive dark noise like Locrian is receiving more critical acclaim, but I think the label fits this and I'll take it over loud stuff any day. Compared to other Chinese quiet electronic music, this has more in common with Me:Mo than Dead J or Hz.

林默 Lin Mo's album 私奔 (Elope) comes in a starkly black paperboard case suggesting something deep and dark, delivered only in half-measures, unfortunately. The combination of trip-hop between electronic beats and a female vocalist has probably been done almost to death in the West, and I wish I could say that China makes it feel fresh. Breathy female vocals in Chinese are not unappealing in the least, but they’re nothing new either. This album is not extraordinary (I think my copy was damaged and doesn’t have the last track) except for its short intro pairing traditional opera with electronic sounds (the opera singers show up again in strange contrast to the lead vocalist). Sultry moaning and occasional English with twinkling fantasy backing tracks are their stock in trade, and no doubt there are still virgin ears out there who’ll be tickled pink by these songs. A guitarry change of pace, “拉拉” is rather painful but at least quite different (5).

小唯 & 肖Tong, I'm sorry to say, seem to have spent more time and resources on the packaging for their album 欢喜馋 than they did in the studio or on instruments. The opening track, built on simple repetition on cheap-sounding keyboards (a recurring formula) takes breathy vocals to a ridiculous extreme, half-whispering the lyrics in a manner falling short of the desired sultriness. This mismatch is improved only somewhat for the rest of the album, which is messy in production to the point where some vocal tracks sound like they could have used at least one more rehearsal and more time at the mixing board. The third track sings explicitly about giving you her breath and is at least kinda dancey, but after so much heavy breathing in the singing it'd be surprising she has any left for the rest of the album. An instrumental with a sad trumpet searching for notes on track 6 will not impress anyone. Fans of 王菲 might find something of interest on the m/f duet of track 7, but downplayed instrumentation should not be the highlight of one's album. In short, the main vocalist can sing well enough, but her material and guidance are rather wanting. Credit is due, nonetheless, for the unpredictable moaning in the last song, apparently an electronic remix of a traditional ode to grasslands (4.5).

From the 2014 outdoor concert in Beijing, there were several promotional stands offering cd's bundled together for only a few yuan, and of course I snapped up the whole set.

Powell Young's “The Melodyism” fits neatly with guitar noodlers like 游海州, but every song is distinguished by being six to almost nine minutes long, and other instruments besides the guitar are occasionally featured, including an organ and a female traditional singer. A track like “Warm Morning” pulls of the unusual feat of being a happy, sunny guitar showcase, backed by something that might as well have been from Sesame Street. Not being a guitarist, I can't go into great depth about many of the songs, but I can say this is above average for a Chinese guitar album (5.5).

An odd compilation, “Thanks to Jiaju” has a few memorable songs (5). Although iTunes lists the titles in English, the singing is almost all in Chinese. Over-the-top emotion is the norm here, as per Chinese pop, and there seems to be a lot of playful songs which might be geared toward a younger audience. Being a compilation, the production on each track is a cut above average. There's nothing, however, that cries out for a Western listener to hear.

糖衣娃娃 have an EP “出轨”that's worth a listen (5.5). It's not quite punk, despite a lot of guitars and a very nasal lead vocalist. I guess they could be called garage rock on a few tracks, but they do try to mix things up not just between but within songs, often going into low or dark vocal registers and then jumping up to a nasal yell or falsetto. Their longer “1983” goes into full nostalgia mode, especially when their “friends” join in for a schmaltzy live rendition apparently recorded for a festival of some kind.

While almost all “rock” albums are generally a bit more eclectic and uneven in China than the West, 玛雅乐队 seems to have a real identity crisis on 2009's “摇滚青春.” The first song sounds like they're going to be full-on metal, and it's followed up by a really tight, acoustic-guitar-led bluesier song that's easily their best song. From there, they sound a lot like The Dada on the third song until the chorus goes hard again. The title track also goes from loud to quiet during the verses, but the guitars are always hard. The vocalist has a pretty scruffy, low voice like he might be able to handle grunge, and ultimately how the band dresses might determine my classification of their music. Going from hard to soft so often doesn't affect the fact that these guys know their craft, and this is far better than the average Chinese rock band (6.5).

大飞与摩天楼乐队 must mean old-fashioned rhythm & blues with their album title “R&B.” Their music in no way resembles what that now calls to Americans' minds. Their rock is a little bit dancier than most, but it's hardly Chuck Berry, making the band's choice something of an enigma. They've got pep, for sure, especially on “硬碰硬”. On some tracks they've got a kind of 1980s feeling like if Duran Duran or the Pet Shop Boys lost their keyboards. Both the closers are soaring epics (6).

陈磊 has some guitar solos he'd like to share with us on “千年影人.” Unfortunately, there's little in the way of songs to carry said solos and little for a non-guitarist listener to hold onto in many tracks, which can sound almost robotic in their fret attack. Maybe that's precisely the point. The fourth, orchestrally-backed track aims for cinematic epicness, but the overall effect comes off as, “Why is someone blasting his guitar amp over my movie?!” The mid-to-late section of the album quiets down considerably to the point of elevator music, which only confuses me more. I could read about how to assess whether a guitar album should be primarily assessed in terms of speed or composition or ask friends and family who are guitarists whether they like it, but I feel like I've heard enough music generally and displays of guitar virtuosity specifically to have come across some that I like more than others. The last track is at least novel here for Chinese percussion and vocals which sound lifted from a traditional song and metalicized (5).


Looking back, this was less a manifesto than a long overdue (and thereby very long) list of album reviews. I guess that reflects my evolving sense of purpose and acknowledgment that I'm not the world's foremost expert on Chinese alternative music. What I do think needs to be provided, though, is a source in English for people to decide whether to buy one of these albums or see a concert by one of them if for some reason they're unable to listen ahead of time. In the internet age, no matter how flashy one's prose, I think music reviews are pretty much reduced to this menial function. From the summer of 2016, this is where I stand on the scene, or what's left of it. As I look forward to another several months teaching in China, I've already got more to review, so rest assured that this inauspicious fourth will not be the last in the series.

A numerical RATING for all albums I mention, from 1-10, is 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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