What is the essence of metal music? For me, it’s surely about pushing the boundaries in an emotional and intellectual way. From the beginning, metal has tried to be harder and faster, but also more complex, gracious, innovating, provocative, and technical than other, more commercial genres. Apart from the music, bands also push their images, lyrics, and live shows to the next level. After more than forty years of existence and the establishment of dozens of subgenres, the metal community has become somewhat lazy and stuck in the past [Editor's note: Not in this community, mind you],with most people talking about the legendary eighties and asking themselves who might one day replace idols when the Blind Guardians, Iron Maidens, and Metallicas are gone. This question is already misplaced. We shouldn’t talk about traditions, replacements, or heritages. Remember that metal is about pushing the boundaries and not doing the same stuff over and over again.
What does all of this have to do with the album I’m about to review? Well, most people will hate it. The record sounds completely strange. Disharmonic electronic elements meet narrative samples, meet weird folk parts from both the Eastern and the Western worlds, meet simplistic industrial rock riffs, and meet melodic but out-of-tune vocals sung in Mandarin Chinese. There are almost no hooks, the song structures are sometimes very repetitive, and at other moments completely unpredictable. Expect the unexpected, as this record is very unforgiving. If you know or like music made by David Lynch, Lou Reed, or Senmuth, you might know what I’m talking about.
But as you might have guessed by now, I’m among the few who adore this short record. And I don’t love this for political, but for artistic reasons. It is pushing the boundaries. This is more “metal” than anything Blind Guardian and Iron Maiden have released together in the new millennium (Metallica gets some well deserved credit here for their courageous St. Anger and Lulu releases – even though I despised the latter). The six songs here are atmospheric, courageous, innovative, uneasy, and unusual. They are pieces of art that might not even be understood generations from now. Most great artists are ahead of their time, and are one day rediscovered and suddenly quite respected by pseudo-experts. I think that this could well happen to Ai Weiwei.
Another thing is important to know in order to understand this release. Ai Weiwei is active in almost all kinds of arts, including architecture, curating, film, literature, photography, sculpture and more. You’re probably not surprised to learn that he’s made three video clips for this record alone, which are all interesting to watch. The only thing he hasn’t done yet is a video game and I hope that happens. Ai Weiwei is known for his engaged criticism against the government of the People’s Republic of China, he openly supports democracy and human rights, investigates government corruption and cover-ups, and got put under house arrest and even imprisoned in his home country without official charges being filed. The first photo taken by him in prison is in fact the album cover. This record’s lyrics are all related to contemporary problems in his home country and his own personal struggles with its government and society. Most people only buy this record to support this activist. If you care about this aspect, you can find English versions of all lyrics on the artist’s website.
I’m taking a small dock off my final rating for this album’s highly and sometimes too political content. Arts and politics shouldn’t excessively work hand in hand in my opinion. On the other hand, this is what I was expecting from Ai Weiwei to begin with, and that’s why these points were effectively already lost before I even listened to the album. Everything else on here is truly impressive. This is my crazy tip for the most original release of the year 2013. Try it at your own risks.