Exclusive report: Heavy Metal in China
Dear readers of my blog,
enjoy my brand new report about the Chinese Metal scene from its beginnings in the late eighties until today and discover plenty of new bands, curious facts and original subgenres. Don't forget to leave a comment! Contact me if you want to spread my work or take it as a reference.
Part I: The Beginnings (1986 - 1994)
With the emergency of pop and rock music in the late seventies and throughout the eighties with the establishments of discotheques in the main cities, first cover bands inspired by Western artists such as The Beatles or The Rolling Stones (for example “Mainland Band” or also “Alisi” who performed covers of Japanese rock songs) and the first concerts given by Western artists in the country (Jean Michel Jarre in 1981, Wham! in 1985 and SheRock in 1986), the Heavy Metal scene also made its first few hesitating steps in the People’s Republic of China.
One of the first and most important Hard Rock and Heavy Metal bands is called Black Panther (“黑豹”). They saw the light of day in 1987 in Beijing. Two other bands formed that year, Cui Jian’s more traditional Rock influenced ADO Band as well as the less known and more Punk driven Mayday (“五月天”). Another popular Hard Rock band called The Face saw the light of day in 1989. Black Panther went through many line-up changes in the beginning but managed to put out their first self-titled release in August 1991 when it is first sold in the Hongkong. The Glam Metal release with Chinese and English lyrics is today considered as first sound of Hard Rock or Heavy Metal with some Pop influences that ever came out of the country and that set a new trend as several tracks hit the charts in Hongkong. The record was officially released in the People’s Republic of China in December 1992 only but a million copies were soon sold when the formation was already about to record their second strike entitled “Spirit Of Light” (“光芒之神”) that was released in 1993 and which included nine brand new tracks that are all sung in Mandarin. The band finally got a professional record deal with JVC in the same year and their second record was reissued and released in whole Asia. Chinese Metal music slowly started to get a little more attention from foreign countries at this time.
The formation that is though today considered as pioneer band of the Chinese Heavy Metal scene is without a doubt Tang Dynasty (“唐朝”). The band initially got together in 1988 as the founding members met a party and soon started to give a few underground concerts. The Tianmen incident though kept the band away from organizing widespread concert series. Two of the original members – the now famous American-born guitarist Kaiser Kuo who later formed the Heavy Metal band Spring Autumn (“春秋”) and drummer Andrew Szabo - had resided in the United States of America before the incident and decided to return over there while the remaining two members, guitarist and singer Ding Wu who has shortly been involved as guitarist in the Black Panther formation and bassist Zhang Ju decided to carry on and look for new members. In autumn 1989, the new guitar player Liu Yijun as well as the new drummer called Zhao Nian joined the band that started to practice on a regular basis and to look to play at a few bigger venues to play.
The band soon had the chance to increase its fame as they were allowed to participate at a festival called “90’s Modern Music Festival”. It took place at the giant Capital Stadium of Beijing where the four men played in front of around 18,000 cheering people. This event is today considered as China’s first rock music festival. Other promising rock bands from Beijing attended the two day event on February 17th and 18th of the year 1990. First of all, there was ADO Band formed in 1987 which was the band of the pioneer musician Cui Jian who had released what is considered as China’s first professional rock album called “Rock ‘N Roll On The Long New March” (“新长征路上的摇滚”) in 1989. This multi-instrumentalist of Korean ethnicity had released its first record on cassette in 1984 and rose to fame with his influential success “Nothing To My Name” (“一无所有”) in 1986 which became somewhat the unofficial anthem for young Chinese activists during the Tiananmen Square protests. The short living Glam Metal formation The Breathing (“呼吸”) that had been formed in 1989 also attended the festival. A jazz, pop and rock formation called 1989 that was formed during the year the band name indicated, was also on the billing. The all-female rock band Cobra (“眼镜蛇”) that had come together in 1989 as well as the less known rock band Baby Brother completed the line-up back in those days.
The rising success of Tang Dynasty helped them to get a deal with a Taiwanese record company and the four men got the chance to record a total of eleven tracks in a quite professional record studio with a rehearsal room over the next two years. The band looked for combining melodic and modern Western Metal and Rock music with Chinese Folk music and history, mythology or poetry influenced lyrics. Melodic guitar leads meet traditional folk instruments while high pitched and sometimes almost operatic male vocals meet more grounded chants and chorals. The band’s first record entitled “A Dream Return To Tang Dynasty” (“梦回唐朝”) was first released in December 1991 and soon reissued on a more widespread basis in Southeast Asia one year later and has today sold far over two million legal copies in the world. Due to political issues, the band’s version of “Internationale” (“国际歌”) was omitted from the first Chinese pressings of the record and only appeared on later reissues. The band made a quite elevated number of video clips for several songs of the record that aired on more and more popular music television channels. The videos often show rural landscapes of the country, traditional costumes and everyday life situations in connection with Chinese mores. The band got larger attention when their album opener and title track “A Dream Return To Tang Dynasty” (“梦回唐朝”) was included in a shortlist for the category “International Viewer’s Choice Awards – MTV Asia” at the 1993 MTV Music Awards. The year after, the band also made it to the “Chinese Cultural Festival” (“中国文化艺术节”) in Berlin, Germany as well as to the “International Culture Festival” (“国际文化节”) in Fukuoka, Japan.
But at the first height of popularity, several events would soon lead to an important decline of the young Chinese Metal scene in the middle of the nineties.
Important records (1986 – 1994):
Cui Jian (“崔建”) – Rock ‘N Roll On The New Long March (“新长征路上的摇滚”) (1989)
Black Panther (“黑豹”) – Black Panther (“黑豹”) (1991)
The Breathing (“呼吸”) – The Breathing (“呼吸”) (1991)
Tang Dynasty (“唐朝”) – A Dream Return To Tang Dynasty (“梦回唐朝”) (1992)
Cobra (“眼镜蛇”) – Hypocrisy (1994)
Part II: Going through difficult changes (1994 - 2003)
In 1991, the freshly formed formation Overload (“超载”) with The Breathing (“呼吸”) singer and guitarist Gao Qi was rather orientated towards the Thrash Metal genre. The Chinese Metal scene got more and more diversified even though it took the band five years to pull of their first self-titled full length release in 1996. The country’s very first Death Metal band saw the light of day in the beginning of 1992. The band name is Tomahawk (“战斧”) and they soon adapted a more and more modern Metal style that can be described as Groove or Post-Thrash Metal. The band’s first album also saw a very difficult birth and only came out in 2001 under the title “Dead City” that united the band’s compositions from the nineties with a few new tracks. The country’s first Doom Metal band was formed in 1993 and called Hades (“冥界”) but the band didn’t release its first self-titled album before 2002.
These few examples already indicate a certain decline and difficult period for Chinese Metal music after a growing popularity in the late eighties and early nineties. On one side, the Beijing Midi School Of Music opened its doors and also offered three month courses about the basics of Western Blues and Rock music and several cities such as Wuhan developed a small underground culture. On the other side, the government realized that Western Rock and Metal music and their contents could promote a more democratic movement and diffuse globalization thoughts and started to ban rock music from television and restrict artists in their concerts apart of a few public appearances during international evens that the government tried to use as propagandistic elements to prove the world the development of new expressions of art and culture in the country. The commercialization of the music industry advantaged Pop artists from Hongkong and Taiwan while the Metal scene went back to the underground.
As an oppositional movement, a first larger Punk scene emerged from 1994 on; led by the charismatic musician He Yong and his debut record “Garbage Dump” who tried to discover new artistic ways of expression. Bands such as Underbaby (“地下婴儿”) and The Catcher In The Rye (“麦田守望者”) soon joined the movement and inherited the cultural, political and social expression of the Metal scene that went through a hard time and struggled to compete with the foreign Pop, the local Punk and a more and more famous Grunge scene. In addition to this, several tragic events occurred such as the tragic motorcycle death of Tang Dynasty’s (“唐朝”) bassist Zhang Ju in 1995.
With a new underground spirit, the more and more diversified Metal scene though slowly developed new methods to gain popularity and to slowly return to old strength in the late nineties. The Beijing Midi School Of Music moved to a bigger school yard and established the very recognized Midi Festival in 2000. Around this time, many new rock festivals emerge all around the country.
In the late nineties, brand new subgenres saw the light of day and quickly emerged with Extreme Metal, Nu Metal and Post Punk being the most popular ones but a second Punk wave around Beijing bands such as Brain Failure (“脑浊”), Reflector (“反光镜”) or the all female shock band Hang On The Box (“挂在盒子上”) and a Hip Hop scene around artists and bands such as CMBC from Beijing, Gongfu from Tianjin and Yin Ts’ang (“隐藏”) from Beijing emerged in the bigger cities around this time. As examples for the new Metal subgenres, one could cite the Beijing Rapcore formation Yaksa (“夜叉”), the Beijing Metalcore formation AK 47 that also uses Electro and Punk elements in their sound and the Nu Metal band Overheal Tank (“检修坦克”) from Xi’an towards the end of the nineties. The most popular Metalcore band soon became Ego Fall (“颠覆M”) from Inner Mongolia that mixes modern Metal sounds with traditional folk influences and often spiritually driven lyrics. The first Emo Rock band of the country was formed in 1999 under the name of Tookoo. Extreme Metal bands gained popularity in the first years of the new millennium. One should mention formations such as the Kunming Death Metal band Purgatory (“炼狱”) or the Beijing Black Metal formation Ritual Day (“施教日”). In general, all these new subgenres became popular in the People’s Republic of China with a delay of two to three years in comparison to the Western world.
But the new wave of Rock and Metal music was not only due to numerous new bands or Western influences but also thanks to a larger and especially well organized fan culture. The first independent Chinese music community organization entitled Noise (杂音) saw the light of day in 1997 as well as the country’s largest Indie-label called Modern Sky Records that started to release popular compilation albums and finally the underground Punk magazine called The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle. The So Rock! Magazine was published for the first time in 1999. Local magazines such as We (“我们”) from Chengdu in 1999 and the Painkiller Magazine from Beijing in 2000 or specialized compilation records such as Made In Shanghai in 2003 became more and more popular and supported many local Metal scenes. At the beginning of the new millennium, the diverse subgenres spread popularity thanks to new mass media and especially by using the internet. Thanks to this new diversity, several older groups also gained some well needed energy and released new records in the late nineties and in the beginning of the new millennium.
But another sad event would soon affect the widely flowering scene in the middle of the year 2003.
Important records (1994 – 2003):
The Face (“面孔”) – Instinct Of Fire (1995)
Overload (“超载”) – Overload (“超载”) (1996)
Tomahawk (“战斧”) – Dead City (“死城”) (2001)
Hades (“冥界”) – Hades (“冥界”) (2002)
Purgatory (“炼狱”) – Dream Of Moribund (“垂死者之梦”) (2002)
Part III: Arising From The Ashes (2003 - 2012)
In 2003, SARS striked China and affected the entire society and also its musical culture. Famous bars were closed down, more and more concerts and festivals got canceled or postponed. Marketing business also suffered and broke down during that year. Even the 2003 edition of the famous Midi Music Festival had to be canceled in May and was finally postponed and held in October of the same year. The crowd at that edition of the festival was very aggressive and nervous and threw bottles and eggs on stage when the Japanese band Brahman (“日本”) performed. Even the promoter who tried in vain to calm the spectators had his glasses broken by a thrown water bottle. Towards the end, the crowd surprisingly enjoyed the show and cheered the Japanese band’s performance. Even from a musical point of view, Chinese and Japanese culture still try to remain profoundly distinctive from each other. These events led to a bad image of the Metal scene and a lot of discussions not only in Japan but also inside of the People’s Republic of China after a year filled with bad coincidences.
Even after the end of the epidemic, the Chinese Rock and Metal scene remained paralyzed. Many old venues remained closed, changed costumer or had a change in flair. After a half-year long hiatus, the scene though arose like the famous phoenix from its ashes and many new bands also started to spread their names abroad by performing shows and selling records in other Asian countries first but more and more in Europe and North America, too. International festivals inside and outside of Asia from the Hong Kong Rock It Music Festival to the Wacken Open Air in Germany helped the bands to get diffused to a larger public or to get record deals with international labels. In 2012, three Chinese bands from Beijing played at Wacken Open Air: the Death and Thrash Metal formation Suffocated (“窒息”) and the Metalcore acts Yaksa (“夜叉”) and The Falling (“夜叉”).
At the same time, more and more diversified foreign bands also started to tour China with the first Metal concert held by a foreign band being the show of the internationally rather unknown Italian Power Metal band Labyrinth that played in Beijing in 2004. One could later cite bands such as the Dutch Street Punk formation Disturbance in 2005, the German Power Metal icons Edguy, the legendary British rockers The Rolling Stones or the British Alternative Rock acts Placebo and Supergrass in 2006, the female fronted Austrian Symphonic Metal bands Edenbridge and Visions Of Atlantis, the American Dark Wave formation The Crüxshadows and the American Thrash Metal legend Testament in 2007, the Finnish Symphonic Metal band Nightwish and the American Progressive Metal band Dream Theater in 2008, the German Medieval Rock bands Corvus Corax in 2008 as well as In Extremo and Subway To Sally in 2009, the Finnish Power Metal acts Stratovarius and Turisas as well as the American Thrash Metal band Exodus in 2010 or the Swedish Progressive Death Metal band Opeth in 2012. Many local bands got largely influenced by those concerts that quickly increased in numbers.
The internet also helped to rebuild the Chinese Metal scene thanks to sites such as Douban in China or Myspace on an international level. Small radio stations such as Hongkong’s Dragonradio formed in 2005 steadily supported local underground scenes. New underground clubs such as Beijing D-22 venue became a new home to the increasing number of underground bands. Innovating events such as NOIShanghai that organized and promoted Noise acts from 2005 on or the Antidote Shanghai group that united since 2005 several disc jockeys, foreign guests and local music producers who organized monthly music events around all kinds of Electronic music helped to heavily diversify the Chinese Rock and Metal scene in a few years only to finally catch up with the Western scenes. Many new compilation record series such as “Ressurection Of The Gods” from 2001 or “Core In China” from 2012 started to specialize on different subgenres and often promoted underground bands without record deals. A whole bunch of festivals all around the country were created in these years such as the Zebra Music Festival in Chengdu or the Strawberry Music Festival in Beijing since 2009.
Not only the Metal scene itself but also the music became more and more open-minded as time went by. A good example is the diversified band Voodoo Kungfu (“零壹”) that got together in Beijing in 2003 and that played a mixture of Black, Folk and Industrial Metal by including special members who performed a Mongolian Cello or who contributed percussions and samples to the sound. The Metalcore formation Tarot Saint (“塔罗圣徒”), founded in the year 2007 in Beijing, mixes Melodic Death Metal as well as modern Thrash Metal with folk influences. One could also cite the experimental Pyschedelic Rock band LAVA.OX.SEX from Hefei that is composed of four members with completely different or even conflicting musical backgrounds. The very first female fronted Extreme Metal band in China was the short living Purgatory ("炼狱”) from Beijing. When the vocalist left to go to college, she formed another band called Soma TNT ("索玛TNT”) in 2007.
More and more bands also started projects with foreign musicians. The diversified Psychedelic or Alternative Folk Rock formation Proximity Butterfly (“变色蝴蝶”) from Chengdu was founded by male as well as female musicians of American, Canadian and Chinese origins in 2003. The Post Punk and Gothic formation Boys Climbing Ropes was formed in Shanghai in 2006 by three Canadians musicians living in China and a female Chinese keyboarder and singer. The Melodic Power Metal band The Barque Of Dante from Mianying collaborates closely with the Austrian singer Thomas Winkler while the Beijing Thrash Metal act Raging Mob is fronted by the German vocalist Robert Gonnella and also features the American guitar player David Hemmer.
In 2008, the organization of the Olympic Summer Games in Beijing as well as the Zibo train collision and the terrible impacts of the Sichuan Earthquake led to many canceled concerts and festivals in the Chinese Rock and Metal scene but in comparison to the SARS epidemic five years ago, the scene stood together in strength and improvised many charity events for the victims of the train accident and especially for the victims of the earthquake. The Shanghai Expo in 2010 led to several temporary shutdowns of important underground venues but the impact was less menacing than expected.
The Rock and Metal scene had finally built up a solid basis and didn’t stop to explore new grounds and gain more and more international popularity.
Important records (2003 – 2012):
Spring Autumn (“春秋”) – Spring Autumn (“春秋”) (2006)
LAVA.OX.SEA – Heavy Metal Rock Is The Best Music (2008)
The Last Successor (“末裔”) - The Last Successor (“末裔”) (2010)
Voodoo Kungfu (“零壹”) – Dark Age (“黑暗世界音乐”) (2011)
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