Music Monday is a weekly SmartBeijing column, serving up fresh audio/video streams from bands living and making music in China (or coming to China, or thinking about coming to China, or whatever).
Around 12 months ago I said about the Beijing music scene: "2013 feels like a seeding year, and I think we're poised for a very interesting 2014." Now, my retrospective opinion is that 2014 was a breakthrough year for Chinese music on many levels. More and better international acts came through than in years past, legitimizing Beijing and Shanghai as worthwhile tour stops for artists outside of the mainstream racket. More Chinese bands peddled their sounds abroad, through international tours and strong independent distribution networks. More Chinese bands did extensive domestic tours, and — most importantly — more bands from outside of the Beijing / Shanghai nexus showed up, fully formed, to put many of their peers in the capital to shame.
Here's a playback reel of some sights and sounds from the China music world that stuck with me this year:
Sabu Toyozumi, Deng Chenglong, Li Zenghui, Li Jianhong, Wang Ziheng live @ School, Jan 12, 2014
Continuing last year's momentum, School Bar and XP remained the most vital live music incubators in Beijing. The best show I saw this year happened near the beginning, when Japanese free improv legend Sabu Toyozumi occupied School. Think this one was put together by He Xiaoyu, one of School's co-founders / background managers. Sabu played a solo set for nearly an hour, nothing but drum kit. It was mesmerizing and set the tone for a string of other great percussion-only performances throughout the year (see below).
The most memorable part of that show, though, was the moment when Deng Chenglong — XP's mild-mannered sound tech by trade — completely hijacked it. The last 30 minutes or so was a maelstrom of berserk energy from Chenglong, Li Jianhong, Li Zenghui, Wang Ziheng, and Sabu performing unfathomably chaotic noise. Yan Jun, who's a better writer than I, described it for The Wire:
The technician, Deng Chenglong, is actually a guitarist. He started to perform maybe a year and half ago... His playing was not skillful but he was high, looking like a warrior who’s ready to die. One of the School Bar owners destroyed the stage barrier along with the screaming audience. The School Bar sound technician cried.
Yeah, it was good. Chenglong's personal trajectory this year bears mentioning: he transformed himself from "XP's sound guy" into one of the most sought-after live sound technicians in the country, doing tours with P.K.14 and MONO and being called out for special one-offs, like this group jam between P.K.14, Alpine Decline, and Zhu Wenbo at UCCA:
That was a weird one. The supergroup played behind this sheet full of sewn-on cicada shells. Kind of creepy. But the jam itself got deep. Yang Haisong from P.K.14 recorded it and it will come out as some kind of epic prog record at some point in 2015.
Yang Haisong as featured in The World Underground
Speaking of Yang Haisong: was busier than ever this year. In 2014 he formally took the helm of Maybe Mars, while retaining his Modern Sky sub-label House Party and his own DIY imprint, Share In Obstacles. As a label runner, producer, and thoroughly seasoned musician, Haisong is one of the single most important engines of China's music underground.
P.K.14 at XP, May 3, 2014
Thanks to the dense production schedule at Haisong's Psychic Kong studio, we got to see a lot of great bands from outside Beijing come through, mostly to XP, often with the support of Douban.com's excellent Behind the Billboard series. A lot of the people who responded to our year-end music survey noted this trend as well. Personally, the best out-of-town bands I saw this year were Hiperson from Chengdu and The Fallacy from Xinxiang. I got to see both share the stage at XP in June, an event that doubled as the record release for a Fallacy 7" on Genjing Records and the official induction of HIperson into the Maybe Mars label family. In retrospect, that show feels indicative of a slight but crucial shift of balance from Beijing to a growing network of bands, venues, and labels interested in building local scenes throughout China. This is one of the most positive and promising developments of 2014.
Hiperson at XP, June 13, 2014
The Fallacy at XP, June 13, 2014
Yang Haisong's own band Dear Eloise also turned in one of the best Beijing albums of the year — Farewell to the Summer — and P.K.14 is ending 2014 with a very special event on December 26 at Yugong, when Modern Sky will re-issue the band's first two albums on vinyl. P.K.14 will play both albums in their entirety at the show, recommend that one for seeing where Chinese independent rock has been and who's leading it today.
Zhu Wenbo live @ XP Zoomin' Night, Apr 1, 2014
While I'm on this hagiography trip, another patron saint of the Beijing scene worth mentioning here is Zhu Wenbo, the maven responsible for Douban Behind the Billboard and the long-running weekly experimental series Zoomin' Night. Zoomin' Night — which hit its fifth anniversary this August — has, as ever, provided an exhilarating glimpse into the experimental substratum underlying much of the more polished works that come out of the further-out ends of the Chinese indie spectrum. One particularly interesting trend this year was the disintegration of Snapline, with Li Qing and Li Weisi's collective alter-ego Soviet Pop continuing to oscillate wildly in parallel with the duo's new side-side-project, Spy Rat 51, essentially a synth-grind band. Snapline vocalist Chen Xi also got in on the action, forming up a new one-man-band called Late Troubles.
Spy Rat 51 @ XP Zoomin' Night, June 17, 2014
Late Troubles @ XP Zoomin' Night, August 19, 2014
Back to the topic of drummers drumming: this year, Zoomin' Night became a playground for a few Beijing drummers (most actively: White+'s Wang Xu and Da Bang's Linan) to experiment with solo, duo, all-percussion and electro-acoustic percussion performances. Sounds weird in theory but worked well in practice. The apotheosis of this trend came in the form of Kid MIllions' transcendent Man Forever performance at XP. The visiting New York percussionist arrived in Beijing, formed a five-drummer supergroup, and proceeded to pummel an unsuspecting audience with about an hour of rhythmic, ritual drone. Douban was behind that one as well, and caught a bit of the magic on video:
So yeah, Zhu Wenbo and crew were responsible for some of the best shows in Beijing this year, giving us a regular dose of local talent, young blood from across the country, and some of the most interesting off-radar international acts that have come through to date. (Motorpsycho was also sick.) For more homage, check a Zoomin' Night five-year retrospective I wrote for LEAP magazine over here.
iimmune at Dada, June 4, 2014
Flipping the record over to the electronic side: Dada continues to own the scene. If in 2013 Dada "became the default destination for a whole new generation of F.O.B. 20-something liberal arts majors (English teachers) and Gulou hoodrats," this year it became just "the default." Easily the venue at which I spent the most time this year, for the top shelf programming, the guaranteed shitshow programming, the times I didn't even know who'd be playing or DJing but went just to soak in the messy mass of humanity that is 206 Gulou. (Shoutout to default expat rock bar Temple for keeping it real on that front as well.)
Container @ Shelter, Sep 27, 2014
This year, though, I was increasingly drawn south by harsh sounds and underground gigs happening in Shanghai. The best "club" show I saw in 2014 was Container's live set at The Shelter in September. Just a perfect mix of setting (Shelter, as the name implies, is a subterranean, blast-proof chamber beneath Yongfu Lu) and sound (jagged noise techno). Felt gritty and analog but forward-looking and advanced at the same time. Not unlike the music of the show's promoter, Tzusing, who this year released one of the most brutal slabs of electronic music to ever come out of China in the form of a 7" for heavy-hitting Brooklyn label L.I.E.S. "Four tracks of dark, abrasive, metallic techno that will make you feel kind of funny at that joint where your skull meets the top of your spine," I said about it when it came out. Sure, why not?
While I'm on this recycling trip, let me regurgitate a few words I had for another great 2014 release from the Shanghai electronic underground, S L V's Moss Temple:
...anyone who’s been there knows that the real Shanghai den is none other than the nefarious, burned-out bomb: Shelter... S L V was both conceived and born in said den, even sounds like it: uneven reverb, literally sub bass, the crackling of frayed electric nerves audible beneath a layer of blast-proof concrete, the aerosolized remnants of all them Hyperdub dudes who’ve been passing through...
Point I was ham-fistedly trying to make is that a lot of the most interesting sounds coming out of Shanghai now are being incubated and shaped by The Shelter, specifically. The Shelter's main booker, Gaz Williams, has been breathing life into the scene through his work at the venue, his Sub-Culture booking platform (responsible for bringing Kode9/ DJ Spinn, J-Cush / Total Freedom, and Mykki Blanco to Beijing this year), and his boutique SVBKVLT label, which issued that S L V EP and a new one from Howie Lee this year. As an added bonus, the Sub-Culture package also exudes the visual aura of Kim Laughton, truly a world-class artist whose work lends the whole enterprise a sheen of futuristic promise, or at least vivid contemporaneity.
Outside of Gaz's own bookings, The Shelter has also functioned as a home base for various freelance noise weirdos lurking around Shanghai's musical peripheries. My favorite such weirdo is Acid Pony Club's Laura Ingalls, who served up Shanghai's best gig series in 2014 through his Let's Get Naked And Listen To A Bunch Of Drones monthly at Shelter. Not content to simply lock a bunch of people in a gnarly basement and inundate them with harsh, vaguely evil drone music, Mr. Ingalls this year also launched a cassette label — Huashan Records — so that he might share his dark vision with people outside of the Shanghai bubble. In the span of a few months, he's already released four tapes, and has many more slated for next year. Here's the best one of the lot so far, a meandering psychedelic electro-rock trip taken by Acid Pony Club and the now defunct Death to Giants:
Han Han at Shelter Shanghai, Jun 5, 2014
One more loose observation: another artist I saw develop dramatically in 2014 was Shanghai's Duck Fight Goose. When I interviewed chief songwriter / lead vocalist Han Han back in March, I wrote:
Duck Fight Goose, Shanghai's most established rock band, is drifting. A major phase ended when their longtime drummer Da Men and her husband Brad Ferguson, the band's former manager/live sound technician, moved to Austin, TX at the end of 2012. Since then, the core trio of guitarist Panda, bassist San San, and vocalist/guitar/synth fiddler Han Han has pivoted, moving more toward electronic sounds and integrating the by comparison jazzier rhythms of new drummer Jean Baptiste.
When I saw them in the Spring, they were still finding their legs. Again, The Shelter has functioned as a testing ground, an experimental field in which to try new ideas. Han Han participated in this year's Red Bull Music Academy Bass Camp, a week-long workshop that pulled people from China's rock, electronic, hip hop, and folk worlds into a handful of studios to really smash together stylistically. Afterwards, Han Han could be found playing solo sets as GOOOOOSE at Shelter, refining ideas on the laptop that would later plug back into the band. I saw Duck Fight Goose a few times over the Fall, in both Shanghai and Beijing, and can say that they've reached a new level. Might piss off a few fans, might attract some new ears. Let's see next year.
Duck Fight Goose @ Yuyintang, Sep 20, 2014
I could keep going, but I don't want this thing to get too long. No self-important prognosticating for 2015 either, except to say I'm really psyched! New albums from Duck Fight Goose, Yang Fan, Chui Wan, Hiperson, Alpine Decline, and Bedstars, plus China tours for Iceage, Swans, Primitive Calculators, and Kawabata Makoto, and that's just in like the first three months! Beijing is officially one of the best places in the world for live music.