It’s that time of the year(s)… My 5 picks for yaogun albums of 2013.
Alphabetically, they are…:
Baishui 白水: Diary of Broken Sounds 碎音雜記 (suiyin zaji)
Speaking of yin, Baishui. Perhaps you are already familiar with your blogger’s connection to the Yibin, Sichuan-based musician—in particular, the US tour he helped to put together, featuring dates at and around SXSW, the massive Austin, TX festival/conference, and the article thereupon that ran in ChinaFile and The Atlantic. Suffice it to say, your blogger and Baishui are connected. Which makes Baishui’s music no less noteworthy for inclusion on year-end lists.
In a descriptive piece I wrote for the album (see the BandCamp link, below), I said that Diary of Broken Sounds was the yin to the yang of Baishui’s other 2013 release, the soundtrack for the film Einstein and Einstein (狗十三, directed by Cao Baoping 曹保平). Which makes it, to the yang of Dou Wei’s album, below, the sound of the effort made by the monk that one can imagine is the album’s protagonist straining to listen as his disciple attempts a one-handed clap while they rest, somewhere in a deserted forest in the still of a night on their journey deep into the heart of the Chinese countryside. So it’s a mellow album, but it’s a mellow album that is informed by equal parts new age and noise, post-rock and meditation music. It’s experimental and hypnotic, gorgeous and haunting, and like nothing else out there.
Available via BandCamp:
Dawanggang 大亡杠 — Wild Tune Stray Rhythm 荒腔走板 (huang qiang zou ban)
It’s hard to describe what hearing this album did to me upon my first listen, but, based on Song Yuzhe’s past yaogun work, that’s probably exactly what he was going for. If you haven’t already heard anything by Wooden Pushmelon, I’d suggest you head somewhere like here where the last three tracks of 2001’s Ma Music compilation are streaming (and, sure, dig the tunes by Glamourous Pharmacy and Ruins that are also there) or check out their tune on the 2001 compilation, Beijing Band. Wooden Pushmelon was deep into the weird part of the landscape, and though they never got around to recording beyond those few tunes, they were one of the best-loved acts on the new-millennial Beijing scene. What might have helped their reputation was Song’s sudden disinterest in yaogun and decision to head out to Tibet. After years of roaming the earth, studying folk music, scoring films, a brief collaboration with Glamourous Pharmacy in the chaotic-if-occasionally-awesome mostly-improvisational group 美之瓜 (Mei zhi gua, or ‘Glamourous Melon’), and, likely, more, Dawanggang emerged. This year, their 2010 debut was re-released internationally, with two extra songs, and, as a result, Dawanggang has joined the growing number of ethnic-folk-tinged artists now popping up on the global ‘world music’ radar.
Yes, the genre name itself is lame, in need of replacement, and possibly racist, but, for one, you could look at any number of genre ‘categories’ employed by, oh, say, the Midi Awards and wonder about the value of calling any band anything. For another, who’s gonna argue with great press and gigs? The band has played Roskilde Festival and WOMAD; was written up, glowingly, in the Guardian, and performed at the BBC.
If anything sounds like ‘the world,’ then it’s Dawanggang. This is an album of music that you just know comes from somewhere, but where that somewhere might be is unclear. It’s not that there’s no ‘there’ there, it’s that there is a place with a whole lotta ‘there’s. The title itself is a reference, from Chinese opera, to music slightly out of tune and rhythm: Dawanggang is neither out of tune or rhythm—certainly not in any way that makes you cringe or wonder if everyone’s on the same page. But with so many various elements—Mongolian, Han, Indian, various-Xinjiang-based-ethnicities, more—operating under the banner of weird that Song Yuzhe has been flying for many years now, what you’ve got is something that ‘world music’ comes close to characterising. Only ‘Other-World Music’ might be a bit closer.
Dou Wei 窦唯 — Calamity Gold Curse 殃金咒 (yangjin zhou)
Dou Wei’s newest turn takes him far from just about everywhere he’s been—and he’s been around. From frontman of the Bon-Jovi-meets-Wham! hair-rockers Black Panther, to goth-pop to ambient meditation and free jazz, this perennial bird-flipper’s latest is, arguably, his most provocative flip to those that thought they’d gotten a grip on who Dou Wei is (only ‘arguably’ because it might be easier for a punter looking for a return to Dou’s cock-rock roots to be ok with an album this heavy, versus, say, the same punter being confronted with an album of ambient noise). Calamity Gold Curse isn’t just a 45-minute one-track barrage that scarcely goes up for air: Not satisfied with self-asphyxiation, it seems to be intent on sucking up everyone else’s air while it’s at it. Which might explain how this record doesn’t need to come up for air.
Seems to me that instead of setting fire to that journalist’s car—or blowing up at any number of reporters, fans and others over the years—Dou Wei could have just done an inverse-Say Anything, and blasted this record outside the offices of the paper in question. I’ve read that the metal on display is ‘black,’ which is certainly one apt descriptor—and knowing how precise metalheadz file away their music, I’m apt to believe it—but I hear plenty of industrial, stoner rock and more. Whatever it gets filed under, the most important descriptor is great. According to one review, the title refers to the utterances over still-warm corpses that pass the time it takes for decisions to be made about the post-mortem direction of its soul. This album feels quite clear about the final destination in this case, and makes a great soundtrack to a journey down—waaaaaaay down. On the one hand, it’s a pummeling of the type I’d associate with no-holds-barred back-alley street-fighting, on the other, there’s something almost meditatively soothing about it. Maybe that’s just because I know it’s Dou Wei under there, but the effect is strange. While abrasive noise scatters itself throughout the record, I’m still somewhat soothed by this beast. “Don’t Break My Heart” will never sound the same again.
Purchase via TaoBao (China) or streaming at YouTube (alas, un-embedable)
PK14 — 1984
Absent from approximately nobody’s remotely-yaogun-related list is the latest from PK14, which was the result of an October, 2012 trip, along with long-time producer Henrik Oja, to the Chicago studio of musician, producer, writer and more Steve Albini. The nervousness of meeting one of their musical idols couldn’t have lasted long; the album, like much of the band’s catalogue, is confident and intense and cements the band’s standing atop the yaogun pile. Unlike many of their yaogun counterparts, PK14 has
created a fingerprint that was forged, for me, with 2004’s 谁谁谁和谁谁谁 (Who Who Who and Who Who Who), and solidified over the next two records (2005’s White Paper and 2008’s City Weather Sailing). By the time we get to 1984, the band’s fifth full-length and first in five years, it’s clear from the moment the album begins who we’re dealing with. It doesn’t just sound like PK14: It feels like PK14. I think of Radiohead—stylistically not unimportant to PK14 if not quite as direct a musical influence as, say, Gang of Four or Television—and the experience of their new albums since OK Computer: Even if you don’t know exactly what you’ll be hearing, you know what you’re getting into with each new record. With a serious catalogue under their belts, you now know what you’re getting into with a PK14 record.
Again: In a good way. This time around, the title of the album adds to the already-intense PK-ness, and to the urgency and stress that underlies—and drives—Yang Haisong’s vocal delivery. It is—forgive the retreat to Radioheadland—a voice like Thom Yorke’s: He might well be saying important things, but what’s most immediately important is how: You don’t need to understand the words to get the message. Certainly not when you call a record 1984 (and put, on its cover, an image of a father and son on the couch, the former reading what appears to be the eponymous book alongside the latter, holding an AK47 that is probably a toy but no less significant for it). And certainly not when you know that the bearer of the message is PK14. Add in the bass that growls, the drums that propel and the guitars that slice, and you can’t help feeling the Importance.
Aussie purveyor of fine yaogun (and more), Tenzenmen has the album available via BandCamp:
Zhaoze 沼泽 — Yond 远 (yuan)
I know for a fact that the English-language capabilities of Zhaoze are far ahead of many of their fellow yaogunners, but you wouldn’t know if from the title. The Chinese 远 (‘yuan‘) is ‘far,’ so what they were going for, I’m going to guess, is to add a bit of romantic Southern-China flair with the idea of “Yonder.” Alas. To be fair, nobody said that English-language skill was going to be part of this exam, and, besides, the long-running Guangzhou-based outfit has been making music that makes you want to overlook linguistic shortcomings for a long time now (but, seriously: Yond?!).
Yet again, their guqin-led post-rock soundscapes transport the listener to realms beyond, and it takes a special, and rare, talent (see, also, Baishui) for holding back, keeping quiet and, thereby, giving the listener pause to consider both what has come before and what is yet to come, to allow the most ancient of instruments—a seven-string zither that’s been played for millennia—to take the lead. On Yond, it’s not just the guqin that harkens back to the ancients. The cover art, a modern scroll painting (ok, photo), implies the visual-art equivalent of the music being made; like the ability to pluck a tune on the guqin, in ancient times, a Gentleman wasn’t worthy of the name if he couldn’t whip up a scroll painting.
Yes, post-rock is somewhat textbooky and much of it is easy to dismiss on that basis. Me, I’d take mediocre post-rock over mediocre indie rock any day—the yaogun landscape is much more lousy with the latter and has been for too long—but that’s not the point, here: Zhaoze hasn’t made anything resembling mediocrity in a long time. 2011’s 1911 and 2010’s Cang Lang Xin were gorgeous, and I keep coming upon gems in their (deeper-than-you-think) back catalogue, back to the days when they called themselves, in English, Swamp (they are now, in English, Zhaoze). While the record does have its share of intensity—the band’s inner Pink Floyd has never been far below the surface—the overall feel is of a yin to, say, Dou Wei’s yang, a trance into which one is slowly, willingly, lulled rather than the blackout that results from the sledgehammer to the head. And with Zhaoze, even if you wake up wondering what hit you, you don’t wake up in pain.
Stream and purchase the album at BandCamp; below, the video for the lead-off track, “Leave”:
It would be hard for Omnipotent Youth Society to do wrong in my books. I was ecstatic to hear that they had new material, and “An Adventure in the Dark Clouds Market” is all that I dig about this band. Midi nominated this tune for Song of the Year in their Rock Awards (though, once again, the organisation has proved unable to release a list free of ridiculous; Exhibit A: After awarding yourself the Greatest Contribution to Yaogun award once before, is there a need to renominate yourself?), which is great, but has little bearing on the enjoyment I get from the folky rock at work here; fiddles and trumpet, and a bit of mandolin too (also, possibly: kazoo!). Fits in nicely with their 2010 full-length, but implies that there’s more greatness to come. Available at iTunes and elsewhere:
A video for the song, with clips from the 2012 film NO, about a late-80s Chilean admanand the plebiscite to determine Augusto Pinochet’s ability to extend his rule as president for another eight years (makes one think about political statements being made by the kids, today):
I was tipped to Unrest in Shadow (or 伞, which is actually ‘umbrella,’ but, well)’s Pilots in Cells via China Music Radar’s end of the year list and was pleasantly surprised with what I heard. I won’t make more reference to the semantic/linguistic issues with their name, but will give it a hearty thumbs-up, not only because they made a great little post-rock record, but also because the good folks at Weary Bird are behind this. The album is available at Weary Bird’s BandCamp site.