Taking out the thrash
Beijing. Friday night. It's been a hot and humid day, tempered only by the occasional shower. But nightfall has brought a breeze, cooling the city as another working week draws to a close. Crowds are heading to the popular party haunts of Chaoyang and Sanlitun and the parks that surround the districts to wind down ahead of the weekend. In the northern part of the city, however, there's a group of diehard fans gathering in a dingy bar to listen to their favourite tunes being thrashed out by a motley crew of hard-core musicians.
The university district of Haidan is home to the 13 Bar. It's not the most fashionable establishment in the capital, but tonight it's a haven for this small group of thrash metal lovers. The surroundings do not matter; where their favourite underground bands go, they are happy to follow. Nestled between a couple of restaurants and a reeking public toilet, you can feel the throb of the bar as you approach. The music is powerful and loud.
There's a group of young guys loitering outside, most of them sporting waist-long hair or dreadlocks. They are wearing the uniform of metal fans the world over: black on black; from their tight trousers to their baggy T-shirts. They drink beer and smoke cigarettes before heading into the bar, which is hosting its monthly thrash metal session - a highlight in a limited social calendar for these fringe dwellers of music.
Inside the dark, smoky bar, the walls are covered with graffiti and the tables and chairs have seen better days. There's a heavy-set man on a small stage. His legs are slightly splayed and he's playing a black, arrow-shaped electric guitar as he shouts incomprehensibly into a microphone. He is flanked by two guitarists and behind them is the drummer. This is Shentou and they play 'old school' thrash metal similar to that peddled by Metallica in the American group's early days. There's about 40 people in the audience and many of them swarm in front of the stage, head-banging in time with the music. Others stand at the back of the bar motionless, staring at the spectacle. Shantou's time in the spotlight is short, lasting just 20 minutes before the next band - Hyonblud - hit the stage.
Hyonblud play 'new school' death metal and have been described as this genre's leading band in the mainland by PainKiller magazine, China's first - and only - heavy metal publication. Their frontman, a spiky-haired Beijing native known simply as Wami, delivers the lyrics in a growl while his bandmates provide deafening support with rapid guitar riffs and repetitive, cold drum beats in what could be
described as a thrash metal version of techno. The popular band perform only six songs, each of which lasts less than two minutes, because the schedule is tight tonight, with six groups featured on the bill. Hyonblud are under pressure to clear the stage so the next act can warm up.
IN A COUNTRY flooded with kitschy, catchy pop tunes - either produced locally or imported en masse from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and the west - thrash metal is looked upon with suspicion and its followers, who look and/or sound like purgatory demons, are a rebellious rarity. In Beijing, however, a general acceptance of artistic creativity has developed since the early 1990s. Avant-garde and extreme music genres have been accepted, although not necessarily embraced.
'In the past decade, people in Beijing have become more accepting of creativity that is different from the mainstream,' says 26-year-old Kou Zhengyu, the lead guitarist for Suffocated. Kou's band, considered some of the country's top thrash metallers, have been strutting their stuff on the Beijing metal scene for the past eight years. 'We're different from the western thrash metal bands in that our music combines elements from Chinese traditional passion and feeling with western thrash metal,' he says. 'We infuse affection into our music, while western thrash is often cold and emotionless.'
Other thrash metal bands in Beijing, such as Evil Thorn and Wrath of Despot, have distanced themselves from Chinese influences and style themselves on Scandinavian black metal bands and European folklore. For Evil Thorn, the only element that appears to tie them to their ethnicity is their dislike of the Japanese, which is reflected in their extreme lyrics and is presumably based on their nationalist education.
Thrash metal is a sub-genre of heavy metal, which comes under the umbrella of rock. These musicians use the same instruments - electric guitars, bass and drums - and use similar musical arrangements to other rock performers but rely on heavily compressed distortion to give thrash metal its unique sound. Western thrash metal emerged in the 1980s with bands such as Metallica, Megadeth, Overkill and Slayer. Their music was non-commercial and characterised by adolescent rage, building on the type of music played by Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Motorhead before them. The result was more distortion, a faster beat, more furious riffs, shorter songs and ear-splitting live concerts.
Thrash metal also borrows heavily from punk but, unlike punk, which often addresses social and political issues, it is vague in its agenda. Instead, it is more about a performer's technique in mastering an instrument and the atmosphere a band creates.
Lyrics usually deal with murder, suicide, war, violence, Satanism and probe other dark corners
of the human psyche.
'In the west you have bands that work in a rock scene that has been in existence for more then 40 years,' says Xia Yan, 24, the lead guitarist for Super Panda and who also plays with mainland folk-rock star Zhen Jun. 'There are second- and even third-generation rock musicians and fans, so there's much more awareness and understanding. In the west, everyone knows what heavy metal is, but in China, it's been in existence for only about 10 years. Most people have no idea what this music is about and many have never even heard of it.'
Kou says this is what makes Chinese thrash metal so unique. 'It is sung in Putonghua and due to its
late arrival to China, and its relative isolation, it offers a different interpretation from its western origin,'
None of the band members interviewed for this article have been overseas, let alone seen a foreign metal band perform live. Most of them don't speak or read English either, which means their interpretation of western thrash metal is mostly in style and music as opposed to lyrical content. 'There are specially designated stores where we buy the CDs,' says Evil Thorn's 23-year-old lead singer, Li Chao.
'All our musical influences come from listening to foreign thrash metal, [illegally] imported from over-seas, and watching DVDs.'
Foreign-published media of all kinds needs to have official approval before it can be imported or republished locally and thrash metal certainly doesn't pass the central government's test for 'harmful foreign influences'.
BACK AT THE BAR, it is Suffocated's turn to take the stage. Their set is grand, melodramatic and powerful. In contrast to Chinese popular music, which tends to put an emphasis on melodic arrangement and easy-listening tunes, Suffocated's music is aggressive and their vocals little more than a howl. But it is their professionalism and co-ordination - no doubt the result of talent and countless hours of practice - that take the uninitiated observer by surprise.
There are between 30 and 40 thrash or extreme metal bands in Beijing - others include Lingji and Ego Fall - and they play for about 2,000 devotees. Both the fans and band members are actively involved in this underground community, which stays connected by using the internet and text messaging to co-ordinate concerts and gatherings. Fans socialise with band members and the distinction between the two is often blurred. Friendly, polite and helpful, the fans appear to be a contradiction to the music.
'Some people have extreme feelings about life and, therefore, their outlook is also quite extreme - tattoos, long hair and extravagant clothes,' says Xia. 'As for myself, when I feel angry, I don't need to express it through the way I look and behave; I can express it in my music.'
The fans are mostly students, at high school or university, in many cases studying the arts. Band members either work odd jobs to fund their musical dreams or they are unemployed, in which case they borrow money from their parents and other relatives to keep playing.
One of the most popular jobs for a musician of any ilk is that of a salesperson in a music store. Zhai Xiao Jun, 23, who plays bass guitar for Evil Thorn and is the frontman for Wrath of Despot, works in a music shop, while Wu Peng of Suffocated is a rare breed - he owns his own. Others, such as Kou and Li, work in the music industry as producers and Evil Thorn's axe-man, Nan Shan, 24, is a cartoonist. All say the most difficult aspect to pursuing their music is funding it. 'It's impossible to make a living from this type of music in China,' says Xia. 'Only bands that can move up from the underground can make a living by making music.'
Bands are paid either a fixed rate to perform or their fee is based on the number of tickets sold for a concert. Sometimes, a band will receive no more than their transportation costs. Financial hardship has forced many musicians to call it a day.
There's little chance these bands will expand their reach across the mainland while the likelihood of being discovered by an overseas audience is all but non-existent. They also face problems releasing their music commercially. 'We're an underground band, so we can't publish our music freely in China,' says Zigwac, 23, the lead vocalist for old school thrash band Hollow, who works as a physical education teacher at a junior high school and lives with his parents. 'We can't get a publishing code to release our music. As with everything else in China, it's based on personal relationships. You would have to be in a close relationship with a producer for them to put you on air. It is almost impossible to get public exposure.'
But changing their music to fit in is not an option for these young bands. They are determined to tread their own path despite the roadblocks they face commercially, professionally and financially. 'We are playing this kind of music because we want to make ourselves happy - if we can bring pleasure to others, that's an additional achievement,' says Zigwac, whose band did manage to organise a mini-tour recently, playing in Shanghai, Xian, Guangzhou and Wuhan.
'We are not in it for the money. We want to express our feelings in the music and we don't want to be involved in mainstream music.'
'In the west, everyone knows what heavy metal is, but in China, it's been in existence for only about 10 years. Most people have no idea what this music is about and Many have never even heard of it'
'We are not in it for the money. We want to express our feelings in the music and we don't want to be involved in mainstream music'