The Yaogun Diaries, part 3.5

Part of a series dealing with rock music in China, mostly Beijing because that's what I know. 摇滚 (yáogǔn) is the Chinese word for rock music, the two characters literally meaning "shake" and "roll".

Hedgehog (Revisited)

When I wrote about this band a few weeks ago, I mentioned that I had never heard, let alone seen, their first album, Happy Idle Kid. Well, due to the help of some readers who commented on that post, I managed to track it down. At one point the band had made it available for a free download, and as we all know, once something is out on the internet, it’s there forever. This one took a lot of searching to find, but it paid off.
I was expecting this to be rather primitive sounding, but aside from the minimal production (which actually works in the music’s favor), this is a good solid effort, and shows the band knew what they were doing even less than a year into their existence.


Here’s a track to check out. It starts somewhat quietly with an odd bass riff, only later adding in louder rhythm guitar. It is representative of the album as a whole, though of course there is some variety, with a slow song (柏油公路 – “Asphalt Road”) for a change of pace. I have no trouble recommending this set of tunes to anyone who likes the band’s later, more well-known, material.

Note: All images and audio files presented here are in the interest of increasing awareness of Chinese rock in the English-speaking world. If you are the owner of the copyright in any of them and object to this free promotion, let me know and I'll remove the offending media.


The Yaogun Diaries, part 4

Part of a series dealing with rock music in China, mostly Beijing because that's what I know. 摇滚 (yáogǔn) is the Chinese word for rock music, the two characters literally meaning "shake" and "roll".

Supermarket (超级市场, chāojíshìchǎng)

In the interests of variety, this time I’ll talk about Supermarket. Unlike the previous bands I’ve talked about, this one has very little relation with punk music – probably the closest comparison I can make would be Depeche Mode. I came to this band rather late – in fact, it was only as I was planning my departure from China and making a list of CDs to buy before leaving that I discovered them. The band was founded in 1996, and the following year signed up with Modern Sky Records.

Their first album came out in 1998, called in Chinese 模样 (múyàng), and in English usually The Look (that’s “look” as in “appearance” or “style”).
Their sound is high-tech and heavy on keyboards, with dreamy vocals and atmospheric guitar; drums are both real and electronic, programmed and played by human hands. In general, they aim more towards middle tempos and simple tunes lushly produced rather than energy and aggression.

Sad Hallucination

That’s a tune called 悲伤的幻觉 (bēishāng de huànjué) which should give you a good idea of what they’re about. They also tend to take their time about things, with most of the tracks in the six to seven minute range, which can be a good or bad thing depending on your mood. At times, the music gets quite abstract, leaning towards experimental electronic music.

On their second album, the slight experimental tendencies of the debut are brought to the forefront. It’s called 七种武器 (qī zhǒng wǔqì – Seven Kinds of Weapon), and the ten tracks are named simply “S1” through “S10.”
I really commend Modern Sky for sticking with them with such a non-commercial effort.

It’s a little on the long side, but here’s the opening track, which is a good example of what they’re up to.


It starts off with odd percussive noises and bass notes from a synthesizer, building in intensity for a minute or so before an IDM style programmed drum part comes in. Then it suddenly cuts the tempo in half with a hypnotic guitar part, which is eventually combines with the double-time drums. Then you get voices, electronic ones and seriously distorted human ones. Well, listen for yourself.

To be fair, this is not obnoxious experimentation, and is often tuneful, though even in melodic moments there are distorted sounds in the background and unusual touches that set it apart from stock electronic pop. Many tracks feature oddly treated vocals, sometimes sounding very childlike (maybe actually a child singing). Two tracks stretch to over ten minutes. In one case a five minute techno song drifts off into outer space for a couple minutes, then is reborn with a harder edged guitar part for a while, then, after a brief break filled with vocal samples, builds slowly up to a big finish.

The Rock in China entry mentions a 2002 release called Laser Age – Laser Time, but I’ve found no information about it. It’s not listed on the Modern Sky site, and my searches have turned up nothing about it.

Modern Sky lists 繁荣的 (fánróngde – Prosperous) as their third album. It came out in 2004. It does include a song called 激光时代, which translates as “Laser Age,” so maybe the mystery release is a single.
While still quite experimental in places, in general this album is catchier, and in fact I’ve chosen its poppiest track as a sample.

Beautiful Girl

It’s maybe not completely representative of the album, but it just makes me smile every time I hear it.

There are still some weird touches, with sound effects, spoken voice samples, manipulated sounds, and so on, often combined with dancy beats.

Their fourth album is 音乐会 (yīnyuèhuì – Concert), though honestly I can’t tell if it’s a live recording or that’s just the title – I can’t hear any crowd noise. I don’t have a physical copy of the CD to check the credits. If anyone knows for sure, let me know and I’ll update this entry.
This one continues the basic trend of the previous albums, with catchy electronic pop songs interspersed with experimental sounds. Female vocals appear on several tracks, including this one:

TV 84

That’s 电视八十四 (diànshì bāshísì). The female vocalist is apparently a guest performer, since the band is still a trio. All of the tracks are original, no versions of previously released music.

This band doesn’t seem to play live very often (though if Concert is an example, they do it well), and I never saw them perform, so these four CDs are all I have to go on. They’re an example of a different facet of Chinese music, a far cry from the loud guitars of The P.K 14 or Hedgehog (see my previous posts if you missed those).

Rock in China: http://wiki.rockinchina.com/index.php?title=Supermarket
MySpace (Chinese): http://www.myspace.cn/chaojishichang
Modern Sky: http://www.modernsky.com/

Note: All images and audio files presented here are in the interest of increasing awareness of Chinese rock in the English-speaking world. If you are the owner of the copyright in any of them and object to this free promotion, let me know and I'll remove the offending media.


The Yaogun Diaries, part 3

Part of a series dealing with rock music in China, mostly Beijing because that's what I know. 摇滚 (yáogǔn) is the Chinese word for rock music, the two characters literally meaning "shake" and "roll".


This band was the subject of frequent notices in the English-language publications around Beijing from the time I started reading them, and the descriptions were enticing enough for me to buy their second CD Noise Hit World (Badhead/Modern Sky, 2007) without hearing any of it first.
It’s a really engaging pop-punk sound with some elements of both British and Japanese rock to it. Like many Beijing bands, Hedgehog is a trio, in this case guitar/bass/drums, and also like many Beijing bands, at least one member is female, in this case drummer 阿童木 (Atom, as in Astroboy, because she is small in size but very powerful just like the robot boy in the cartoon). Their modus operandi is to establish a catchy rock groove and add somewhat sing-song vocals over it, sometimes punctuated by enthusiastic shouts. Guitarist 子健 (ZO) does most of the singing, though Atom helps out with backing, occasional lead, and shouting. The lyrics are mostly in English, unabashedly sung with Chinese accents. The bassist also goes by a nickname, 博宣 (Box).

Here’s the opening track for you to get the idea.

Toy & 61 Festival

It wasn’t long before I got a chance to see them live (covered here originally). They were part of a four-band bill at Yugong Yishan for the two-band album release party of Carsick Cars and Snapline on November 10, 2007.
That was a great night of music, and Hedgehog were outstanding – noisy and rowdy without being out of control.
I ended up seeing them live the following weekend at 2 Kolegas as part of a different four-band bill. This time they were the final band after RandomK(e), Subs, and Re-TROS.
Most of the decent pictures I got appear in my original post over here.
2 Kolegas is a very different environment from Yugong Yishan, closer to classic “dive” status and proud of it. The smaller, more intimate show was looser and ended with a real Rock and Roll Moment, as I described in my original post.

The band has remained active since then, though I haven’t seen them again. Their third CD, Blue Daydreaming (白日梦蓝 – báirìmèng lán), came out in 2009 on Modern Sky, and, like Noise Hit World, is much more subtle and melodic than their live persona would indicate, thought it’s full of vitality and charm. This time the lyrics are split about halfway between English and Chinese, but I don’t think that’s an indication of them giving up on international recognition.
As much as I like Noise Hit World, I think this one is better. Here’s one of many great selections.


I said it’s more subtle, but that doesn’t mean it’s wimpy. It’s more muscular sounding in many places, though there are passages of acoustic guitar with dreamy vocals.

There’s also a 2006 CD called Happy Idle Kid which I’ve never seen in stores or at a gig.

Here’s a fun video which is from the album:

Haven’t been able to find a download anywhere either, though I’ve searched all over. For some reason when you try searching with this band’s name (or the Chinese equivalent 刺猬 cìwèi which they don’t use very conspicuously), you find a bunch of video-game related stuff.

Rock in China: http://wiki.rockinchina.com/index.php?title=Hedgehog
MySpace (Chinese, but with audio): http://www.myspace.cn/hedgehog
AMP interview (in English): http://amp.channelv.com/seenandheard/2007/07/24/1185244713938.html

Note: All images and audio files presented here are in the interest of increasing awareness of Chinese rock in the English-speaking world. If you are the owner of the copyright in any of them and object to this free promotion, let me know and I'll remove the offending media.


The Yaogun Diaries, part 2

Part of a series dealing with rock music in China, mostly Beijing because that's what I know. 摇滚 (yáogǔn) is the Chinese word for rock music, the two characters literally meaning "shake" and "roll".

The P.K.14

Like Re-TROS in my last installment, this band has its roots in Nanjing. They have continually played with their name, claiming it stands for various different things at different times. They have also been listed at times as P.K.14 (The Chinese language has no articles, so this is pretty common with band names). Their newest release uses The, so I’ll call that the preferred form.

Way back in the spring of 2007, the P.K.14 was one of the first Chinese bands I saw play live (read about it here). They opened for the Soundtrack of Our Lives at Star Live. At that time, their third album 白皮书 (Báipíshū – White Paper), while more than a year old, was still getting positive reviews in the Chinese English-language press, so I went to their MySpace page and checked out the music. For some reason it didn’t really grab me, though I didn’t dislike it.

The two most notable things about their sound were the lead vocals of Yang Haisong (杨海崧), which are not terribly melodic, mixing yelping, yelling, and overwrought semi-spoken Chinese, and the guitar of Xu Bo (许波) , which generally stays away from rhythmic playing like you expect in punkish rock, kind of like the Edge in a less anthemic setting than U2.
This leaves the bass and guitar to push the rhythms. They also have a tendency to wander off into moody grooves with atmospheric guitar (which U2 also did in their early days). Other good comparisons include Television and Joy Division.
I think it was probably the vocals that prevented me from enjoying this band right off the bat. It wasn’t until I had much more experience listening to Chinese rock that I came to appreciate them. A few months after seeing them live, I reread some of the CD reviews and decided to give it another go. I bought the album and listened to it a few times, gradually coming to the realization that it really was quite good. It’s on the Badhead division of Modern Sky, China’s premier independent rock label.

As an aside, on the CD spine, the band’s name is given as Pent Kilowatt One More Than Thirteen. On the opposite spine, they have the Chinese name 青春公共王国 (qīngchūn gōnggòng wángguó), which means Public Kingdom for Teens – get it? P.K. 14. As you can see, the front cover just says P.K. 14.
The album has worn well for me, and I still like listening to it a lot.


As you can hear on this song, 他们 (Tāmen – “They”), the band is not averse to including embellishments to their guitar-bass-drums core. Other tracks include glockenspiel and synthesizer. The credits are all in Chinese, but according to the Rock in China bio, the album was recorded in Sweden with producer Hernik Oja. The band’s long-time (though not original) drummer is of Swedish ancestry, though he’s lived most of his life in China and Hong Kong.


I can’t resist giving you another sample of this record. The energy and passion in this track are obvious even if you know nothing of the words. I love the way the guitar is at times pounding out the eighth notes and then breaks off to soar melodically, and the climax of the tune, which finishes off the album, is positively cathartic. It’s called 故事 (Gùshi), which means “Story” or “Saga.”

In June of 2008, just before the Olympics, the band released their fourth album, 城市天气的航行 (chéngshì tiānqì de hángxíng), which translates rather cryptically as City Weather Sailing. It’s on the Maybe Mars label, which has been putting out a lot of good stuff lately. The artwork is just as cryptic, with a blurry cityscape on the front...
and a rather strange photo of performance art or modern dance on the back:
As soon as I pressed Play on the first of its 18 tracks, I knew I was in for something special. The sparse keyboard touches of the previous album have been enhanced to the point of having their own voice, though still without overpowering the post-punk core of the band. This is music that is both sophisticated and visceral. Six of the tracks are interludes under a minute long, brief improvisations that set up the mood without seeming indulgent or unnecessary.

Here is the second cut, 穿過河堤(chuānguò hédī – “Wade the River”), which features an excellent string arrangement.

Wade the River

Now that I’ve covered their third and fourth albums, what about the earlier ones? Rock in China lists a 2001 CD called 上楼就往左拐 (shànglóu jiù wǎng zuǒguǎi – Upstairs on the Left), released on Subjam in China and Empty Egg, a Canadian label, but I have never seen this available for purchase or download anywhere.
There is also a demo collection called 烂掉吧 (làndiào ba – Rotting, or maybe Rotten) which is available for download (with the exception of track 5) from here along with RealMedia of some other demos. All of the tracks listed for the Upstairs CD also appear on the demo collection – I don’t know if the Subjam/Empty Egg release featured exactly the same recordings or new versions of the same songs.
Aside from the demo’s production quality, which is not so bad, the music, while it does contain the seeds of the band’s style, is less interesting. There are no credits to go on, but it sounds like they’re using a drum machine. The mood is more subdued, completely lacking the intense energy shown on later recordings. All in all, it reminds me much more of Joy Division than their later material. Incidentally, the file I downloaded for track 6 seems to consist of 5:35 of silence.

Invested in the Break of an Embrace

Check out 投向分裂的怀抱 (tóu xiàng fēnliè de huáibào), which might or might not translate as “Invested in the Break of an Embrace.” It’s one of a few of the demo tracks that really give the sense of what the band would later grow into.

Their second album came out in 2004, and it is where the band came into their own stylistically. The improved production and drumming really fill out the sound, and we’re starting to see touches of the sophistication. The album is called 谁谁谁和谁谁谁 (shéishéishéi hé shéishéishéi – Who Who Who and Who Who Who, which is maybe some kind of expression I’m not familiar with).
The song I’ve chosen for you to sample is 第二十八个影子 (dì'èrshíbāgè yǐngzi – “The 28th Shadow”).

The 28th Shadow

Just a few days before I left China, I got the chance to see The P.K.14 live again. This time the show was at Yugong Yishan. They had the middle spot on a bill with Offset: Spectacles before them and the American band These Are Powers after.
One thing’s for sure: they were a lot louder this time.
In fact, it was one of those shows where the music was so loud that any nuances were completely overwhelmed by volume.
Yugong Yishan has an excellent sound system, and most of the time even loud bands sound good, but this one was way over the top.
Still, they really had the crowd going.
The material off the newest album sounded very different than it did in the studio.
And a little crowd surfing never hurts.

Rock in China entry: http://wiki.rockinchina.com/index.php?title=P.K.14
MySpace: http://www.myspace.com/pk14
Modern Sky Records: http://www.modernsky.com/
Maybe Mars Records: http://www.bingmasi.com/
Tenzenmen: http://www.tenzenmen.com/ (an Australian distributor)

Note: All images and audio files presented here are in the interest of increasing awareness of Chinese rock in the English-speaking world. If you are the owner of the copyright in any of them and object to this free promotion, let me know and I'll remove the offending media.


The Yaogun Diaries, part 1

Part of a series dealing with rock music in China, mostly Beijing because that's what I know. 摇滚 (yáogǔn) is the Chinese word for rock music, the two characters literally meaning "shake" and "roll".


When I first went to China back in 2006, one of my goals was to learn as much as I could about music there. Being the musical omnivore I am, that included everything from traditional folk music to academic Chinese Classical music to pop and rock – whatever I might find there. Somehow I never managed to see a Peking Opera show, but I saw dozens of rock bands, and the whole phenomenon of rock in China fascinated me.

While it's undeniable that rock music is a Western art form in its origins, it's also undeniable that it has had an impact all around the world. I think this is in part because rock is not a clearly defined genre, but a kind of cultural chameleon. It can absorb various outside traditions and remain rock. This is nothing new – it started back in the 60s when elements of European Classical music and the music of the Middle East and India started to filter into psychedelic rock. As I see it, rock was born out of the union of rhythm and blues (at the time mostly confined to predominantly black communities) with country music (primarily a white form of music), so it should be no surprise that rock is good at melding what may seem like opposites. Over the decades since its birth, rock has mated with just about every possible form of music on the planet, and its bastard offspring can be found just about everywhere you could point on a globe.

So it should come as no surprise that there is rock music in China. I've even had reports that rock is starting to make inroads in North Korea, though in a highly constrained form that mostly resembles 60s surf music – all instrumental, thus avoiding any questionable lyrical content. The government of the People's Republic of China is also known for censorship, though it is nowhere near as restrictive as North Korea, and musicians there have their own methods of dealing with it. We'll get to that later.

I went to a lot of shows at clubs, theaters, and festivals over the last two and a half years in Beijing, and you can get some descriptions and photos on my China blog by searching on the music tag. Like any thriving music scene, Beijing has artists that cover a wide variety of styles, from raucous classic punk to acoustic singer/songwriters, from experimental noise to sweet technopop. Some of them come off as derivative of their Western prototypes, some of them are wildly original. Some of them sing in English, some in Chinese, and some in other languages. All in all, there are easily a couple dozen artists there worthy of international attention, and from my own difficulties, I know how hard it can be to learn about them. There is precious little information, even in Chinese, to guide you, and a lot of it is extremely difficult to come by outside the country. So I'd like to share what I've learned, and help bring together some of what's available elsewhere on the web.

First up, there is an online directory, Rock in China, that has a lot of information, most of it in English. It's an evolving resource with user-created content like Wikipedia. I've been contributing there myself, and will continue to do so as I have time and facts. I've also contributed and updated artist bios on Last.fm for many of the bands I know. A lot of Chinese rock is available for download at VeryCD, though I'll leave it up to others to determine the moral/legal status of what's there – it's also in Chinese, though I've found that even with limited language skills, it's possible to make my way around. I can give some lessons for those who are interested – just ask.

And now, since it seems like it would be a shame to end this post without covering something specific, I'll tell you about...


This is one of very few Chinese bands which is available on CD in the US. Their first album, Cut Off!, was released by Tag Team Records, and they’ve toured in the US, including a spot at SXSW in 2007. Their first album lists their full name as Reestablishing the Rights of Statues – later items have called them Rebuilding the Rights of Statues. The Chinese version is 重塑雕像的权利 (chóngsù diāoxiàng de quánlì), which can be translated either way.

That American release (actually an EP) is a 2007 re-release of something that came out in China on Badhead Records (a division of Modern Sky) in 2005 with one added track. Both are called Cut Off! I have the Chinese version. As the story goes, Brian Eno was working in the same studio where they were recording, liked their music, and ended up doing some guest keyboards on some of the tracks.
Stylistically, they are most closely related to Gang of Four, Bauhaus, Joy Division, Pere Ubu and early Talking Heads, though they are distinctive enough to avoid any charges of being mere copycats. Their lyrics are almost entirely in English.

TV Show (Hang the Police)

There's also a video for this song, which you can watch online:

I first saw them live in November of 2007 at a little club called 2 Kolegas, which is a great place located inside the grounds of a drive-in movie theater, along with a number of other bars and restaurants. It was my first time going to the place, and it was not easy to find. The taxi driver had no clue (at that time I spoke very little Chinese), so it was lucky I’d looked at a map and knew the general location. It was a triple bill, starting with Subs, then Re-TROS, and finishing up with Hedgehog. I’ll talk about the other two later.
Re-TROS put on an amazing show, very intense with energy and commitment, probably including imperfections but much too enjoyable for me to care.
The lyrics, which deal with social issues bordering on politics, were pretty much indistinguishable. Lead singer 华东 (Hua Dong) is extremely emotive in a jerky David Byne kind of way.
Bassist Liu Min (刘敏) is less demonstrative, providing solid low end and backing vocals. Ma Hui (马晖) is mostly simple, but quite imaginative on the drums, with lots of unconventional patterns and unexpected accents.

2Kolegas is a great place to see a show, not such a great place to take pictures since the lighting is pretty minimal. You can read my original post about the show here.

After that night, I didn’t get a chance to see them again until June of 2009, at the release party for their full-length CD with the unwieldy title of Watch Out! Climate Has Changed, Fat Mum Rises... (including punctuation), which is out on Modern Sky in China. So far no outside release that I'm aware of.

My Great Location

This show was at Yugong Yishan, which is much bigger, with better lights and sound than 2Kolegas, though lacking the cozy dive ambiance.
This band was great before, but have since grown into something truly awesome. The new material is rather atmospheric on the CD, though the live show was every bit as intense as before.
Liu Min even handles lead vocals and melodica at times.
Hua Dong sometimes sets aside his guitar to concentrate on singing. When he does this, there are often taped guitar parts filling in. These “non-live” elements are mostly unobtrusive and do not detract at all from the impact of the show. I have also written about this show here.

In short, this band is one of the best bands in China, well able to hold their own with any band anywhere, both live and in the studio.

Rock in China entry: http://wiki.rockinchina.com/index.php?title=Re-TROS
Band home: http://re-tros.com/face.html
Band Myspace: http://www.myspace.com/rebuildingtherightsofstatues
Tag Team Records: http://www.tagteamrecords.com/
Modern Sky: http://www.modernsky.com/

Note: All images and audio files presented here are in the interest of increasing awareness of Chinese rock in the English-speaking world. If you are the owner of the copyright in any of them and object to this free promotion, let me know and I'll remove the offending media.


Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things

I had previously visited two of the major attractions on the western outskirts of Beijing: Xiangshan and Badachu. Recently (18 July) I added another, 北京植物园 (Zhiwuyuan, the Beijing Botanical Garden) which contains 卧佛寺 (Wofosi, the Temple of the Sleeping Buddha). Once again, I used a city bus to get there.
The bus passes by some interesting looking temples that I would love to visit someday.
The place is full of lovely landscaping, including ponds and bridges.
There is also a section of the huge park devoted to 曹雪芹 (Cao Yueqin), who wrote the classic 红楼梦 (Hong Lou Meng, Dream of the Red Chamber), which I have written about before.
The location in the hills is quite lovely, and a wide variety of different kinds of trees grace the grounds.
As I mentioned, there is an old temple inside the Garden grounds.
Inside the Glazed Arch is a little pond with koi and turtles.
The Sleeping Buddha itself is in a building where you are not allowed to take pictures.
You can see a bit of the bronze Buddha inside. It’s 5.3 meters (17' 4") long and weighs about 54 tons. The words over the door (明恒月性) I believe are supposed to be read right to left in the ancient manner, and have something to do with the quality of the moon being constant brightness. Either that or some kind of wish for the Ming Dynasty to last forever, since the name of the dynasty, 明 Ming, means bright.

Up the hill behind the temple is a little stream running down a shaded valley.
As you can see, this is a popular area for families to enjoy a little bit of nature.
Further up the valley is a grove dedicated to the metasequoia, also known as dawn redwood. This tree is common in the fossil record from millions of years ago, and was believed extinct until a small stand was discovered in Sichuan in 1944. Since then they have been planted all around the world, but it is still considered a critically endangered species. These trees were planted in 1975.

And for the bird lovers out there...
...I present a blurry telephoto shot of a fairly large bird I saw eating a fruit in a tree near the trail.

Back down in the valley, I found some nifty water plants.
One of the main attractions at the Garden is the Conservatory.
This is where they keep tropical and desert plants. As it turns out, the day I went there was so hot that it was actually cooler in some parts of the greenhouse than it was outside.
And they couldn’t resist adding some water features.
On the upper level is the desert area, with lots of cacti and succulents from various parts of the world. And a little Egyptian statue because just plants are not enough.

On the subject of not being able to resist:
No jungle is complete without dinosaurs.
Or terracotta warriors.

Like I said, the Garden is really huge, and there are parts of it that are currently not used much.
I rather like this picture of a disused path off to an unpopular area.

I’ll finish off with a collection of invertebrates I saw in the Garden.
Dragonfly (蜻蜓 qingting), mantis (螳蜋 tanglang), some kind of beetle (甲虫 jiachong), and millipede (千足虫 qianzuchong).

So that is the Botanical Garden. I must say it is much, much better than the Zoological Garden, and well worth the trip out of the city. It was very hot the day I went, but there are vendors with beverages and ice cream all over the place.