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".
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
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.