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".
Cold Fairyland (冷酷仙境 lěngkù xiānjìng)
When I moved to China, I had in mind the goal of trying to find good, interesting music that didn’t just imitate foreign styles. Quite soon, this band’s name started cropping up. Their live album was released in 2006, so the English language magazines were talking about it. I went to their website, which offered a number of tracks for free download from their various albums. I liked everything I heard, so I went out and found a copy of the live CD pretty easily. I loved it and set about trying to find their other releases, which turned out to be not so easy to find. I found a couple in a tent at the MIDI Festival, and bought them even though they were priced considerably higher than the average Chinese CD. Imported from Taiwan, not domestic releases.
This Shanghai band’s core is Lin Di (林笛), who has played the pipa since age 4. She met bass player Su Yong (苏勇 ), and they started working together recording. Their demos attracted the attention of an independent label and were released as Flying over the City (在城市上空飞翔 zài chéngshì shàngkōng fēixiáng). It’s long out of print (I’ve never seen a copy in a store), but it is available for download from CDBaby.
The name Cold Fairyland was invented for this album, though at the time it really wasn’t a band. The name comes from the Chinese title of a novel by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, which is known in English as Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (I heartily recommend it, by the way).
Here’s a track to get an idea of what the “band” was about at their beginning. I don’t own it, so I’ll try embedding the player from the Chinese media site NeoCha.
(OK, it seems the embedding does not work, so I will just link to "Sea Rose".)
With this song, Lin takes a poem by American Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) and sets it to simple music, as befits the directness of the words. There is a definite demo quality to the recording, and Lin’s awkward pronunciation is only partly covered up by the echo and reverb heaped upon her voice.
After this, the story starts getting a little confusing. Didn’t take long, did it? The next recording Lin Di was involved with was 2002’s Ten Days in Magic Land (魔境十日 mójìng shírì, literally Devil Land Ten Days). This collection of music was the result of a commission Lin Di received as a composer from producer Liu Xing (刘星). It was originally released on the Wind label from Taiwan, credited to “Lin Di – Cool Zone” (where “Cool Zone” is written in Chinese exactly the same as Cold Fairyland). So technically this is a Lin Di solo album which has Cold Fairyland as her backing band, but since she’s the main composer for the band anyway, there’s really little to distinguish this album from proper Cold Fairyland recordings. This album is often listed as being from later years, since it has been reissued more than once. My copy says 2003; I believe it was recorded in 2002.
Wind marketed this CD to the New Age audience, playing off some stylistic elements similar to European artists such as Enigma. As you can tell from this tune, the New Age label is a bit of a stretch.
That’s 洪水 (hóngshuǐ – The Flood), one of the more energetic tunes in the set, though it’s certainly not out of place.
There is a great leap forward in production values here – the whole album is beautifully recorded, with the mixture of electronic and acoustic instruments handled very nicely. Su Yong plays bass, and there are contributions by others on flutes and other traditional instruments. There’s a lot of percussion by Li Jia (李佳), but no drum kit aside from what is sequenced by Lin. The album’s ten tracks correspond to the ten days of the title.
The following year saw the release of another band-credited album, the first one to be recorded since Lin and Su’s project turned into a real band. Kingdom of Benevolent Strangers (陌生仙子国 mòshēng xiānzǐ guó, literally Strange Fairyland) features Lin and Su along with Li Jia (the percussionist from Ten Days) on drums, Song Jianfeng (宋建丰) on guitar, and Zhou Shen’an (周圣安) on cello. It was created as a band effort in the studio, though all the tracks feature Lin as composer, either on her own or collaborating with others. She is credited under the name Miyadudu (米亚嘟嘟), which she would later use for a true solo album. Oddly enough, the band’s name is translated on the cover as Cool Fairyland.
In 2009, I finally found a copy of this in a store in Beijing. I paid an exorbitant price for a CDR in a cracked jewel case. But I was so happy to have a real copy of it that I forked over the cash, though not without a little grumbling.
Here’s a track to sample. It’s been a staple of their live shows.
“Dead Children in the Newspapers”
That’s 死在报纸上的孩子 (sǐ zài bàozhǐ shàng de háizi); I picked it because it features the cello prominently. This pairing of pipa and cello would become one of Cold Fairyland’s defining features. As you can hear, the production is more straightforward and less atmospheric than Ten Days, but certainly better than the 2001 demos. Other tracks feature Song’s guitar very prominently, for some very powerful rock moments, especially on 里绝望的花 (shǒuxīnli juéwàng de huā – Desperate Flower in Your Hand). On this album you get to see the band’s real direction, which aims to combine traditional Chinese sounds with what might be called progressive rock.
The next recording is another Lin Di solo album, 2004’s Bride in Legend; the Chinese title is 迷路新娘 (mílù xīnniáng), which means Lost Bride.
Like Ten Days, it was produced by Liu Xing, and it is again a lush concept piece. This time Lin tells the story of Yilang Yilang, a young girl sent out from her home village to be the bride of a man in a distant city. The events she experiences along the way change her and her understanding of the world. The backing band is not credited as Cold Fairyland, though the liner notes mention “Cool Zone” again; Su Yong, Li Jia and Song Jianfeng are present along with an even greater number of traditional instruments. Oddly enough, the pipa is not credited to Lin Di; there is cello on the album, but not played by Zhou Shen’an.
Once again, it was released on Taiwan’s Wind label and marketed to the New Age crowd, with elaborate packaging including liner notes in English and Chinese (unfortunately my copy almost immediately came unglued so I have to be really careful with it). There is less prominence given to the electronic MIDI programming, and much more emphasis on the Chinese instruments. From start to finish it’s a beautiful experience, with enough energy to keep it from inducing sleep.
“Mula Shabei War”
The track I’ve picked (慕拉沙贝大战 mùlāshābèi dàzhàn) is actually atypical. It’s track eight, and the first time electric guitar appears – kind of stands out when you hear it in the album’s sequence, but in a good way. This album is a good match with Ten Days, another beautifully realized studio creation that seamlessly mixes East and West, ancient and modern.
The next album brings us back to where I started with this band: their live album 2005现场 (2005 xiànchǎng, literally 2005 On Location – 现场 is the phrase used for a reporter at the scene of an incident – though it’s usually called 2005 Live in English). It was recorded at ARK in Shanghai, and revisits music from all of the previous releases, including the Lin Di solo albums, as well as a couple of new pieces.
The band consists of the recurring musicians I’ve already mentioned, all together and working as a unit. The cello is especially prominent, and the rhythm section really gets the chance to cut loose, completely dispelling any New Age stigma.
Here’s the live version of a song that previously appeared on Kingdom.
“Desperate Flower in Your Hand”
On this CD’s cover, the Chinese title 手心里绝望的花 (shǒuxīnli juéwàng de huā) is translated as “Holding the Flower of Despair,” but I’m sticking with the way it was written earlier – both seem accurate translations, and I guess the difference in meaning is pretty slight.
If I had been able to read Chinese when I got this CD, I would have noticed that the original release years and album titles for all the tracks are listed, and include something for 2006 called 地上的种子 (dìshang de zhǒngzi Seeds on the Ground); there is also one track with no other appearance listed. The only flaw to this recording is the occasional shaky quality of the vocals (more so the men’s backing parts than Lin’s lead), which is of course understandable given the live setting.
Also in 2005, Ten Days was reissued on a domestic Chinese label with a different cover:
In 2007 (not 2006 as promised on the live album), the next band album appeared. Seeds on the Ground continues the progression towards a less pop-oriented sound, with more attention given to the band’s unique qualities, especially the instrumentation with pipa and cello. Two of the new songs that appeared on the live album are given a studio treatment.
The personnel remains the same as on the live album, and the mood is a bit more serene in the studio setting, though far from sleepy. They start off with the title track, which features acoustic guitar, pipa, hand percussion, and a lovely vocal arrangement.
Here is a sample to give you an idea what they’re up to on this album:
“The Moon at the Fortified Pass”
That’s 关山月 (guānshān yuè – yes, only three characters for the six words of the English title). It’s one of only three tracks with lyrics, and those lyrics are by the famous Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai. On the whole, Song plays a lot more acoustic guitar than electric. Several tracks feature odd meters and complex rhythms. In some ways, it seems that on this album, the band has come into their own, finally integrating all the diverse elements into a unified whole.
In the fall of 2008, I finally had a chance to see Cold Fairyland live. They played at the Modern Sky Festival in Beijing’s Haidian Park. I wrote about the performance originally here. Check it out for more photos and video.
It was here that I discovered founding bassist Su Yong was no longer with the band. I don’t know the story, but he’s been replaced by Seppo Lehto, who is Finnish. Su is now working with Wu Zhuoling (吴桌玲) in A-Z.
I also discovered that the lineup has been augmented with a full-time keyboard player, Xi Jin’e (奚近萼); previously, Lin had covered keyboards in the studio and alternated between pipa and keys when playing live.
As far as I know, Li Jia is still the band’s drummer, and just couldn’t make it to Beijing when I saw them.
It will be very interesting to see how these changes will play out in the band’s next recording, whenever that may be. Lin Di tells me the current lineup makes the band a “3 couples band.”
Lin Di’s most recent project is a solo CD called 秘密花园的邂逅 (mìmì huāyuán de xièhòu Meet in Secret Garden), credited to 米亚嘟嘟 (Miyadudu). It is perhaps her first true solo album, with very little participation by other musicians.
Here’s my favorite track:
“Waterbird’s Secret Language”
水鸟密语 (shuǐniǎo mìyǔ) is the track that features pipa most prominently, which is a large part of the appeal for me.
And finally, in 2009, Seeds on the Ground was re-released with a different cover.
Not sure why they changed it. It’s pretty, but I prefer the original one.
There you go, a short (yeah, right) introduction to my favorite Chinese band. I’m tired now.
Rock in China entry: http://wiki.rockinchina.com/index.php?title=Cold_Fairyland
Official site: http://www.coldfairyland.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.