• Mao's other house

    7 Jun 2008, 07:49 by RocketShipX41

    Fri 6 Jun – SUBS, Sko, Fire Balloon, perdel

    It’s been a while since I wrote about a local music show, mainly because I haven’t been to many. I caught a Hedgehog acoustic show at the Stone Boat a few weeks ago, but haven’t posted anything about it. Maybe I’ll get to that eventually. Last night I headed off to the MAO LiveHouse for a multi-band bill that looked pretty promising.

    When I came in the door, the girl taking money pointed out a little sign. It said there was no re-entry to the club once you left, though you would be welcome to purchase another ticket to come back in. Cute. I paid my ¥50 and stayed in.

    I never definitively caught a mention of a name, but I think this is Fire Balloon. I’ll post a correction if I’m wrong. As you can see, they are typical of Beijing bands in one way: it’s a three-piece with a female member.

    The lead singer and guitarist, aside from a rather crazy hairstyle, is quite good at his instrument. He doesn’t play a lot of solos, but when he does, they’re worth listening to, with an interesting tendency to work into unexpected notes. His singing is of a mumbly, indistinct style that reminds me a bit of Joyside.

    The bassist contributes backing vocals, and her bass playing is excellent. Whether using her fingers or a pick, she is really good, with quick, imaginative lines and solid rhythm. If they have a weak link, it’s the drummer, who is pretty steady in the main but awkward sometimes on his fills. I searched the net for information but came up with very little, just mentions of their name on other bands’ sites.

    Next up was Sko (Myspace), who fit in with the kind of pop punk you hear from Green Day, Good Charlotte and the like. Not the most original music, but well written and very well played.

    The lead singer is (from the sound of his accent when he spoke English) an American. He mostly spoke Chinese, however, and seemed quite fluent. Their lyrics were in both languages.

    The main thing I noticed is that they are extremely precise in their playing in spite of the rowdy nature of the style. They also have a knack for coming up with sing-along choruses that are very catchy.

    Next was a band called perdel (Myspace), and they’ve got a very different take on rock than any of the other local bands I’ve seen.

    Their set started with a drum solo. Not a long or indulgent one, mind you, and he started out standing up.

    Then the bass player walked out and joined in, playing a Rickenbacker-style Fernandez bass.

    Keyboards next, with a burbling rhythmic sequence that he altered by fiddling with the knobs on a beat-up old Korg. I have a weakness for knob-twiddling keyboards, so this pleased me very much.

    Continuing the progression, the lead guitarist was next. He’s quite good, with a style that mixes good melodies with outside touches.

    Finally the lead singer and rhythm guitarist came out and the build-up worked into a song.

    They had quite a lot of fans in the audience, cheering and singing along, including a group of girls next to me. This one took video of pretty much the whole show. Stylistically, they’re maybe a bit more poppish and melodic than most Beijing bands, and the keyboards give them a bit lighter edge, though they are nowhere near wimpy. Once again, lyrics in both English and Chinese.

    When they finished their last song, there was a drawing when slips of paper with names were pulled out of a box. The winners came up on stage and took over the band’s instruments. The guy in the middle with the guitar was actually able to play a bit, and he sang part of a song while the others mostly just stood there.

    The headliner of the evening was Subs (Myspace), whom I have written about before.

    They were pretty much the same as previous shows I’ve seen. This band gets tons of press here (comparatively speaking – it’s not like any Chinese rock gets mainstream notice here), and I guess I can see why, but I find Kang Mao's constant throat-rending screaming a bit much. When she makes an effort to sing, she reminds me a little of Lene Lovich or Pauline Murray, but there’s very little room for that in the full-on assault of angst-ridden noise.

    After she screamed her last song, she left the stage to the band and headed for the mosh pit.

    And that was a night at MAO’s house (the live one, not the dead one). The venue gets a thumbs up in almost every respect. Good size stage, good lighting system, decent sound, working air conditioners, reasonable drink prices, room for both dancing and avoiding dancers. All for 7 bucks, plus $4 for a gin and tonic.
  • Rocking the Outside Boy

    6 Jan 2008, 12:32 by RocketShipX41

    Cui Jian at Workers Gymnasium (not Workers Stadium, which is still being renovated.

    Cross post from my blog

    This being China, there was a large security presence at the venue, with guards of various kinds all over the place. There were metal detectors to walk through, and of course they beeped for virtually every person passing through, sine everyone has a mobile phone. When it beeped on me, a female officer had me hold out my arms as she ran a wand over me. It went off pretty much constantly, for my phone, by Blueberry, my camera and probably the magnetic key card in my pocket. But she went through the motions and said “Thank you” without asking to see what had set it off. I saw many other people going through the same thing.

    We walked into the venue right at about 7:30, and we shouldn’t have been surprised that the show started right on time, unlike American concerts which always run late. Workers Gymnasium is where the Olympic boxing sessions will take place, and it’s ideal for that, as it’s perfectly round, with no obvious “front” or “back” and they had the stage set up in a strange variation of “in the round.” It was essentially two complete stage arrangements back to back. Our seats were at about a 45 degree angle to the main half of the stage.

    When we came in, there was a drum corps playing a kind of samba beat along with the band, for a big rhythmic sound that was quite infectious. There were also some dancers dressed in costumes resembling Chinese army uniforms at the sides and back of the stage. At the end of the song, the samba club scurried out and left the band to carry on. The stage setup was very professional, and the sound was clear and not too loud.

    He even played his trumpet a bit (it was his first instrument, before he took up guitar). Note the percussion setup behind him. It added quite a bit to the sound.

    After 45 minutes or so, the samba club appeared over on one side of the stage, and the band took the opportunity to switch sides. They played the next bunch of songs facing the “back” of the house with a somewhat more acoustic set of instruments, and all we could see was their backs. There was a big video screen above the stage, but from our angle the speakers blocked it. It was funny how all the empty seats on that half of the arena suddenly filled up.

    After a number of songs on that side, the lights went down and the samba club returned.

    This time Cui Jian and company were taking a longer break. The crowd actually seemed to get a little impatient after more than five minutes of the drum corps, chanting “Cui Jian! Cui Jian! Cui Jian!”

    When the drummers finished, the spotlight turned to the side of the stage where a woman played a very impressionistic solo on an instrument I didn’t recognize. It’s a little like a guqin, but not quite. Gradually the rest of the band returned to the stage and joined her for what was to me one of the show’s musical highlights.

    I think it was the very next song that featured these dancers:

    I’m not sure what the symbolism was. They started out wearing strange costumes and slowly worked their way from the side of the stage to the front. A single dancer in a similar outfit started at the other side. While they writhed in a mass, they pulled off the outer coverings of two dancers who made their way away from the group wearing dust-colored leatards.

    After a few more songs, the band retired from the stage, and the crowd chanted his name. Eventually they returned and played “Yi Wu Sou You (Nothing to My Name)” – which is the 1989 hit that made him an icon among China’s dissatisfied students at the time. One more song after that and they were done. It was 10pm precisely.

    Now that I’ve covered the events (short of providing a set list), I’ll present a few observations, starting with audience participation. It’s become one of the clichés of rock concerts for artists to do the call-and-response thing, with the crowd (or sections of it) answering their phrases or doing simple background harmonies. Sometimes things like that happen spontaneously on the most well-known songs. And sometimes you will hear a crowd sing along with a whole song. At this show, the spontaneous full-length sing-along happened on about half of the selections, and the spontaneous backgrounds happened on every song that had a memorable backing part. The singing was loud, pretty much on key, and featured such a high percentage of the audience that it was quite impressive to experience, even not knowing the words. There was such passion in the voices that it was clear these songs were deeply important to everyone; this man’s music has touched hearts in ways that few artists I’ve ever seen can approach. I’ve seen a lot of concerts since Three Dog Night at the Spokane Coliseum back in the early 70s, and this one was moving on a level I’ve rarely experienced. This is shiver-down-the-spine territory.

    And while RR and I could admire the craft involved in putting on the show, from both the musicians and the technical crew, we couldn’t help but be acutely aware that we were outsiders who could never really know the deeper meaning of the event. There were very few foreigners there, and only one song (the Olympics-inspired “Outside Girl”) featured any English lyrics. This was Chinese music written for the Chinese people, and while (as far as I can tell) Cui Jian’s music is still not played on radio, obviously the word – and the melody – has gotten out. I wonder if any of the songs are available on karaoke systems…
  • Much too easily amused

    8 Jul 2007, 09:49 by RocketShipX41

    Being a former Seattle resident, and long-time attendee of the big Bumbershoot Festival there, I found my way to the web site, where they have the silly Band Bio Generator, which is similar to many such toys on the internet.

    Being more than a bit bored, and much too easily amused, I invented some bands to inhabit my new home town.

    A history of indie rock icons: Invisible Airplanes

    After starting out in their cousin's basement in Shunyi, Invisible Airplanes climbed to the top of the the indie rock scene in 2000 with their debut album, Farewell Tour. The band's latest album, Eponymous Debut, juxtaposes Sun Jin's gritty vocals with throwback instrumentals to create some seriously inspired concoctions. With standout tracks like "Duibuqi Mao," don't be surprised if you find Invisible Airplanes at the top of the indie rock charts and beyond.

    A history of techno icons: Literally Metaphorical

    Rising from the cesspool known as Chaoyang, Literally Metaphorical soared to the top of the techno scene in 2006 with their debut album, Phased and Defused. The band's latest album, Ritan, Brother!, fuses President Who's larger-than-life snarls with blazing drums to cook up a disc overflowing with spine-tingling classics. With standout tracks like "Meiyou Guitar," the music of Literally Metaphorical appeals to techno fans and non-techno fans alike.

    A history of metal icons: Re Sile

    Forged in the pits of Dongcheng, Re Sile ripped their way into the metal scene in 1994 with their debut album, Zhende Ma?. The band's latest album, Left Four Dead, welds Rrrr!'s larger-than-life vocals with crunching drums to generate a bevy of spine-tingling classics. With standout tracks like "Baba Baba," dominating radio airwaves far and wide, Re Sile is an essential addition to any music lover's library.

    I am only a little disappointed to see that putting artist tags on my bands' names did not result in any links.
  • How could this happen?

    4 Jul 2007, 03:15 by RocketShipX41

    A couple weeks ago I looked at my overall artist chart and was amazed to find that suddenly 王菲 occupies the top spot. Apparently, even after more than 80,000 tracks played, my charts are still vulnerable to a binge. Of course, this is misleading, because a month or two of investigating a new artist doesn't really dislodge Björk, Peter Gabriel, XTC and David Bowie from the top spots in my heart.

    I guess I should find all of this amusing - after all, it's just charts, not my immortal legacy (if there is such a thing). I don't even have all of Faye's albums! What's going to happen when I get the others? By my count, I have around 170 of her songs, and if I listen to each of them twice... Yikes!
  • Hooray for our side!

    30 Jun 2007, 09:51 by RocketShipX41

    Fri 29 Jun – The Go! Team
    Fri 29 Jun – The Go! Team

    cross post from my regular blog

    Last night was one of those occasional times in Beijing where a foreign band plays. In this case it was the British band Go! Team at the Star Club, the same place where I went for The Soundtrack of Our Lives. I’ve got the band’s first album, and while it’s a bit samey (all the songs very similar), it’s fun, cheerful music, and seemed like a reasonable way to spend a hot Beijing evening.

    The opening act was the Verse, a local funk outfit featuring a horn section and four backing singers — a total of 13 musicians. Aside from a few problems with vocal intonation (I think maybe the singers couldn’t hear themselves very well), they were tight, funky and enjoyable. Their inexperience showed a bit in their unassuming stage presence. This kind of music cries out for at least a little bit of choreography from the BV’s and maybe even horns. They varied their style and tempo just enough to keep things interesting, with touches of ska, punk, and reggae tossed in with the funky beats. One of their songs featured a slow interlude in the middle where one of the guitarists sang a bit of a famous (so I’m told) song by Teresa Teng.

    The Go! Team seem to take their inspiration in roughly equal parts from action movie theme songs and revved-up cheerleader chanting backed by an electric pep band. The lead singer was even dressed a little like a cheerleader. Most of the songs feature shouted interjections like, “Go!” and “Oh, yeah!” and not much in the way of lyrical or melodic content. The driving beats are energetic, but feature very little variation between or within songs. I did enjoy watching the players switch instruments. At times there were two drummers, and the woman who played guitar also switched off to melodica, keyboard, xylophone, and percussion. I think the second drummer played guitar for a while.
    And the main drummer came out and sang a cute little song backed only by a pre-recorded piano.

    The evening was sponsored by Bacardi, part of a series bringing acts from around the world to China. I’m sure it’s virtually impossible for any artist to play here without losing money, given how expensive it would be to come so far and the low ticket prices that the market will bear. The entry ticket stub was good for one free drink at the bar, and they had a staff of drink makers (somehow “bartenders” does not seem like the right word) mixing a set selection of rum drinks furiously all night. At ¥20 a drink (about $3) there was a mob at the bar all night, and it took a half hour or so to work to the front. Unfortunately the rudeness quotient was through the roof, and I’m sad to admit that the foreigners were the rudest. I saw one guy order four mojitos, and when the poor girl had them ready, he grabbed them and made a dash without handing over the drink tickets. She ran after him without success, which of course slowed down the line for the rest of us. It was definitely Survival of the Rudest. The whole thing was handled very badly from a logistical standpoint. If you’re going to present that kind of opportunity for mass consumption, you should come up with a way to make drinks more efficiently. The guy in front of me ordered seven mojitos and they were made one at a time, which is very silly considering how easy it is to make them in bulk. Oh, well.

    In any case, it was a fun, hot, sweaty, loud evening. RR and I were there with our Chinese colleague CZ, and we bumped into a friend of hers who is a reporter with a fancy professional camera. She promised to send CZ the picture she took of us, so if I get it, I’ll post a copy.
  • Whatever "Cherry Filter" means...

    22 Jun 2007, 13:27 by RocketShipX41

    Cherry Filter - Head-up (2000)
    Cherry Filter - The Third Eye (2003)
    Cherry Filter - Peace 'n' Rock 'n' Roll (2006)

    My judgment call here is to say that "Cherry Filter" is the proper form of the band's name. It's occasionally rendered in Korean characters as 체리필터, but on the album covers themselves, they always use the English name, so I'm going with that.

    This is the first Korean band that has really grabbed me. I only came across them last week, and have so far managed to get three of their four albums, currently missing the second, Made in Korea? (2002). Ironic, I know, since that was the album that broke them out of small-label obscurity.

    The most striking thing about this band is lead vocalist Cho Yujin, who goes as Youjeen in the band (and in her solo career, which I'll have to investigate next). Simply put, she is one of the best female singers in rock music today. In her quieter moments, she reminds me a little of Alanis Morissette crossed with ayumi hamasaki, but when she kicks into high gear, she's in a class all her own. And when she tosses out the wails in her high register, she can send shivers down your spine, resembling a Theremin more than a human voice.

    Oh, yes, and she has a band backing her. Luckily they are good and solid, or there would be a serious balance problem. For the most part, they play energetic rock with crunchy guitars, but the arrangements show a fair amount of variety in tone and mood. Keyboards show up in supporting parts, and there are touches of electronica here and there. When they play slow songs, they don't get sappy like so many Asian artists do. The tunes are catchy enough to bring to mind karaoke, but surely there are not many people who can handle the range Youjeen covers in most songs. There are some brief occasional touches of rap thrown in, and they manage to not make it seem out of place.

    All the albums are excellent, but I'm going to give a slight nod to the most recent one. It's so consistently good, and well (but not over) produced, that it's a great place for anyone to see what this band is about. But even their debut is a good effort, with all their qualities nearly fully formed. There are standout tracks on all of the albums, and I know that Made in Korea? has their breakout single 낭만 고양이 ("Nangman Goyangi" or "Sweet Little Kitty" sometimes translated as "Romantic Cat"). You can see the video of that (plus several others and some live footage) on their MySpace page.

    Head-up 10/15.
    The Third Eye 11/15.
    Peace 'n' Rock 'n' Roll 12/15.
  • Midi 2007, Day 4 (an incoherent and not very informative report)

    4 May 2007, 14:22 by RocketShipX41

    Fri 4 May – Midi Music Festival 2007

    I only managed to make it out to Haidian Park for Day 4 of the big bash. Beautiful weather, sunny and warm. I'm illiterate when it comes to Chinese, so I really don't even know the names of the bands I saw. On the Gibson Stage when we walked in was a very heavy band thrashing away. Guitarist had a cool Gibson SG type painted with the Brasil flag. Completely sloppy indistinguishable noise (can you tell this isn't my style?), but it was fun to see Chinese kids moshing and banging their heads. Schedule says they were called 641, but I make no claims of accuracy here.

    Over to the main stage, where a young Chinese band was finishing up their sound check. They had a lead singer with more charisma and energy than vocal chops, and a female keyboard player who sang backing. Definitely a Britpop influence here. Pretty well done. Google Translate renders the name from the schedule (自画像) as Self-Portrait.

    We then wandered over to the third rock stage, where a loud band was doing a very strange hybrid of metal and rap with a keyboard playing traditional sounding Chinese melodies. Points for trying something different, but demerits for poor execution.

    Over on the folk stage, there was a guy noodling around with an accordion. He didn't really seem to be doing any songs, but there was a fair sized crowd to see him not do them.

    For a while I just wandered around, got some beer, and checked out the vendors who crowded every sidewalk. Different stuff than you see hawked in Tiananmen Square, to be sure.

    At one point there was a very theatrical Chinese metal band on the main stage. They had a very tightly arranged kind of semi-extreme metal, and they were all wearing elaborate costumes with faces painted like demons from Peking Opera or something. Again, not my style, but they were good enough at it to be entertaining. The only thing listed on the schedule that makes sense for them is 春秋 (“Spring Autumn” in the listing – Google Translate just spits back Chunqiu).

    I visited the Free Sound Records tent, where the music was anything but free. The prices were high enough that I suppose the CDs must be legit! But they had a good selection of Chinese rock, unlike the neighborhood shops which have only pop. I picked up three of Cold Fairyland's albums, and was in there long enough that the girl who spoke some English came over and asked me what I liked. I told her rock, but not metal, Chinese not foreign. She pointed me to Cui Jian, and I mentioned Zheng Jun, so she found me one of his as well. Given their prices, I didn't buy everything she told me was good, but I've got a little start to my C-Rock collection. She gave me a flyer with the address of their Beijing store, so I may yet end up giving them more of my money...

    Given the preponderance of metal and punk, I couldn’t say the day was a musical success, but I had a good time, and people watching was quite a kick. China really hasn’t embraced rock music, and certainly doesn’t have a history with it the way the US or Europe does, so you see a really odd mixture of T-shirts and CDs: Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Iron Maiden, Misfits, Ramones, Lachrymosa, Slipknot, and more all thrown together. It’s also a little strange that you can buy a beer and then take it with you anywhere on the grounds. At an American festival, alcohol is always segregated into a fenced off area where you can’t see the stage very well.
  • Eight days in Japan

    2 Apr 2007, 01:04 by RocketShipX41

    Maybe I should be proud of myself. I was in Japan for eight days and only spent a few hours in music stores. There was so much else to see aside from the inside of a Tower Records location. If you want to know about that, check out my blog (link in my profile).

    I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Tower Records is actually alive and well in Japan. Apparently, when the parent company was in financial trouble back in 2002, someone bought up the Japanese operation, and have managed to keep it going while the rest of the world went under.

    At the big store in Shinjuku, I picked up

    * LOVE PSYCHEDELICO - The Greatest Hits
    * KANNO YOKO feat. SAKAMOTO MAAYA - 23時の音楽 (23 ji no ongaku this one seems tailor made for confusing tags, but that's more or less how it's credited on the cover - Kanno Yoko with sakamoto maaya on vocals for several tracks)
    * Tokyo Incidents (AKA Tokyo Jihen or 東京事変) - Adult pour Femme (AKA just Adult or 大人 - the labeling is very inconsistent)

    I was restraining myself.

    At a Wave store in Shiodome, I snapped up

    * Hiromi's Sonicbloom - Time Control (another candidate for varying tags - it's basically Hiromi with her regular trio plus David Fiuczynski)

    And then at HMV in Kobe, it was

    * PUFFY - (a single featuring "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "Don't Bring Me Down" - the Electric Light Orchestra tune)
    * Nana Best, a CD+DVD set with Anna Tsuchiya and Olivia doing opening and closing songs from the anime series Nana

    Compared to some of my previous hauls, pretty minor, but Japan is expensive (and not just for CDs), so I tried to be a good boy.

    I haven't had time to carefully listen to all of them yet, but I can definitively state that Hiromi has produced a real winner, a wonderful kind of jazzy fusion that is both complex and listenable. The Yoko Kanno runs quite a range, from big band jazz to acoustic ballads. Love Psychedelico is lots of fun, jangly power pop with appealing vocals. I enjoy the Puffy single, though it's probably more for hard core fans than newbies. The Nana stuff is good imaginative punkish rock, again with appealing female vocals.
  • Animals: Collect 'em all!

    26 Feb 2007, 11:12 by RocketShipX41

    Animal Collective - Feels (2005)

    How often to I write about something this recent? Maybe not often, but there's more on my to-do list.

    Animal Collective is a slightly unhinged American band that makes pretty interesting music. There's a wide variety of sounds, and it runs from something like folk rock to passages that remind me a little of space rock, and all in all just seems like some creative people doing whatever pops into their heads. I like that.

    Did I hear an autoharp?

    They successfully steer away from standard pop song structures, and there are plenty of interesting touches, some of which may be the result of studio sound manipulation. It's nice stuff, and worth a listen for anyone interested in recent strangeness, like The Fiery Furnaces or Joanna Newsom, though they sound nothing like either. 10/15.
  • Better than a trip to Ethiopia

    19 Feb 2007, 11:35 by RocketShipX41

    Mahmoud Ahmed - Alèmyé (aka Ethiopiques 19) (1974)

    I suspect that a really fascinating book could be written about Ethiopian pop music of the 60s and 70s - or maybe one already has and I just haven't come across it. Anyway, as I understand it, the central figure of that book would probably be Mahmoud Ahmed. I've heard four CDs worth of his stuff, and I find it fascinating. The grooves are infectious, if a bit awkward to American ears, but there is a definite alien quality about the sound. For one thing, the vast majority of the pieces are not in 4/4 time. Whether you want to call it 3/4 or 6/4 is up to you, but the result is a kind of rolling lope that has undeniable energy. Ahmed has a stunning, supple voice that dances wildly above the grooves, a bit like Baaba Maal. Saxophone and organ provide the most common backings, and the bass playing, especially on this collection, is stellar. The only thing I could wish for is a little more variety in tempo and beat. Somewhere I think I read that Ahmed is sometimes called the Ethiopian James Brown, though that epithet would have to be based on something other than his vocal tone. 10/15.