Of course this list is bullshit.
China’s underground music scene is enormous to the point that talk of a unified “Chinese” scene is pointless. It’s nebulous, fragmented. A hundred different styles bloom in different parts of the country. A Top 10 list for Beijing alone would be raucously contested.
So with that caveat, here are 10 bands that I personally love in China today. I make no attempt at objectivity here, but in narrowing the parameters I hope I can capture a cross-section of what makes this particular moment in Chinese underground music so exciting.
I’ve tried to capture bands from every corner of the country, with a focus on the new and emerging. No hip-hop and/or purely “club” collectives/groups on this list, because that’s a whole different universe.
Let’s dive in.
Everything is beautiful and everywhere hurts.
Everyone’s a victim.
Everything is boring.
DAVID BORING love their little philosophical soliloquys. Their world is withdrawn, alienating and gloriously noisy. “We don’t set out to entertain, instead join us for a complete self-indulgent celebration of new age sufferings,” they say in the introduction to their new album.
Don’t let that worry you – their world is also hugely compelling. The band crafts a landscape of post-punk, noise, no-wave, punk and industrial, a dark mirror to the urban decadence and decay of their native Hong Kong. They’ve built a following with a signature dark, dirty noise-rock sound and destructively enigmatic live performances. You’ll recoil at the insanity, but recognize the corrupted edges of our own messed up, absurd reality.
Three bands crafting their own uniquely Chinese genre: what I like to call “slacker post rock”:
It’s a new genre taking hold in China’s tier-2 cities, with a number of disparate young bands making laid-back, mostly instrumental, dreamy guitar soundscapes.
From Hangzhou’s Gatsby in a Daze and Fuzhou’s The Romp to Xi’an’s Endless White and Chengdu’s Sinkers — this is guitar-driven, soundscape-heavy music with distant, hazy vocals and a permanent Sunday afternoon laze.
There’s a restlessness to Hiperson’s music that I absolutely love. It’s a masterful tension that the band sustains in their brilliant, tight live sets.
Frontwoman Chen Sijiang’s unique voice is both clarion call and siren song, punctuating the complex, precise rhythmic interplay between drums, bass and guitar. Comparisons to mainland legends P.K. 14 are not unfounded, but don’t come close to the full picture.
This is a band that strains toward the future so relentlessly that they’re happy to leave the past behind. “No Need For Another History” goes the title of their debut, but it’s the unreleased live bootlegs that captivate. Songs like poetic passages, leading the listener to the edge of danger, through landscapes of cold reality, oscillating between daily life and illusion.
Rising from the ashes of Nonplus of Color, one of Shanghai’s best experimental groups, Mirrors take Nonplus’ abrasive psychedelia in darker, sexier directions. There’s not much out there from the band just yet, but they’re one of the groups I’m most excited to see more of.
A Yunnan-based riot grrrl trio that makes music somewhere between dance punk, spoken word fury and performance art. “Rammstein is Playing At My House” goes the title to one of their signature songs, and their lyrics capture that particular loneliness and frustration of China’s rapidly changing megacities, and the erasures that this pace of change creates. Listen to Nunudugu, a standout track sung in Li Su (a minority Tibeto-Burman language) and be mesmerized.
One of the most alluring bands to come out of the Beijing scene in years, TOW is Yang Fan (formerly of Ourself Beside Me, and the ace producer behind some of Chinese indie’s best albums) and Liu Ge (formerly of The Molds, tipped in the late 2000s to be China’s next Big Band).
They make blues-infused synth pop that shimmers like desert sands from an Arabian Nights tale (a big influence), and floats with wondrous melancholy. Icy tunes with a warm, beating heart.
Chinese post-rock royalty; conjurers of soaring, emotional, masterful instrumental epics.
That’s the phrase you’ll commonly see describing this Dalian band. “Post-rock,” the contested term for largely instrumental music that uses rock instruments toward symphonic, orchestral ends, is pretty much a pan-Asian genre now. The most interesting sounds, ideas and innovations come from this part of the world, and Wang Wen is arguably one of the world’s leading instrumental rock bands.
They’ve been torchbearers for the scene for more than 15 years now, operating out of China’s northeast. They’ve put out nine fantastic albums over that span. They’ve built a reputation for live shows loaded with pure emotion and sheer joy, in a genre known better for embracing darkness and melancholy.
Black Metal Chinese opera, played out in glorious cinematic widescreen.
Formed in 2001, Zuriaake are veterans of Chinese black metal. Perhaps they are Chinese black metal itself. They’re the epitome of the “cult” band; a reverential fanbase, highly regarded but limited output, and rare, rapturous live shows. Their identities and backgrounds are shrouded in mystery, and little is known about the band’s offstage life.
On record, their sound is sumptuous: lush orchestration, like a soundtrack to a big-budget fantasy epic, and shimmering, atmospheric canyons of sound. Marching through these soundscapes – crackling, crumbling bursts of black metal fury. Their 2015 album, Gu Yan, is an ideal place to start. Settle in because this 60-minute masterpiece is “about to take you down a dark road.”