“We are home, we are inclusive… we all bleed metal blood. This is Hong Kong!” proclaimed local legend Soni Yasaratne, owner of Infree Records and the night’s MC, as he officially kicked off a five-band séance of chaotic frequencies.
Hong Kong’s metal scene is unique in a local soundscape long occupied with Cantopop, indie rock and now hip hop. Cantopop — a hydra of dreamy ballads, love songs, and upbeat dance hits sung in Cantonese — dominates the Hong Kong charts, holding a firm 90% of the local Top 100 on streaming app KKBOX and 86% on Tencent’s JOOX. While hip hop continues to break into the mainstream, rock hits are confined mainly to soft indie and smooth pop selections.
Hong Kong metal emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as pioneering bands such as Hyponic (1996), Evocation (2002), Cadaver (2003), and Shepherds the Weak (2005) injected a volatile blend of death, doom, and thrash metal mayhem into the city’s underground. In 2014, death metal outfit Evocation went further afield, putting Hong Kong on the global metal map after stunning crowds at Germany’s Wacken Open Air — one of the world’s premier metal festivals.
At home, however, the scene exists largely on the fringes in small venues and DIY spaces. With little support from major labels and society at large, it relies on its diverse array of bands and fans to keep the spirit alive.
In 2012, local bands formed the Hong Kong Metal Alliance (HKMA) to bring the community’s various styles together and amplify an underground movement often constrained to hidden corners of industrial buildings in Kowloon and the New Territories.
The HKMA is a critical piece of the scene’s core and initially gained traction by building awareness of both established and rising acts. “There’s such an amazing sense of community and camaraderie behind the scene with HKMA … They have treated us with respect and supported us forever,” says Glenn Bogador, guitarist of veteran thrash act Shepherds the Weak.
Frederick Tsang, the drummer of newcomers The Ancient Mental, agrees: “We’re really thankful that the HKMA features us as performers. It is not only a huge inspiration for us but also for metal lovers in Hong Kong and shows that we are not alone.”
This fall, the alliance sought to inject new energy into a scene challenged by rolling waves of lockdowns. In a city already scarce on livehouses, two venues that served as homes for the community — This Town Needs in Kwun Tong and The Wanch in Wan Chai — shuttered in February and August 2020, while indefinitely closed borders led to cancelled tours.
Through it all, bands stayed active by releasing new albums and music videos while engaging fans in the digital space through livestreamed festivals and online playthroughs of their top songs.
With prohibitions on live music receding, the HKMA decided to revive the metal scene’s eclectic diversity of sound with the riotous Metal Masquerade. “We want that variety to kickstart the metal scene that has been put to a halt over the past few years,” says Jason Wan of the HKMA.
The Halloween show featured a mix of classic and rising bands — the Ancient Mental, Cadaver, Cryogenic Defilement, Protoss神族, and Shepherds the Weak — and exhibited styles that ranged from instrumental progressive metal to deathcore.
“The community has been very quiet,” Wan adds. “The inspiration of the theme ‘Metal Masquerade’ comes from the masks we all wear these days … With the pandemic, many organizers and venues have been forced to pause indefinitely. This is devastating to the metal scene, being a minority already. We hope to show that the Hong Kong metal scene is still alive, healthy, and strong.”
Despite setbacks, the scene holds an impenetrable resilience.
“Hong Kong has some of the most committed community members — all of the metalheads come out of the woodwork when a show is on,” says Bogador. “Some may disagree, but I think Hong Kong’s metal scene is thriving at the moment … The bands go all out, putting their craft at the forefront of who they are. The level of musicianship has evolved tremendously and will continue to grow.”
The Masquerade began with cascading symphonic waves from The Ancient Mental, formed in 2018 by four local metalcore veterans to create a new sound in Hong Kong.
The band is entirely instrumental, a positioning that drummer Frederick Tsang describes as “challenging to express ourselves without any lyrics, but really fun to attempt to define. We can focus more on our skills and the technical arrangement for each member. With instrumental music, listeners can make their own interpretations and engage more of their imagination.”
The Ancient Mental’s atmospheric frequencies, cymbal crashes, and high-pitched tremolo action gave way to the insanity of Cadaver, who stormed the stage donning matching orange jumpsuits and gleaming masks of surrealist Salvador Dalí.
The band, formed in 2003, specializes in death metal, with sounds of extreme distortion, evil riffs, and dark growls featuring throughout their set. Their breakout album — The Doppler Effect (2013) — expanded their reach beyond Hong Kong into the Chinese mainland, with a Mandarin-language release on Beijing-based label Mort Productions.
Darkness enveloped the audience with back-to-back costumed sets from Cryogenic Defilement and Protoss神族, whose demonic visions, slamming death metal, and primal screams whipped the roaring audience into a fierce storm.
Cryogenic Defilement was the night’s most riotous act, featuring brutal tracks off their 2018 album Worldwide Extermination while sending volleys of rounds from airsoft machine guns, rolls of toilet paper, massive inflatables and torn pillows into a roiling crowd.
At last, local thrash legends Shepherds the Weak closed out the Masquerade, unleashing tracks — including “The Path of Most Resistance” — that fueled a front-row mosh pit with fast-paced shredding and double-bass punches.
Formed in 2004, Shepherds the Weak is one of the oldest and most well-known bands in the scene. An all-Filipino outfit, most of its members come from the first wave of musicians who migrated to Hong Kong in search of greater opportunity.
“I have heard some refer to our style as Uncle Metal,” guitarist Bogador laughs. “When you play with the same guys for 20 years, you start sharing all the joys and pains of life together, [and] a name like Shepherds the Weak becomes a rallying cry.”
Headbanging devotees thrashed against the barrier as the final songs rang out. After four hours of nonstop electric destruction, the Masquerade came to a close with positive charges ripping through the air. Hundreds of fans streamed out of the sold-out arena, coming together once again to share beers, exchange stories, and kick back.
A revitalized energy is now buzzing in Hong Kong’s metal scene, with new music and performances on the horizon.
“We are sure fired up to get writing — I foresee new material coming out in early 2022,” said Bogador from Shepherds the Weak.
Speaking on the community, Randy Leung, vocalist of deathcore band Protoss神族, strikes a similar tone: “We can see the new blood of the metal scene. The underground will be bigger than in recent years — we are looking forward to more shows and the next generation of metal.”
“Music is what pulls people together, and live music is our church,” HKMA’s Jason Wan explains. “We hope this show will fire up the metal scene and make it more active. We want the fans to bring home with them that it will be even better than before. Covid didn’t kill us but made us stronger!”
All images courtesy of Joe Soriero
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