Two years of “post-” in Shanghai
This is not another one of those articles about the meaning of post-rock and post-metal, the legitimacy of these terms, and so on. You can find that sort of topics pretty much everywhere on the internet and I don’t want to discuss that on this occasion. What I want to analyze here is instead a personal story in the context of what I perceived as a peculiar paradigm shift in the Chinese underground music scene over the last couple of years: the progressive spread of the “post-” phenomenon, utilizing Shanghai as an example.
Naturally, Shanghai can’t be taken as the standard for the entire Chinese scene, since it is by far the city that draws the most inspiration from abroad, and at the same has historically been the place where many experimental movements in a wide range of fields entered the country, before expanding into other areas (the Communist Party of China itself started here as well). International “post-” had already started tightening its grasp on China over the previous years, with the historic Mogwai show in November 2011 and of the younger band Maybeshewill in June 2012.
2013 – First Strike
My story begins on January 12 2013 with the show that basically welcomed me to Shanghai: 65daysofstatic. I had been here for less than a week and was still struggling with jet-lag, and starting to get familiar with one of the most efficient underground transportation systems in the world. I already knew about the concert before leaving for China, but I had to buy the ticket at the entrance because of some issues with online payments. To someone coming from the province of Naples, Italy — and therefore used to having to take a car in order to attend most of the relevant music shows — moving to an international metropolis like Shanghai meant a radical change. A virtually infinite showcase of local and foreign bands playing in the many venues, both small and big, scattered around the city, all of which easily reachable by public transport or even on foot: heaven. In short, my encounter with the English band was some sort of initiation rite, since it was also the first time I entered one of the two famous Mao Livehouse (the other one is in Beijing), one of the most renowned places for rock and metal concerts in China.
The first impression was positive, the location was much different in style from the small 13club of Tianjin, the Aperture of Xi’An or the Yuyintang (育音堂) of Shanghai (we will talk about it later), or even from the Beijing’s Mao Livehouse, which is more similar to a garage with a clear underground air to it. Shanghai’s Mao is a venue designed for rock, with an actual stage — big enough to contain the numerous Inner Mongolian band Hanggai — and a relatively wide area for the audience, with a decent sound system (although at times it has failed to live up to the expectations).
Back to the show: of course it was not the first time I saw a post-rock band live, but in the past it mostly happened at festivals and therefore the performances were quite short. On that January evening, the band from Sheffield put up a great show, although in the long run the usual weak point of exclusively instrumental rock music — monotony — started to arise. There was great feedback by the audience both in terms of quantity and involvement, and this left a good impression on me for my first “big” musical experience in Shanghai. After the show, I went back home on foot in order to explore the still unknown streets of this huge city: it took me about an hour.
[Among other things, pre-sale tickets in China (differently from Italy) are actually cheaper than those purchased at the door, just as it should be in order to “reward” who wants to support the event. Also, many venues (such as the Yuyintang) often offer discount tickets for students, and there are no mandatory “membership cards” to buy in order to attend the shows. This way, the audience is encouraged to attend and confirm their presence beforehand, with the perception of saving some money as well, and this in turn allows the organizers to have a figure of the numbers days before the show itself.]
Winter went by (extremely cold), as I expanded my network and familiarised myself with the transportation system. Many Chinese bands performed at the many venues that can be found around the biggest city of the world, with amazing peaks (the city’s own Cold Fairyland), some solid confirmations (such as Xie Tianxiao, whom I saw for the first time at his own show instead of a festival), and a few new names (Even Less). The post-rock invasion had a new episode in the spring, when I came back from Hong Kong, as some of the absolute masters of this genre visited Shanghai for the first time on April 13: Godspeed You! Black Emperor; the date was part of their world tour for “Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!”.
It was not the first time I visited the structure known in English as Q-Hall (浅水湾文化艺术中心) in the Northern area of the city, but it was the first time I went there for a big international band’s performance. Of course, this time I had purchased the ticket in advance, as I had learned to do in hope to avoid long queues or any other kind of issues. I was wrong, considering the seemingly infinite wait before the presale tickets gates were opened, I had the chance to exchange a few words with other people in line (quite a diverse audience this time as well), trying to guess what the Canadian band would have played. About ninety minutes of top-notch post-rock by Menuck and the others, it featured most of the trademarks of the ensemble from Montréal, and was by far one of the most intense concerts I have seen during my stay in Shanghai (and in my life). In the end, the long wait was more than rewarded.
After my big return to the Beijing Midi Festival for the Labor’s day holiday, post-rock shows started to reach into other venues of the area: for example the new On Stage (where I had seen Ataraxia on that same week) had the chance to host the Texan band This Will Destroy You on May 25, although unfortunately I couldn’t go there. As summer came in, I chose to leave the huge metropolis behind for a couple of months in order to attend, among other things, the Brutal Assault together with a few other dodgy individuals you all know.
That crazy and busy summer came to an end and at the beginning of September I found myself in Shanghai again; right there ready to welcome me was one of the most interesting international post-metal acts: The Ocean, on September 11. The historic Yuyintang livehouse — opened in 2004 and about a 20-minute walk from my place — was the place to be; unfortunately, the amount of work I had to deal with after my long absence didn’t give me the chance to get there. Thus started a tough period in terms of musical events, with the only exception of the Changjiang Midi Festival during the October national holiday. I must say that the 2013/14 winter in Shanghai was unbelievably dull and devoid of relevant live shows, with a few interesting things only coming up after the new year.
2014 – (Almost) All Is Bright
After the spectacular performance by Peter Hook And The Light on March 30, things finally started to get going and “post-” music came back as well. This was shortly followed by the great show by Explosions In The Sky on Labor’s day at the Strawberry Festival (one of the biggest in China together with the Midi). Then it came to something quite unusual around here, one of the emerging names of post-black metal: Deafheaven at the Yuyintang on May 11.
Generally speaking, black metal is not exactly one of the most popular genres in Shanghai, but apparently the peculiar style of this American band fascinated the organizers (together with the more than warm reception their second album “Sunbather” had received around the world). Great turnout, especially considering the relatively small size of the venue, and there was good participation by the audience. Unfortunately, George Clarke’s microphone had lots of issues for about half an hour, before the staff finally managed to fix it and let everybody have an enjoyable experience. Apart from this, the group from California delivered a solid performance and surely attracted a few new listeners with it.
Here things started to get more serious, in the northern area of the city the Q-Hall hosted another of the big guns of the scene: God Is An Astronaut. The trio played basically all the best tracks from their repertoire for a crowded pit in a highly successful evening, ranging from the calmer songs to the faster ones (at times even sounding a bit metal). The authors of at least one of the fundamental albums of the entire genre (“All Is Violent, All Is Bright”), GIAA left a great impression on those who saw them on their Asian tour. This was then followed by the American post-metal act Rosetta at the Yuyintang, which wasn’t extremely memorable but was a good show overall.
On June 28 it was finally the turn of the main post-rock band from China: Wang Wen (惘闻).This band from Dalian, Liaoning Province, was founded in the late ’90s following in the steps of all the genre’s pioneers, drawing inspiration mainly from GY!BE’s style. With many solid albums and dozens of live shows over their career, Wang Wen were promoting their latest album “Eight Horses” (“八匹马”) on that occasion. The show was opened by a not-so-inspired local band, but then the main event put everything together and the result was top-notch. The audience was almost entirely Chinese, and the bar was set really high for all the bands who have performed at the Mao Livehouse this year. The days went by and I managed to pass time between an endless and consuming series of issues with bureaucracy and work in general, but also with an interesting concert by the relatively unknown Japanese project Miaou.
The summer of 2014 featured one last exciting episode on September 20: Maybeshewill came back to Shanghai, one of the first international post-rock bands to gather a relatively notable following a few years ago. The bearded quarted from Leicester punctually set foot on the Mao Livehouse stage and had everything under control, even interacting through some basic Chinese with the numerous audience. The latest album “Fair Youth” was not much represented, while most of the performing time was dedicated to all of the best tracks from their previous efforts (highly appreciated by me). It was possibly the best show by a foreign band that I have seen in 2014 in terms of general quality, feedback, organization, and so on. After the show, I wrote down the date for the last big post-rock event of the year: Mono’s tour for the promotion of the ambitious double album “The Last Dawn / Days Of Darkness”.
After coming back from Hong Kong, the 18th of October is time to go back to Mao to pay homage to one of the most respected post-rock projects, as well as one of the most appreciated rock bands from Asia in general. The pre-sale tickets went sold-out pretty soon, so I had to purchase the full-price one, but such an occasion was definitely worth it. I had never seen the place so full, a number between 800 and 1000 people were there to welcome the four musicians from Tokyo. The show starts with a little delay, and thus began a heartfelt journey through their long career, including many episodes from the double album (really solid when performed live as well). Elegance, feeling, destruction; these and many others are the elements of the horizon painted by Mono through keyboards, tremolo picking, and crescendos. Some minor issues with the sound system could not harm the overall emotional and musical effect of the evening.
With this concert I conclude my report/diary of a couple of years selected quite randomly in the musical history of a small genre in a huge city. It could have started earlier, finished later, and included some names instead of others. These are just some impressions that also sparked a few questions, the most interesting of which is probably: why post-rock, of all international genres, is receiving such good feedback and is expanding so quickly in China?
One of my answers is that the almost total absence of lyrics makes it more difficult to “bridle” or regulate for a central government not always up to date in this sense, and sometimes making unpredictable decisions in terms of international cultural activities. Politically speaking, post-rock’s “silences” have always referred to more complex phenomena, actually full of unspoken or just hinted meanings. Many of the projects we have introduced here reflect on the individual, on the interactions with the rest of the world, on existence and its possible meanings; however, they rarely do it through politically-charged lyrics or “shock-rock” behaviors. Therefore, it is not that surprising that some bands with a strong political undertone (such as GY!BE) managed to find their way through underground channels to perform in a country often perceived as close or rigid. Just to give an example, in 2009 the central government cancelled an Oasis show in China because of Noel Gallagher’s participation in a pro-Tibetan independence show in 1997. Oasis.