When Polar Ends Collide: Making Thrash Metal in Socialist China

From famine to factories in 60 years, the People’s Republic of China is an emblem of the modern world with its economy blowing well-established countries out of the water. However, hiding deep between skyscraper crevices lives and breathes a bubbling metal scene, among which quintet  毒蠱  has been brewing their primitive sonic attack.

In summation,  毒蠱  (pronounced “Dugu” phonetically) represents creative devotion and relentless effort within a world of rejection. While the extreme music scene has grown considerably within North America and Europe, Asian culture, and specifically China’s, has been unnaturally secluded for the better part of the country’s existence. Only recently has the country seen an influx of foreign influence, with big-name companies like McDonalds and Nike setting up shop in the far East. Mainstream culture takes up a significant portion of the interests of China’s urban population, which is why underground titans like  毒蠱  are important to highlight and support.

 
Admittedly, the choreographed interview questions asked to  毒蠱’s  members aimed to prod the band about their controlling government, or perhaps tried to foresee how their music style serves as some sort of outlash against a highly competitive work culture, however none of which led to what the Westernized might expect. Carefully-crafted question after question,  毒蠱  kept stressing that they play for fun and their tunes focus solely on cult Chinese horror films, that’s it. Jun Yan Zhang, guitarist, exemplified this perfectly, saying “It’s not easy here to play underground metal music, so I feel satisfied with my band because it is the way I want to play, I don’t have a high ideology level so you can say it is for fun.”

 
While there is no ultimate rhyme or reason for  毒蠱‘s  existence, they do incorporate Chinese culture into their aesthetic. The band’s title refers to Gong Tau, an entity of black magic in Chinese culture. This phenomenon is well-known within the country and is often presented through voodoo dolls and the fear of being controlled by these demonic figurines. While the cultural phenomenon used to be much more prevalent within older centuries, it still remains emancipated within local culture.

 
The band’s lyrical and thematic influence is rather unnatural for a stereotypical thrash metal band. While deeply-rooted in an ‘80s aesthetic alike the current “thrash rehash” bands flooding the metal scene as of late,  毒蠱  focuses strictly on retro cult movies. This chimes in with China’s cultural history, with the Shaw Brothers film production company reigning over Chinese popular culture since it was formed in 1925.

 
Popular film director PengLin (彭龄) directed a film surrounding the aforementioned Gong Tau black magic concept. The film, titled “毒蠱,” is where the group in question pulled their name from. “I think the name is important for a band, now too many bands use zombies, nuclear themes or wars in their band’s name,” says Jun. “I don’t want to follow the usual way so I decided to name my band as a title of a movie.” Many of  毒蠱‘s  song titles are inspired by Shaw Brothers films, with “Crippled Avengers” and “Bewitched,” two songs off the group’s newest demo, being direct references to film titles.

 
At the moment,  毒蠱  are the epitome of underground metal culture and its various tropes and stereotypes. With their two demos recorded and edited at home on a cheap dual-channel Steinburg and Cubase software, that lovely low-fi metal production sound we all know and love fits right in with other basement demos out there. “Its not professional, but we don’t care,” Jun says. “All of the band members come from different cities, under these conditions, we still have not recorded the real drumkit.”

 
The band consists of five members from four separate provinces, which undoubtedly makes recording and live shows a difficult task. Due to their separation,  毒蠱  hasn’t played any venues yet. “We are still working on the album recording and music creation and will be performing next year,” says bassist Chen Bo Zhou. They do however get together as much as possible to drink and write new material.

 
While  毒蠱  is certainly a project of focus by night, the group’s members emerge from the crypts and caverns where they reside to complete their day job responsibilities. Ranging from working at wholesale trade companies to copywriting gigs, a lot is done behind the scenes to make sure  毒蠱  stays up and running. Percussionist Xin Ran Zhang gives drumming classes, teaching children how to play his instrument of choice. “I don’t really like this job because I can’t teach them how to play blastbeats,” he jokingly said. Singer Tian Qi Zhao, postgraduate student in oil painting, paints all of  毒蠱‘s logos and demo covers in his spare time which brings us full circle, meaning that the band’s output is conceptualized and produced entirely by them with no outside control. From riffs to logos, you’re getting the exact experience that  毒蠱  wants you to have.

 
The Chinese metal scene is certainly small, but for what they lack in size, they make up for with comradery.  毒蠱  slowly assembled through meeting each other at local shows and through communication apps, of which people commonly use to talk to like-minded people and subsequently find band members. While similar groups may be few and far between,  毒蠱  made sure to shout-out other Chinese bands like Ancestor, Hellfire, and Desecrator.

 
Although the band is certainly still in the underground, Chen explained how Chinese culture is slowly evolving to allow for more focus on acts like  毒蠱  who reside outside of the mainstream. “Most elements of metal music are rejected by traditional Chinese culture, but in recent years, the development of the entertainment industry has indirectly promoted the development of many underground cultures.”

 
However, despite the potential hope for smaller acts like the one in question, fun takes prominence over popularity in the underworld, which Chen made clear. “Metal music still has many extreme elements compared to popular music, which means it is difficult to be promoted or accepted as a mainstream culture. Therefore, whether it is popular or not means nothing to me. I will not care whether it is popular or not.”

 

Support the band on Bandcamp!

 

If you’d like to read the entire interview transcript, click here.

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