Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Music at last week's Haidian Park Festival

The promised follow-up to Monday's post on the organization of the Modern Sky Records October holiday music festival last week, this time focusing on... the MUSIC.

Well, a bit of a mixed bag.  Most of the time, I didn't know who I was listening to, because Modern Sky's promo materials all seemed to be in Chinese only.  One of the first bands on the amphitheatre stage was fronted by a guy who played an electric guqin (not a traditional guqin with a mike on it, but - for the first time that I've ever seen - a purpose-built electric guqin, with electric guitar-style built-in pick-ups): that rocked.  The other big highlight of the day for me was Omnipotent Youth Society, almost justifying the price of admission on their own (if it had been less than 100 rmb, they would have done!): they remind me a bit of Wu & The Side Effects (same Santana-esque bluesiness in the guitar sound sometimes), but with the considerable advantages of a decent singer (sorry, Wu - love the guitar, man, hate the vocals) and the lush aural texture added by those soaring trumpet lines.

It was also quite nice to see Hedgehog again (after a long lapse, and rumours of a split-up).  I know I named them as one of my '5 bands to avoid' some time ago, but that was mainly because they tend to be tiresomely overpraised in the laowai press here.  They're a very decent band, but still lacking in any really good material.  And I do wish they'd let their little drummer Atom take on more of the vocals; she can sing, the guitarist can't.

New Pants were as wilfully eccentric as ever.  Not really my cup of tea at the best of times, and this time doing more of the electro stuff than the guitar-pop stuff I prefer (they're a bizarrely schizophrenic duo: one of them, it seems, would like to be Oasis, while the other would like to be Blancmange or the Pet Shop Boys; so, most of the time they end up sounding like Pulp on an off day).  However, they have that exuberance and self-belief about them that most Chinese bands tend to lack: they can - just about - hold a stage.

The rest of the day I found a bit disappointing, I'm afraid.  Latvian pop-rockers Brainstorm started off promisingly, but - as so often with Eastern European music - relapsed into polka after a while.   Oxygen Can (or Liquid Oxygen Container, as they are sometimes even more literally translated) are, I think, one of the city's better death metal outfits, and I like their gimmick of having a second drummer playing on empty oil drums (it used to be just one, vigorously bashed about with big billets of wood; but now he's developed it into a full kit [in yellow-and-green camo paint], including a beer keg for a high-hat, and plays it a bit more conventionally).  However, it's just not a style of music that I dig, and I tired of them after only two or three songs.  With SUBS, I'm afraid I'm just not getting the new material; I've heard it three times now, and it seems more experimental, more 'thinky', and is perhaps quite clever musically in some ways, but it's also a bit dull - it lacks the infectious RAGE that was their hallmark.  I can't help wondering if the band are a bit unconvinced about it too; Kang Mao, in particular, seems a bit subdued lately, compared to the pogo-ing hellcat we know and love.  Maybe they're all just getting a bit older....  Unhappy thought!

That's certainly a worry with the last act up, Xie Tianxiao (or XTX, as he's now somewhat portentously billed).  He went through a 'folky' phase at the start of the year, putting out a whole album (or an EP, anyway?) of reggae-infused songs, which looked dangerously like evidence of a mid-life crisis.  He's quickly retreated from that - no doubt partly due to the almost universal derision it provoked.  One of the songs I heard him do last Monday started out in that style, but then quickly switched into something more like the nasty, punky grunge for which he made his name.  A couple of the things later in the set sounded more like outright metal (perhaps a calculated attempt to woo a younger generation of fans; metal is HUGE here), which tended to put me off - although I'd been oscillating between him and the main stage headliners Blonde Redhead anyway (WHY have your two biggest acts on at exactly the same time??  That didn't make a lot of sense, Modern Sky!).  Again, it seemed to me a rather subdued performance.  The man still plays a mean guitar (and a guzheng??), but the old caged-tiger sense of imminent threat he used to emanate seems to have died.   
[I wonder, in fact, if he was ever much of a big stage performer.  I commented a week or two ago that I think most Chinese bands aren't.  Up-close-and-personal, Xie Tianxiao  can be absolutely awesome.  But he's not able to - or doesn't choose to try to -  project that amount of energy to a bigger audience. I saw a reunion gig he did with his original band Cold Blooded Animal at the old Nameless Highland music bar about 5 or 6 years ago, and that was one of the best shows I've ever seen - in China or anywhere else.  Last Monday, I'm afraid, it felt a bit like he was just going through the motions for old times' sake.]

Blonde Redhead were a big letdown too.  It's a bad sign if your main stage crowd is thinning out that quickly during the headline act (even though that might have been largely because XTX is a way bigger draw for most of the local fans).  Their dreamy pop-rock doesn't really play well to a festival crowd, and they don't know how to hold a stage.  The Pace brothers are rather elderly-looking chaps now, and very low-key, uncharismatic.  So, it really falls to their principal vocalist Kazu Makino to connect with the crowd; and - at least on this occasion - she was determinedly declining to do so.  I wonder if she's too self-conscious to play in front of large crowds, or perhaps more purposefully trying to avoid using her attractiveness as one of the band's USPs.  Her hair and her peaked cap almost completely concealed her face; and she spent most of her time looking at her band mates rather than out front, anyway - total lack of audience engagement.  If they had been the main reason for shelling out my 150 kuai, I would have demanded my money back.

But that's festivals for you.  You see a dozen or more different acts in a day, and there are going to be some good, some bad, some somewhere in the middle.  I think the good - or the at least adequate - just about outweighed the bad overall.

No comments: