Voision Xi's Loops + Covid zero rock from the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau
+ Hualun, Yangfan and China's synth pioneer
After months of procrastination (and multiple drafts) I’m finally launching a Substack about music from China. It won’t be as clever as Chaoyang Trap, as insightful as Far & Near, or as lyrical as Mando Gap, but I hope it’ll help you find some new music that you enjoy.
I’m still not sure exactly what form this will take or how consistent I’ll be able to make it, and it may well shift as it goes along, but the general idea for now is that it’ll be a collection of things I’ve been listening to lately, with a focus on significant and/or interesting new releases, plus other little snippets of information that might intrigue you or send you off down a Chinese music rabbit hole.
I certainly welcome feedback, so please send me your thoughts and comments and let me know what you’d like to get out of a Substack like this one.
Voision Xi’s 5 Loops in Her Way came out in late July and I’ve had it on heavy rotation since. When it came to writing this Substack, I went through a few different records in this top slot, but this feels like the recent-ish release I most want to recommend.
It’s a glittering, light-filled record of playful electronica, and one that’s perfect for late summer/early autumn — or really whatever season you happen to be in right now.
These Loops are a follow up to four previous recordings that Voision put out in early 2021, also on the excellent Eating Music label (the two releases are now available together as a cassette with the two bonus tracks featured above).
There’s a clear progression and development from one EP to the other. The first felt like a series of sketches and experiments, not lacking exactly but perhaps not quite fully-formed ideas either. The second still retains that exploratory edge, but is backed by Voision displaying a stronger sense of confidence in the tools she uses, including her own voice, which is regularly (and deftly) deployed as an instrument on 5 Loops.
Making this all the more impressive is that this wasn’t even Voision’s main musical project this year. That was her debut full-length solo album, Lost for Words, a grander affair that reflected her status as a long-time vocalist on Shanghai’s jazz scene (though also pulled in elements of funk and spoken word poetry).
Hualun discuss their Wuhan Wuhan OST on POV
Hualun are a band whose releases are so consistently high quality, so consistently interesting that they put some other artists to shame. Having started life as a post-rock act in Wuhan in 2004, their more recent work has focused on cinematic soundscapes — through both actual soundtracks and a series of soundtrack-like EPs.
For POV, “television’s longest-running showcase for independent non-fiction films”, the band recently talked with director Yung Chang and film exec Lizzy Liu about their work on Covid documentary Wuhan Wuhan, and discussed their roots, their evolution and of course the city where they formed. The conversation is about half an hour long and if you stick around there’s also some footage of the band performing a session for Bie Music tagged on the end.
Hualun’s new album, which apparently represents quite a break with their recent releases, ought to be out before the end of the year. In the meantime, here’s a classic work from them, an extraordinary soundtrack to an extraordinary film, which is also referenced throughout the interview:
And if you’re a subscriber to The Wire, here’s a profile of Hualun that I wrote last year.
What happened after What Happened After 1,001 Nights?
Another stand-out release from recent months is Li Yangfan’s second solo album Trip Jigsaw, which landed at the start of September. It came six and a bit years after her first solo record, but she’s hardly been resting on her laurels in the intervening period: Trip Jigsaw is a collection of music collated from the soundtrack work she’s done for various TV, film and theatre productions over the last decade.
Li is a significant artist on the Beijing scene, even if she often seems a somewhat reluctant figurehead. She was just 15 when she began playing with Hang on the Box (often touted as China’s first all-female punk band) in the 1990s. After they disbanded, she formed Ourself Beside Me in the early 2000s, exploring an interest in more atmospheric, psychedelic rock — a sound she delved into further with The Molds frontman Liu Ge as TOW. A self-taught producer, she’s also played a role in releases by the likes of Chui Wan and Gong Gong Gong, and performed with John Cale when he played in Shanghai in 2018.
Due to the timespan and range of projects that they’re pulled from, the pieces of Trip Jigsaw don’t always fit together as neatly as they might if this was a straight-up album, but the common thread of Li’s accomplished musicianship, willingness to experiment with effects and knack for a kooky melody runs through the record nonetheless.
And few of the tracks actually conform to what often comes to mind when you hear the word “soundtrack”. ‘Cage’ is the closest the record gets to lush atmospherics and there are a number of reflective piano-driven moments dotted throughout, but much of the album skews more toward the kind of off-kilter, playful psych-rock of her first solo record What Happened After 1,001 Nights?.
To me, Trip Jigsaw is the kind of record that grows on you (likewise What Happened… took a while for me to get into) but there are some songs that instantly appeal, especially ‘Eggs’, which features spoken word vocals from Liang Anzheng and some particularly rhythmic percussion from Hedgehog drummer Shi Lu.
Something else worth noting: in addition to a self-directed cutout animation music video for the song ‘Light’, her new release comes accompanied by an online art exhibition on biede.com (showing for a few hours every evening from 8pm China time until October 5th).
China’s synth pioneer
A mini documentary on 1970s Chinese synths by Justin Scholar has been doing numbers on Bilibili and YouTube lately. Early on it mentions Tian Jinqin, who we wrote about a few years back on a site I used to edit. From the late 1970s onwards, Tian came up with a range of inventions that blended synthesizer technology with traditional Chinese instruments. Justin’s doc reminded me of these videos of Tian and his work so I thought I’d share them here:
The video above (uploaded by Shanghainese producer and one-time synth musician B6) features some decades-old footage of Tian, while the one below is a half-hour session with the inventor filmed by AlgorithmArt Lab in 2018. Neither have English captions but both feature lots of footage of Tian playing his instruments so even if you can’t follow the conversations they make for fascinating viewing.
Qinghai band Tation tackle Covid zero
Tation have had a rough couple of years. The self-described “postmodernist rock band and comprehensive art group from the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau” are far from the only act in China to have been affected by the country’s continuing Covid zero policies, but that’s not made it any less depressing to follow the series of postponement and cancellation notices they’ve had to put out over the last few months. They had big plans for this year especially, including a nationwide tour and an update to their Coordinate Plan series, but they’ve had to scrap it all.
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, they recently released a new track, named after T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Waste Land’. The piece is billed as a “musical interpretation of current life, shuttling between real life, which is constantly facing lockdown due to COVID-19, and the virtual illusion of being locked down.”
Tation are a group who always have ambitious, impressive ideas, even if sometimes it can feel like they’re trying to do too much with their sound. This track is testament to that grand vision, with guzheng, piano, an array of percussion and guitars all swirling together. It’s also one of their best in a while.
Two Tation-related side notes:
if you have access to Weidian, you can consider supporting them by buying some of their own 60% abv “highland barley wine”.
the band’s Zhang Jianfeng recently released a series of atmospheric experimental recordings that are well worth checking out (the plan is for them up on Bandcamp eventually but for now they’re here on WeChat and here on NetEase).
You might also like…
I won’t be writing much about pop here because there’s the excellent Mando Gap for that. And on that note, I wanted to nudge you to read Michael Hong’s review of Akini Jing and Chace’s ‘Blessing’ on Pitchfork if you haven’t already. I’ve been intrigued by Jing’s cyberpunk transformation for a while, but when I saw her live a couple of years ago it felt like the music didn’t quite have the same power as the imagery. That’s changed thanks to her collaboration with in-demand producer Chace, who you may also know as one of the main creative forces behind band Mandarin. Read about it here.
Leaving you for now with this track from Lava|Ox|Sea, for obvious reasons…
If found this vaguely interesting or you’re intrigued to see where it goes, please consider subscribing and sharing. Thank you.
I remember searching for experimental music from China a long time ago and miserably failing to even find any useful sources. This is very exciting, please keep it up! Once one created a lot of knowledge and contacts about china it is easy to forget how hard it still is to get even a basic grasp of the culture when you start with google search.
I noticed that the amazing Elephant Sitting Still is available on QQ Music but not NetEase (which i'm locked in to....) Anyway, it got me thinking, is there a wider rationale behind alternative bands not releasing their stuff on both of China's mainstream platforms? Just curious. Anyway, thanks a lot, great recs. Looking forward to more