[20 December 2007]
Martin Atkins has worked as a drummer with PiL, NIN, the Killing Joke, and Ministry. More recently he has been a member of Pigface. This voluminous, billowing monster of an industrial rock supergroup has, at different times, found room for Steve Albini, Trent Reznor, Flea, Dean Ween, Lydia Lunch, Jello Biafra, and others—a list of names so long that you have to scroll downwards several times on their website to get to the end of it. People come into the group, contribute their personalities to its sound, then go back to whatever they were doing elsewhere. Atkins’ collaborators on Made in China are Chinese rather than American, but the music on this synergistic album sounds like an extension of Pigface. It has a denseness characteristic of US industrial music of the kind popularised by Reznor, an oppressive, snarling tsunami of noise, exhilarating in its brutality, like a good, dark horror movie. In effect the supergroup has simply changed continents and absorbed a few dozen new members.
Atkins found them when he travelled to Beijing in late 2006. The Chinese musicians play the erhu, a two-stringed fiddle that looks like an elongated lollypop, and the pipa lute, which is shaped like a huge pale tear. Some of them sing or rap in Chinese —probably Mandarin, although the notes don’t make it clear—and others blow the hulusi, a wind instrument with a round gourd body. It is these instruments and the high-pitched, slithery singing of the Chinese women, the language with its tonal shifts and slurs, that save Made in China from becoming a clone of an American industrial album. The music adjusts itself to accommodate the delicate persistence of the native instruments and to singing that has a different pitch and angle to the howl of a vocalist like Reznor. Happily, the partnership between Atkins and his collaborators is so well worked out that the two sounds don’t seem alien to one another. In “Mostly Hulusi” they take it in turns: first the Chinese instruments, then a burst of American-sounding drum kit, then back to the Chinese again, then both together, with no sense that the two nationalities are shoving one another around or interrupting when they’re not wanted. Atkins does his thing, then lifts his drumsticks and welcomes the hulusi in.
Look Directly Into the Sun: China Pop 2007 is a collection of the underground music that Atkins came across while he was in Beijing. I listened to it all the way through immediately after Made in China and it was almost as if I was hearing one long album. Remove Look Directly‘s Chinese lyrics and the Chinese-accented English and you’d think you were listening to a group of people from an English-speaking country with a taste for punk and upbeat Anglo-rock. This is a bit like the sort of music that was around when Atkins began his musical career at the beginning of the 1980s, so the similarities between Made in China, the album he collaborated on, and Look Directly, the album he compiled, aren’t completely a coincidence. The former is less avant-garde than the latter but it comes with a similar feeling of defiantly coarse post-punk glee.
A group called Voodoo Kungfu stands out from the rest of the compilation with “Chian”, a song that brings the hroooargh of death metal together with Mongolian singing and a morin khuur fiddle. This isn’t the same thing as the Tuvan Albert Kuvezin’s use of his own deep throat-singer’s growl to complement Motörhead’s “Orgasmatron” on Re-Covers. It’s heavier, more unrelentingly ferocious, with less obvious popular appeal. “Chian” incorporates folk chanting that sounds as if it was inspired by Tibetan Buddhism—it was the Tibetans who popularised Buddhism in Mongolia—and a whinnying shamanistic yodel that arcs upwards into a scream. In theory the idea of Mongolian Shaman-metal might sound like a peculiar novelty. In practice, I think it’s thrilling.
Then at the end of the album a group called Rococo do something that is, in context, startling when they sound briefly as if they’ve been listening to gospel. If Look Directly is a reliable guide then underground bands in Beijing do not make a high priority out of getting their African-American groove on. Sasha Frere-Jones is free to write a polemic telling us all that the Chinese are insufficiently black.
Then again, it might just come down to Atkins’ taste in music.
It would be interesting to hear the musicians who would have turned up if he had travelled to other parts of the country. Beijing is huge, but it’s difficult to believe that music from a place the size of China could be summed up with a collection of bands taken from a single city. I wouldn’t trust an album marketed as American Pop 2007 if its playlist had been assembled only from bands based in Los Angeles or New York, and I can’t entirely put my faith in China Pop 2007 for the same reason. On the other hand I know next to nothing about Chinese bands. Maybe all of the worthwhile ones really are concentrated in Beijing. I don’t know and I’m not comfortable with not knowing. I need a few more good compilations like this to help me sort it all out.