According to the CIA, China is currently estimated to be home to over 1.3 billion people. eXpo is a ten-song compilation that derives its content from artists based in China. Perhaps looking for thematic continuity, particularly in a time when so much music from so many places is available for immediate consumption, was a mistake in the first place.
This is what we do when presented with an artist from a nation other than our own, though, isn’t it? We have a certain idea in our head of what artists from other nations sound like. Look at Iceland, home of Bjork, Sigur Rós, and Múm. There’s something of an otherworldly beauty to all of those artists’ music that we can point to and think of as the “sound of Iceland”, and as absurdly reductive as such a statement might be, most people just read something like that and nod. When you hear J-Pop or noise music and are told it comes from Japan, that makes sense.
Try to find a unifying characteristic to the music of eXpo beyond its electronics, however, and you will come up empty. This is to its credit, of course.
eXpo is a joint effort between the Shanghai Restoration Project — really just one guy, Dave Liang, who has been combining traditional Chinese music with hip-hop and electronic beats for some time now — and Neocha, an online community for Chinese artists. Shanghai is hosting the World Expo this year (hence the name of the compilation), which makes this a perfect time to highlight some of the best of China’s contemporary musicians while also introducing those musicians to the experience of releasing music outside their own country (which they will, for the first time in many cases, be compensated for).
This alone would be plenty of reason to buy eXpo, but there’s the added bonus of some serious quality to go along with the feeling of supporting independent music. Opening with an artist (Qiu Yu) who specializes in 8-bit carries the risk of making the compilation feel immediately antiquated, but the crisp production on the 8-bit sounds and the beautifully-layered rhythms transcend the sample set simply and effectively. “Zero” is actually one of the most immediately appealing things on the disc, making it a fine start to the Chinese electronic experience. Red Mushroom continues things with a breakbeat-inflected singalong called “Big Pirate Tyakasha”, whose vocals make this the only track on the entire disc immediately identifiable as Chinese.
After “Big Pirate Tyakasha”, things settle into a decidedly European-styled groove, with excursions into house and IDM progressing the compilation in a decidedly inoffensive and somewhat unspectacular manner. ZLOX’s “Song of Night” and Mu Xiao Hu’s “Moon” are the highlights of this middle stretch — the former for its easy melodicism, and the latter for its dark minimalism — but the middle stretch is only noteworthy for being passable, if fairly unexciting.
Smartly, the back bookend also features a pair of noteworthy tracks, including the most interesting thing on the entire album: a five-and-a-half-minute electronic suspense film soundtrack called “Paper Dummy” by Sun Ye. The understated beat and spooky keyboard sounds combine to form a thick and intriguing soundscape, occasionally underscored or overtaken by a hostile sort of distortion. Everything ends as it should, with a Reichian ambient artist named Jinbaobab doing a song called “Dormancy Oatmeal”, which is basically a repeated piano loop with bonus glitching and synthetic whistles.
Should we have known about the Chinese electronic music scene? Probably not, given that even in China, it seems that most of these artists have toiled in obscurity, making their music as a hobby and not as a vocation. Perhaps this is why there is so much love — of music, of sound, of melody, of rhythm — to be found in this music. There is no sense of obligation here, only the sense of music for the sake of music. With any luck, this won’t be the last we hear from many of these artists. If we weren’t sure that a Chinese electronic music scene existed before eXpo, now that we do know, it would be a shame if we didn’t get to hear more.