The Quirky Circumstances Surrounding Southeast Asian Grindcore
When Wormrot was signed to Earache Records in 2010, they surprised the hell out of most people in the extreme metal world. How many have actually heard of Southeast Asian grindcore before then? What unique conditions helped to spawn this small regional scene?
A perplexing idiosyncrasy of the human race has always been our knack for finding means and ways to rebel against the established norm. No matter how oppressive the existing governing body might be, it cannot ever seem to entirely eliminate traces of rebellion.
As one of the oldest and most popular forms of entertainment, music has often been an outlet to channel frustration at authority in any form. Its endless permutations and combinations of various sonic pitches always promise exciting new possibilities.
The most exciting form of such music to ever emerge is, perhaps, grindcore. Spawned in England, this underground form of extreme metal is the logical rebellious answer to authority. It is comprised not of pleasant tunes to sleep or dance to, but of intense and seemingly chaotic bursts of noise.
As with everything Western, grindcore spread beyond its original territory and planted seeds in many other parts of the world, spawning various scenes. Of these many scenes, perhaps the quirkiest one of all is the Southeast Asian grindcore community. The countries in this region are not the likeliest of candidates to be breeding grounds for sociopolitical extreme music; China and North Korea would arguably be more logical choices. But as a region that is perennially straddling the political middle line separating Western democracy and Eastern authoritarianism, it is intriguing to observe how such non-extreme sociopolitical conditions could still spawn extremely extreme music such as grindcore.
If the raison d'être for pioneering English grindcore band Napalm Death was to criticize their state for being inherently flawed and unneeded, bearing in mind that the band members themselves were brought up in the state’s highly liberal environment in the first place, what then could be the raison d'être for Southeast Asian grindcore acts? Do they exist to sing about politics too, even though their countries are not at either end of the liberal-authoritarian political spectrum?
Suppose there is actually a single grindcore band in dictatorial North Korea, but the whole world is not yet aware of their existence. Then one highly unlikely day, due to a miracle of Red Sea proportions, this band actually manages to get some Internet access and creates a page on Metal-Archives.com, with Google Map screenshots of their coordinates to prove their existence. Wonderment at the existence of audio recording technology in their backward country aside, it wouldn’t be very shocking to learn of the band’s existence, would it? After all, most of us can easily imagine that the North Korean leadership’s way of governing their country should have royally pissed off a certain fraction of their citizenry. It isn’t unlikely that some of these citizens are musically gifted and relish the extreme sound of grindcore too.
Politics? Why politics?
As with other genres of extreme metal that spread to other parts of the world, foreign interpretations of grindcore are not necessarily going to be complete imitations of the original style -- and that was exactly what happened with Southeast Asian grindcore.
Despite the complicated and pervasive nature of the Southeast Asian political climate (such a brief description doesn’t actually do justice to the region’s rich political history, but it suffices for the purpose of this article), young Southeast Asian grindcore bands generally seem to avoid the traditional grindcore trait of writing political lyrics, while the old ones generally move towards other themes (such as the banal topics of love, hate, gore and death) as the years go by.
Today, the closest topic to politics that most of these bands sing about is that of social problems. Drug abuse, abortion, suicide and church-state separation are common subject matters, but even then, the bands do not seem to make informed opinions in their lyrics.
Of course, there are the dull copycats who imitate their Western peers down to a tee; which country wouldn’t have such bands? But currently, the most prominent Southeast Asian grindcore acts seem to prefer focusing on one of the oldest and most common reasons for playing music in the first place: having fun.
Remarking on the issue of Western influence in Southeast Asian grindcore, Calvin Chiang, A&R manager of Singapore-based extreme metal label, Pulverised Records, notes that “the emphasis on sociopolitical lyrics might not take precedence over the music itself.”
“A probable reason why grindcore is so accepted amongst the Southeast Asian countries is because of the fact that the music itself was really fresh and exciting during that time [1990s],” Chiang explained. “Southeast Asia is actually in a very unique position; it’s not extremely oppressed but still somewhat traditional and conservative as well. Which is exactly why back when grindcore was invented, it did not take us too long to discover this genre; and the regional tape-traders were literally going insane searching for those rare and out-of-print demos.”
Chiang continues: “There is no doubt that [Southeast Asian bands] are certainly imitating the grindcore pioneers, but even for other genres such as rock and metal, there were always influences coming from the West anyway. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that [they] embraced the “know-how”, and tried to infuse [their] various influences with the original Western style to create a signature sound.”
Historically, Western culture has always emphasized the trait of political awareness because of its enthusiastic endorsement of free speech. While Southeast Asia has a rich political history, its member countries promote a culture that generally discourages their citizens from actively participating in politics through a variety of indirect means.
The most common example is being directly involved with the media, and this is a common practice shared by all Southeast Asian countries. It is simply a matter of degree of involvement that decides how “unfree” a Southeast Asian country is. In Singapore for example, making public speeches or organizing strikes requires going through the notorious bureaucratic red tape. Also, Brunei’s media is infamous for being extremely pro-government. It has been given the "Not Free" status by Freedom House, because the press rarely criticizes the government and monarchy.
Hence, it might be dishonest for Southeast Asian grindcore bands to try to ‘sell’ themselves by strictly following the traditional grindcore practice of having politically aware lyrics. Even if a band wants to insist that they are really a “political” grindcore band, it is highly likely that they are not as politically aware as bands like Napalm Death.
This is because Napalm Death comes from a much more liberal region that values free speech more than social order, while Southeast Asian bands come from a much more conservative region that values social order more than free speech. Napalm Death’s members have freedom to express their thoughts on political matters openly all the time, while those from Southeast Asian bands do not. Western bands like Napalm Death have relatively better-informed opinions on political matters than Southeast Asian acts, because they constantly get to develop ideas on these issues openly in their daily lives, and then bring that quality into their music’s lyrics. On the other hand, Southeast Asian bands cannot afford to voice their opinions openly, and only get to do so when writing their lyrics in either the jam room or bedroom.
Take note that there has not actually been a reported case of a Southeast Asian grindcore band being actively censored by their country’s government so far. However, there have been reported cases of certain bands from other extreme metal sub-genres being actively censored or banned from a country because of their provocative lyrical themes. These acts of musical censorship mostly take place in stricter countries such as Malaysia and Singapore.
In January 2006, Malaysia’s National Fatwa Council banned black metal culture in the country and said that Muslims found practicing it can be prosecuted. But of course, the peculiar authority-encourages-rebellion paradox states that plenty of black metal bands still exist within the conservative Islamic nation! In December 2010, Swedish black metal band Marduk was only allowed to play live in Singapore under the condition that they do not perform overly-explicit songs such as “Fuck Me Jesus”. More recently, in November 2012, the conservative island state banned American black metal band Inquisition from performing in the country, most probably due to their ritualistic brand of Satanic lyrics (or perhaps as a knee-jerk reaction to live heavy metal performances in general due to rockstar Dave Mustaine’s controversial remark about Obama earlier in August 2012).