In Ken Liu’s The Dandelion Dynasty series, the Chinese American science fiction author expands on his vision of “silkpunk”: not “Asian-flavored steampunk” nor “Asian-influenced fantasy,” but a particular aesthetic which constitutes a “re-appropriation and rejuvenation of tradition” as a type of alternative worldbuilding from the Pacific. The latest album from P.H.0, a group of New York City-based artists making “east asian cyber-metal” [sic] strives in a similar direction, mixing traditional-sounding pentatonic melodies with a potpourri of genres both brutal and futuristic, from industrial EBM to retrofuturistic synthwave. Though it stumbles at moments, KARMA 業 reimagines what Asian music might sound like.
A distant suona heralds the beginning of “Vanity 虛妄.” After the short introduction, gravelly guitars and syncopated toms take things in a more conventionally metal direction, albeit with a synthesized twist. Then—two minutes in, the intensity dissolves, giving way to a post-rock interlude that features an erhu solo supported by a wistful guitar line. A minute later, and there’s a synthwave drop, heavily compressed and undulating with each kick, after which they conclude the track with a heavy breakdown. Packing a ranging mix of sounds into just under five minutes, the track is a glorious mess that encapsulates the band’s willingness to take risks.
Some of these choices pay off, while others don’t land quite as well. “Yè 業” starts off strong, with a pentatonic riff over a measured blitz of guitar and electronics, but their first lyrics break any spell the introduction might have cast with a bit of Weezer-esque cheese: “A Japanese CPU dreams of electric sheep while the system sleeps.” “Wu Wuo 無我” exhibits a similar tension between their progressive sound and sometimes weary subject matter. Beginning with a minimalistic 4×4 beat—we’re deep in techno territory now—they slowly introduce droning erhu and distorted bass. Then comes George Orwell, with lines from 1984 narrated by a vaguely British voice: “We will abolish the orgasm. There will be no loyalty except loyalty to the Party.” The title of the track translates to “anatta,” the Buddhist concept of non-self; it sounds like a bit of an on-the-nose critique of communism in the Pacific. It’s in these moments when the band dips a little too far into “Asian-influenced fantasy,” the typical sonic signifiers of East Asia used as window dressing for well-worn themes of Asian authoritarianism—yet P.H.0 nevertheless explore musical combinations with a full-throated earnestness that bears fruit in bursts of creativity.