Though outside music was mostly banned from the People’s Republic of China until the 1980s, metal gained an early foothold among rock musicians and fans in the country. Genre forerunners like the glam-leaning Black Panther, formed in 1987, and epically named Tang Dynasty were packing stadiums and moving units in the early years of the genre’s appearance in the country.
As other Western genres like punk and hip-hop made their way to China over the next few decades, metal’s following began to wane; the genre’s fans are now mostly found in scattered pockets of the country. Fortunately, those fans are super-served by a legion of bands operating in myriad subgenres: black metal (Hellward, Deep Mountains, Frozen Moon, Ritual Day, Holyarrow, Evocation, Martyrdom), death metal (R.N.V., Holokastrial, ULULATE), thrash (Ancestor, Tumourboy, Punisher, The Metaphor), stoner metal (Never Before), metalcore/crossover (Return the Truth, Unregenerate Blood, Demerit), post-metal (Bliss-Illusion), and many others.
Though the tribe of Chinese metal fans may be small and fragmented, it’s backstopped by a diehard DIY network. Dedicated metal venues like Beijing’s 13 Club and Nanchang’s Black Iron provide the stages, indie publications like Painkiller spill the ink, stores like 666 Rock Shop sell the goods, and labor-of-love labels like Dying Art, Pest, Stress Hormones, and WV Sorcerer do their part to give Chinese metal bands a proper platform.
One of Chinese metal’s most ardent and prolific protagonists is Zhang Deng, who founded Pest Productions in 2006 in Nanchang, and has since issued more than 200 releases on the label. “I’m not modest,” Zhang says with a sense of self-awareness: “Pest is decisive in the promotion of Chinese metal—most Western fans’ perceptions of China’s extreme metal come from Pest.” The sheer scale of the label’s back catalog represents but one line of attack; Pest was also one of the first indie labels from China to launch a bilingual website, an online store supporting PayPal (which is barely used in China), and a regularly updated page on Facebook (inaccessible in China without a VPN).
Shen Ruotan, founder of the WV Sorcerer label, got into metal while in grade school in China. He now lives in France, and uses his bicultural experiences to strengthen ties between Chinese metal, industrial, and noise artists and the rest of the world. “In the last five to 10 years, even with the internet ban [on Facebook and Gmail], communication and exchanges between China and places overseas are getting much more active,” he says. “Young people can listen to the newest releases and get information much easier than before.”
Likewise, bands within China are increasingly able to use Western music streaming platforms to get their music heard internationally at a scale unimaginable when metal first took root in the country. Here’s a quick primer on some currently active Chinese metal bands to be found on Bandcamp, from seasoned veterans to new blood.
While megapolises like Beijing and Shanghai have the biggest metal scenes, the smaller city of Nanchang boasts an impressively deep bench of bands and supporters. One of the most important groups is Be Persecuted, which formed in 2005 and remains one of China’s best-known metal bands, despite having put out only a few demos and two LPs in 14 years. To that end, 2006’s eponymous demo acted as a catalyst for the formation of Pest Productions, marking its first release. Be Persecuted’s drummer, who goes by the stage name Autism, also runs the label Stress Hormones, which puts out releases for bands in the region as well as reissues for ‘90s Chinese extreme metal pioneers like Tomahawk and The Crown.
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Despite being “somewhat backward”—in the words of Pest Productions founder Zhang—Nanchang has also produced one of China’s greatest thrash metal bands: Explosicum. They play vintage finger-blistering thrash in the vein of Slayer and early Metallica, a sound perfectly crystallized on Explosicum’s 2017 full-length Living’s Deal. The band tours widely around Asia, connecting with fanatics in Japan, Taiwan, and Thailand. At home in Nanchang, Explosicum’s bassist runs the venue Black Iron, a crucial home base for metalheads from around southern China and a must-stop on most Chinese rock bands’ national tour circuits. Black Iron is also the current office and warehouse of Pest Productions, housing its deep catalog of CDs and related merch.
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The Jinan-based black metal band Zuriaake might sound like subgenre traditionalists on record, but onstage they’re the exact opposite: the live equivalent of a classical Chinese ink painting, obscured by waves of rolling fog and conical bamboo hats. “They’re a very good example of how to let Western people know how a Chinese-culture-influenced band should be,” notes WV Sorcerer founder Shen Ruotan. “Not only adding a traditional instrument to seek novelty—they are more than that,” Shen adds, alluding to the band’s penchant for incorporating ancient poetry into their lyrics. While Zhang of Pest is hesitant to pick a favorite among his label’s 200+ releases, he also admits to a special place in his heart for Zuriaake. Both Shen and Zhang have supported Zuriaake’s appearances at international festivals like Roadburn and Wacken—keep an eye out for them on tour in Europe later this year.
Among the metal styles distinct to China is its unique take on folk metal, which incorporates instrumentation and melodies from Central Asian traditional music. One of the first bands to take this approach was the Beijing-formed, New York-based group Tengger Cavalry, whose founder Nature Ganganbaigal recently released a compilation to support other bands working in the same vein. “It’s important to show the world that Chinese metal is diverse, and nomadic culture is what I am doing for now, so I want to support it—they blend well with metal for sure,” Ganganbaigal says. “We need the world to see the diversity and creativity of Asian communities.”
The most successful Mongolian folk metal band in China today is Nine Treasures, who feature on Ganganbaigal’s Sound of the Raging Steppe comp alongside groups like Inner Mongolian metalcore band Liberation. Another band blending Central Asian folk and metal worth looking into is Nan, an ethnically Kazakh band from Xinjiang province, on China’s sparsely populated northwestern frontier.
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While Nanchang has the highest per capita concentration of metal bands and labels, Beijing has long been China’s metal capital, from the time of genre forebears Tang Dynasty on. Today, the city hosts a fiercely dedicated metal scene that is largely clustered around 13 Club, a long-running metal bar in Beijing’s university district. One band that calls Beijing home is the Nordic-style black metal duo Ibex Moon, longtime mainstays of China’s black metal scene. Ibex Moon are currently preparing a new album for Pest Productions. Zhang says that black metal in particular has attracted a cohesive scene in a way other metal subgenres have not: “Strictly speaking, a Chinese metal scene doesn’t exist—there’s not much direct exchange between different styles. But as far as the black metal scene is concerned, there are a lot of young and great new bands in recent years.”
While metal purists in Beijing tend to gather most often at 13 Club, Never Before’s molten medley of sludge, doom, and stoner metal slots in snugly at inner-city dive bars like School and Temple, which regularly host mixed punk, hardcore, and indie bills. Case in point: January’s Wild Dog Festival, where Never Before shared the stage with Liaoning thrash metallers Punisher and Beijing hardcore band Struggle Session for a genre-straddling, one-day festival at central Beijing venue YUE Space. Never Before’s lineup has seen some flux over the band’s six years of existence, but this recording features the bassist and drummer of the (also great) Beijing prog-metal band Nakoma.
Punisher is one of the best thrash bands doing it in China today, despite their remote location in China’s northeastern periphery (the band hail from the coastal city of Jinzhou in Liaoning province, roughly a four-hour drive from the North Korean border). Recent releases include 2017’s Lost in the Maze of a Nightmare and 2016’s Battle of Grace, whose surrealist cover art depicts deteriorating statues of Mao and Marx on a freight train barreling deep into a smog-yellow industrial hellscape. For more excellent Chinese thrash metal, see also Beijing’s Ancestor, who cite early Kreator as their key influence, and Tumourboy, who place themselves in a lineage with Anthrax, Nuclear Assault, and Sepultura.