(Beijing – May 2017) – The exact birthdate of the much-blogged about ‘China rock explosion’ that took place in the noughties is subject to debate. The spark of promising indie types buzzing around the toilet circuits of Beijing and beyond turned to a blue-flame inferno around a decade ago, and has flickered to varying degrees of intensity since.
Promising acts such as Carsick Cars, Hedgehog, PK14 and the Public Image Limited-indebted Snapline shone brightly, then either split or locked into a ‘more of the same’ groove of sporadic album releases and festival shows.
Out of this scene Beijing-based Rebuilding the Rights of Statues, more commonly known as Re-TROS, always felt like the most likely to shove boundaries. Their wonderfully-named debut album Watch Out! Climate has Changed, Fat Mum Rises…, released in 2009, drew influences from indie, rock and post-punk icons such as Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Bauhaus.
However, moments of dark-eyed delving towards more complex rhythms on that album and, after its release, synth-smeared melodies performed live on stage, hinted that a mould-break was on the way.
In 2017, eight years on, you can consider any such mould smashed to dust, swept up and disposed of. Liu Min, Hua Dong and Huang Jin have spurned their post-punk past and created a new album, Before the Applause, that fizzles with experimental vigour while still maintaining the irreplaceable Re-TROS grasp of earworm melody. Little surprise that they’ve chosen this moment to make their first UK invasion.
The band used to extoll the virtues of classic indie rock icons, but now enthuse about Battles, Liars and TV On The Radio when asked about the influences for their new album. “We felt bored with the sound we had been doing,” says husky-voiced singer/guitarist/synth player Hua Dong. “Sure, bands like Joy Division are in my blood… but I wanted to have something new in my blood.”
The Fugazi-influenced machine gun drums, crunching heavy metal guitar and spacey, Eno-esque synth washes that meld wonderfully on the nine-minute ‘Hailing Drums’, the first full-length song on the album, provide a fitting introduction to the fact that we’re in totally fresh Re-TROS territory on the new LP.
The song has already been tested out live on the road in China, proving particularly hypnotic to the band’s army of fans. “Our live show grows and grows from a simple start to a grand chapter,” says Dong. “It’s like cell division – a single cell growing into a human.”
Perhaps an even more gripping stylistic about-turn – albeit from a far more subtle song style – comes from the double salvo of ‘8+2+8 I’ and ‘8+2+8 II”: a pair of dark, minimalist songs based around rhythmic, almost shamanic hand-clapping inspired by ‘Clapping Music’ by Steve Reich. “I just got rid of all the artificial elements,” says Dong. “I’ve always wanted to make a song like this – and it finally came true on this album.”
The darkness is compounded on the atmospheric ‘Pigs in the River’, which comes on like early-era The Coral at their most creepily echo-laden. In an almost-evil vocal croak Dong sings about the unfortunate titular swine that inspired the song title when around 16,000 porker corpses floated down Shanghai’s Huangpu river in 2013, causing headlines around the world.
“I was reading the news about the dead pigs floating on the river around the same time I saw news about a man who drowned in Beijing,” says Dong. “I thought it was an absurd picture and I thought they must be connected – the image of dead pigs and a man in China’s two most import cities. I decided to make it into a song.”
‘At Mosp Here’ is infinitely more upbeat, featuring no mentions of dead farmyard animals, instead inspired by underground German dance music. As such, it’s the most high-octane and club-ready music Re-TROS have ever recorded – and at over 12 minutes in length certainly among the most confidently stretched.
Indeed, genres are straddled with gymnastic dexterity throughout the album, but it is ‘At Mosp Here’ that perhaps feels like the biggest message of intent from the band – one that’s been scribbled on an entirely new slate. “This album really does feel like our ‘first’,” says Dong.
Locked and loaded, with this new foray forward the band are hoping to be judged on the merit of their music rather than lazily shoved into another ‘China rock’ box. In the past, when touring abroad, they have been wary of being expected to representing their country, insisting that they only represent themselves.
Similarly, the band don’t write many political lyrics, but have still inevitably been asked by foreign journalists about making music in a environment as tightly-controlled as China. It’s not something that blips too large on their radar, although the influence is still felt. Dong explains that the band have left the song ‘Viva Murder’ off the China release of their new album because the title could cause hassle with authorities.
The band might not be a position – or have any great desire – to write many overt English language lyrics at the moment, but it’s clear that their creative furnace is working overtime.
Google ‘China rock revolution’ and you’ll read the same story, repeated to the point of fatigue. Listen to Before the Applause, then prepare to dive into an entirely new tome.