Wednesday, 14 August 2013

10 Asian Bands You Should Know

When academics assert that the 21st century belongs to Asia, they're generally talking about economics - not rock 'n' roll. And yet, if the current global musical landscape is any indication, it would appear the same can be said about rock and pop music. Pity, though, that the western world has yet to really take note. The global phenomenon of Psy's 'Gangnam Style' last year launched South Korea onto the forefront western pop music, but as I noted in a post back in December, foreign-language hits in the Anglo-American world tend to be flashes in the pan - as indeed he is proving to be. While Park Jae-sang deserves much credit for raising the profile of Asian pop music in the west, there's only so much one tuxedo-clad Monty Python horse-riding Korean rapper can do.

Sadly, North America is a veritable Hermit Kingdom when it comes to popular music. K-Pop, J-Pop and all its other regional variants are old news in much of the world, especially within Asia, where language differences have proven to be of little barrier onslaught of Japanese, Korean and Chinese pop and rock acts across the continent at large, with growing numbers from other Asian countries adding new vectors to the continental music picture. Beyond East Asia, artists from Korea, Japan and elsewhere are making waves in countries as divergent as Turkey, Poland and Brazil, places where, unlike in Asian countries, cultural proximity can in no way be counted on to compensate for language gaps.

While most of the Asian pop music taking over the world's airwaves is of the candy-coated teen pop variety, this is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Virtually all of the continent's major cities abound with punk, funk, prog, metal and electronic music, much of which seems to possess a rawness and energy that seems to be lacking in the Anglo-American west. A major factor, no doubt, is the fact that most of these countries are relatively young democracies with deeply rooted socially conservative mores, where tattoos, wild hair and loud music still count as acts of rebellion. Whatever the case, Indonesia's skatepunks and Vietnam's headbangers could well teach their North American counterparts a lesson on how to rock 'n' roll.

A list of must-hear contemporary Asian bands could well run into the hundreds. Here is my own semi-educated top ten.

1. Galaxy Express

Origin: Seoul, South Korea
Style: Alt-Punk
Recommended for fans of: The Ramones, Manic Street Preachers, Foo Fighters, Kings of Leon

Anyone who thinks the idea of Korean punk rock sounds absurd needs to better acquaint themselves with Korea. And punk rock. We're talking a hard-boiled country with a tumultuous modern history whose present-day economic prosperity (in the South, that is) has done nothing to soften its people's flinty temperament. It's a country where student protests are practically a national sport and parliamentary democracy is (literally) a bloodsport, with debates on national security occasionally degenerating into fisticuffs that would make Tie Domi blush. The language is gutteral, the profanity colourful, the food fiery and the road etiquette borderline homicidal. It don't get much more punk than this!

That said, South Korea's domestic rock scene hasn't always had it easy; as late as the 1980s the military government regularly censored various acts. But after a quarter century of democracy, K-Rock has truly come of age. And of the current crop of bands, indefatigable alt-punkers Galaxy Express are generating the most attention, with a Best Band award at the 2011 Korean Music Awards, three US tours and a major following in Japan. Since forming in 2006, the trio of guitarist/vocalist Park Jong-hyun, bassist/vocalist Lee Ju-hyun and drummer Kim Hee-kwon have built a reputation as one of the hardest working bands on the planet. Punk passion meets Confucian work ethic - that's the Galaxy Express trademark!

2. Dachambo

Origin: Yokohama, Japan
Style: Jam Rock, Psychedelia, Neo-Prog
Recommended for fans of: Phish, Juno Reactor, I Mother Earth, Hawkwind, Fela Kuti, early Santana

For a country with such strict drug laws, Japan has a remarkably enduring love affair with psychedelia and all things hippie. A straight-laced society on the surface, the country does indeed possess a strong granola-crunching, Gaia-worshipping streak, as is evident in the Lorax-on-acid visions of Hayao Miyazaki, the peace-love-dope lyrics of bands like dub reggae legends Audio Active and the hemp-clad denizens that congregate every year at festivals like the Fuji Rock Festival, Asagiri Jam and so on. It's also a country with a longstanding devotion to progressive rock, with some Tokyo record stores seeming to specialize in rare King Crimson and Magma bootlegs as well as those of J-Prog legends like Hikashu, Shingetsu and the Ruins.

Combining these two national predilictions is Dachambo, Japan's premiere psychedelic jam band. Dachambo burst onto the local scene in 2004 with their debut album Dr. Dachambo in Goonyara Island with their mesmerizing brand of classic jam and psychedelic rock, and have since been a fixture at the Fuji Rock Festival, Japan's biggest rock music festival. Combining Santana-inspired guitar riffs and Latin percussion, Hawkwind-style space rock synth patches, a heavy dose of Afrobeat (including a memorable cover of Fela Kuti's 'Zombie' on their debut album) and their trademark didgeridu, this Yokohama sextet manages to sound like the entire globe - if it were ground up, stuffed into a bong and then smoked. By Japanese hippies.

3. Matzka

Origin: Taidong, Taiwan
Style: Folk Rock, Reggae
Recommended for fans of: Michael Franti, Burning Spear, Shokichi Kina, Ry Cooder

Taiwan is a small island with a big, complicated personality. An independent nation state in all but official designation, it exists in political limbo while it continues to grapple with its legacy of Japanese colonialism, Cold War-era Guomindang authoritarianism and enduring friction between the 'native' Taiwanese (of Han Chinese descent), newer settlers from the mainland and the island's non-Chinese indigenous peoples. Add to that the influence of rapid economic growth and the wholesale urbanization of a once overwhelmingly agrarian society - coupled with political factionalism that, like in South Korea, occasionally results in parliamentary punch-ups, and you have a combustible culture ripe for artistic expression.

While Taiwan's aboriginal tribes represent only two percent of the island's population (and a significantly smaller portion of its economic pie), Taiwan's first people nevertheless occupy an outsized position in the country's contemporary music scene, producing international pop stars like A-mei, Difang, Samingad and Landy Wen. With an indigenous cultural resurgence now gaining strength, a growing number of aboriginal artists are loudly proclaiming their roots. Of this new generation, the most successful has been Song Weiyi (aka Matzka) and his quartet by the same name. Mixing reggae, folk rock and traditional vocals, in a combination of Mandarin and the Paiwan language, Matzka has proven to be a hit not only across the island but on the mainland as well.

 4. Radioactive Sago Project

Origin: Quezon City, Philippines
Style: Funk, Jazz-Rock, Punk, Ska, Spoken Word
Recommended for fans of: Soul Coughing, P-Funk, early Red Hot Chili Peppers, Primus, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones

When it comes to absorbing western musical influences and making them their own, the Philippines have had an enviable head start over all their Asian neighbours. With 300 years of Spanish colonialism followed by a half-century under Stars and Stripes, the land of jeepneys and adobo chicken manages to be simultaneously Asian, Polynesian, Hispanic and Yankee without any apparent friction. Moreover, the presence of large overseas Filipino communities in virtually all parts of the world has helped the motherland remain on trend, which helps explain why Korean soap operas, European art films and American rap music compete for the attention of this forever easily distracted country.

The Philippines' abiding love for jazz dates back to the turn of the 20th century, when the US wrested control over the archipelago from Spain, blossoming in the swing era with ensembles like the Pete Aristorenas Orchestra, the Cesar Velasco Band, the Tirso Cruz Orchestra, the Mabuhay Band and the Mesio Regalado Orchestra. In recent years Pinoy jazz has seen a resurgence thanks to groups like Johnny Alegre Affinity, Akasha and its most outlandish practitioners, the Radioactive Sago Project. Founded in 1999 by journalist/gonzo poet Lourd De Veyra, RSP combines slam poetry on sex, drugs, corruption and life in Metro Manila with a fierce, punkified blend of funk, ska and trashy Pinoy pop with some of the capital region's top session players. Fantastic stuff!

5. Modern Dog

Origin: Bangkok, Thailand
Style: Alt-Rock, Shoegaze
Recommended for fans of: Belle & Sebastian, Placebo, Mojave 3, My Bloody Valentine

Thai rock music is one of Asia's best kept secrets. First introduced to the country by American GIs, rock 'n' roll was embraced by the Thais like few others, and more than anywhere else in the continent it has served as a protest vehicle. Most famous among Thailand's early rock rebels are the veteran folk-rock quartet Caravan, a group that emerged amid the 1973 democracy movement with their distinctive blend of rock and traditional folk music and more than anybody else established a uniquely Thai rock sound. But despite this and the countless other bands ranging from metal to shoegaze, Thai rock 'n' roll hasn't travelled very well - perhaps owing to the fact that Thai artists can't count on the kind of overseas diasporic support that their Filipino and Korean counterparts enjoy.

One of the few Thai bands to achieve success outside their homeland is Modern Dog. Established in Bangkok in 1992, this stripped down Brit-rock-influenced trio consisting of vocalist-rhythm guitarist Thanachai 'Pod' Ujjin, lead guitarist May-T Noijinda, drummer Pavin 'Pong' Suwannacheep and a rotating procession of bass players has been hailed as the leading lights of Thai indie-rock and have developed niche followings in Japan and the United States. While not an international household name, Modern Dog has earned the respect of many in the international musical community; their 2004 album That Song was produced by Tony Doogan (of Belle & Sebastian and Mogwai renown) and featured cameos by Sean Lennon and Cibo Matto's Yuka Honda.

6. Ngũ Cung

Origin: Hanoi, Vietnam
Style: Progressive Metal
Recommended for fans of: Tool, Queensrÿche, Porcupine Tree, Queens of the Stone Age, Rush

What is it exactly about the old Soviet Bloc and its near-universal prediliction for heavy metal? Is it the Soviet Brutalist architecture? The labour camp atmosphere? The bad fashion? Whatever the reason, from Minsk to the Mongolian steppe, Stalin's children have in vast numbers traded the hammer and sickle for the pentagram and collective farming for collective hair-thrashing. The land of Ho Chi Minh, it turns out, is no exception, although it took a bit longer for it to gain a foothold there. Vietnam's nascent 1960s rock scene, concentrated in wartime Saigon, was all but quashed by the communists following their victory over South Vietnam in 1975, and even with the Đổi Mới reforms of the 1980s it was slow to resurface.

The past decade, however, has seen Vietnamese rock music blossom like never before. And given that the country has all the requisite ingredients - a tortured past, a socialist present, a melancholy culture with a flair for melodrama and a language full of cool diacritical marks (Eat your heart out, Mötley Crüe!) - it was only a matter of time before Vietnam emerged as a metal powerhouse. Of this new generation of Vietnamese hard rockers, the most prodigious are the prog-metal quintet Ngũ Cung (lit. 'Pentatonic'). Made up of graduates from the Hanoi Conservatory of Music and led by operatic vocalist Hoang Hiep, Ngũ Cung first gained attention through a national talent show in 2007 and then drew international praise for their epic debut album 365000. Expect more from these guys!

7. Biuret

Origin: Seoul, South Korea
Style: Alt-Rock, Goth/Emo
Recommended for fans of: Evanescence, Flyleaf, Garbage, The Gossip, Muse

Sadly, Asian rock, like rock music everywhere else, remains a very male-dominated affair. All across the continent, female performers have tended to be relegated to the bubblegum pop/male eye-candy category, wherein performers are judged more on their looks than their musical ability and tend to fade from the public eye after a brief halcyon period. While a few countries produced their own equivalent to the early 1990s Riot Grrl scene, with the exception of Japan (where female-led alt-rock units like Buffalo Daughter, Shonen Knife and Cibo Matto achieved substantial success), female-driven punk and alternative rock has largely remained underground, and information on such bands (in English at least) is hard to come by.

There are, of course, a few welcome exceptions. Of the current crop of hard-hitting Korean band taking Asia (and to a lesser extent North America and Australia) by storm, among the most incendiary is goth-punk outfit Biuret, led by charismatic frontwoman Won Moon-hye (who also maintains a double-life as a musical theatre performer). Established in Seoul in 2002, the band first gained prominence by opening for Oasis in the Korean capital and in 2009 shot to the top echelons of Asian rock by winning the Sutasi Pan-Asian Music Award, followed by festival appearances in Australia and the UK. With their gothic intensity and manga-esque style, Biuret have become helped elevate the stature of Korean rock abroad while combatting gender clichés at home.

8. Tengger Cavalry

Origin: Beijing, China
Style: Black Metal, Folk/Pagan Metal
Recommended for fans of: Turisas, Burzum, Hellthrone etc.

It should surprise no one that the tough denizens of the nation founded by Genghis Khan have developed a profound love for heavy metal. Metal bands began emerging in Mongolia almost immediately after the fall of the communist regime in 1990, led by acts like Hurd, Kharanga and Niciton. Veteran Mongol metalheads Hurd ('Speed'), with their trademark wolf pelts and portraits of the Great Khan, heralded the emergence of an eastern equivalent to Scandinavia's viking metal, and in doing so provoked a modicum of panic in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, where in 2004 the authorities cancelled a Hurd gig on fears of ethnic unrest and riot police were forced to disperse a crowd of 2,000 irate fans.

Ironically, the most extreme of the Mongol Horde-inspired metal bands originates from the other side of the Great Wall in the city that Genghis conquered and made the centrepiece of his Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty. Named after the chief deity in traditional Mongol shamanism (Zh: 铁骑), Tengger Cavalry was originally formed as a one-man project by a multi-instrumentalist known as Nature Zhang, and has since grown into a six-piece behemoth, incorporating Tibetan/Mongolian throat singing and traditional North Asian instruments into Scandinavian-style doom metal - to terrifying effect. While the band has yet to tour outside China, they have begun attracting significant overseas attention, opening for Finnish pagan metal Turisas in Beijing this spring.

Fans of this genre should also check out the Kazakhstani band Aldaspan, who, like Tengger Cavalry, have married metal with the traditional sounds of the steppe to make music that will make you want to loot and pillage your way along the Silk Road.

9. Billfold

Origin: Bandung, Indonesia
Style: Hardcore/Skatepunk, Riot Grrl
Recommended for fans of: L7, Suicidal Tendencies, Bad Religion, Fugazi, Rancid

It's worth noting that in the vast majority of Asian countries, being a punk rocker (or any other breed of rocker for that matter) is considerably easier today than it was a generation ago. Of the artists profiled here, all but two hail from electoral democracies, and the two countries that aren't are nonetheless much more socially and culturally permissive now than they were 20 years ago. That said, socio-political challenges remain. In Indonesia the past decade-plus of uninterrupted democracy has also seen a rising tide of Islamism, which is making life increasingly difficult for the country's famously passionate hardcore/skatepunk community. In Medan in Islamist-dominated Aceh Province, 65 punks were arrested over a year ago and sent to re-education camps, and even in the liberal capital Jakarta religiously motivated crackdowns on punk venues have occurred.

In spite of rising religiosity, punk continues to thrive in the world's largest Muslim country, aided in no small part by the country's wholesale embrace of social media. (Jakarta alone produces 2.4 percent of the world's tweets.) Among the latest crop of Indo punk acts, one of the most compelling is Billfold. Founded in 2010 in the hardcore hotbed of Bandung, West Java, Billfold is everything the local Islamists love to hate - a female-fronted social media-savvy skatepunk outfit. While information on the band in English is hard to come by, the writhing masses of punked-up youth prostrating at the feet of frontwoman Gania Alianda and their 31,000-plus Twitter following (nearly half of Rancid's tally and nearly 20 percent of Henry Rollins') suggests these kids are on to something. Allah be praised; punk is not dead!

10. MIDIval PunditZ

Origin: Delhi, India
Style: Electronic, Trip-Hop, Jungle, Drum 'n' Bass
Recommended for fans of: Massive Attack, Daft Punk, Gorillaz, Lamb, Talvin Singh, Leftfield

For a country that has long been placed on a pedastal by western artists, India's ascendency as a legit force in contemporary popular music was a long time coming. With the notable exception of prodigal son Farrokh Bulsara (better known to the world as Freddie Mercury), Indian artists have long chafed under western preconception of uncoolness, either lumped in with classicists like Ravi Shankar and Zakir Hussain or with the cheesy morass of Bollywood. This finally began to change in the 1990s with the emergence of diasporic artists like Talvin Singh, Sam Zaman/State of Bengal and Asian Dub Foundation in the UK and Karsh Kale and Monica Dogra in the US, whose varied crossover projects heralded a 21st century 'Cool India' renaissance.

In the meantime, social change and rapid economic growth have transformed the motherland's music almost beyond recognition in the past decade. In the late 1990s, Delhi boys Gaurav Raina and Tapan Raj founded the electronic crossover combo MIDIval PunditZ at a time when the Indian capital still barely had any nightclubs. Today live music venues abound in India's major cities, and the scene that Raina and Raj helped establish has created a powerful bridge between the diaspora and homegrown artists. With five studio albums under their belt, numerous overseas festival appearances and an impressive list of collaborators, including Karsh Kale, Anoushka Shankar, Monica Dogra and Assamese folk rocker Angaraag 'Papon' Mahanta, Indian music has never looked more enticing.

And one honourable mention

One country notably absent from this list is, not surprisingly, North Korea. I did so try to find a North Korean band to include here, but alas I came up empty-handed. The People's Republic of China and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam may still be one-party authoritarian states, but the fact that bands like Tengger Cavalry and Ngũ Cung can not only operate openly but also perform overseas attests to their countries' increasing openness and social liberalization. Sadly, musicians inside the People's Democratic Republic of Korea enjoy no such freedom, and while closet punks, headbangers, emo kids and ravers may exist, there's little likelihood of any North Korean bands reaching western audiences anytime soon.

The video below was the best I could do. Given that official party functions are about the only gig to be had in this country, this type of thing is the closest thing to a rock concert any North Korean is likely to attend. I have no idea who these musicians are or even the significance behind this particular rally (possibly a missile launch, if the film footage a behind the band is any indication), but at the very least these ladies have a chance to make some music. And the pyrotechnics on display here are vaguely reminiscent of Kiss. That aside, the only silver lining is that China was just as despotic as present-day North Korea under Mao Zedong. Hopefully in a decade's time I'll be able to write about a rock renaissance in Pyongyang. In the meantime, though, you'll have to content yourselves with this.

Happy listening!


  1. Just love these clips, Ben. Are these all the best musicians around? Maybe, and maybe not, but I wish my students, so many of whom are into K-Pop, were listening to something far gutsier like Biuret than what they usually listen to. And these other acts have their ears to the railroad tracks not only musically, but socially as well.
    As for the NK band - you know it's an officially-sanctioned deal when there are suits and uniforms there. Some of them sound like they actually can play (though there may be a bit of backing tracks there). Good deal for them - especially when whatever there is of an underground scene, if at all, are eating something brown and lumpy instead.

  2. I'd also like to give a shout out to Sigh and The Flagitious Idiosyncrasy in the Dilapidation, two dope extreme metal bands.

  3. Just learned about Chthonic too from Taiwan.

  4. Jambinai from South Korea, mixing traditional instruments with post rock. Saw them play live couple of years ago (their first foreign gig).

  5. Jambinai from South Korea, mixing traditional instruments with post rock. Saw them play live couple of years ago (their first foreign gig).


  7. A major factor, no doubt, is the fact that most of these countries are relatively young democracies with deeply rooted socially conservative mores, mp3 download


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