It’s easy as arrogant Westerners to feel our cultures play the dominant role in the story of modern music and will do forever more. A recent piece in The Guardian made interesting points regarding ‘Best Albums’ lists. Remember those? I generally love the music on such lists and grew up on it. But these lists were made by the tastemakers of the day. Mainstream record companies sent their products to mainstream media outlets and garnered positive press. Sometimes corporations even owned both the record label and the music publication. The tastemakers were generally white and male, and from the US or the UK. Surprise, surprise, many of the artists on those lists were also white, male and from the US and the UK. I don’t want to be overly critical of this arrangement. As stated before, great music came as a result of this and whilst many of the journalists and musicians came from more privileged backgrounds than the majority of people on the planet (yes I know plenty were working class but that means something different in a developed country than to be poor in a developing one), they still often worked very hard, wrote well and deserved the opportunity to carve something out for themselves in a field they were genuinely passionate about. But fast forward to the now and we’re at a point where these lists, which music fans invested so much in during that time, seem increasingly redundant or by the by.
First of all the explosions of specific categories of music resulted in genre defining bands and albums or at least that’s how it was marketed. Much of what we heard from there on in, tended to be modeled on that. Sure, some artists will put an interesting spin on their mode of expression or maybe even establish a subgenre but you can’t help but feel sometimes like everything has already been done and heard. Secondly, technology has leveled the playing field. You don’t need a mainstream label to make a record anymore. You don’t even need a traditional recording studio. Suddenly even your Uncle Barry is making an album in his bedroom. We have a situation where many, many musicians are making very credible sounding records. It’s hard sometimes to differentiate between what is qualitatively better. Can we really just accept that something is the best of the best just because a major label or renowned publication is pushing it? Or because it’s on a Spotify playlist? Of course not. Finally, globalization and the rapid development of more and more countries’ music industries has led to many more participants in the sphere of new music. At the same time, more and more people are traveling these days or spending time living abroad. This also opens us up to a broader range of possibilities. And if we’re not lucky enough to travel extensively then the Internet can fill that gap. The 100 best albums in the world? How about the 100 best albums this month? How about the 100 best albums this month in Zhejiang?
OK. Perhaps Zhejiang isn’t quite there just yet. This month anyway. But don’t be dismissive because look out music nerds, China is coming. This is a country that has an extensive high speed rail network connecting millions of people in different cities to different music scenes. So this isn’t simply a culture of just loading your gear into the back of an old van and touring the local toilet circuit until it conks out. That’s not to be disparaging about a music culture I very much know and love, it’s just a simple case of compare and contrast. Chinese music venues can be very well equipped. Just bring your instrument and your pedals for example and the venue will often have the rest of what you need. Including the latest state of the art sound equipment and a younger crop of sound engineers coming up that know exactly how to use it. All this of course would be useless without brilliant bands and interested audiences. A sold out Mao Livehouse in Hangzhou last Sunday evening for Wang Wen (惘闻) would imply such bands have long existed and the interest is very much there. The only worry in China, and it is a big worry, is exciting artistic developments are continually being hampered by the dictates of a market sanitizing and dumbing down for the sake of a quick buck, not to mention other overarching forces that may hold freedom of expression in check.
Going just by the ‘Best Albums’ lists I was weaned on growing up I can hear a lot of strands in Wang Wen’s music. Pink Floyd for example. I don’t know if this stems from the group listening to Pink Floyd or from listening to bands that listened to Pink Floyd. Perhaps they are just in vaguely the same kind of creative and introspective mind-space and it comes naturally to them to wish to plough, very roughly, this kind of territory, for want of a better description. It doesn’t really matter. These reference points immediately allow me to connect with their output. To join the dots. At least I can thank my ‘Best Album’ lists for that right? From prog-rock to post-rock encompasses a LOT of music of course, and it’s not my desire simply to list bands. However, it’s difficult to discuss Wang Wen without mentioning Sigur Rós. First of all you’ll draw comparisons because of the genre. Delve just a little deeper and you’ll discover that Wang Wen recorded their latest album ‘Invisible City’ at Sundlaugin in Reykjavík, in Iceland, an old 1930s swimming pool Sigur Rós transformed into a studio.
Wang Wen are originally from Dalian, an important city and port in Liaoning Province, a point of access very much exploited in the past by foreign powers. Despite being declared China’s most livable city in 2006 by China Daily, the music of Wang Wen, apparently informed very much by the environment that has shaped them, would imply the reality of living in Dalian is a lot more challenging and complex. With a career spanning two decades, the band’s music has taken them on a physical journey as expansive as their output, including working with German label Pelagic Records and doing gigs across Europe, to name just a sprinkling of the shows they’ve played.
Wang Wen’s music has seen the group cast as founding fathers of mainland China’s post-rock community but with such a rich back catalogue and impressive tour credentials would it not be more appropriate to now describe them simply as one of the best post-rock outfits in the world? They’ve certainly mixed in the right circles to lay claim to the crown, touring with Mogwai for example. Such a bold assertion might surprise you. You may have heard very little of Wang Wen. You may even enjoy post-rock as a genre yet still have heard very little of Wang Wen. The geopolitical reality of being a band from China can be cited as a reason for this. It is challenging to have global reach from within, until relatively recently, a traditionally closed off system, particularly one where authorities are at pains to ensure artists in the spotlight uphold, shall we say, a particular set of values. But let’s not lay the blame squarely on China here. The Western music consumer, if you’ll afford me this sweeping generalization, habitually sticks to their own and lazily files everything else away under the title of ‘World Music’. This very blog itself is guilty of massively skewed coverage. It’s just easier to stick with what you know right? Anyway, how could the best post-rock band in the world possibly be Chinese? Scratch that. How could the best band in the world possibly be Chinese? We invented rock right? Sure. Right after we stole the blues from African Americans.
These assertions or questions are of course reductive. None of these points of view tell the whole story. It’s very difficult to tell the whole story with all its complexities. That’s why we gain so much from amazing music. It helps us feel our shared story together so, in that moment at least, there is no need to struggle to put forward our own individual version. Just as reductive then is to call one thing ‘best’. Let’s just celebrate the music we really like and try to tell other people about it. Let’s strive to be discerning and keep trying to seek out what is new and interesting to us rather than living in blind acceptance, satisfied in our comfort zones, dwelling in a vacuum. Let’s not crucify the authors of those ‘Best Albums’ lists either. They were a product of their time and still turned us on to wonderful music that changed our lives, just as this flimsy piece of writing is shaped by the shortcomings of the now but will hopefully direct you towards something that is rewarding nevertheless. To conclude, most importantly, listen to Wang Wen not because they are ‘the best’, whatever that means, but because this band makes fantastic music and that is, really, all you need to know. Sometimes, thankfully, bands like this do come along and make you feel, actually, that maybe you haven’t heard quite everything just yet.
Photos by Panda.
‘Invisible City’ by Wang Wen (惘闻) is out on September 28 on Pelagic Records.