One of the few people from the Beijing underground music scene to garner international attention is a girl named Shen Jin, "Shenggy" to her friends, who in 1989 at age sixteen joined Beijing pop punk band Hang on the Box as their drummer. She stayed on with the group pushing their ansty punk in more arty directions and a modicum of Western recognition until their 8th anniversary show, after which she left the band.
Another is Shou Wang, leader of earnest rackety power-trio Carsick Cars, a Bejing band that caused a blip on the Western hipster radar for being bumped from the bill for Sonic Youth's 2007 show in the city, only later to join them in Prague and Vienna as a support act. Mr. Shou 's talent caught the attention of avant garde mass-guitarist-employer Glenn Branca who invited the 21-year old to New York to help record his Symphony No. 13 for 100 Guitars.
These two formed the group White to explore their more atmospheric side, freeing the noises in their head from the restraints of a pop song. Under the sharp eye of Blixa Bargeld at Einstürzende Neubauten, they distilled these sounds in a self-titled record. It seems a smart match; Bargeld knows his way around managing dynamics as the pilot of a band that once jack-hammered the floor of the Roxy. Bargeld steers White into swaths of carefully arranged magnetic hums, lost distress signal vocals and all but implied rhythm in "Space Decay" punctuated with a voice repeating "Welcome back to the real world."
"Spring House" sounds like the retro-flecked New Wave songs of Carsick Cars boiled down to its essence, occasional chunks of drums and guitars bubbling to the surface of the otherwise dense and impenetrable broth. For how rambunctious Shou and Shenggy's previous bands were, the music on White is laboratory clean.
Shenggy's indecipherable vocal throbs like a racing pulse through "Conch Crunch" and is a simplistic hypnotic balm in English as she counts off 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and recites fragmented poems throughout the Kraftwerk- inspired "Build a Link." He voice becomes the beating heart of this record, pushing blood through the somewhat sterile veins of its body, lending it a humanity it would otherwise be lacking. Its is alluring and unyielding at the same time. It is implausibly simplistic and yet you still want to move in closer to see how it ticks. Her link is defineitly built.
You get the feeling that White is crafting a physical space out of radiation and memes, waves of data from the abundant ephemeral seas crashing on the skeletal remains of industrialized society, and with each splash, a little organic material adheres and soon multiplies. It's not the kind of life we are used to, but it is a living breathing creation.
The pieces are intercut with small commercial vignettes "Beijing Beer" and English School, breaking the tension, but the cables quickly tighten after. "Roswitha Strunk" is a melodramatic parade of pounded metal, screams and springs coming loose, bearing considerable resemblance to the early work of Mr. Bargeld's band. "47 Rockets (For Wan Hu)" is a sweet floating evocation of its dedicatee's sixteenth century attempt to fly into space using a chair loaded down with 47 of the latest gunpowder rockets. Legend has it that after the smoke cleared, there was no chair, no Wan Hu, no nothing - assumedly disintegrated in the fireball, but through White's song, one can imagine Mr. Wan floating among the stars in his little chair, grinning ear to ear, coming to a soft landing on the far side of the moon in the crater that was later named for him.
This sense of losing and/or finding oneself in the mechanics of technology is the real message of this album. The final track "Bai" finds Shenggy repeating "Bai" and "No" like a chirpy telegraph signal issuing out against a brushed cymbal and daydream organ, building up layers as intense as a rainstorm, when suddenly the clouds part and there is a slow martial beat, a flutter of birds. Shenggy vocalizing becomes a crystalline hum until bang, it all stops. The air is left empty, clean and white as their name, as if to say "Welcome to the real world" again.
Photo of Shenggy from her MySpace page.
White's MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/whitebeijing
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com