All photos by Mimosa from guitarchina.com
Dark Tranquility Rocks Yugong Yishan
“These death metal maestros make the four horsemen of the apocalypse sound like My Little Pony and Slayer sound like a Ben Gibbard-fronted Abba cover band. If you haven’t heard Swedish death metal, you haven’t heard death metal. If you haven’t heard Gothenburg melodic metal stalwarts Dark Tranquility, you live in a patchouli-scented fantasy land. All hail Satan.” That was the listing in
, an English language magazine in Beijing that can make you feel guilty for the crime of being able to read English.
and its two main competitors thrive on these kinds of bizarre, totally off-base allusions that are supposed to be funny and in-the-know but come off as remarkably misguided. Comparing soundless toys to soundless figures from the bible, all the wildly disparate and inappropriate references, and this misplaced aren’t-we-so-hip arrogance that’s almost breathtaking. On the other hand if you only read English you don’t have much of a choice, because there aren’t that many ways to find out Gothenburg’s melodic metal stalwarts are coming to town.
Even though I suspected—actually, was pretty sure—that Dark Tranquility weren’t that great, the prospect of seeing a so-so Swedish death metal band promised at least some entertainment and a break from the gray monotony of life in China. The show was at Yugong Yishan, a place that like many clubs here (and bars, cafes, and restaurants) is a little “off” in a palpable but hard to define way. It’s a long, rectangular space with high ceilings, red velvet drapery on the walls, and, by the imposing white marble bar, some plush and too-low loveseats on one side and a few too-high tables on the other, each one surrounded by four uncomfortable, unstable, and ergonomically challenged stools. The overall effect is of a grating, contrived fanciness combined with a total lack of feng shui. In addition to Yugong Yishan’s unsuitability as a venue, the show cost a shocking 150 yuan (about $18). Eighteen dollars anywhere else might not be much, but in a city where a 20-ounce beer costs 50 cents, a good dinner can be had for $2, and a decent two-bedroom apartment for 400, $18 seems gratuitous. They were also selling 350-yuan tickets for the “V.I.P.” section upstairs. In a city where nouveau-riche pretensions to exclusivity are commonplace, there are many tacky opportunities for exhibiting your supposed superiority by ostentatiously spending a lot of money. At a showy restaurant or dance club it’s ridiculous but normal—at a Dark Tranquility concert, a V.I.P. section is just perverse.
To cut to the chase, Dark Tranquility really sucked. Gothenburg’s finest aren’t that heavy, and they had keyboards and a smarmy lead singer who shouted out “All right Beijing! You guys are so fucking great! When we started this band 18 years ago we never dreamed we’d be playing for you guys!” and “You guys know about Myspace? [a smattering of cheers] Well, all right! This is the first official song from our new album on our Myspace page.” He had that disconcertedly perfect Swedish-English, with hardly any accent at all, and over and over again he’d announce the songs in his normal voice, “This next song is from our
album and it’s called—” then, switching to a deeper, gravelly “death metal” voice, “MYYYYYY NEEGAAATTTION.”
The one guitarist had ugly dreads, and he and the other, less offensive guitarist repeatedly did this coordinated move of holding up their arms and wagging their fingers to the beat in a gesture that’s supposed to mean “OK, in a few seconds when we start playing, this song will commence rocking.” The bass player, who had a shaved head, had not one, not two, not three, but four wallet chains. They were, as a whole, pretty silly, and any question of them existing in the same universe as Slayer was definitely answered in the negative.
But looking around made it all worthwhile. By the bar there was a sight that has probably been seen at very few Dark Tranquility shows, and that was three black dudes hanging out. And a strange trio at that, because one was had a red, yellow, and green Rasta hat and dreads, one had baggy bought-in-China hip-hop gear, and the third was dressed in slacks and a sports coat—three black people who would never be seen in the same room together anywhere else, and even weirder still there’s a good chance they were all from same part of Africa, most likely Nigeria, since for whatever reason the drug dealers in Beijing are predominantly Nigerian. It’s highly doubtful that they were fans, but instead had business to do and so were loitering with their mismatched countrymen at Yugong Yishan. You have to admire their moxie though, dealing drugs in a country where people get sent up for life for far lesser infractions to prisons that by all accounts are unimaginably horrible places.
Down near the stage there was a couple with their eyes closed and their arms around each other swaying to the music. They appeared to be two guys, momentarily giving rise to the tantalizing notion that Beijing harbors the world’s one-and-only contingent of out metal fans. Or, maybe it was two girls who looked like guys, which would mean an even more enticing possibility of an unabashed lesbian metal scene. Either scenario would be so amazing. Unfortunately neither was probably the case. There’s an extremely high level of androgyny in this city, with innumerable variations of indistinguishable haircuts and body types, and a lot of Chinese girls look so much like guys (and vice versa) that it’s entirely possible the couple was actually just a guy and a girl. All very confusing. The best bet is that it was two guys, since younger Chinese males tend to hug and horseplay and put their arms around each other a lot with an alternately rough and tender physicality you don’t really see in the West, especially with young men in their 20s. They show a lot of affection for each other in a manner that according to all accounts is in no way connected to same-sex love. The fact that there’s no stigma attached to all that brotherly touching is a nice change of pace, but it’s also disconcerting because it might start one thinking they’re seeing evidence of a secret gay or lesbian metal underground that exists nowhere else in the world.
The rest of the room was a sea—well, at least a 100-person sea—of Chinese people attentively focused on the band. Most of the audience didn’t look like they were at metal show at all, or even had an affinity for metal. There was one guy with an Iron Maiden shirt and a couple of dudes with long hair, but in general most people had a well-scrubbed, just got a haircut, argyle v-neck sweater over a button-up shirt look. Kind of preppy. If you covered your ears and looked at the crowd you could almost imagine yourself at a 1950s-era sock-hop, with an all-around atmosphere of good clean, innocent fun.
The singer once again said how “fucking great” everybody was, and the band left the stage amid chanting that might have been the words for “one more” (“
Zai Lai Yi Ge
!”) but sounded more like everyone was shouting, “Redrum, redrum!” You could feel an actual excitement in the crowd, real enthusiasm, though it didn’t have time to build up because within 30 seconds the band was back. Way too fast. There was something so perfunctory about it. “Are you ready to get CRAZY?!” and the crowd really was, it was as genuine as it gets. Girls danced with downcast eyes, people benignly bumped into each other, there was one brave stage diver who got a lot of vocal support. Then a girl’s voice rang out loud and clear, “I love you keyboard!”
The whole time Dark Tranquility were playing, a man with an extravagant pompadour that tapered down to a mullet in the back stood on the stairs, stage-right, holding a red cardboard box. Except for the new crop of fat kids who have been eating too much KFC, obesity is basically non-existent here so this behemoth really stood out because he was big and tall and easily the fattest person I’ve seen in China so far. He had a determined, serious expression on his face and was holding onto his box like whatever it contained had to be defended at all costs. When the band finished for good a middle-aged man wearing a Members Only jacket jumped onstage and started trying to get the crowd riled up, without much success. Then he signaled, and the big guy lumbered onto the stage. The mystery of the box was revealed—it held raffle tickets. He stood there stolidly, full of self-importance, as the numbers were called out. The winners yelled, some drumsticks got thrown, a dirty t-shirt went flying, and that was it. Except for a couple of people who ordered Cokes or steaming glasses of hot water (not to steep tea in or anything, but to drink), most of the crowd dispersed in a matter of minutes and the echoes of Dark Tranquility faded at Yugong Yishan.