If you live in Taipei, fitting in is kind of important—paramount, even. Hair too long, or too short—this guy must be some kind of gangster. Visible tattoos on a woman? She'll never land herself a husband with those marks on her skin. As the old Confucian proverb goes, "Hair and skin belong to one's parents." Confucianism is much more of a Chinese thing than it is Taiwanese, but this seems to be one part of Confucianism that has taken root here in Taiwan. As such, for Taiwanese youth, hair, skin, and even life itself are not things with which one simply does whatever they wish.
This is part of what makes it somewhat astonishing that a city like Taipei has any sort of an underground punk and metal scene at all. There are barriers anywhere in the world for those of us who choose to play a form of music for which the commercial potential is virtually nil, but in Taiwan, those obstacles are compounded further by factors both cultural and sociopolitical. If you look like an outsider, as metalheads and punks tend to, you can kiss any sort of high-paying career goodbye, lest you find some sort of freak niche somewhere in the entertainment industry. While this may seem like it should be a bygone relic of a mindset, it still exists, and not just among the old timers.
If there was more of a market for outsider art in Taiwan, perhaps this wouldn't be such a big deal, but, there really isn't such a market. In a country that for much of its Economic Miracle period prided itself on its ability to manufacture faithful facsimiles of international brands (and to a degree still does), being anything regarded remotely outre doesn't pay well, if it pays at all.
On the sociopolitical end of things, you've got the compulsory military service for men. Taiwanese men these days have it easy compared to generations past, who were compelled to spend up to two years stuck guarding some godforsaken outpost in the mountains or bracing against the biting wind on Kinmen Island, spitting distance from Taiwan's hulking adversary, China. Today, doing one's duty for the country is a sentence of just under a year, with talks still ongoing about converting the army to an all-volunteer force. With the country currently floundering with one of the lowest birthrates in the world, thanks in part to increasing costs coupled with stagnant wages, an equation which means few young couples can even dream of affording a third mouth to feed, this seems like little more than the proverbial pipe dream.
The military service used to, and still often does, spell the death knell for many a Taiwanese band. As soon as they get their discharge, the pressure on the former soldiers is really turned on, and it's time to cast off the frivolities of the young, which includes any pretensions to creativity. From now on, playing the guitar or the bass or the piano or the bassoon is to be what these idle pastimes were always meant to be—a hobby, and nothing more. The real concern is making money. After all, you've got parents to feed, and, deity of marriage and love willing, in-laws to provide for as well, along with a golden son of your own to carry on the family name. And what if you have a daughter? Well, try, try again.
This—all of this—is why I wanted to tell the story that plays out in my new novel, Bu San Bu Si.The title translates to Not Three Not Four, a phrase in Mandarin used by Taiwanese elders to describe those who don't fit snugly into society. Bu San Bu Si is a story about what it's like coming up for those Taiwanese girls and boys, men and women, who embrace styles of music—namely metal and punk—and the lifestyles inherent to the genres that all but preclude them from most of what their culture and country holds dear. The book follows a group of punk musicians in Taipei as they struggle to find their way in a place where they seem to be at odds with all things traditional, trying to reconcile the cultural identity they were born into with their adopted foreign identity as punk rockers.
Yes, attitudes are slowly changing.Chthonic vocalist and Taipei City legislator Freddy Lim stands as a shining example to Taiwanese parents that yes, it is indeed possible to be a metalhead, a parent, and a proudly traditional, good person—a productive member of society and a filial son, long hair, tattoos and all. But for many, embracing metal and punk music in Taiwan still means they are going to be seen as Not Three Not Four.
So, without further ado, here they are, the few and the proud. The outsiders of Taiwan.
Bazooka blasts out blackened thrash punk, with a side of surf or whatever the fuck else they feel like throwing in. I'll admit it, these guys were one of the catalysts for writing Bu San Bu Si. They are the ultimate outsiders of the Taipei scene. They know what metal was, is, and ever shall be, and if you don't like it, well, tough shit. With such a militant stance, their history is chock full of the scene beefs and busted noses you might expect.
Bazooka's bass player and band co-founder, Vic Chao (who I have had the pleasure of being band mates with in the past for a number of years), is basically Taiwan's answer to Fenriz—a man with an encyclopedic knowledge of metal history and the almighty riff, and one of the few from the extreme scene's earliest days (which in Taiwan means about 20 years ago) who is still standing. Suggest that they add a breakdown and I suggest you find yourself a seat at the far end of the bar, far, far away from them.
Masquerader began life the better part of a decade ago as your standard party thrash band, complete with requisite songs about zombie hordes and mosh pit commandos. Those days are gone. Today, with some lineup changes under their belt and a marked change in musical direction, the band is a different beast entirely.
Taking heavy influence from the likes of Coroner and sci-fi tech thrash titans Voivod, Masquerader have embraced the progressive side of their sound and taken it to the nth degree, challenging themselves to ascend to the next level both musically and lyrically. Constant wood-shedding in the jam space led them to come out with one of the most ambitious albums in the history of the Taiwanese scene in 2016's concept record, Vortex Day Zero.
That description of Masquerader wasn't meant to denigrate party thrash and/or speed metal. When it's done well (see: Cross Examination, everything Municipal Waste has ever put out, Hungary's Drünken Bastards), there's a sublime sort of quality in its nihilistic pursuit of booze, brutality, and wanton bodily harm. Enter Mutation, a relatively new, young band on the Taiwan scene that has emerged to fill the good-times speed metal thrash gap. This is a band even Bazooka would be proud to share the stage with… I think. Believe me, it's high praise.
Grindcore is a lonely road in Taiwan. Any form of metal presents a somewhat isolated path, but the grind-scape finds itself a particularly desolate and barren locale, with the entire country boasting not more than a handful of dedicated grind 'heads hopping between one another's varied projects.
One band that has held the torch high for the Taiwanese grind scene for the past ten years is Ashen, the country's grindcore OGs. The band alternates between a more traditional grind sound and at times delves into death/grind territory, with lyrics painting a bleak picture of urban life in any one of Taiwan's sprawling major metropolises.
To know anything about metal in Taiwan is to know a bassist (and at times vocalist) by the name of Larry Wang. Starting out with deathcore band Beyond Cure in the mid-aughts, he quickly branched out into all variances of brutal death metal and slamming brutal death, virtually building up an entire subset of the Taiwan metal scene almost single-handed through his label/distro Fat Tub of Lard Records.
Today his decade-plus of toil is being rewarded as his newest band, Maggot Colony, is receiving recognition from some pretty lofty places. Not least among the group's growing legion of supporters is none other than The Black Dahlia Murder vocalist Trevor Strnad, whose admiration for the band runs so deep that he even laid down some guest vocals on a track from the band's upcoming second full-length album, Vile Reincarnation, due March 24 on Rising Nemesis Records.
Every scene needs its merry band of weirdo noise grind freaks. In Taipei (though the members are technically based in neighboring Taoyuan), that band is Hotel Carrefournia. With a name based on a play on the French supermarket chain Carrefour, and a sound root firmly in Disgrace to the Corpse of Sid-era Sore Throat and the improvisational chaos of Sete Star Sept, a Hotel Carrefournia set is the most intense and unpredictable 15 minutes you may ever experience.
Varg Huang is a member of the small Taiwanese grind collective that has grown around Rottenpyosis Records founder and Hotel Carrefournia drummer/Brain Corrosion bassist Sleazy Derek. Since putting out his first release over a decade ago, Derek has done his damnedest to cultivate a goregrind, grinddcore, and noise grind scene in Taipei by importing international grind releases and putting on semi-regular grind-centric gigs up and down the island. It's been an uphill battle, to say the least, but with the likes of young Varg, the one man behind one-man goregrind band Fetus Slicer, at least he can rest easy knowing the next generation of grindl freaks are ready to ruin their lives, too.
There was a time when black metal was it in Taiwan. In the early years of the extreme scene, the black metal craze started with Chthonic, a band that honed its sound by adding Taiwanese instrumental and folk elements to Scandinavian-style black metal. Others soon joined the fray, namely now-shuttered acts such as Hades and Anthelion. Desecration (not to be confused with the Welsh death metal bastards of the same name) was there too in the formative days, and recently returned after a long absence. Bloody Tyrant, a band which rose from the ashes of a death metal band known as Demise, has followed in Chthonic's footsteps, melding Taiwanese folk and black metal.
One band that has always been there in one form or another, lurking in those proverbial shadows, is Inferno Requiem. The band, which is the sole creation of a man going by the name of Fog, plays black metal for the purists, with themes dwelling on the myths, legends, and folklore of this part of the world, putting a misanthropic bent on traditional Taiwanese orchestral arrangements. Make no mistake, though—this band could be dropped headlong into the bleak, snow-covered mountains north of Bergen and not sound out of place. Fog seems to emerge from isolation once every few years or so, putting a band together just long enough to record his songs and play a few shows, before dissolving the lineup yet again, slipping back from whence he came.
Speaking of misanthropy, Armed Judas have recently arrived on the scene in Taiwan as one of the leading purveyors of pure fucking black metal, taking up the mantle from which many in the old guard seem ready to descend. Led by vocalist and main songwriter Chris Fan, a man not long out of his teens, the band pays faithful tribute to the harsh early days of Carpathian Forest and the most apologetically jangled and noisome moments of Darkthrone's back catalog.
From around the early to mid-aughts, Taiwan boasted a fairly robust punk scene, centered not in Taipei, where most of the bands at the heavy end of the spectrum are today, but in the central city of Taichung. Down there, a gang going by the name of the Feirenbang, or Useless Motherfuckers, was comprised of the members of the dozen or so bands who regularly gigged all over the main island together. But time went on, guys and girls grew up, got jobs, started families, put down their instruments or faded away into other forms of music such as electronic and reggae. Today, the Useless Motherfuckers are little more than a faded memory.
One of the bands trying to bring back those memories of punk's halcyon days in Taiwan are Accomplices, a group playing their own socially-conscious brand of straight ahead street punk. Where most of the current Taiwanese punks tend to stray toward the poppy side of of the genre, Accomplices swerves decidedly in the opposite direction. They're not breaking any molds, but as far as mainstream society goes in this country, they couldn't bolt much farther from the norm.
Joe Henley is a writer and musician based in Taipei. Follow him on Twitter.