The Beast In The East: Exploring China's black metal scene

Black metal’s reach has spread far and wide since its primordial beginnings in the ‘80s; spikes and corpse paint are now dotted on every continent (well, Antarctica isn’t far off), and Darkthrone patches are sewn onto jackets from Alaska to Australia. It should, therefore, seem unsurprising that metal’s most headline-grabbing genre has infiltrated its way into Chinese territory. And yet, what may be surprising is just how far the rabbit hole goes.

Black metal in China began in the late ‘90s, or so the story goes from Deng Zhang, founder of Pest Productions, China’s best-known extreme metal label. Pest was set up among the second wave of metal labels in 2006, “before us there were Dying Art, Mort, AreaDeath and so on,” Deng says. “There’s also a rock label called So Rock – though they’re not a complete metal label, but they did have some very influential releases.” However, Pest has since risen to prominence on an international scale, with bands from as far as Spain, Greece and the US on their roster.

Reflecting on China’s black metal origins, Deng states: “Old school Swedish and Norwegian black metal bands were the introduction to those who got into black metal in the late ‘90s, including me.” Word of bands like Mayhem and Gorgoroth spread through the communities, resulting in several Chinese bands attempting to create their own version of these hellish noises. He points to Perditism as a forerunner of this wave: “They’re really outstanding. Pitifully, they’re so underground that not too many people know them.” Shame indeed, although the covers the blackened thrash act recorded on their demos point towards a fascinating mish-mash: Gorgoroth, Kreator and Mantas, to name a few.

From that point on the genre blossomed in all directions. One area gaining prominence recently is the post-black/‘blackgaze’ scene, filled with ambience and catharsis in equal measure. It’s a scene to which Deng himself contributed to with Dopamine, an excellent band whose two releases still gain traction on YouTube to this day, despite being nigh on impossible to track down. Not bad for a band who were only together for two years. Interestingly, guitarist Jiang is now in a classic rock band called Jacky Danny, proving the diverse taste of Chinese extreme metal musicians, with some Guns N’ Roses flavour on their debut EP.

Carrying the blackgaze flag forward are Asthenia, who formed last year and already have two releases to their name. Their Still Lifes album last year contains echoes of Agalloch and Alcest’s history, and comes highly recommended to fans of either influence. Asthenia’s other record is also worth mentioning, a split with one-man depressive black metal project Wither from Inner Mongolia. Wither puts Asthenia to shame with his output last year: two full-lengths, two splits and two demos. His sound is more harrowing and tougher to penetrate; the detuned guitars sound more akin to scraped violins, raw and distorted in sharp contrast to the rich and mournful piano that accompanies them, while forlorn yelps and chants top off the misery.

Black metal, of course, would not be black metal without a contingent supporting the old school, and China’s representatives are no exception. However, instead of selecting a Nordic-worshipping band at random, attention must be paid to Nagzul. The one-man project may only have one album to its name, but Summon The Spirits is an intriguing blend of Nordic chill and ominous doom. Lead track Golden Dawn in particular is worth looking into, with the rasping vocals of 海洋 (‘Ocean’ in Mandarin) atop a cascade of riffs that evolve spectacularly across seven minutes. Those in the mood for a more traditional slant of black metal can look to The Illusion Of Dawn’s self-titled album.

Considering China’s rich cultural and folkloric heritage, it would be a crying shame if at least a handful of bands didn’t draw from this for inspiration, and fortunately some do. Bands like 英吉沙 (that’s ‘Yengisar’ to you) focus on Chinese mythology, while others draw from China’s stunning landscapes. Reflecting on the wider world of folk metal, China has produced a couple of excellent folk-black metal bands, including Deep Mountains.

“Deep Mountains are somewhat inspired by natural landscapes for sure, maybe it’s because they come from Mount Taishan,” comments Deng, and with views like this it’s not difficult to see why. Their album Lake Of Solace is a hypnotic affair, with a mesmerising Negură Bunget-style intro giving way to the graceful Sin, and later on the 15-minute two-part title track, a majestic evolution of acoustic tremolo into a sombre and morose experience.

But don’t worry, blackened thrash addicts, you get a look in on several occasions in China’s black metal history. Aside from the aforementioned Perditism, there are several ripping bands to check out. Beijing’s Skeletal Augury are the first to come to mind, with their blast-infested Bless Of Destroyed, Raped, Dismembered Flesh. Featuring strangled rasps and screaming solos, the album is wrapped in an impenetrably thick and raw production, and comes recommended to fans of Aura Noir and that ilk. There’s also fellow Beijingers The Metaphor, who are not least worth checking out for their imaginative rendition of Smells Like Teen Spirit, possibly the first Nirvana cover to feature double bass and grunted vocals.

Despite China’s vast size, the country’s metal community is surprisingly well-connected. “Musicians can communicate on the internet, they get along with each other pretty well if they’ve got common interests. China once had many extreme/black metal forums but they’re mostly gone after the rising of modern social platforms.”

And while Facebook and other Western social media sites are tough to log into, there are whole communities on Chinese sites, as well as the use of Bandcamp and other streaming/legal download sites. Those who keep up with Chinese news will no doubt know of the government’s attempts to crack down on internet services like Google and Twitter, but Deng is not deterred: “They haven’t tried to interfere with us yet, but these two years the Chinese government have rigorously controlled the internet, thus this indirectly disturbed our business because sometimes I could not use foreign internet services. Much extreme music reflects inner thoughts, but there are still bands which indirectly express their anti-government trend. All in all, the Chinese government have got plenty of problems to worry about, so generally nobody cares about you unless you’re a rockstar.”

An Deng certainly cannot be accused of a rockstar attitude: “Pest is a very personal label in fact, so I’d rather just release what I like.” Instead, he is a determined individual, passionate for his music, and doing an excellent job in bringing Chinese black metal bands into a well-deserved limelight. The bands mentioned here are but a fraction of what’s on offer in this burgeoning scene. And what’s next on the agenda for Pest? “Zuriaake’s new album and Black Reaper’s debut EP!” Keep your ears open.