In an effort to reboot our music coverage, In Review Online has launched some monthly features devoted to reviewing new album releases. One such feature is Foreign Correspondent, a survey of new releases from the international music world — which, going forward, will now be published bimonthly. The latest issue of FC includes the first album in five years from a celebrated Austrian electronic artist (Fennesz’s Agora); the second full-length from China’s most rapidly rising rap group (Higher Brothers’ Five Star); and two albums from Japanese rock outfits (The Peggies’ Hell Like Heaven and Polkadot Stingray’s Uchouten) along with one from an idol group (Dempagumi.inc’s Ware Wa Dempagumi.inc Da). The issue also features a selection from Kicking the Canon: Chinese rock pioneer Cui Jian’s politically-charged bombshell of a debut, 1989’s Rock ‘n’ Roll on the New Long March.
The Higher Brothers’ 2017 album Black Cab is one of the most confident debuts in recent memory, rap or otherwise. On that project, the Brothers adapted the Migos’ formula over heavily trap-inspired instrumentals, as a foundation upon which to build their ethos — which plays on American stereotypes and satirizes Chinese culture — and to brazenly carve out their own lane in hip-hop. Since Black Cab, Higher Brothers have slipped into their role as poster-children for the 88rising media company that helped earn them popularity, heavily contributing to the 2018 compilation of 88rising-affiliated artists Head in the Clouds. They also dropped a couple EPs of their own, including Type 3 and, more notably, Journey to the West. Five Star continues the experimentations with new sounds found on those EPs — while also occasionally succumbing to SoundCloud-trap cliché. On “One Punch Man,” a clearly thrilled Denzel Curry basks in the delivery of his cosign — and then mostly uses the opportunity to theatrically scream-out his dissatisfaction for ‘being slept-on’ as an artist. The spot doesn’t nearly measure-up to those of others here, including the zany, multifaceted Famous Dex and Ski Mask the Slump God. “We Talkin’ Bout,” however, represents a different problem: The two most prominent Brothers, Ma Si Wei and DZ, tag-team their verses, but come up with typical “Versace”-biting hooks, whereas the psychotic croak of KOHN, a virtual unknown featured on the track, steals it. That’s not to say our boys are slipping; elsewhere, there’s plenty of evidence that they’re in fact still challenging themselves. A great example of this is how the often sidelined-member Melo’s presence increases on Five Star. “Sunshine” is a particular left-turn for the group, with Melo exhausting different vocal approaches over a boom-bap beat. “Top” blurs distinctions between Ma Si Wei/DZ and Psy P/Melo in its vocal structure — and culminates in an auto-crooned Soulja Boy verse, sounding like grandpa got into the kid’s lean and went insane. “Do It Like Me” sees Psy P, Melo, and featured rapper JID all navigating the dialectical bombast and softness of their respective flows. “16 Hours” and “Need Me Now” are anthems propelled by the strength of the Ma Si Wei & DZ one-two punch, the latter sounding as if ripped from a Top 40 chart in the early aughts. And then there’s “Open It Up,” Higher Brothers’ most ambitious track to date, balancing swagger and melancholy and finding the group working their strengths: Melo’s variegated vocal, DZ’s desperate wail, Ma Si Wei’s ability to wend his vocal around acid guitar riffs. “I’m the teacher / now pay attention / class is in session,” instructs Ma Si Wei, just before firing off the refrain. Higher Brothers have only just begun to open that shit up. Joe Biglin
As a title, Hell Like Heaven serves to explain the clashing contradictions that bring about the joys in The Peggies’ music. The Japanese trio’s buzzing, jagged alt-rock riffs are virtually hot to the touch, while their lyrics deal with the soft, almost cheesy expressions of love — and are delivered by the equally juvenile, yet sincere, vocal of lead singer and guitarist Yuuho Kitazawa. “Kimi No Sei” (Because of You) opens the band’s debut full-length by admitting to be completely transformed under the influence of love, the Peggies zeroing-in on a teenage kind of romance mainly defined by its extremity. Rambunctious garage-rock further amplifies the bursting emotions of Hell Like Heaven: the “whoa-oh-oh” chorus of “Microphone” captures the thrilling relief of finally getting to shout ones feelings out loud, while the spiky riffs of “Kamisama” feel inspired by the heartbeat-quickening rush of wanting to get close to someone. These sprinting songs admittedly burn themselves out — but luckily, the Peggies sequence Hell Like Heaven with mellower tracks in-between, allowing room to breathe. The change of pace is welcome, particularly when it comes to album highlight “Hachimitsu” (Honey), its slow progression capturing the desire to cherish every moment of a loving embrace. This tracks hints at a style the Peggies could explore more later — but if they seem too focused on a single sound for Hell Like Heaven, it works in their favor, as an accurate expression of the intense, obsessive young love which clearly inspires this music. Ryo Miyauchi
Austrian composer Christian Fennesz’s glitchy compositions operate like a more understated Rube Goldberg machine: every seemingly insignificant sound effect or pronounced use of reverb ultimately has some greater utility or purpose. Agora — Fennesz’s first solo album in five years — opens with a quietly quivering bassline that’s slowly consumed by a penetrating wave of droning electric guitar, which builds in feedback-drenched intensity for 12 minutes until a climax of deafening magnitude; the weight of each, gradually introduced sonic element being completely felt. Agora‘s remaining three tracks, all over ten minutes, play as a variations on the aural ideas of this opening — and move from minimalist to the stunningly baroque. But Fennesz is a musician who’s generally less concerned with his arrangements’ intellectual capacities, and more with their ability to transcend a synthetic state and capture something human. To put it another way, Agora isn’t so much a work that centers on stylistic transformation as it is one of emotional progress. And in this sense, album closer “We Trigger the Sun” couldn’t have a more apt name: shimmering, warm synthesizers ring with a euphoric optimism that’s then pitted against the cold textures of stray metallic scrapings and vibrating guitar tones. The track is possibly the most ‘cosmic’ that this electroacoustic artist has ever gotten — yet Fennesz still grounds it in intimacy. Even aiming for the stars, Agora never neglects the presence of the listener on the journey with it — and so like the seemingly arbitrary elements in these songs, the use of “We” over “I” in the closer’s title gradually reveals its intentionality. Paul Attard
To say that Polkadot Stingray rose to fame overnight might be a bit dramatic — but not too far off. The group only formed in 2015, yet they are soon to realize a dream that almost every Japanese band has, by performing at Japan’s most prestigious venue, Nippon Budoukan. This stadium event will bear the name of Polkadot Stingray’s new album, Uchouten (rough translation: ecstasy), which is the band’s most consistent full-length to date, but one that still falters in many of the ways that their previous album did. While the advanced-released songs from Uchouten mostly fit the title and theme of the project, some are also too familiar. This is especially true of opener “Ichidaiji,” and this feels like a missed opportunity for the band to kick things off with something new. Why this matters is that the older songs dilute the power of the new ones — almost all of which bring something fresh and interesting to the table. “Denkousekka” follows in the band’s brilliant tradition of almost comically frantic emotion, and delivers the first genuine burst of energy here. Though it should should be said that almost all the songs on Uchouten consistently show why front-woman Shizuku is one of the most compelling female vocalists in contemporary Japanese music — especially love songs “Drama” and “Love Call,” the latter being the most raw song that this band has sounded, emotionally and vocally, in some time. Another major highlight is the title-track, peculiarly sequenced as the album’s closer — though the decision makes sense, as horns and general extravagance earn the title. Fresh songs and choices like this make it all the more apparent that Polkadot Stingray can sustain an album of all new material — and makes their continued recycling of songs from previous releases something that the group needs to outgrow. Taylor Murnane
An interest in outer space has informed both the visual aesthetic and music of Dempagumi.inc over the past year. While the group first appeared as ‘space explorers’ in an even earlier video (for “Girametasu Dempa Stars”), their sixth full-length, Ware Ware Wa Dempagumi.inc Da, re-introduce the idols’ intergalactic predilections. The girls emerge from a ‘crash-landing’ at the outset of this album, and they continue to dance to their own alien rhythm as Ware Ware Wa zips through a restless run of high-energy synth-pop, flamboyant hard-rock, big-band numbers and jagged jazz — with more than a few styles often represented in the span of a single track. The album’s overarching theme of outer space, then, becomes essential as a means to provide some cohesion to this turbulent jumble. And while the theme does also set-up a charming world of fantasy, Ware Ware Wa proves most resonant when its fantastical elements collide with the bleakness of reality. The idols are bewildered by the beauties of Earth on “Oyasumi Polaris Sayonara Parallel World” — and too beholden to their anxieties toward the outside world to step-out from their hermetic existence. Dempagumi play along with their role as aliens in “Taiyoukei Kansatsuchuu Seimeitai” and ramble through some hilarious one-liners about being confounded by the eccentricities of human life. Their intentioned confusion leads to one especially heart-rending moment: “Hey, why are you crying? / What meaning is there,” the group sing, as if earnestly trying to figure out the concept of sadness. Sometimes it takes visitors from a different universe to highlight the alluring parts of human experience — and Dempagumi has a lot of fun here exploring that theoretical perspective on life. RM
Was it when Elvis first suggestively gyrated his hips on national television? The first time a fan let-out a piercing, adulatory scream as the Beatles sauntered by? Or was it further back than all that — the moment Sister Rosetta Thorpe picked up a guitar? There’s no true consensus as to when rock ’n’ roll really started — in the west, anyway. In the People’s Republic of China, however, there’s a much smaller window during which one could pinpoint rock’s rise: The Party’s suppression of western culture through the formative years of popular music’s development makes it hard to imagine a Chinese rock existing much before 1982, the year when the country underwent massive economic reforms. And when it comes to this 1980s period, there was no more important figure in Chinese music than Cui Jian, a man nicknamed “The Father of Chinese Rock.” Coming from a musical background (his father was a professional trumpeter), Cui joined the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra when he was still a teen. But when the classic rock of the west started to enter the Chinese consciousness, Cui was an early adopter, forming one of the first bands to play western pop music in China. It wasn’t until pursuing a solo career, however, that Cui became a major star. And in 1986, at a commemorative concert at Beijing’s Workers’ Stadium, Cui donned peasant clothes and performed his epochal song, “Nothing to My Name” — now commonly referred to as “China’s first rock song.”
The recording of “Nothing to My Name” from Cui Jian’s debut album, 1989’s Rock ’n’ Roll on the New Long March, begins slow and spare, with a sustained synthesizer, light percussion, and idle strumming. It’s a love song (“I want to give you my dreams”), but for Chinese youths in the 1980s, emboldened by the rolling-back of Maoism, Cui’s lyrics had political intent. As Cui sings, “But you always laugh at me for having nothing,” multi-tracked vocals, snare with generous reverb, and dizi — a high-whining, classical Chinese flute — bolster the mix. The composition of “Nothing to My Name,” then — the gradual accumulation — becomes integral to its empowering message, and even more so as the song’s tempo quickens and Cui barrels through the final, ecstatic verses. The lyrics to the song (“The ground beneath my feet is moving”) also proved to be prescient — and “Nothing to My Name” was adopted as the anthem of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. For many, this is Cui’s greatest legacy, one essentially of defeat — a time capsule for a fleeting moment when China believed in freedom. In the wake of Tiananmen, Cui’s career struggled; he was barred from performing in China, and his new music was monitored closely by authorities. But there’s another Cui Jian narrative, and this album provides its foundation. My own first experience with Chinese rock, during the years I lived in China, was at a small bar: A man with an acoustic guitar, perched on a stool, strummed the lilting chords of Cui’s “Greenhouse Girl.” The song’s melody has never left me — and as it turns out, I’m not alone. While the Chinese government successfully prevented Cui from performing at any large venues for almost two decades (his ban was finally lifted in 2005), all over China, the indelible melodies of “Nothing to My Name,” “Greenhouse Girl,” “No More Disguises,” and others are widely recognized. A voice that ubiquitous can’t really be silenced — and as increasingly eroded resistance to the popular music Cui pioneered attests, Rock ’n’ Roll on the New Long March did help to bring about at least one revolution in China. Sam C. Mac