In ancient China, a complex color symbology dictated appropriate attire. Yellow, a color to ward off evil, was associated with the imperial class and its servants. Red, a color for good luck, was traditionally worn at weddings. A man in a green hat was said to have an unfaithful wife. And white, the symbol of both purity and the unknown, is worn at funeral ceremonies as the color of mourning. In modern China, there is a band called White. A dream team duo from the core of the Chinese ”No Beijing” noise-rock scene, White makes music that is pure and unknown. Pure and unknown, until recently.
Having come to the attention of ex-Bad Seed/Einsturzende Neubaten frontman Blixa Bargeld, who coached and produced the band’s debut, White went from being a side-project jam session with once-in-a-while releases (as both members are full-time in successful bands in Beijing) to having a full-length LP, a touring schedule, and a sizeable amount of underground press. Besides CarSick Cars, the Beijing band who opened a number of dates in Asia and Europe for Sonic Youth, White are one of the first Chinese bands to make an impression in Western media–which unceremoniously dumps on White’s shoulders the responsibility of telling the world “what does Beijing sound like?” Pure? Unknown? Or in mourning?
White, made up only of guitarist Shou Wang (of CarSick Cars) and synthesist Shenggy (of Cosmic Shenggy), makes that description with a limited pallete. Splitting the difference between being a “real band” which writes songs, rehearses, and plays instruments, and being an autonomous creator/composer like an Aphex Twin or Steve Reich, Shou Wang and Shenggy base most of White‘s songs on a template of noisy guitar squalls and guttural synth-rhythms from Shenggy’s Korg MS-20. This minimalist setup allows White to subvert a number of tired rock cliches: firstly, while some songs, such as “Spring House” feature actual drums, there’s no pretense of a “beat” or a trap kit. There certainly aren’t any fills. Instead of a drummer with a six piece kit and a forest of cymbals shredding away in the background, White fills up the same amount of earspace with minimalist loops and textures: chanted vocals, humming guitars, and metal percussion all help build mostly-instrumental songs like “Space Decay” from what may well have started as a sparse rehearsal-room jam to a dense tapestry of pulsating sound.
This isn’t exactly unmined territory. The drum samples that drive tracks like “Conch Crunch” and “Roswitha Strunk” don’t go too far beyond the sonic libraries of 80’s industrial bands like Throbbing Gristle or Einsturzende Neubaten. And while being a mostly synth-and-vocals duo with no traditional guitar parts or any sort of drummer unsurprisingly garners immediate Suicide comparisons, Shenggy’s programming on the aforementioned “Conch Crunch” and the follow-up “Build a Link” is probably best described as “Alan Vega lost in Chinatown”. White’s debt to no-wave goes even deeper–taking more than just a few plays out of Brian Eno’s book; (his compliation No New York defined the genre and was the sole recorded output of some of its greatest bands). White draw more from his later days as an ambient composer, shaping the layered flow of their one-chord (and sometimes even one-note) songs in a way not unlike Eno’s Music For Aiports and the Ambient series. Shou Wang and Shenggy also take time to worship at the real altars of minimalism, paying tribute to Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and a host of other minimalist and electronic composers, without whom, White would suddenly cease to exist.
Already re-contextualized by their importation to Beijing, many of these 20+ year-old sounds and approaches are freshened by the lyrical themes and content. Like Einsturzende Neubaten before them, even subtle lyrical gestures are enough to politicize White‘s tremendous noise. Where Neubaten’s earsplitting clamor represented the frustrations of a recovering Germany (especially with the fall of the Berlin Wall), White take a slightly different tack. With China as the capital of the manufacturing world, the repetitious loops of “Train Song” and “Spring House” seem to describe workaday Beijing as a Marxist Limbo of piecework for export and gridlocked public transportation.
Commercialization seems to be another major theme of White: much like Sigue Sigue Sputnik before them, Shou Wang and Shenggy break up samey-sounding album tracks by including fictional commercials between songs: White’s “Beijing Beer” is definitely one of these, with its pop-top samples, as well as opener “Really Real German” and “English School”. While the specifics of the last two are lost in translation, there’s also a good bit of English on White’s album. Mirroring the trend for English-for-business, and the taking of English-sounding “business names” in China, “Conch Crunch” and “Build A Link” have just enough English to give the songs a slightly political edge: the former might well be (but in fact is not) a popular brand of Chinese snack, and the latter song comes on like a board meeting for a new English-language corporate slogan: “time alone left to think:/Build A Link/pushed too far on the brink/no one there to help to think:/Build A Link/Build…A Link”.
One lyric in particular stands out as a theme for the album, one from the first real song, “Space Decay”. Over a quivering bed of synths and through what sounds like a train intercom, Shou Wang extends his greeting: ”welcome back to the real world!” he shouts. And nothing could be more fitting. In his Pitchfork review of the 4AD indie-for-charity compilation Dark Was the Night, Scott Plagenhoef bemoans the fact that in 2009, “rock is less central than folk in underground North American music”. Seeing as charity organization Red Hot’s 1993 compilation, No Alternative, was a genre-defining 90’s watershed, packed with tracks from Nirvana, Pavement, and the Smashing Pumpkins, that’s saying more than just a little.
Dark Was the Night is glutted with earnest folkiness and 70’s covers, with the likes of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings doing them nearly up to spec. And while there’s certainly room in the world for retroism and folk-rock, and even charity albums, Shou Wang’s lyric keeps coming back to me. “Welcome back to the real world,” he shouts, as Shenggy warms up her MS-20. And from there on, it’s 40-odd minutes of synth loops and chants that numb the mind as much as they bend the ears–all of which hints at a message beneath the surface. A metal file baked into the birthday cake. Just as Black Sabbath’s blistering grind captured the drudgery of Ozzy’s native steel-mill-town of Birmingham, England, White describes a Beijing struggling with ever-increasing globalization and mechanization. Rather than retreating to the comfortable grounds of rich musical history, or picking time-tested 70’s songs to cover, White pushes forwards with its true colors run up the mast–with a commitment to purity, a taste for the unknown–and perhaps not just a little sense of mourning.