Distortion, power chords and thrashing drums – the signature sound of heavy metal is not one you’d expect to find in pop-loving Hong Kong.
It’s a sound associated with huge stadium spectacles, and the image is of thousands of headbangers moshing to the vast guitar solos of leather-clad men sticking their tongues out – early precursors of Miley Cyrus, no doubt. The loudness and over-amplified distortion, however, mask metal’s complexity. More than EDM, soul, pop or any other of the numerous genres of music we have today, metal is for many critics and musicians the genre that draws most from the complexity and creativity of classical music. But it’s precisely for this reason that metal has taken a hold in Asia.
It may be a surprise, but the virtuosity of an Yngwie Malmsteen owes more to Bach than at first appears. Classical chord progressions, frighteningly complex rhythms and the fundamental grandstanding of an accomplished soloist before an adoring crowd is the continuation of a tradition developed by Paganini. Hence metal’s fanbase in Asia. “Kids in Hong Kong are pushed to study classical music,” explains Lee Tsui, lead singer of local metal band Qollision. “And in metal you have a lot of off-time time signatures – rhythmic drums that are off-time on the kick or syncopation – or polyrhythms and just to be able to count in those rhythms, you really need a good background in music theory. Also, a lot of the verse riffs in our guitar work is driven by scales or you’ll have rhythms within polyrhythms within lead sections within a verse.”
Qollision may be among the most technical of metal bands, here or anywhere, as they’re moving towards a sub-genre of metal known as ‘djent’. “The name basically came from this [Swedish extreme metal] band Meshuggah. Someone asked them to describe the sound they make and they talked about how they used their eight-string guitars to make this ‘djen djen djen’ sound. And the name just kind of stuck.”
While the term was originally used to describe the sound Meshuggah made, it became the name for an entire sub-genre noted for, in particular, fiercely difficult rhythms. “We use dubstep rhythms under a heavy metal sound,” says Tsui, but he notes that metal isn’t all about the technical side. “When a band becomes too technical, it can lose its emotion and feeling. Our guitarist has a really rare gift in that he is very technical but he writes and plays with a huge amount of emotion. He’s got attitude in his guitar and it really translates.”
In addition, unlike some metal genres that can be hard to follow, Tsui feels that djent is one that is accessible to people. “Wilfred our drummer keeps a really solid groove. He’ll be playing off-accents, but he’ll keep it steady especially on the verse sections and that keeps it comprehensible. Like dubstep, there might be a lot of technical accents in the middle of the song, but you don’t need to know that to get it.”
Getting a group of people together to form a band is hard anywhere, and to find a group that can keep up with metal’s energy seems impossible. But for Qollision it all happened by chance. “I was complaining on Facebook that no-one here could play like one of my favourite bands. A friend messaged me with a link to this guy’s YouTube video, of this local guy’s insane drumming. I befriended the guy on Facebook, we had a few chit-chats and then out of the blue one day he invited me to jam with them. I didn’t know how it was going to go – I hadn’t sung in two years but on the day my voice was fine. And that’s kind of how it happened. The other guys had known each other from school and were in other bands, but now Qollision is our main focus.”
The origin of Liu Ye, another local metal band, was very different. “To be honest, we actually started off as a cover band. But after a while, we really wanted to write our own music. At the time, we were listening to a lot of different things and the one thing that really grabbed us was this fusion of Chinese songs with heavy metal,” explains Charles Chan. “We enjoyed how it wasn’t just copying the West but was creating something authentically Chinese.”
Like Qollision though, Liu Ye define themselves as belonging to the djent genre. “When we looked around, we saw that a lot of the other metal bands in Hong Kong were really doing the same sort of thing. And when we heard this djent sound, we really liked the rhythms.” Of course, Beijing has a thriving metal scene as well, and when they started they looked to China, in particular bands such as Zuo You. “Zuo You has the sound that we identify most with. Their melodies that have a very Chinese flavour, but underlying it all is a metal heart.”
Practising in their tiny band room in Kwun Tong, which they share with another band, Liu Ye are beginning to make a mark. “In general, you get gigs through word of mouth, but now more and more smaller venues are friendlier to young bands. They interview you and if they like you, they’ll give you a chance.” With Christian metal band, As I Lay Dying, playing at Hidden Agenda this year, and more and more metal bands coming through, it won’t be long before metal becomes a force to be reckoned with in Hong Kong.