Slow Hole to China – Stoner Metal in the Middle Kingdom
Words: Ryan Dyer
In a dark club in Beijing, the roof has been blanketed in a haze of smoke. The band playing on stage, long-haired, sporting dirty denim, wearing vintage Led Zeppelin or Hendrix shirts, play down-tuned, slower-than-Beijing-traffic-riffs. They are the Heavy Blues/Stoner Metal band Ramblin’ Roze.
Members of the audience light up, soon adding to the thick cloud above their heads. Indeed, there is some smoking in the boys room at this venue, the aptly named School Bar, as the riffs being manifested onstage demand a touch of the sweet leaf to amplify their effect. But it is not dope clouds in the air and most likely never will be.
In countries such as Canada, there is an abundance of Stoner Metal acts who were raised on whiskey, weed and Black Sabbath and now dig into the new crop of bands like Clutch and Electric Wizard. With marijuana becoming legal in many US states and the whole of Canada, it is almost second nature to play slower down-tuned jams after taking a bong hit in such places.
On any given night, a Stoner Rock or Metal band will be playing in a dingy venue, while attendees take a joint break in between sets in the parking lot outside.
In China, things are the opposite. Instead of marijuana, smoking cigarettes is the vice of choice and many venues allow indoor smoking. When it comes to “the devil’s lettuce”, laws are strict on drug use and anyone caught smoking it or with it in their system can be fined or deported.
Even discussing weed with Chinese people comes as a generally awkward experience – as the leaf has become quite stigmatised and the people usually associate it with criminal activity. With this, “weed culture” is something that is not realized in the slightest in China.
Though that is not to say that pot leaf shirts or other forms of merchandise are banned in the country.
The weed mindset lends itself to musical motifs – slow riffs, hazy distortion, psychedelic album art and lyrics. The presence of slower tempoed bands with names, album art and songs related to weed or drug use is minimal in China, with genres like Punk, Thrash Metal or Death Metal being the most popular.
Beijing – Ramblin’ Roze
Not many bands have toured China which could be considered “legends” of Stoner/Doom/Hard Rock. There was no hazy memory of seeing Ozzy in concert as a child or hearing “Sweet Leaf” on the radio. Chinese bands like Ramblin’ Roze are sort of an anomaly. They exist in spite of there being no foundation, reason or support for them.
“It’s about getting to know the bands you like and then seeing who their influences are,” says Ramblin’ Roze guitarist Wake Chen. “Taking myself as an example, I would listen to a lot of 80’s stuff when I was first getting into Rock music, like Ozzy, Cinderella and stuff like that.
“After an in-depth study of the musicians involved, I found out that they were all influenced by 70’s music. So, Ramblin’ Roze dove into Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd and realised that is what we liked.”
Ramblin’ Roze were formed in Beijing in 2016, with their debut album ‘Howl of the Coomb’ being released last year. Their non-musical inspirations also include life after daze, motorcycles, women, alcohol and mysterious events such as in the song ‘Mountain of the Dead’ about the Dyatlov Pass incident.
Since the emergence of China’s first Stoner Metal band, Never Before, in 2011, musicians like Ramblin’ Roze began to slow down the tempos and turn up the fuzz. The new crop of Stoner/Doom bands in China include Near Death Experience (Stoner), Bad Tailor (Doom), King of Lazy (Stoner), Electric Lady (Heavy Blues), Platypus (Funeral Doom) and Alpaca (Doom/Stoner).
Record label encouragement
The record labels Sloomweep and Dying Art Productions have taken the reigns on spreading the word about Stoner with albums by Ramblin’ Roze and Electric Lady being released through them. The Wild Dog Festival, hosted by Never Before, has also helped create more buzz about the genre.
In other countries, bands like Down or Eyehategod are firmly cemented in a geographical location. The Chinese acts have a lot in common with those from other countries, but does the scene contain a band which can be identified as Chinese just by listening to them?
“King of Lazy is one,” says Chen. “They are from Yunnan in the south of China and listening to their music you can feel a mysterious, rainforest type of atmosphere in their songs.”
Yunnan – King of Lazy
So, we go to the hot and humid southern province of Yunnan. Here, the riffs are slowed down further and distorted through a dilapidated hot pot used for cooking pig’s brain with the group King of Lazy.
“In Yunnan, the drug cultural influence on the Rock ‘N’ Roll is deep,” says King of Lazy’s guitarist/vocalist Smart. “The development of Reggae and Hippie culture here is better than other places, so we grew up in such an environment. About four to five years ago, restrictions on weed became looser than other places in China [the biggest problem for Yunnan police is the heroin epidemic].”
Still, there are worries with having lyrics and imagery which are sharing a bed with drug culture. “Compared with other countries, we tend to try to stay more underground to avoid unnecessary trouble,” says Smart. “We use obscure lyrics and imagery to express our meaning, which is why we do not apply Chinese lyrics. At times, subjects like hedonism and nihilism and some Buddhist mystics are reflected in the songs.
“But, while recording our debut album we were subjected to a police drug test anyway.”
King of Lazy started in early 2019 when “…a couple of scruffy brothers accidentally met in the sleepy city of Kunming along with a bottle in the rehearsal room.” The name refers to anyone and everyone, “I think all of us are pretty lazy. We don’t want to go to work, don’t want to socialize, don’t want to wash our hair…”
Since Smart is also a tattoo artist, he wanted to visually express the concept of the album and the dark weird retro style of the band at the same time, illustrating it himself. “There is also a little comic I drew on the new EP about a bad drug experience we had.”
As the band hails from Kunming, they had to find a way to deliver riffs to the main cities of the country.
While getting in the van and becoming a king of the road is an aspect of Stoner Rock culture, in China bands rarely utilise personal vehicles to travel from city to city. Instead, the train is the vehicle of choice.
While smoking is banned on the high-speed trains, you might find band members puffing in the designated area in between cars on the appropriate “slow trains”.
“It is the cheapest way but also the most painful way,” says Smart. “We are always drunk or hungover on the trains. One time we only got standing-room tickets and the train was so crowded that one after another, people fainted like dominoes in front of us, probably due to lack of oxygen. It was crazy.”
“We would love to go out on tour in a van, but China has very unique road system, so if you want to go on tour by van, you need to pay toll fees and other fees,” adds Chen. “Last year, Never Before and Ramblin’ Roze were going to do a small RV tour and festival, but it was canceled due to COVID-19. It is a real pity. Unfortunately, I do not know anyone around who owns a van.”
Shanghai – Alpaca
From Yunnan, we now hop aboard to slow train to the sprawling metropolis that is Shanghai to meet our last band.
Not typically known for Rock, Punk, or Metal, Shanghai is much more focused on EDM, hip-hop, or jazz. Still, that did not stop a multicultural group of musicians, who play a dense, sludgy, misanthropic form of Stoner Doom, to come out of the bowels of the city. That group being Alpaca.
“I don’t know if there were any bands before Alpaca in Shanghai that played slow Heavy Metal,“ remarks Alpaca guitarist David Farmer, “which was really interesting when we first started, because we would play a bill and we would stand out because we were the only band playing that genre, in a sea of Thrash or Metalcore bands.”
Being in one of the top cities in China such as Shanghai or Beijing is certainly more advantageous when it comes to finding musical comrades, but with such a niche genre, the stars had to align perfectly for Alpaca. “Because the crowd of foreigners in China is like a revolving door, the fact that we have been able to find each other and stick to it is really a testament to how much we care about the band and the genre.”
Farmer remarks on the importance of playing smaller cities in China, “We have probably had the most fun in a small city in Shandong called Zibo, where this awesome Metalhead dude named Gore [Geng Zhengfei, also the sole permanent member of a Grindcore band called Impure Injection] organised huge festivals on top of a Wal-Mart for easily upwards of 1,000-2,000 people.”
Overseas bands in China
Getting overseas bands into China is part of the game and the legendary NOLA act EyeHateGod was on Alpaca’s agenda. As they found out, the line of red tape to sort out to make this a reality was endless. “Originally, we had booked EHG for two shows in China (Shanghai and Beijing).
“We had the venues lined up, we had our label helping, we had tickets on sale, but in the end visa issues kept them from coming to China.”
Alpaca were not ready to give up so soon, after spending six months trying to get them in: “Javier (vocals), whose life goal was to play with EHG, contacted a friend in Taipei (Masa, of Bad Moon Rising Records), where nobody needed visas and it ended up being much smoother in the end.”
Though the scene is certainly blooming, awareness of the style as compared to Thrash or Black Metal, is still low.
There is still a lot of growth to be done, but this first crop of bands have set a standard of quality for other fans who may have heard their first Black Sabbath song to live up to.
There was one more thing to ponder about the state of the stoner band scene in China – if weed was legal, would the scene be bigger?
“That’s for sure,” laughs Chen.
Light up and listen.
Recommended Chinese Stoner Rock/Metal albums