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Yin: Howie Lee Returns with Elegant, Asymmetrical New Album

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Yin (音, “music”) is a weekly RADII column that looks at Chinese songs spanning hip hop to folk to modern experimental, and everything in between. Drop us a line if you have a suggestion.

Though he’s pumped out a prolific stream of singles, EPs, and sketches over the last few years, it’s taken a while to for Beijing/Taipei-based producer and self-avowed copycat Howie Lee to come out with an album-length followup to his head-turning debut, Mù Chè Shān Chū. The wait for a sophomore effort is now over, as today the artist self-released Tiān Dì Bù Rén, a fourteen-track concept album mixing Daoist pith and environmental fatalism into a high-minded manifesto that the liner notes describe as a “soundtrack to forgetting — a meditative apocalypse.”

 

Since returning to his hometown of Beijing in 2013 after receiving an MA in sound art from the University of the Arts London, Howie’s charted an impressive and idiosyncratic path through the world of underground Beijing clubland. He released Mù Chè Shān Chū on Low End Theory-affiliated label Alpha Pup in 2015, and between then and now, has put in work on a number of impressive standalone projects: collaborations with Charli XCX and Perera Elsewhere; an ambitious live A/V show with Taiwanese 3D animator Teom Chen; a 2017 EP mining sounds and influences from China’s geographical and ethnic frontiers; and an annual series of conceptual sketches combining his interests as a producer with the political background noise of modern Chinese society called Socialism Core Value.

Yin: Beijing’s Howie Lee Collaborates with Charli XCX on a Chinese Remix of “Boys”

Tiān Dì Bù Rén, which dropped earlier today absent much media or label hype, is Howie’s most ambitious and musically interesting work yet. Throughout his career — and through his role as steward of the Do Hits label — Howie has been consistently preoccupied with re-contextualizing traditional Chinese instruments and pop-cultural samples into “Western” idioms like UK Bass and experimental dubstep, but on this album he’s successfully jettisoned both obviously “foreign” starting points, and an obviously “Chinese” end product. In addition to copious sampling of pan-Asian instrumentation, he freely fiddles with organ, trap kit, flamenco guitar, glockenspiel, trumpet, auto-tuned falsetto, and much else. It’s an opaque and beautifully arranged album, one that settles pleasingly askew in between the ears after multiple listens.

While many of Howie’s previous productions have been pretty on-the-nose “East meets West” in style — check out interstitial EPs Homeless (2017) and Natural Disaster (2018) for examples — it feels that he’s broken new ground on Tiān Dì Bù Rén, named after an idiom meaning “heaven and earth are not benevolent.” A text accompanying the album spells out the artist’s crypto-philosophical preoccupations, reflected murkily in such portentous track titles as “21st Century Suicide” and “Black Clouds Unfold”:

Tiān Dì Bù Rén takes its title from an idiom in the Tao Te Ching, a foundational Daoist text credited to the sage Laozi, where heaven and earth (“Tiān Dì”) are merciless, leaving humanity to fend for itself. If Mù Chè Shān Chū was youthful vigour and idealism, Tiān Dì Bù Rén is clear-eyed maturity. A gaze back into the indifferent heavens… The interplay between capitalist greed and environment degradation, the conflict between human morality and scientific ethics, the tension between global movement and local pushback. Howie’s songs are conversations in dialectic, a synthesis of opposing positions, emotions and reactions.

“I don’t think about creativity, I just copy”: Howie Lee on Passive Creation and the Chinese Dream

The album is tagged on Bandcamp with genre labels including “garage,” “bass,” “hip-hop instrumental,” and “world fusion”; only the last one really sticks, and only because “world” and “fusion” are both semantically saturated enough to reflect a multiplicity, like Howie’s music itself.

Judge for yourself: buy/stream Tiān Dì Bù Rén here, and click on for more Howie Lee:

Yin: New Year Tunes from Howie Lee and Eating Music

Watch: Howie Lee and Teom Chen Render Digital Afterlives in New Video “Tomorrow Cannot Be Waited”

Yin: Howie Lee on “Socialism Core Value II”

Josh Feola
Josh Feola is a Shanghai-based writer and musician, and RADII's Culture Editor. His coverage of Chinese music and art has appeared in The Wire, Dazed, Artsy, LEAP, Tiny Mix Tapes, and more. He's been active in China's underground music scene since 2010 via his booking platform pangbianr.com, and is a former member of Beijing bands Chui Wan, SUBS, and Vagus Nerve.