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New Music: The Man Who Invented Peking Opera Death Metal

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New Music, formerly 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.

The record featured below isn’t all that new — it actually came out last year. But as this weekend is the Tomb-Sweeping (Qingming) Festival in China, a time when people traditionally honor the dead, we thought we would honor the creation of a new death metal sub-genre: Peking Opera Death Metal.

If you’re looking for some soothing, calming music during these anxious times… this is very much not it. (Though we do have this chilled playlist for you instead.) In contrast, this is music to jump around your room to; to let a little frustration out to.

As the name suggests, the musical style blends guttural vocals and accelerated guitar work with percussion from the traditional Chinese opera form. The result is unlike anything you’ve ever heard before.

 

The man who claims responsibility for the birth of this new genre is Gary Ho, who resides in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. Ho spent his childhood in 1970s Beijing however, “a circumstance where you could hear Peking Opera playing whenever you turned on the radio at home or strolled down the street,” he says. Despite not finding much affinity with the form as a teenager, Ho says “somehow it got into my veins.”

peking opera death metal acne china

Acne performing live (photo: Paul)

Ho’s band Acne have been around since 1998, but for the first few years of their existence their sets mostly consisted of standard thrash and death metal. In 2014, feeling “tired of playing traditional thrash metal for 16 years,” Ho decided to incorporate distinctive elements from Peking Opera into Acne’s sound, a move that prompted the other band members to quit. Yet it also led to what Ho describes as the “origin of Peking Opera Death Metal.”

 

“I still recall the day that I first shared the new idea with my previous bandmates,” he tells us. “I made an audio clip of Peking Opera percussion for our song ‘Inhuman,’ which we played for many years with regular drums.

“After listening to the clip, the bassist told me that he hated it because ‘it sounds like a scene from a gang fight.’

“Though I was dismayed by the fact that he didn’t like it, I felt great for hearing his reason — the gang fight mood is exactly what I always want the song ‘Inhuman’ to deliver.”

Thus undeterred, Ho forged ahead on his own under the Acne name, eventually releasing the full-length album Crossways last autumn. Mastered by Grammy Award-winning engineer Alan Douches (whose past credits include Cannibal Corpse, Nile and Sepultra), the record combines the kind of percussion that would accompany Mei Lanfang with the sort of brutal guitar sounds associated with the likes of Deicide, plus growling vocals sung mostly in Cantonese and self-declared “funky slapping bass.”

 

Such a description may sound gimmicky, but Ho speaks passionately about the very real connection that he feels between the two seemingly opposed musical styles. “Peking Opera is a very good substitution for the rhythm part of our music, because they actually have many things in common. For example, in Peking Opera there’s a rhythm pattern called ‘ji ji feng (急急风)’ which sounds pretty much like the blast beat in death metal.

“There’s also a move in Peking Opera called ‘shuai fa (甩发, i.e., hair waving)’, which looks exactly like headbanging, and they even serve the same purpose — expressing extreme feelings such as angry and despair.

“You may even notice that Peking Opera has the feature that most of the time, the vocals are performed solely without chorus. The reason for having this feature, as interpreted in the 2008 movie Forever Enthralled (a biographical film about Peking Opera legend Mei Lanfang), is that the charm of Peking Opera lies in that it delivers a feeling of loneliness. Actually, when I first listened to Death’s 1991 album Human, I felt like being carried to a deserted lonesome planet and I enjoyed it! Therefore, it always seems to me that the elements and emotion behind both Peking Opera and death metal are quite close.”

 

The result is a riot, a brilliant bit of what-the-fuckery that’s at least worth a listen.

Pick up the full Acne album on Bandcamp here and discover a load more Chinese metal here:

Listen to Our Chinese Metal Megamix

Cover photo: Auto Tam

Jake Newby
Jake Newby is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with more than a decade's experience living and working in China. Previously managing editor of Time Out Shanghai, he's also written for publications such as South China Morning Post and the Financial Times.