It’s only November but people have already been asking me about year-end lists. As a preliminary exercise I threw every China release from 2017 I had on my computer into a playlist and hit shuffle, with the goal of putting together a 40-minute mix. That mix is now here (I’ll be posting a fully annotated track list on Radii next week), but my main takeaway was noticing that there have been so many excellent releases coming out of China this year, there was no way I could boil my favorites down to 40 minutes.
So I’ll be making more lists later, but one artist I did include in the first one is ST.OL.EN, a six-piece band from Chengdu that I’ve been following since they first rolled through Beijing with their hand-made demo CD several years ago. They’ve been working hard for the last few years, following up on the 2015 release of their debut album Loop — put out by D Force, the same label behind the Goooose and 33EMYBW albums I profiled yesterday — with a regimen of frequent touring, both at home and around Europe. Along the way they attracted the attention of Mark Reeder, a Berlin-based music industry savant famous for bringing Joy Division to Germany and discovering superstar DJ Paul van Dyk, among other things.
At a music festival earlier this year, I moderated a discussion between Reeder and Yang Haisong, himself an important musician and mentor to an entire generation of rockers from all around China. Reeder had just finished recording some tracks with ST.OL.EN at their home base in Chengdu, and was noticeably high off the experience, telling me at the time that he viewed Chengdu as the equivalent of late ’70s Manchester (ie, where the real innovation and talent is), and Beijing as London (the boring, dead, gray capital).
I’m not sure I agree — though I do think Beijing’s music scene has declined quite a bit over the last few years, and Chengdu does indeed have a lot going on right now — but I can’t deny that ST.OL.EN is one of my favorite young rock bands in China, perhaps because of their dark, slightly cynical, coded yet poignant critiques on contemporary society. The results of the band’s sessions with Reeder over the spring were released last month as Why We Chose to Die in Berlin, a slick EP presenting ST.OL.EN’s cleanest and bleakest material to date.
Enjoy that streaming above, and some particularly resonant lyrics from my favorite track of the bunch, “Copy Shop,” below: