Beijing is shrouded in thick mist when our plane touches down, the kind of dense pea soup than makes runways disappear into oblivion and terminals seemingly float in mid air. It’s a disorientating fog that sits stubborn while we hand a cabbie a slip of paper covered in symbols that apparently represent our hotel, and progress inbound through numerous concentric ring roads, navigating bikes, buses and reckless pedestrians, past Tian’anmen Square, Chairman Mao’s stern mug, and the Forbidden City into tourist central.
Four or five movies away on BA and yet a whole different realm of reality, Beijing is a surreal and hectic place, and feels far from home for many different reasons. Step into a gig venue, though, and the international language of music screams familiarity.
We’re here to see Omnipresent Youth Society play the latest Noisey Special Engagement gig, a project run by Noisey, Vice, and Dell that sees interactive concerts take place across the globe, from Austin to Berlin and now Beijing. Planned with military precision on an ambitious scale, they’re aiming to map the world’s music in one fell swoop, seeking out each location’s best bands and presenting them live simultaneously in the flesh and through real time streams.
A relatively big deal in their home city of Shijiazhuang but largely unknown to us, Omnipresent Youth Society have been trading in extended, epic, quasi post rock for the past decade. Led by singer and frequent axe-shredder Dong Yaqian they live online at the Douban social networking site (as Facebook and Twitter are banned in China), and open tonight with a slow-burn crowd-rouser drenched in programmed horns, tumbling blues riffs and distorted guitars. They’re greeted with the requisite roars and some retina-destroying searchlights scanning the crowd.
What follows is 90 minutes of searing space rock, plenty of loud / quiet dynamics, the occasional ballady jig and a fair amount of guitar and horn duelling during numerous extended jams, often matching each other note for note. 大石碎胸口 in particular is a big tune, all longshore drift basslines washing over us and frantic horn parps.
Watch Omnipresent Youth Society at Noisey’s Special Engagement with Dell in Beijing.
Noisey’s Special Engagements are all about fan interaction, and the drummer talks (apparently) about some special fan-created postcards before one lucky punter, who’d created a video pre-show as part of a competition, joins the band to sing with her idols. She should be shitting herself but she seems totally pro.
The following day, after a morning conquering extreme vertigo at the Great Wall (some sections are steeper than a Starbucks and more run down than Lewisham), a quick tea ceremony and some Peking duck, talk turns to the next gig – longtime local heroes New Pants.
The first thing we learn, aside from the fact they have better posters (if not band names) over there, is that rock is still a pretty niche music and lifestyle choice in Beijing. In a city of 20 million, tonight’s special performance is only 80% full, despite taking place in a 3,000-odd capacity theatre. Lady Gaga has been blaring from shopfronts all day and pop still rules the roost in this town.
Still, China’s answer to Devo put on quite a show – two and a half hours of rampant rock experimentation that mostly wows the sober crowd. While their stock in trade is New Order-esque synth pop they veer all over the place during the set, from bubblegum punk to mock 70s rock, taking in short comedy skits, bizarre cartoon VTs, one track that sounds like Grandaddy, some more tongue in cheek political numbers, and a guest vocalist that shags a skeleton in a wedding dress.
Synth-stabby pop monster ‘She Is Automatic’ elicits the most excitement, as does frenetic new screamo track ‘Sex, Drugs, Internet’. Regardless of genre or stance, though, everything New Pants do is shot through with a sense of humour largely lost on me and probably all-too-absent from our culture.
China’s rock scene may still be (relatively) nascent but, as with many things from the most populous nation on earth, the potential is staggering.