Tape, CHUI, 2013
How does urban China sound today? What does the pervasive dissemination of digital devices as hybrid conglomerates of affordances, be them glossy last-generation iPads for the recently enriched or parasitic 山寨 (shānzhài) knock-offs tucked in every pocket, purse and street corner – mp3/mp4 players, tablets, smartphones, radios, TVs, loudspeakers, displays, recorders, headphones – mean for the soundscape of public and private spaces in the People’s Republic? How to represent the amorphous lattice of outputs weaved by PA systems plagued by interferences, blown speakers, over-overdriven advertisement, ear-damaging public transportation announcements, cheap instruments, construction sites, invasive phone screaming, old people loafing around clinging on portable radios as if they were boomboxes, perpetual traffic jams and the cheesy post-socialist arrangements pouring out from television sets tucked under ground floor windows, a sonic drapery that has become an unavoidable backdrop element to urban life in China? An unintelligible but enticing answer comes from 不活了 (bù huó le), a disgruntled noise duo roaming residential back-alleys and digital media alike with portable recorders and crafting a noise tape out of nothing but the available mess.
In operating this ironically self-proclaimed 傻逼噪音 (shǎbī zàoyīn, idiotic noise) project, members NOISE666 and 雨第斑 (Yǔ Dìbān) reduce harsh noise to a homely stew of laid back lofi-delia, decaying found sounds and a lazily plucked and badly clipped acoustic guitar writhing around an obnoxious metronome ticking like a perverse Buddhist prayer percussion in a faithless living room while a garbled TV show mutters in the background. This is noise intended as the non-musical outcome of sound-producing and sound-capturing devices, as inviting as a mutton and potato soup (羊肉土豆汤 Yángròu tǔdòu tang, track two) and the smell of stale food in a small countryside eatery at late hours, as intimate as a low-bitrate file playing on unbranded computer speakers hidden under piles of pirate DVDs and CDRs and cables and cup noodles. One could also define it Pussy Folk, as the third track is called: the folk music of urban losers, the affect moving away from acoustics and towards the aesthetics of close-up digital recording, of proximity and contact microphones, of blown up breath pops, of cheap condensers saturated by generous gain, capturing the life of the unassuming background, reducing the violence of high-volume power electronics to the crackles of a badly mastered low end colliding with the hardware bottleneck of cheap tape heads. And what is more grotesquely folkloristic than the vaginal tightening surgery (阴道紧缩术 Yīndào jǐnsuōshù, track four) promoted in an advertisement exploded by incongruous volumes, bubbling as a self-styled chain compression over the same disquieting metronome while its luring and lurid blabber is reduced to a phasing envelope phagocytizing eerie echoes and reverb in the background, and as bitcrushed waves, coalescing in a droning fast-forwarded tape hiss, bury the sampled voice under a spinning metallic treadmill?
It is a monotonous yet strangely fascinating voyage: Hit the Road sports sparse stoned chanting and an almost NNCKesque, no-wavish approach to trembling guitars and proximity noises, while 我们要我们要 (Women yào women yào, “we want we want”) resembles the most disturbing episodes of 井内賢吾 (Iuchi Kengo) or some of the weirder Wolf Eyes tracks in which distant echoes are punctured by electronic residue and tape degradation – weirdness abounds over the familiar lifeline of the omnipresent 4/4 metronome, as if mocking the annoying beats of Cantonese opera or the archetype of any pop song tempo. But the real gems are Fly, Far Far Away, an eleven-minute psych-weird suite happening in the freak aural space between an autistic guitar and drunken singing mangled by a detuned chorus, and the concluding self-referential medley Slow Cut Up, in which mando-house classics float in pieces amongst dialogues, laughs and oscillating harsh noise grit. In a jubilant tribute to everyday sound-making practices and shallow listening, recording becomes more a documentation of the process of making noise out of the available mess or materials and devices rather than a rigorous productive gesture: everything is raw and lively rather than plainly harsh and extreme, and most importantly, it never takes itself seriously for a single moment.
I think post-harsh noise is slowly becoming a thing.
— harshnoise.org (@harshnoiseorg) October 13, 2013
To follow up on this recent quip by harshnoise.org, 不活了’s Xin Fu might be one of the first examples of a post-harsh noise sensibility in China – residual outsider music hiding itself at the intersection of post-digital aesthetics, lo-fi field recordings of urban soundscapes, and the auto-ironic, self-consciously tacky experiments of 农金 (nóng jīn, agricultural metal) musicians. This weird assemblage of influences should not surprise given the people involved: the touch of NOISE666/DINGCHENCHEN is evident in the magnifying attention (or disattention) to the sounds of the everyday exploded in bursting bubbles of aural detritus, while the label-mate 雨第斑’s passion for harsh noise and harassing effect manipulations appears in the rumbling undercurrent running beneath most of the tracks. Xin Fu is definitely not the sound of an harmonious society.