Mainland China’s music scene has a pretty strong post-rock core. East Asia in general has produced some awesome atmospheric acts, such as Mono and Té from Japan or the more electronic Barkher and Ma-Te Lin from Taiwan. The grandfather of Chinese post-rock, and one of the best post-rock bands in the world is Wang Wen(惘闻).
Wang Wen’s music is atmospheric and slow-moving, with tracks usually over seven minutes long- -but it’s not boring. Wang Wen paces their songs very well, building up a lot of minor rises and falls before reaching a major climax. Wang Wen also shift rhythms regularly which means you’re not stuck listening to one groove on a 10-minute repeat. At the same time, Wang Wen’s members are so patient with the music that they will stick with, or change a rhythm slowly enough that it sounds smooth. You can hear how Wang Wen carefully shifts rhythms to make a varied but smooth sound in “Lost in the 21st Century.” In the live video, audiences can also see how Wang Wen’s lead guitarist Xie Yugang makes unique sounds by using a bowstring and a screwdriver to pull on the chords.
Having a varied and interesting sound is a big victory for a post-rock band. Post-rock bands gets most of their flak for sounding too alike one another and too uninteresting. Post-rock can be a lazy genre where the songs are mostly about plodding along for five minutes until an explosive point, then plodding along for another two.
By making genuinely great post-rock, Wang Wen’s been welcomed into the genres by titans of the genre. They’ve toured with Mono and Mogwai – – two of the biggest names in post-rock. Wang Wen might have as much spread as Mono, Mogwai, or Godspeed You! Black Emperor if they weren’t a mainland Chinese band. The unfortunate truth is that Wang Wen is hamstrung by a mix of an underdeveloped indie scene, rigorous censorship laws, and the great firewall that cordons the Chinese Internet off from the world. It’s unfortunately fitting that Wang Wen’s name is part of a Chinese idiom that means to pretend not to hear.
Xie Yugang said in an interview that over 13 years in the local Chinese scene, not much had changed. “Being a professional musician, means more or less you have to follow the market,” said Yugang. “Fuck that, go to hell. I just want to make the music I like.” Hamstrung or not, Wang Wen makes music.
Wang Wen, has been making music for nearly 20 years. They’ve released 13 albums and a joint project with Swedish post- rock band pg.lost. Over the years they’ve changed up their sound and gotten better production. Their 2017 album “Sweet Home, Go” is their cleanest and best paced, but their best album overall is probably 2014’s “Eight Horses.”
“Eight Horses” is an unusually energetic and distortion-heavy post-rock album. The album contains eight distinctive songs that the band wrote over the course of 3 years and had mixed by 4 different producers. The distinction between songs makes “Eight Horses” one of the most interesting albums in post-rock. Each song plays off radically different compositions and tones. “Eighth Layer of Hell” is a song full of intense noise, fast beats, and screaming. “Dionysus” is one of Wang Wen’s lightest songs ever, with bass and guitar rhythms that are so complex and groovy that they sound a bit like math rock. Since Wang Wen had over a decade to solidify their sound, the songs still feel like they belong together. Varied, interesting, emotional, and sweeping, “Eight Horses” is a near perfect post-rock record.
Wang Wen can make such strong records because they have a good idea of what they want to do with their music. Watching Wang Wen interviews means watching Xie Yugang rattle off a lot of spare thought about music, life, and emotions. Xie will discuss things as grand as purpose (“All of us will become ashes of history. The only meaning is you’ve done what you’ve done.”) or as narrow as genre (“In essence post-rock is actually […] subversive. It’s not right that post-rock has became a homogeneous genre.”)
Most importantly, Xie Yugang and the other members of Wang Wen talk often about conveying emotion. Xie says that some of the songs in “Eight Horses” even came about purely through jamming – no discussion involved, all feeling. In my eyes, this is what puts Wang Wen above so many post-rock bands, and what makes them worth listening to. They understand that good post-rock keeps listeners interested over the course of 13 minute long songs by emotionally engaging them. Post-rock is a genre that you feel. There are no lyrics to dissect, there are only waves of sound that rise and fall and crash. Wang Wen understands the genre and themselves, and after nearly two decades that understanding has only deepened.