Wang Wen is a survivor’s band. The band has made music for about 20 years now in the unique environment of Dalian, China. Their newest album, “Invisible City,” captures a sense of that survival. The loneliness, the love, the warmth, and the cold of creating music in their hometown of Dalian all fall into “Invisible City,” putting it up their with their best works.
China’s music scene is unique because it’s isolated by the Great Firewall and politics in general. Built in a kind of isolation, Chinese bands can struggle to reach an international audience, but also a local one. Bands inspired by genres and artists outside China’s borders end up in a bit of a vacuum, playing to an audience that might not understand or feel acclimated to their style.
Wang Wen lived a little while in that strange gap because they were a band that came out of a smaller Chinese city, Dalian, and playing a less popular kind of music – – post-rock. After a good decade and a half of work, they came into their own and into an audience with their album “Eight Horses.”
They have since toured with Japanese post-rock legends MONO and recorded in Iceland.
Despite making it, they stay based out of their small city of Dalian, unlike other artists. “Many young people I know left Dalian and went to other more energetic places to live and work in the last two years,” guitarist Xie Yugang writes. He puts a kind of loneliness behind staying in a small, scenic city in a country still coming out of isolation.
That band’s thoughts about staying in their smaller home, and the love and loneliness that comes with that, resonate in their new album. “Invisible City” feels to me like it captures a mix of warm and cool emotions – nostalgia and loneliness. This is an album that sees the band branching out with their instrumentation and composition to reach for what is ultimately a different feeling than in any of their other albums.
The focus is less on creating a build up to heavy climax and more on a consistent mood that vacillates between cheery and eerie. Wang Wen doesn’t load up on the distortion an guitar feedback nearly as much as they did in “Eight Horses” and they vary the sound a lot more.
Across the album, Wang Wen relies on guitar less than they usually do. Xie Yugang still does some iconic work, but his riffs don’t feel as hard-edged and they aren’t lined with as much feedback. Instead, a lot of the ambiance comes from playing with noise and sound, taking clips of different languages and distorting them, concurrent synth lines, dramatic percussions, and layering up a lot of simple instrumental lines.
“Solo Dance” is a good microcosm for how the guitar works on most of the album. The guitar in the song is fluid and there are multiple guitar rhythms layered over each other. But there isn’t as much feedback and the guitar lines feel a lot softer and less overwhelming. The harder, creepier parts of the song come from the synths in the background and the percussion.
The album’s opener,“Daybreak,” is a good microcosm for the album as a whole. “Daybreak” opens gentle xylophones, bells, a synthesized whistle, and chirping crickets. The first half of “Daybreak” is Wang Wen at some of their most gentle. “Daybreak” eventually fals into a more uptempo climax that relies more on Wang Wen’s more traditional staples like the trumpet and distorted guitar, but it’s much heavier in synth and lighter in feedback, giving it a stark and clear sound.
Most of the album sounds clear and clean in that way, though there are some exceptions. “Lost in Train Station” builds up to waves of heavy feedback and sound that culminate in a wall of noise at the end – very much like how Wang Wen used to do it. “Stone Scissors” also has that style, the whole latter half of the song building off itself by layering the distorted feedback of guitar and bass over the string lines that are actually being played at the moment.
The visceral, heavy side of Wang Wen isn’t gone from “Invisible City” and that’s a good thing because the mix of heavy visceral with gentle synths keeps the album engaging over its long run time. When the album gets dull or too quiet, Wang Wen ramps up the feedback and starts stacking layers of instrumentation on top of each other.
There are times where the strategy doesn’t always work and, as with a lot of post-rock, the songs drag on a little. I’d say those moments are notably fewer than on their last album “Sweet Home, Go!” Within the whole context of the album, a lot of the slower moments feel justified too. “Silenced Dalian” didn’t strike me as a single but it pairs well with the outro and its mellowness helps close out the album.
After 20 years, international tours, and recording abroad, Wang Wen return home in a powerful way. “Invisible City” gets at the warm and cool sentiments behind keeping to the home others left in a strong way and is one of Wang Wen’s best albums yet.