The Lesson from Snapline
by William Starkoff on July 18, 2014
Posted in: Album Review, Electronic, Rock, World
Part 1: Do Chinese people, like, listen to music?
I’ve been in Beijing for six months. It’s great, thanks for asking.
The calendar days are shedding off quicker and quicker. In two months, I’ll be off the boat, and yet almost assuredly washed away in the undertow of my inebriated friends’ questions about Chinese food and Communism. Obviously I can talk at length about these things, but for all my “China is this, China is that” pigeonholing, I honestly think I have more questions than answers about this country, now. It feels like getting a filling removed every time I try to tuck these topics away in a warm duvet of swaddling generalization.
This isn’t a Study Abroad story, though. I said all that to say this: I’m an American listening to Chinese underground music. I like it. I think it’s great.
But is it “Chinese”? Hell if I know.
I had a Chinese roommate last semester who, admittedly, wasn’t much for that Rock & Roll life (he was, however, really big on show tunes—Rent, Hedwig and the Angry Itch, etc.; that’s a different story). I mention him only because he wouldn’t go to a concert with me because it was expensive and there’d be a lot of foreigners there. Not to discredit him or anything—hell, it was expensive and there were a lot of foreigners there—but the point is whatever I decide to blog about this summer should be riddled with a nagging sense of doubt about this whole scene. It isn’t a sappy refection on what Beijing underground music has taught me about myself and my place in this big wide world that stretches out in all directions like a red Roc unfurling its wings before the quivering ankles of mankind.
This is a blog about a city—Beijing—and the grungy ne’er-do-wells here who are, depending on who you ask, either loosening up the hinges on foreigners’ coin purses, or creating something special.
Part 2: The Lesson from Snapline
There are a few record stores around Beijing. Usually, they’re tucked in among shish kebab stands and raved about in any sort of English-language periodical you can get your hands on. They’re also, other than concert venues, the only place you can talk to another human being about underground rock music.
Unfortunately, record stores are also Hobbit holes for roving hipsters. CDs and any sort of physical media are expensive in China—just like anywhere else—and so it behooves the consumer to be wary of their music choices. When I take a risk on the shopkeep’s recommendation, I don’t enjoy, per se, throwing my money at a teenager—never to return—for doing his best Brian Eno impression into a four-track recorder.
Imagine my disappointment, then, when I slipped Phenomena, the second album by Snapline—lauded by this particular store manager as so~ Beijing—into my disc drive and discovered a frightful casserole of meaningless-meaningless (as opposed to deep meaningless) English lyrics, half-assed moog beats, and a B-Horror sense of filling out a track with wet, reverbed BS. Repeated listens didn’t assuage my revulsion. This is because I didn’t listen to it again.
But all the same I thought Snapline would be a good place to start for this blog. For one, they’re 100% Beijing; and any concert with Snapline on the bill automatically becomes a big event. For my money, their popularity and representative status in the Beijing underground community is absurd—perhaps even a sign that China is decaying morally. To understand why, we need to vivisect what makes Snapline—Snapline. Apparently: drum machines.
Here’s a track-by-track of Phenomena:
- Part of the Solution – Baby’s first time with a synthesizer; decides to write a melody based around the concept of “inaudible”, and then later “cynematic” (sic.); lyrics written while listening to someone talking and sobbing at the same time—singer only heard: “part of…solution.”
- Yes, I’m Fine — ballsy parody of the Seinfeld theme
- Stardate – Beat built around a sample from Silent Hill, lyrics adapted from an old sketch on A Bit of Fry and Laurie.
- Sustaining – literally sounds like that one song you made with your friends that one time on Garageband.
- Flu – Something like melody appears and feebly flaps its wings. Like a baby bird.
- Party is Over – The only thing that sounds like a song, here.
- Machi – Part 2 of the Solution
- Song for SR – Bullocks.
- Aphasia – Passable.
- She – Bullocks.
For reference, here’s a performance of “She”
Experimenting on tape is lovely—it’s how music moves forward. Snapline gets a lot of press for not having a drummer and relying as much as they do on programmed junk. That’s dope; more power to them. I just don’t know how people can bear listening to this half-composed heap of bad covers of bad Sonic Youth B-Sides. “Party is Over”, along with “Aphasia” are the two songs that can duck under my judgment: “Party is Over”, in particular, sees that stupid Snapline drum machine pull up along a slinky little guitar riff, stapled down with a semi-intelligible string of lyric thought. It’s fun—not a great song—but a glimpse at a different sort of Snapline: youthy, fun, grungy and comfortable. If they stuck to that theme, maybe Snapline could pull together something listenable. As it is, however, “Party is Over” just seems to be…
…Part of the Solution. Heh.
In any case, Phenomena didn’t impress me. The reason I bring it up is to show that experiments were done. Something’s stewing in the pot. Bands in Beijing are doing things that bands elsewhere aren’t. In the case of Snapline, those things include writing bad music, but bands like Residence A (A公馆), the Gar (嘎调) and P.K. 14 are doing some really cool things. In the coming weeks, I’ll talk about albums, and history, and Beijing, and junk. But more importantly, I’ll provide some links to some dope bands that are hard to hear about if you don’t…I don’t know, browse Chinese music sites in your free time.