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‘Lake of buried corpses:’ Chinese metal band digs out ancient poetry

By Becky Davis  /  AFP, Beijing

A man in November crowd surfs during a black metal performance at a club in Beijing.

Photo: AFP

Screaming Chinese-poetry inspired lyrics like a demon bursting from the depths of hell, the black-clad singer raises a white chalice above his bamboo hat as fog enveloped the stage.

Powered by cacophonous guitars and drums, the black metal band Zuriaake dips into the tenebrous depths of ancient Chinese culture to produce a unique blend of east and west.

Though the breed of occult darkness their music celebrates is unwelcome by authorities, the group is enjoying a new surge of popularity among mainland listeners seeking music that reflects their growing national pride.

“Out in the land of bones, the hellfire lingers with shimmering luminance,” the singer known as “Bloodfire” howls at a crowd of hundreds in Beijing, silhouetted against a projected backdrop of an eerie black-and-white forest.

His shrieking lyrics are written in a dense style of ancient poetry that even those able to make out the words of his throat-raking rasp would need a dictionary to decipher.

Zuriaake, formed in 1998, is one of China’s longest-running metal bands. Its name is an invented Chinglish portmanteau meaning “lake of buried corpses.”

Songs such as Desolated Mountain and Whispering Woods get audiences headbanging to subtle verses packed with dark nature imagery.

The band wears head-to-toe black, with their faces entirely shrouded under their triangular hats. Bloodfire also wears a woven reed raincoat.

The costumes are meant to evoke the image of an old fisherman in a Chinese landscape painting, alone in his skiff and dwarfed by the nature around him. Lanterns and branches adorn their mic stands. The band has inadvertently ridden a rising wave of interest in nationalist pop culture as the ruling Communists trumpet messages of Chinese exceptionalism, said a black metal music label founder in the audience who gave the pseudonym VT.

He called the process “our society marketing itself to itself. Young people don’t necessarily believe in everything the government says, but now that China is becoming a bigger global power, they still want to find things that fit with their Chinese identity” to be fans of, he said.

“Zuriaake fills that need,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid any political backlash against his label.

‘CHINESE-STYLE HORROR’

Black metal is an extreme subgenre of heavy metal that rose to notoriety in the 1990s after anti-Christian Norwegian bands that spearheaded the style burned churches and in one case murdered a band member.

It typically employs nature imagery and promotes Satanism and misanthropy in protest of mainstream culture. Artists often perform in white-faced, hollow-eyed corpse make-up.

But protesting Christianity made no sense in modern China, where Communist atheism has replaced Buddhism and Taoism as the dominant dogma.

Nor did corpse paint, given that the Chinese imagine zombies as stiff, hopping cadavers more humorous than terrifying.

“If you’ve understood the essence of a Western genre and are still just imitating the form, you’ll slowly become mediocre. We’re playing pure Western metal, but we’re unique,” Bloodfire said, refusing to give his real name.

In China, horror is “more subtle and veiled, about the unknown” rather than gore, he added.

“I want to express Chinese-style horror, and ancient Chinese-style withdrawal from society, nobility and virtue,” he said.

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