Muggle - Foldback

by Steve Ricciutti Rating:8 Release Date:2017-08-04

Reading the promo information about Chinese musical group Muggle (performers Zhang Min and Liu Yang) provided by their label 1724 Records, I came across the term “post/math rock.” I did my homework to find a proper definition and I’ll only say that the word “rock” is the anomaly in this new descriptor. “Rock music” may easily be the most overused term in art, if for no other reason than that it easily satisfies our endless need to categorize that which we have trouble defining otherwise. I think the term “ambient” works perfectly to describe this album, but I’m flexible, and life is nothing if not a series of picking one’s battles, so consider “post/math rock” a new addition to my musical vernacular.

Earlier this year, Chinese ambient, er, post/math rock musical group Muggle released Foldback, a dreamy, evocative, captivating, and at times, gorgeous work comprised solely of a forty-two minute song. The eponymous song is focused on a famous national novel, “Dream of the Red Chamber,” which is one of the Four Great Classical novels of China, and was first written in the 18th century during the Qing Dynasty. It’s often considered to be the greatest Chinese novel ever. In 1987, Chinese Central Television (CCTV) released a remarkably faithful miniseries of the story to great success and acclaim, and Foldback incorporates dialogue and sounds from the broadcast, interspersed with their hypnotic score. According to the press release, the aim was to create a piece of music that represents the paradoxical relationship between emotional beauty and heart-rending tragedy, and the hard, yet hopeful reality that sorrow eventually fades, leaving only peace to remain. It’s a noble goal and a musical effort worthy of the philosophical gravitas.

A swirl of feedback underpins the entirety, punctuated with repeated melodies, ominous bell-strikes, snake-like guitar lines, pensive percussive beats, and surges of synthesizer. The images created are powerful, and if you can get some headphones and a quiet place to lie still, it’s an aural experiment well worth the time, part phantasmagorical and hallucinatory, and part delicate splendor and weightless drifting.

Muggle hails from Changsha, Hunan province, in south-central China, one of the 160 (!) cities in China with a million people or more. It’s a safe bet that few outside of China have ever heard of the vast majority of these cities. For some perspective, there are 10 cities in the US with populations over one million, 36 in all of Europe (mostly Russian), and exactly 1 in the UK.

I point this out because it underscores just how little most non-Chinese know about this crowded nation. Choking down the urge to step up on my geo-political soapbox, I’ll turn instead to the increasing influence of pop music in China. As it turns out, China possesses a music scene full of rock, punk, rap, and all points in between. While the government still keeps freedom of thought and expression on a very short leash, there are nonetheless young voices writing about the age-old issues of ennui and uncertainty that have long been a de facto tagline for the young and disenfranchised around the globe. While this album from Muggle isn’t message-driven, it’s as good a starting point as any for bringing awareness to these artists. I’m eager to hear more from the fascinating and lovely artists of China.

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