by Ruairí McCann
There are numerous landmarks set to be struck here on the eve of the 2020s but a significant one is that it will be nearly 8 decades since rock first took shape. While not the only mainstay of popular music that is getting long in the tooth, it seems especially potent for a genre so associated with both the shock of the new and the rush of youth to have lived long enough to become an octogenarian. This is by no means an original observation – in fact as the overarching question continues to stroke anxieties of the day for many critics, it has received perhaps its most expanded and articulate expression in Simon Reynolds’ book Retromania, whose thesis is that the turn of the millennium signaled the end of a mass modernist conception of popular music in the west. That from the mid-20th century to its end, there was a common if not ubiquitous state of affairs, where popular movements developed in a state of near-constant evolution with a shared ethos of disdaining ‘looking back’ and instead was always striving to break new ground. This approach was succeeded by a 21st century in which innovation veered away from formation of whole new genres but instead could and can still be found atomized, in the work of individual artists and microgenres with the vast majority devoted to reviving or rehashing styles established in the previous century.
Gong Gong Gong is among these single mothers of invention with a sound that feels new because it is the result of a pair of music lovers’ fervent collation. A self-conscious collision of disparate styles. Their point(s) of origin are distinct too, as a bass and guitar duo who have spent years plugging away in ad hoc haunts of Beijing’s underground rock scene. The city where bassist Josh Frank has spent most of his life since childhood, having originally hailed from Quebec, while guitarist and vocalist Tom Ng made his way up more recently from his native Hong Kong. Together they have created a stringently sparse and harsh sound by leaving out keys and drums and, to my ear at least, eschewing overdubs. The sparsity of these conditions is matched, in terms of consistency, with the tone of Ng’s guitar, which mostly handles rhythm duties. A scratchy, metallic quality, starved of reverb but given to occasional timed explosions of noise, such as the war horn call that opens “Wei Wei Wei”, and choppy, percussive riffs which buoy “Some Kind Of Demon”. Frank alternates between melody and rhythm with the latter amplified by a satisfying use of harmonics. Adding an extra oomph to the thumps and drag of “Inner Shadows” or the blast of bass that follows the ascending and plink-plonking cacophony in the instrumental “Night Colours”.
To create this sound Gong Gong Gong have imbibed a disparate galaxy of influences. There is some early rock and roll and a lot of garage rock in Ng’s scrappy, overdriven guitar tone and how rigidly they stick to standard blues time signatures. Though the band lyrically and in their presentation (a stark white album cover-cum-rapsheet with blurry headshots of the two, clutching a pedal and a bass and glaring head on), eschew the macho lust endowed in both genres. Garage particularly is Dionysian enough for it to be the near end-to-end soundtrack of rampant sexual energy that drives and soaks Claire Denis’ film US Go Home, for example. For Gong Gong Gong, there is sexuality, but it is alienated, going by Ng’s lyrics which are sung in Cantonese but translated by Frank on their bandcamp. Often his words eliminate room for any kind of emotionality, libidinal or otherwise.
Instead they are reduced to elemental and fragmented phrasing, like in “Some Kind Of Demon”. All of this is part and parcel with certain strands of that initial wave of post-punk, where bands, in accordance to an appeal-averse and demonstrably serious modernist sensibility, sought to strip rock of its pleasure principle – which was suspect because of its all-too-easy commercial prospects and tendency to prioritize urges over intellect. This applies to bands’ like Gang of Four which I hear in Gong Gong Gong not only in the similar sensibility but in the metallic guitar and how it – as a source of rhythm – is preferred over its possibilities as a melodic instrument. Since the younger operate sans the hip-centric danceability brought by Gang of Four’s funk influences, they go a step further in denudation and pointed prudishness than even the authors of the pop critique Love Is Anthrax an the sex-as-commodity themed At Home He’s A Tourist.
Gong Gong Gong are far from the first band to drink deep from the above-mentioned wells but what sets them apart is that they also take from outside the remit of western music. Cantonese opera and folk music can be heard in the martial melody that charges “Gong Gong Blues” though more extensively in Ng’s vox, with its chant-like quality and how it makes use of the particularities of his dialect. Chinese is a tonal language, where altering the texture or pitch of a phrase can completely change its meaning; a quality which is emphasized in Cantonese which is more nasal and made up of more ‘sing-songy’ intonations than many of its northern cousins. It accents the punch of Ng’s vocals and its tool as another texture, when he purposely gets stuck on and repeats certain words and phrases and how it keep his voice in line with the chug and churn of the instrumentation, rather than have it sit on top as an independent and showboating device. In addition, the mere fact he sings in Cantonese at all is by itself a significant political statement, given the PFC’s historic and current insistence on Mandarin as the first language of popular culture.
Perhaps the most interesting influence found on Phantom Rhythm is desert blues; while unique, stripping rock to its bare bones does not exactly consitute forward movement. It is an ouroboros of an influence, as a style that is hard to pin down exactly, both in terms of sound or even average band size, yet it can be characterized as a collection of 20th and 21st century acts who have transformed West African folk music by introducing the guitar and blues forms (another name for the genre is, simply, ‘guitar music’). Yet those very same forms of folk music – or rather their antecedents – were a major building block for the blues itself, and by extension all of western popular music, when they were transported over to the Americas via chattel slavery. The music can be heard in some of Frank’s melodies especially but more generally in the eschewing of the individualism of the solo or the intended disorientation of a spacey or especially discordant breakdown. The focus then is a commitment to the communal flow of band playing. For both bands who play the desert blues and Gong Gong Gong – whether they number 5, 10, 30, or in the latter’s case just two – structure their songs around playing together in unison and then holding onto the tempo and mood created but with just a few variations or – and this is Gong Gong Gong’s more preferred mode – ramping up towards a definite finish.
“Ride Your Horse”, the best song on the album, is a great example of both this and of the album as a confluence of older and newer influences. The first minute is made up of Ng playing a galloping rhythm with Frank complementing until it transitions into a desert blues melody. Then the there is a shift: the tempo picks up and both Ng and Frank clamp down on their fretboards with rictus grips and interlock with similar rhythms, muted yet punchy. It is a stretch of sustained rhythm that in its structure and primitiveness has definitely got a few minimal techno tracks in mind. An abbreviated version of a zenith being slowly reached and then sustained.
It’s here in one track where the dual impulses of so much of 21st century rock music can be found stitched together. The desire to take part in and use music that has now been traditionalized and the desire to push beyond those forms to use newer kinds of music triumphs, arriving at a track or an album that feels both familiar and new.