Unhinging Korea

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Photo courtesy of Dope Entertainment and Jusin Productions
Photo courtesy of Dope Entertainment and Jusin Productions

Unhinging Korea

by: Ian Henderson | .
Groove Korea (groovekorea.com) | .
published: March 26, 2015

The first weekend of August held the usual bounty of live concerts in Hongdae. A band called At the Gates, one of the most successful Swedish metal groups of all time, was in town. During a decade-long hiatus, they achieved near-mythical status and recently reformed, embarking on a world tour. They sold out venues across North America and headlined festivals such as Wacken in Germany to crowds of more than 80,000 fans. But at Club Prism on the outskirts of Hongdae, they performed to a crowd of roughly 150 people.

Each of the dedicated fans in attendance paid a staggering 100,000 won to see the concert. This bewildering juxtaposition of extremes paints a fairly accurate vignette of the trials and tribulations faced by what is possibly the most marginalized artistic community in Seoul.

The forces of Confucianism, war and economics play a combined role in Korea’s delayed heavy metal genesis, while also factoring in to its sustained evolution.

“In the scope of overall Korean culture, specialized fans of all types are minimal. Metal is no exception,” says long-term fan Seo Sang-woon. “That’s the sad reality.”

Dosu Kim of black metal band Oathean says that most Koreans have a negative perception of metal. “The fans are often ostracized or alienated,” he says. It’s reminiscent of metal’s first days in the English-speaking world, when it had to fight for legitimacy. While in the West there are now several generations of metal-heads and it is economically lucrative, the situation in Korea seems more comparable to an earlier stage of development.

This disconnect can be attributed to a few possible sources. Several authors, including Michael Breen in “The Koreans” (1999), have stated that Korea is arguably the most Confucian country in the world. Understanding this ideological heritage is illuminating, since the emphasis on family tradition, social roles and filial piety (respect for elders) would appear to be in direct odds with the iconoclastic nature of the genre. In addition, Korea is one of the most ethnically homogenous nations on Earth, stunting the melting pot that characterizes so many other vibrant music scenes. These facts alone, however, cannot fully encapsulate the strange role of heavy metal in the modern republic.

The Korean War ended in 1953 and left Korea with several million dead and an economy that was comparable to that of Sudan. Over the next few decades, however, Korea had the largest economic turnaround in world history, primarily under the military dictatorship of Park Chung-hee. During this time, people didn’t have the luxury of indulging in musical consumption as a hobby; they were pre-disposed with making a living for their families.

“Rock music in Korea was suppressed because the government viewed it as a source of corruption and a cause of rebellion against the government,” explains a Busan musician known as B5NG. “Rock music became (unofficially) illegal … It was rare that you could hear it on the TV or radio. And in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s it started becoming popular again.”

Thus began what is considered to be the first generation of Korean metal and, ironically, its most commercially viable period. A music-hungry populace and recently democratized society exploded with not only imported foreign groups, but also with its own domestic headbangers.

THE FLOODGATES OPEN

Sinawe and Baekdoosan are universally cited when discussing the first Korean metal bands. Along with Black Syndrome, H2O, Asiana, Black Hole, Cratia (recently reformed) and Buhwal, they played what most people would consider hard rock or traditional metal. These bands were successful and received a considerable amount of mainstream exposure.

One side effect of the country opening so late and abruptly was that it was inundated with decades of rock evolution all at once. Within a few years of first consuming standard metal stylings, the influence of thrash and death metal could already be felt, spurning the second wave of Korean metal in the early 1990s. These included Crash, Off and Seed, among others. This is considered by most to have been the peak of widespread popularity.

It’s around this time that Dosu Kim of Oathean first got started.

“All of those bands were very active and there were a ton of people at the shows,” says Choe Sung-won, a Korean-American in the metal-core band Paradigm, adding that he got his introduction buying Crash CDs in New York’s Koreatown. “It’s inconceivable now to think of anything being remotely death being played on Korean TV, but back then it was a reality.”

Soon, the behemoth known as K-pop emerged in its modern form. Pretty and packaged, it was marketed tirelessly to the first generation of Koreans to be raised in relative affluence.

There were also new forms of rock and roll making a dent in the market, such as punk rock, ska, oi and indie rock.

TaijiSeo of Sinawe jumped ship and became a pop star sensation, though it’s still unclear whether this was for financial reasons or a changed taste in music.

Besides the high turnover rate of fads and market trends, however, there are other social factors that continue to play a role today. Baekdoosan broke up in the mid-‘90s when founding member Hyeon-Sang Yoo quit the band because his fiancé’s father wouldn’t approve of their engagement until he had secured a “respectable” career. It’s also worth pointing out that Korea is still in a state of war, with mandatory military service for all young men. When discussing some of his favorite (now defunct) Korean bands — Nifilheim, Brutal Life, Desperado — Choe Sung-won explains, “That’s a common story in Korea. A lot of great bands break up due to military service or having to get ‘normal’ jobs.”

THE SCENE TODAY

Much of the current scene is divided between three demographics: the older fans, forced out of the scene due to societal restraints but still indulging in the odd show; the revolving door of younger kids who get in to practice their chops before getting sucked out to the familial pasture; and those who perpetually manage to walk the line between the two worlds.

These gray-area metal fans are often easy to spot at concerts. For example, the sight of businessmen rushing into a Cannibal Corpse show straight from the office, ripping off their ties as they force their way down to the front of the pit.

Alexander Nachtmahr, a German national who translates for visiting bands, shares the sentiment: “Whenever I go to a rock bar, I am bound to see a drunk 40-year-old company employee in a suit rocking out to Judas Priest’s ‘Painkiller.’”

The club Sapiens 7 is, for all intents and purposes, ground zero of the metal scene in the Republic of Korea. The owner, Dosu Kim — the aforementioned main creative force behind the black metal band Oathean — is also the owner of the metal label Jusin Productions and a major promoter for international metal bands playing in the ROK.

There are smaller, regional scenes in places such as Busan, with clubs such as OZ and Realize holding genre-specific shows, and a smattering of places in Daegu and Daejeon.

When it comes to metal shows in Korea, there is a great divide in the scale of the concerts.

On one hand, you have the mega-festivals, usually held at the same time at the beginning of August with a couple of big metal acts lumped in with a hodge-podge of other genres. These are often promotional events hosted by credit card companies, meaning the corporate branding opportunity far outweighs the sponsor’s concern for actual ticket sales. On the other hand, you have a handful of smaller venues around Seoul such as Rolling Hall, Sangsangmadang, V-Hall, Club Prism and AX Hall. These clubs draw from a dozen bands, mostly domestic, plus the occasional headliner, and create events like the annual Asia Metalfest, which has become a yearly ritual for many. Alternatively, they’ll sometimes pull a big name from overseas and showcase them on their own at prices that can get prohibitively expensive, often nearing 100,000 won a head.

Some of the better-known acts currently playing are Oathean, along with Dark Mirror ov Tragedy, who similarly play an atmospheric black metal style. The thrash and death portion of the metal spectrum is represented by Mahatma, Sacrifice, Method, Imperial Domination, Downhell and Seed.

Operatic and power metal are quite popular here, such as notable acts Silent Eye and Ishtar.

Of course, any scene burgeoning with teenagers these days is going to have its share of metal-core bands: Remnants of the Fallen, Noeasy and Vasseline being some of the most popular. What is striking about the different styles represented at a gathering of Korean metal bands is that they tend to all be sub-genres dedicated to speed and technical complexity. For fans of doom, psychedelic and sludge, the absence of the groove and slow riffs that these forms of metal music provide will be apparent. In addition, while scene divisions between punks and metal-heads in the ‘80s and ‘90s in the West have been mostly left behind, there seems to be very little overlap here in Seoul.

The bassist of Dark Mirror ov Tragedy, Confyverse, thinks it boils down to the issues that plague the scene as a whole.

“Put simply, this, too, results from the lack of diversity and the absence of infrastructure,” he says. “Also, the bands playing death or thrash have been doing it a long time, so it seems easier for bands of a similar nature to start playing too.”

B5NG agrees that it’s simply a numbers issue.

“It’s not that those genres don’t exist here, but rather that there are just fewer bands to work with,” he says.

Concerning the relative independence of the punk and metal communities from each other, Confyverse explains: “They were introduced separately. Had they mutually developed with each other, there would be more intermingling.”Choe says that in smaller cities like Daejeon, the scenes have no choice but to coexist out of necessity.

Things in the capital seem to be changing slightly, particularly with bands like Skald, the lo-fi black metal purists who frequently play shows with crust punk acts such as Doekkabi Assault.

“Some Korean bands like Christfuck or especially Heuhyeomsaw (Black Goat), they’re pure black metal,” says Nikolai Protopopov, a Ukrainian metal-head playing in the Seoul punk band Assassination Squad. “I invited a friend to our last show, promising him it was punk and not metal. Afterwards he asked me, ‘If that wasn’t metal, then what the hell was it?’ Also, there are bars like 3 Thumbs which are having mix-ticket shows now.”

Indeed, last December a bar named Thunderhorse (named after a Dethklok song) opened in the international district of Itaewon. The owner, Kirk Kwon, has made a point of booking shows from a mixed bag of styles. “I have a lot of friends from the different camps,” he says. “I see the scene as a whole getting stronger and more unified. I really hope that it does because there is really a lot of talent here.”

Korea boasts an underground full of a variety of styles and awesome creativity, though much of the world received their first taste of Korean musical output via the international notoriety of “Gangnam Style,” and through it the realm of K-pop as a whole.

Confyverse thinks that metal doesn’t get the support from Korea’s institutions that K-pop enjoys because it isn’t as easy to digest.

Nachtmahr describes K-pop in a much less flattering light. According to him, it’s an “industrial product with no artistic value or content.”

Dosu Kim was far more succinct: “Simply put, f*** you.”

THE FUTURE OF KOREAN METAL

The future of metal in Korea faces many obstacles, but overall, things are looking better.

The past few years have seen more overseas headliners, drawing bigger crowds and exposing more people to local acts. These have included Arch Enemy, Cannibal Corpse, Cradle of Filth, Helloween, Mors Pricipium Est, Kamelot, Accept, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Lamb of God, Opeth and others.

In the same way that Korea has become a stopover for rock bands on their way either to or from China and Japan, the country has become a similar destination for metal acts. “The Korean promoters have asked if the bands could spare a day in between the big shows in Japan and leaving Asia, and most of them could,” says Nachtmahr. “The biggest obstacle has been having the money to pay the bands upfront and then recoup it through ticket sales.”

Dosu Kim laments this as well, as it impacts him more than most.

“I have a major uphill battle,” he says. “Sometimes the number of fans showing up is pathetic and I lose money. So many people in the scene talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. They consistently have excuses for not spending money.”

Choe chalks much of it up to the fact that there isn’t an established tour circuit for metal outside of Japan.

“Some of the cost would be offset if there was an established route,” he says, “but that’s difficult with language barriers and not knowing which promoters in other countries they can trust.”

He has recently started the website ROKrock.kr, which offers concert tickets and merchandise in English to facilitate a greater exchange.

Besides breaking up bands with its requisite military service, the perpetual state of war has had other impacts. When the international media started its fear campaign around the threatening rhetoric coming from North Korea this past spring, the uncertain climate was enough to make Brazilian death-metal headliners Krisiun cancel their spot in the Asia Metalfest in June.

This kind of decision from a band whose lyrical content focuses on death and war leaves ample opportunities for trash-talking, but nonetheless shows that it is a legitimate concern.

In the meantime, two labels that focus on metal in the ROK have cropped up: Hellride and Dope. While both represent a variety of domestic acts, they also obtain distribution rights for bigger overseas titles.

It also seems like more and more bands are slipping into the “lifer” category, which is necessary for Korean metal to properly join the international community.

Many have speculated that Korea has “caught up” economically, meaning that now is the time to expand and diversify artistically.

“Current Korean culture is very much focused on a consumerist ideal, one that is clean, new, packaged and conformist,” says Choe. “As such, anything dirty, raw, disturbing or unordinary is shunned. I don’t know why that is, but maybe it has to do with Korea’s economic rise following the raw, cruel destruction of the Korean War.

“On the other hand, the traditional Korean concept of ‘han,’ a kind of enduring suffering, resonates with many forms of metal,” he adds. “I believe bands like Oatheon and Sad Legend represent this repressed side of the Korean psyche … I believe Korean metal will thrive again as the popular culture matures.”

The first seedlings of the next wave are already sprouting.

Local favorites Remnants of the Fallen opened for European power metal heavyweights Stratovarious this summer at the Busan Rock Festival, pushing their recently released album and video. Dark Mirror ov Tragedy is in the final stages of mastering its third LP, and it seems more overseas bands are voicing a curiosity about the former hermit kingdom.

The founding fathers of Baekdoosan have reformed with most of the original lineup and are playing shows to old and new fans alike.

Some of the diversity that metal fans crave is beginning to appear. A Doom and Kafka are producing industrial and experimental metal, while groups such as Harry Big Button, Black Medicine, and The Choppers are bringing in some of the previously absent groove and sludge influences. 

“Now I think the mood is changing for the better. I think we have reason to look forward to the future,” says B5NG.

Seo says the international attention given to K-pop could be a boon for metal.

“I just wish some of all this newfound attention to Korea’s music industry would be given to the metal scene,” says Seo.

“Would it help if we called it K-metal?”

Groove Korea website

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