The newest EP from Wuhan emo rockers Chinese Football has highs and lows, but shows a maturity in their sound that suggests promising things for the band's future.
I have an admission to make...I've never been a huge fan of Chinese Football. Owing their status as the Chinese equivalent of America's 'American Football' - both in name and in practice - the self-described 'emo-influenced indie rock band' are well-regarded as China's flagship emo group. Favouring lush textures, uplifting choruses and math rock-esque technical arrangements over the aggressive vocals, frantic guitar riffs and pop arrangements characteristic of the former genre, Chinese Football's sound is far removed - geographically, temporally and stylistically - from the mainstream emo era of the 00s. Yet the band's rehash of the key concepts that underpinned the emo movement - namely existential anxiety and social alienation - are notions just as relatable to contemporary Chinese youth as they were to Western teenagers 15 years ago, allowing the band to find an audience in the introverted youth of modern China's anxiety-ridden middle class.
Even more surprisingly has been the band's ability to attract considerable support internationally, with the band's debut album even regarded a cult classic within some niche online communities. Whilst this can partly be attributed to the marketable gimmick of the band's name - a less-than-subtle nod to the States' American Football - the refreshing uniqueness of the band's debut EP, sonically unfamiliar to listeners outside of the highly underground Asian Emo scene, has been the real driving force behind the band's success abroad.
Fast-forward to March 2017 and their new EP - the suitably titled '新的挑战' (Here Comes a New Challenger!)' - is a confident step forward from their prior music. Retaining the complex-yet-straightforward arrangements and pop appeal that led to their debut album's success, Challenger evidences Chinese Football's maturity as a band, showcasing a much more polished sound and improved lyrical depth over its predecessor, and contesting for a spot at the forefront of the scene.
Chinese Football live @Mao, Hangzhou, 12/03/2017
The EP's opening track and lead single '电动少女' (Electric Girl) is inarguably the highlight from the EP. An upbeat, melodic riff in the song's opening few seconds, quickly joined by a funky bass hook, sets the tone for the rest of the track, framing lead singer Xu Bo's dreamy vocals "她不停的旋转 在空荡的舞台 (She spun endlessly / upon the empty stage"). The song evolves into an epic, mosh-destroying fireball in the chorus, Xu Bo's serenade as illuminous as a flare in the dark night sky, before reaching a climax in the identity-searching final verse;
"她想说 她想问 她是谁 一直转一直转 是为了谁 "
"she wants to say / she wants to ask / who she is always turning / always turning / [but] for whom?"
The song possesses a musical and lyrical depth unexpected of a self-described 'DIY' band, synaesthesic melodies and Xu Bo's romantic lyrics teleport the listener to his youth - muggy summer nights by the Yangtze riverside. References to the romantic transitory nature of the song's protagonist ["她说她是透明 / 她说她快熄灭了 (She said she was transparent / She said she'd soon evanesce)"] allude to Xu Bo's relishing of his fleeting youth. More directly, these themes are reflected almost literally in the song's music video.
The hermetic retreat of an otaku (acted all-too-naturally by Xu Bo) unable to find love in the real world, only able to satisfy unfulfilled romantic desires in the company of his DIY gameboy. The lonely Californian dreaming of a virtual schoolgirl wandering the Wuhan back streets, soul searching for purpose and meaning in a society obsessed with materialism, practical relationships and uniformity. The irony of the coexistence of these two narratives, intermitted by footage of the band on stage with an assortment of geeky paraphernalia - guitar pedals, video game controllers and a sole inflatable football - leaves the viewer with impressions of summers past, first love, and the exotic enticement of video games.
Connecting the song's lyrics and the music video is are the underlying themes of romance and sentimental yearning for the simplicity of life as a child. In both the video's narration of a chance romance between the otaku protagonist and the virtual shoolgirl, and the tragedy of the 'fading' clockwork girl described in the song's lyrics, Xu spiels a vivid anecdote of the melancholic nostalgia felt by many Asian youth. Specifically, how the relative child-like simplicity of 二次元 - the land of video games and Japanese animation - acts as an escape from the extreme pressures one faces on the path to adulthood.
Chinese Football - Electric Girl (电动少女)
The EP's second number '清醒白日梦 (Awaking Daydream)' is a decided step back from the intensity of the preceding track, best accompanied by the song's MV, a DIY collage of travel videography shot on Xu Bo's iPhone. The song opens in a leisurely 6/4, an extended intro building up slowly before a short drop - characterised beautifully in the MV by footage of a girl running in slow-motion, arms outstretched, toward the camera. And from there it just winds on, guitarist 王博 (Wang Bo) strumming in 11/8, a math rock enthusiast's lullaby, whilst Xu Bo instructs the listener to "good night, sleep well".
Chinese Football - Awaking Daydream (清醒白日梦)
However it's a farce. Just as the song starts to fade away, drummer 郑紫莉 (Zheng Zili) interjects - rolling in with a tight punk rhythm, whilst bassist 李立鑫 (Li Lixin) follows suit - dotting along with an improvised bass jam, before Xu Bo closes, preaching messages of positivity ["就冲出去吧 别后悔梦里没飞远一点 (Just go out / lest your dreams won't fly further)"] that resides in the listener's memory long after the song's abrupt ending. The result is a fun and light roller which will undoubtedly enrich the band's live shows, however it does struggle to carry on the momentum of the EP's explosive opening number.
The third track '晴天霹雳 (A Bolt From the Blue)', is an interesting hybrid of math rock and pop emo, with Xu Bo shifting up his vocal style in the chorus, forgoing his signature dreamy sung vocal for shouted lyrics. Sonically, the song is notedly more aggressive than anything Chinese Football have written before, mirroring the band's maturity and Xu Bo's evolution as a lyricist. The song's themes are also notably more heavy than the rest of the rest of the EP, relating a narrative of struggle and adversity through abstract concepts;
欲望 仇恨 交织的方块 Interlaced bricks / [of] desire and hatred 困惑 迷惘 滋生的平台 A breeding ground / [for] confusion and delusion
The EP's closing track, '盒子 (box)', is a bizarre 180° turn from the aggressive tone of A Bolt From the Blue, ditching aggressive arrangements and shouted lyrics for straightforward, upbeat rock sensibilities. Unfortunately the song is as forgettable as its title, with Xu Bo's description of "在盒子里生长 在盒子里衰老 (Growing up and aging in a box)" as dry as the song's uninspiring "radio filler" arrangement. The song's only redeeming feature is a cute saxophone feature by Wang Wei, lending a tinge of jazzy flavour to the EP's otherwise unmemorable closer.
If I had one criticism of the EP (apart from the forgettable fourth track), it would have to be patches of incohesion between the guitarists and drummer. There are several moments on the EP where the two become desynced, undoubtably due to the band's lack of experience and the incoherence associated with changing band members (there are three drummers featured over the EP's four songs). However, given anecdotal reports of the band's quickly improving live performances, it is hard to imagine this point won't be addressed by the time their next full-length is released.
Overall, it is the joy of Chinese Football's music, their willingness to experiment, and their love for the intangible that sets this EP apart. Should it garner anywhere near the amount of attention their debut album received, the sheer uplifting power of 'Electric Girl' will undoubtedly lead it to become a generational classic for the Asian emo scene. The transcendental nature of their music - appreciated by hardcore fans, lay listeners, Chinese and Westerners alike - owes to Chinese Football's overwhelming positivity, as well as their ability to encapsulate the sentiment of disenfranchisement and nostalgia for simpler times characteristic of today's youth.
Arguably, it is Here Comes a New Challenger!'s title which sums it up best. The 'challenger' - denoting an unexpected opponent in a video game - alludes to the hardships faced by young people today. However, in their trademark optimism, the band argues this 'opposition' is not something one should despair over, suggesting '[the] challenger is not only your enemy but also your partner...You don't have to beat him...Just have fun". Ultimately it Chinese Football's commitment to creating uplifting anthems, and willingness to reinterpret the traditionally pessimistic philosophy of emo music that sets them apart. And as I play Electric Girl on repeat whilst writing these closing remarks, I realise I too have become a fan of Chinese Football.
Chinese Football Official Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/chinesefootballband/ Bandcamp feature/interview with Xu Bo: https://daily.bandcamp.com/2016/10/20/emo-in-asia-list/ Official Douban account: https://site.douban.com/chinesefootball/