“Zheng He’s fleet descended upon the shores of Oman. The sound of breaking waves was ringing into the ears of his men, their parched tongues and burned necks extended themselves towards the deserted landscapes, searching – in vain – for a sign of fresh water. It seemed as if the Mandate of Heaven had been far removed from his commissioner, the emperor, because Zheng He felt its absence as clearly as the heat of the sun on his bare back.”
I find it really hard to gather some coherent and conclusive thoughts about this album. “Eight Horses” is such a small – but important – straw away from being a masterpiece that it frustrates me. Picturesque? – yes. Iconic? – yes. Profound? – yes. The eighth studio album from China’s primeval post-rockers Wang Wen has it all, but there seems to be a mental barrier within me that prevents me from enjoying the qualities of “Eight Horses” to the fullest. I could blame it on production, but that’s becoming a bit of a cheap way of dealing with things for me. Might it be a cultural thing? Sure, Wang Wen come from the other end of the globe, but their sound has westernised to such a degree that I doubt it has any influence. This doesn’t mean that Wang Wen are just “another” generic product of musical globalisation, but there is something rather otherworldly about the album that I can’t really grasp.
RELEASE DATE: 20 June 2014 LABEL: Genjing Records, Pelagic Records
The expressive pentatonic melodies that are typical for Chinese folk music are definitely influential in the music of Wang Wen, but I’m not eager to say that their music is a logical extension of the band’s cultural heritage. For me, the music on Eight Horses does not embody the spirit of China, but rather the myth of China; Marco Polo and the silk road, then the gradual colonisation by European powers and the subsequent opium wars.
To counter that Confucian culture comes a bath of foreign influence; the album is washed in a sense of Dire Straits dramatics and the close ties Wang Wen has with Mono are unmistakably heard. However, “Eight Horses” lacks every inch of the bombastic tendencies displayed by both bands and this sonic humility is all the more to Wang Wen’s credit. The eight horses on this album are more closely related to Genesis in their “Trespass”-era; thoroughly bred, concise and elegant. There are no winding, ambient build ups, no utterly blazing overtures. The song structures are clear-cut, the volume levels are consistent throughout the album and the band goes through them on a steady trot.
I’m really a bit angry with Xie Yugang for being too lazy to write lyrics to songs (his own words), because he’s able to apply them so well. Halfway down “Escape From Mother Universe” the screams slide in very nicely; not breaking out in violence, but just elegantly entering the scene. Same goes for the end of “Eight Layer of Hell”, where Xie in his lyrics (I Google-translated them) seems to express all the desolation of the world coming down on top of him, while refusing to acknowledge the fact that it’s happening to him. I’m always a sucker for foreign poetry, and in most Western European languages I’m able to appreciate their meaning, but Chinese is really a bridge too far. Nevertheless, I can imagine “Eight Layer of Hell” being an emotional pièce de résistance.
An interesting feat about “Eight Horses” is that it was recorded in the Echo Library in Dalian, Liaoning, which was open to visitors during the recording process. The EPK that accompanied this album hinted at hearing people talking and going about their business in the background, but even now – after more than ten listens, I still find it hard to discern any of that. It makes me question the added value of it all as the album’s sound is not exceptionally original. The production is not at all bad, but I feel like they could have made more of the library setting. I remember The Nits recorded their album “In the Dutch Mountains” live in a gym, and the “set up – press rec – go!” attitude really gives that album an incredible drive. Recording outside the studio is an opportunity that could be taken great advantage off, but a lot – if not all – of that library energy has gone lost here.
I’ve used the word masterpiece, and I’m going to use it again. Wang Wen bring to the table what a lot of bands fail to do, and that is, originality, ethos and songwritership. However, I’m very much reminded of Chinese calligraphers, who take more time preparing and mixing their inks than doing the actual calligraphy. Wang Wen have done it exactly the other way around; the picture is stunning, but the materialisation leaves me craving. It’s the small flaw that hurts the most, for this album could definitely have been: a true masterpiece.