On Saturday I dragged my dissertation supervisor and guide to Seoul through the baking sun, to look at apartments in Haebangchan, or Victory Village, the oldest part of Seoul. It’s cheap because all the apartments date to the post-civil war era (Seoul was flattened during the civil war) and it’s on a steep hill. Less charitably, I’ve heard that many Koreans don’t want to live there because Nigerians do – or used to, until they faced so much racism that they began moving out. This was actually told us by a real estate agent, which I thought was quite decent of him to acknowledge.
Then I dragged my supervisor cell-phone shopping. Continuing my tradition of only buying Apple products a month before they’re obsolete, I got an iphone 4S – it has google maps to stop me being constantly lost in Seoul, and google translate so I can look up the word for vegetarian. (Like all new languages, I learn a word and forget it at least five times before it sticks.)
I was exhausted after all this, though I’m sure not as much as my supervisor; she probably didn’t realize that reading my dissertation also meant shepherding me through Seoul. But there was no time to stop, because from 6 to 11pm was Roots and Respect, a “hardcore and heavy metal show” at Prism, a famous nightclub in the student/cultural district of Hongdae. Hongdae on a Saturday night is full of beautiful people, but near Prism the dresscode changed to black, guys had long hair, and I even saw a girl smoking alone, outside (it’s still frowned upon for women to smoke outdoors.) The club entrance led down a steep flight of stairs, and as I descended, I expected the heavy door at the bottom to open on a low-ceilinged smoky room, the walls covered in graffiti, with a greasy bar painted black and serving overpriced drinks. Instead there was a smallish, almost circular room, with high ceilings, no smoke, no bar, the floor was polished, and the men’s room had a plastic flower in a wicker hanger. Korea – land of clean.
I was the only foreigner there, and to stand out more, the only one wearing ear plugs. I now accept that, at my advanced age, I have to wear ear plugs to every show of any genre, unless I want my ears to ring for a week afterwards. It was a good decision, because the music was loud. Here’s footage from Downhell, who was playing when I came in:
Here’s the audience. Note how sparse the crowd is, and how everyone is evenly spaced. If this was a show in Canada, there’d be slam-dancing.
But as you can tell from the video clip (thanks brand-new iphone), the music is heavy. Downhell has been around for over a decade and they were really tight.
I watched the band, standing stock still like everyone else, then I went upstairs to the 7-11 next door, bought a beer and drank it at the table with the smoking girl, returning to catch the next band. This became a pattern, except by the third beer I was standing closer to the stage and cheering. I forgot not wanting to stand out; the music was awesome, I was going to enjoy it even if I had 5 feet of floor space on every side of me. At one point I looked across and saw that the empty space I occupied now had a row of people. It’s like they were waiting for someone to move up.
I don’t know the name of the next act, but what they lacked in Downhell’s finesse they made up for in enthusiasm. The lead singer had a surprisingly good metal growl:
13 Steps, the following act was perhaps more metal than hardcore. They did original material, a great cover of Sunshine of Your Life and I enjoyed their stage presence:
Note that the bands are doing metal poses, and the audience is just standing there. I thought Toronto was bad for silent audiences, but here people barely moved. I apologize for the creepiness of taking photos of the audience, but I figure their faces aren’t showing so it’s still anonymous. I was just surprised that after hours of aural assault, they stood still – well, this guy didn’t. He had one move, bless, and he stuck to it, moving his arms up and down:
She put her fists together at the end of a song, once:
It’s not that they didn’t like the music – they clearly did, no one puts up with that kind of sound for hours unless it’s voluntary. I just don’t think it’s proper to jump around – Korea’s famous reputation for politeness emerged intact. The lead singer of 13 Steps peppered his stage banter with “Come on you motherfuckers” and the like. After their set I ran into the bassist in the bathroom. “Excellent show!” I enthused. “Very good!”
I was expecting devil horns and “fuck off motherfucker!” Instead he grinned, said “Thank you!” and gave a quick bow of his head.
Notice the outfits too. A few people in black, but most were in street clothes. The guy in the golf shirt blocked most of my shots for the last act:
But that was okay, because I wasn’t that impressed with Hollow Jan, the headliners.
It’s not that they weren’t good musicians – they were. They had a laptop guy making all sorts of ambient noise. But I just can’t get into emo, or more properly, screamo. The lead singer contorted himself, jumped around in bare feet, and bared his sad, sad soul for all to hear:
But while I love hardcore vocals, I can’t deal with a vocalist who sounds like he’s about to start crying and rolling around on the floor. Get over yourself. Is the pain of existence really too much to bear? There are more important things to be angry about than being single and unappreciated. They lit joss sticks, FFS. I guess I’m not 21 anymore.
That said, after two weeks of blanket coverage of pop music, I really appreciated the release: it felt so good to hear music with force and emotion. Even if Hollow Jan were mourning the last year of high school, it was still better than what gets played in every shop:
My hosts tell me that metal isn’t very popular in Korea. Perhaps not, though there’s at least one documentary on it. Or maybe, since school’s out, all the university students have gone home for the summer (Hongdae has three universities in close proximity.) Nonetheless, it was a kick-ass show, and the next day, when I saw the lead singer of Downhell riding past on his bike, I felt a little more at home in this massive metropolis.