With Bastards of the Nation, the second full-length effort from Chinese punk leaders Demerit, the country finally has its first well-produced, serious-minded punk rock record that fans of the genre, both domestic and international, can unashamedly store alongside their battered copies of the Clash’s landmark eponymous debut and Dead Kennedys’s Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables.
Recorded and released in early 2008 under a tense backdrop as a country put the final touches in place and nervously pivoted to the world's center stage for that year’s Beijing Olympic Games, Bastards is a salvo from pissed-off youth that acts as a counterweight to the country’s projected image of harmony and particularly jarring brand of materialistic decadence.
Announcing itself in apocalyptic terms with the opening symphonic-cum-metal strains of opener “Demerit: Intro”, the band doesn't downshift until closing acoustic sing-along “Voice of the People”—it’s a thrilling exercise in brutal yet accessible self-introspection and urban alienation.
Here, the Beijing-based foursome enlisted the help of producer Brian Hardgroove (Public Enemy) to weld together elements of punk and metal—another first in China’s then-fragmented music community, and an act that led Chinese metal rag Painkiller to uncharacteristically declare it as their 2008 Record of the Year.
While two years of constant gigging and maturity have seen the rough, often-sloppy edges of their debut Never Say Die (2006) buffed out, there’s no vitriol lost here: it’s merely been distilled to a more lethal essence of Eau de Ferocity.
Although Never Say Die knuckle-whiteners “Fight Your Apathy” and “Fuck the Schemers” see their buzzsaw guitars buffed to a more textured, refined sound awash in soaring melodies and Maiden-esque guitar solos, you can almost hear spittle hitting the microphone in the title track as dual guitars and breakneck drumming eventually give way to the song’s fist-pumping, bastard flag-waving conclusion.
Highlight tracks include “Beijing Is Not My Home”—a four-minute riposte in which Qingdao-born vocalist (and band founder) Spike Li growls about anomie in a bleak and uninviting urban landscape over mid-tempo riffs that build into a frenzied catharsis—and “The World Has Become a Battlefield”, another Die holdover that personifies a man blinded by rage as devastating torrents of razor-sharp guitars rage behind a violent no man’s land accented with “end of the world” artillery shells.
For some, it may be easy to confuse so much anger with hopelessness and nihilism. But the band leavens their withering attacks on the status quo (“Bastards of the Nation” and the flawless “Bye Bye My Country”) with pockets of hope, most notably in “T.Z. Generation”, the band’s ode to Tongzhou, a gritty Beijing suburb that’s home to a large DIY community of musicians (including Demerit) and other creative types.
“Let’s have a drink / On a rainy summer’s night / Good for me, good for you / We’re going to sing a song of freedom” the gang intones over warm, soaring guitars and a wandering bassline. It’s almost as if this city bubbling with anxiety and unease is a happy, fine place to be. And if that’s good enough for Demerit, then it’s good enough for me.