The most challenging Mainland album of 1999 is out and the challenge begins when you try to say
its name: Modern Epikos Volume Three (Experimental Version) is
integration of Time and Space and Transcendence of Thunderous Condensation, or for Mando-spotters, xiandai shishi disan bu
(shiyan ban) shikong de wajie yu jisu de chaoyue.
The man responsible for this mouthful goes by the name Chen Shui (Deep Sleep), but he is better
known in Beijing music circles as Da Xia. His music won't make you yawn, but it may provoke
other more violent responses. Modern Epikos Volume Three consists of 72 minutes of dramatic
cacophony, composed by Chen Shui, sung and performed by the Song and Dance Ensemble of the
General Political Department of the PLA (how's that for a catchy band name?), the China
National Symphony Orchestra's choral section and various studio musicians. Chen Shui himself
sings and plays guitar.
Modern Epikos Volume Three is composed as a symphony of 13 movements, an attempt to
revolutionize conservative classifications of music by welding speed-metal guitar with Buddhist
chanting, Wagnerian choral singing and sounds from both Western and Chinese classical
It's heavy listening. It's the kind of music you put on the stereo to freak out friends who play
Beatles records backwards to detect satanic curses. There are some pleasant throbbing metal guitar
lines, unpleasant screaming, inventive and occasionally ominous percussion, reverberating temple
chants and a whole range of highly dramatic orchestral and choral sounds.
Careful listeners may be rewarded with slightly less cynical joys, but two tracks on the album
stand out for sheer fun, intentional or not. Just looking at the title of the fourth track, " Extremely
Dread Cultural Strati-Fault—World History Since Declaration of God's Death by
Nietszche" made me reach for my black turtleneck sweater. To enjoy track five, you will need to have seen at
least one patriotic music video featuring bare-chested, Kalashnikov-wielding infantry running up a
beach, interspersed with shots of camp, permanently smiling singers in military uniforms, standing
atop the Great Wall wailing their lungs out for the Motherland. Imagine hearing the
singers' voices competing against grinding guitars and a symphonic onslaught that makes you want to say " I love
the smell of diesel in the morning."
Chen Shui pronounces on his life and art with the same gravity that he invests in his music.
Looking around his cluttered apartment, he says " I want to be a hermit." Stacks of books
barricade him in his tiny room, and the peeling walls display a collection of his painted creations.
He gazes around this desolate shrine to self, ponders the dolorous strains of his own compositions,
and pronounces: " I am a man with indomitable will power, but no great inspiration".
He certainly has will power. Born to a humble peasant family, the artist spent his formative years
in Henan province, where his family were bewildered witnesses to his earliest rebellions. As a
teenager he wrote and distributed pamphlets describing the corruption rampant among school
officials. He was promptly expelled. He roamed around the country, living off meager earnings
from gigs at bars and small town karaoke parlors. Enduring the bitter consequences of rebellion
without reaping a rock n' roll-style harvest of fame gave Chen Shui many of the musical and
philosophical ideas that resulted in Modern Epikos Volume Three.
He came to Beijing in 1989, hoping to put some of those ideas into action by working with
established musicians. He made repeated attempts to approach musicians working with the Central
Dance and Music Troupe, but was repeatedly rejected. When he was asked who he could see to
discuss cooperation, he was told " If your work is good enough, you can see anyone."
With this glimmer of hope, Chen Shui wrote more than 200 songs, and finally released a CD,
Rock Epic, in 1996, swiftly followed by Modern Epic in 1997. Both albums were received
somewhat tepidly, but this didn't deter Chen Shui either. He says " One characteristic of true
genius is that it is always ahead of its time. Another characteristic is that it invariably leads to
Chen Shui continues: " So-called rock n'roll is aimed at cheating fools and women and entrapping
energetic youth into a long-term sentence in which they think they are free but never really are."
Strong opinions such as these have not endeared him to Beijing's rock underground, and he has
become something of a recluse. Not even his neighbors see him. I succeeded in dragging him to a
hot pot meal at a local restaurant. Stepping outside, he turns to me and says: " You're lived in this
dirty city for so long, how can you stand it?"
Despite his moodiness and brusque manner, something in me warms to him. This handsome,
opinionated man is tenaciously attempting to push the envelope of the often self-satisfied Chinese
rock music clique. And although his CD is not the most listenable record I have heard in a while, it
is the most unusual. I know I will be playing track five to celebrate National Day.