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MUSIC & ARTS Edited by Matthew Lamers (mattlamers@groovekorea.com)

DOWNHELL

T

he first weekend of August held the usual bounty of live concerts in Hongdae. A band called At the Gates, one of the most successful Swedish metal groups of all time, was in town. During a decade-long hiatus, they achieved near-mythical status and recently reformed, embarking on a world tour. They sold out venues across North America and headlined festivals such as Wacken in Germany to crowds of more than 80,000 fans. But at Club Prism on the outskirts of Hongdae, they performed to a crowd of roughly 150 people. Each of the dedicated fans in attendance paid a staggering 100,000 won to see the concert. This bewildering juxtaposition of extremes paints a fairly accurate vignette of the trials and tribulations faced by what is possibly the most marginalized artistic community in Seoul. The forces of Confucianism, war and economics play a combined role in Korea’s delayed heavy metal genesis, while also factoring in to its sustained evolution. “In the scope of overall Korean culture, specialized fans of all types are minimal. Metal is no exception,” says long-term fan Seo Sang-woon. “That’s the sad reality.” Dosu Kim of black metal band Oathean says that most Koreans have a negative perception of metal. “The fans are often ostracized or alienated,” he says. It’s reminiscent of metal’s first days in the English-speaking world, when it had to fight for legitimacy. While in the West there are now several generations of metal-heads and it is economically lucrative, the situation in Korea seems more comparable to an earlier stage of development. This disconnect can be attributed to a few possible sourc-

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es. Several authors, including Michael Breen in “The Koreans” (1999), have stated that Korea is arguably the most Confucian country in the world. Understanding this ideological heritage is illuminating, since the emphasis on family tradition, social roles and filial piety (respect for elders) would appear to be in direct odds with the iconoclastic nature of the genre. In addition, Korea is one of the most ethnically homogenous nations on Earth, stunting the melting pot that characterizes so many other vibrant music scenes. These facts alone, however, cannot fully encapsulate the strange role of heavy metal in the modern republic. The Korean War ended in 1953 and left Korea with several million dead and an economy that was comparable to that of Sudan. Over the next few decades, however, Korea had the largest economic turnaround in world history, primarily under the military dictatorship of Park Chung-hee. During this time, people didn’t have the luxury of indulging in musical consumption as a hobby; they were pre-disposed with making a living for their families. “Rock music in Korea was suppressed because the government viewed it as a source of corruption and a cause of rebellion against the government,” explains a Busan musician known as B5NG. “Rock music became (unofficially) illegal … It was rare that you could hear it on the TV or radio. And in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s it started becoming popular again.” Thus began what is considered to be the first generation of Korean metal and, ironically, its most commercially viable period. A music-hungry populace and recently democratized society exploded with not only imported foreign groups, but also with its own domestic headbangers.

Groove Korea January 2014  

Groove is Korea's English magazine for Insight, Travel, Culture, Dining and Shopping

Groove Korea January 2014  

Groove is Korea's English magazine for Insight, Travel, Culture, Dining and Shopping

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