Location: Pinggu, Beijing, China
The Beijing Midi School of Music – not as in the file extension for karaoke tracks or retro games soundtracks, it is actually the school's name – was founded in 1993, the first in China to officially teach "new" genres like jazz, blues, rock and so on. Let's not forget that, up to the late '70s, music (especially when foreign) didn't have much chance to enter people's lives during the austere maoist era. A somewhat relevant rock movement will take its first steps only in the second half of the '80s and early '90s, around musicians like Cui Jian and Dou Wei.
The history of the Midi Modern Music Festival (also known as Midi Festival) can be seen as the history of (not only) rock music in China. The event started as some kind of "end of the year performance" in 2000, with bands formed by students from the school. Eight hundred people, just one stage inside the school, thirty-seven bands performing over two days, free entrance.
In a few years' time, the festival moved outdoors in 2004 because of its increasingly high numbers (six thousand people that year) and has never gone back since. One of the main differences from European festivals is the diversity of the music: signaling a scenery still relatively young and thus not "specialized" enough to offer high quality festivals for specifically "metal", "rock", "electronic" (or anything else) audiences, although rock clearly accounts for the most part of the festival.
The festival is usually held in the Beijing area around Labor's Day, one of the most important holidays in China, in order to allow people from every part of the country to enjoy the event without worrying too much about school or work. However, the festival now got big enough to have branched South with a couple of stops (2013 also saw the second edition of the Midi Festival in Shanghai).
The 2013 Beijing Midi Festival also celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the music school. I had already been to the 2011 edition, but couldn’t camp there for more than one day. This time I had chance to experience all three days, so my report will be more detailed.
Let's start from the location: this year the festival has been held in the Pinggu area, about two hours eastwards by bus from the center of Beijing (adding a seventeen-hour night-train, without a bed, from Shanghai in my case). This choice turned out to be good in some respects (blue sky and green hills – this area hosts skiing paths during the winter – and far from the unbearable shroud of smog that haunts the city), but lacking in others (the closest urban area was at a twenty minute illegal taxi ride distance). The camping area is very close to the festival — and this is a positive aspect — though introducing beverages from outside is forbidden here as well, consequently leading to literally thousands of bottles going to waste before the security check. The quantity of bathrooms was not enough for the amount of people camping during the three days (about 20000 people), in addition there was no shower to be used (at least not for men) and this sure influenced the evaluation of the management of the facilities. What's even stranger is that you could only get in and out from the concert area once during the day, let’s just say that there’s still work to be done in terms of organization.
A lot of food, merchandising and gadgets stands were sparsely distributed around the festival area, contributing to give the festival a positive vibe. Given that the German festivals' standards are of course still quite far, one can’t complain about the general quality of this specific aspect. After having spent some words about the organization, it's finally time to speak about the reason one goes to festivals in the first place: the music. More than eighty bands on four stages (plus another one for the bands from the school kids), trying to give the audience an offer as diverse as possible, from metalcore to folk, through drum and bass and straight-up rock to name a few.
APRIL 29 – A TASTE OF MIDI
18:50 Nova Heart (China – Electronic - Tang Stage)
The first day went by almost unnoticed, spent between bus, the setting of tents and other practical matters. I finally had chance to see my first band in the late afternoon: Nova Heart, an electronic quartet hailing from Beijing. When I reached the stage, the first half of the performance had already gone, but I got immediately bewitched by the enveloping rhythm of their music, somewhere between trip-hop atmospheres and (almost) frantic dancing moments. The performance revolves around the vocalist Feng Haining, who gives a personal vibe to the songs. Nova Heart have already toured Europe and America and they can be found on Soundcloud with some free tracks. Best band of the first day.
19:50 液氧罐头 [Yeyang Guantou] (China – Nu Metal / Crossover – Tang Stage)
It is interesting to see how a genre so long gone in the West, like nu metal-crossover, here is still one of the prominent parts of the biggest festival. Some bands introduced this style to China in the late '90s - early '00s (like Twisted Machine), and many other followed and literally invaded the stages of the whole country. This band doesn't add anything particularly striking to the mix, apart from some "reggae-ish" moments. First dreadlock-haired Chinese people of the festival, many more to come.
21:40 激肤乐团 [My Skin Against Your Skin] (Taiwan – Indie / Punk Rock – Song Stage)
A couple of quick stops at the smaller stages (drum and bass with the Swiss duo Bubble Beatz and some country rock with the Randy Abel Stable) and I'm off to the Song stage. The festival starts suffering serious delays on the main stages and My Skin Against Your Skin start their show more than an hour later than scheduled. This is another new band for me, with a female vocalist again, this Taiwanese act reminds me of SUBS (headliners of the second day) and a dozen or so of similar foreign bands (most of the lyrics are sung in English). Despite their not being the most original act around, MSAYS deliver a good performance and gets a warm response by the dancing audience. Nice dress.
22:30 战斧 [Tomahawk] (China – Nu Metal / Thrash – Song Stage)
One of the longest-standing nu metal local acts, especially because of their 2001 album "死城" (Dead City). Their style is heavier than Twisted Machine, often bordering groove and thrash metal. First example of the peculiar notion of a Chinese festival headliner: no band plays more than 40-45 minutes, not even the bigger acts. Twisted Machine themselves will close the first day, but I was way too tired after all that travelling in a few days and couldn’t make it to the stage. Shit man, Pantera?
APRIL 30 – THINGS GET SERIOUS
13:15 Before The Daylight (China – Metalcore – Qing Stage)
On the second day I was definitely in better shape and ready to enjoy the festival at its fullest. To better start the day, I go to see the first band on one of the minor stages. Metalcore seems to be one of the most widespread genres around here in the latest couple of years, this band features a girl on vocals. Their performance alternates raw screaming to even too melodic moments, sometimes lacking in consistency. All in all a good band for an half an hour show.
16:00 布衣 [Buyi] (China – Alternative / Folk Rock – Tang Stage)
After a visit to the stands and some purchases, it is time for me to go and see one of the most notable and popular bands in contemporary Chinese rock: 布衣was founded in 1995, although they’ll start gaining some national following only around the mid-‘00s. The band’s name literally means “cloth”, but in Chinese it indicates common people, their lyrics are often funny and easy to sing along. This was the third time I saw them live (the first at a festival though), Wu Ningyue and the others again live up to their fame and easily own the stage and the audience, singing most of the songs with them. Towards the middle of the show, I leave for the Qing stage, satisfied as usual by Buyi’s performance. Consciously entertaining.
17:00 Bloody Woods [血森林] (China – Neofolk – Qing Stage)
Here is the band I was most curious about on the second day, although I had never heard of them before reading their name on the bill. Pretty soon I've found out this project is linked to 白水 (Bai Shui, "Plain Water"), main act of the talented musician symbol of the rising Chinese neofolk scene, Gu Dao. The show starts about half an hour later because of some issues with cables and equipment, which unfortunately have been quite frequent throughout the festival. This band comes from Sichuan and is quite different from Bai Shui, because in this case the main inspiration is quite clearly Europe, even featuring some lyrics sung in German by the vocalist Anna. Bloody Woods sound at time as some sort of mixture between Corde Oblique, Neun Welten, Ataraxia, the "new" European neofolk and related styles so to speak. Ethereal atmospheres intermingle with straight-up folky up-tempos, Gu Dao succeeds in capturing the not too wide afternoon audience on the minor stage. Brilliantly made up for the delay.
19:50 木玛 & Third Party [Muma] (China – Electronic Rock – Tang Stage)
Another little break to get ready for the evening while having some dinner and casually see some bands from afar. When nights comes down it is time for another of the most relevant people in the last fifteen years of Chinese rock to go on stage: Mu Ma. The founder of the almost eponymous band Muma 木马 in the late '90s, he went on to play with Third Party, gradually switching from a Western-bands-inspired alternative rock to a more electronic-oriented sound. The performance is top notch, the background videos are carefully chosen and complete the experience, the music shrouds everyone quite easily and you might end up dancing without even realizing it. Top show of the second day.
21:20 巨蟹座 [Cancer] (China – Nu Metal – Song Stage)
Another band with more than ten years' experience in the nu metal field, that also raised some controversy because of the socially engaged lyrics. Unfortunately, the Song stage kept on piling up delays, resulting in Cancer starting their show about an hour later than expected. Their performance is solid and confirms the liveliness of the alternative scene around Beijing between the late '90s and early '00s. Professionals (cit.).
22:20 SUBS (China – Indie / Punk Rock – Song Stage)
The main event also suffered some more delay during the setup, but I still hoped I would manage to see their show. SUBS is one of the most successful bands in the Chinese punk scene, counting on vocalist Kang Mao’s charisma and their ever so intense and charming performances. The crowd welcomes them with enthusiasm and they waste no more time pounding their rock, seriously aiming to the ideal "top of the festival" award. Sadly, about twenty minutes later, they get stopped by the organization because it was too late and the rules don’t allow outdoor concerts after a certain time (something similar happened to Voodoo Kung Fu in 2011). Missed chance.
1 MAY – THE GRAND FINALE
13:30 九宝 [Nine Treasures] (China – Folk Metal – Tang Stage)
The third and last day looks promising enough from the start, featuring one of the "new wave of Inner Mongolian metal". Since Hanggai emerged in the mid-'00s with their danceable folk rock, traditional clothes and Mongolian lyrics, a lot of new bands from that province started spreading over the country with their mixture of traditional instruments and different styles of rock/metal (Tengger Cavalry and Ego Fall to name a couple). After a quick listen to another Mongolian band (no surprise) on the minor stage, I head to the Tang stage, where Nine Treasures gathered a huge crowd for an early afternoon performance. It might have been the usual routine, traditional clothes and instruments (such as the balalaika) along with a couple of jokes in Mongolian with the audience, but the band delivers one of the best shows of the whole festival instead (their first time at the Midi), hands down. Unfortunately they just had thirty minutes, but it's very likely they’ll climb some steps up the bill in the future (although it doesn’t seem to matter that much around here, since headliners just play around forty minutes). Best newcomers.
15:30 脑浊 [Brain Failure] (China – Punk / Pop / Ska Rock – Tang Stage)
Many historic bands from different genres performed over these three days, the last hot afternoon saw the main Chinese punk rock act taking control of the stage. Founded in 1997, Brain Failure is one of the Chinese rock bands most popular abroad. Their gig is easily one of the most intense of the whole festival, with the audience literally hanging from their strings and going crazy (even a security guard gave us a memorable crowd-surfing moment). Brain Failure is a constant presence at major festivals throughout the country, delivering forty quality minutes that set the bar very high for the bands to come. "I'm coming down!".
16:20 窒息 [Suffocated] (China – Thrash / Death Metal – Tang Stage)
Here we go, arguably the closest band to Aristocrazia's interests, one of the first extreme metal bands to set foot on Chinese stages. Suffocated was formed between 1996 and 1997, a turning point in the (not crowded) metal scene of that time. They have been a reputable live act for many years and always a pleasure for those who like this style. The performance was saluted by some moshing and different-length hair twirling all over the hill, at the end I get back to the tent for the last break before the grand finale. Metal.
20:00 Bubble Beatz (Switzerland – Drum And Bass / Electronic – Mini Stage)
One of the smaller stages was dedicated to electronic music, with two bands alternating three or four times during the day. I believe it is right to write a couple of lines about Bubble Beatz, the Swiss duo that managed to deliver intense and successful performances to the not-so-numerous audience. Their main feature is the use of many different "instruments", such as pots, pans, bins and so on. Bubble Beatz succeeded in making the rigid Beijing audience dance (they were much more apt to move, as usual, during the main stages’ shows). They got asked for two encores, perfect conclusion to three days in the Beijing countryside to remember for the Suisse combo. Sweaty.
20:40 Sybreed (Switzerland – Industrial Metal – Song Stage)
Chinese festivals do not abound with foreign bands, usually adding up to a dozen names and quite rarely performing as headliners. Again from Switzerland, Sybreed was probably the best-known foreign band this year, and their performance suffered from the usual delays on the main stage. Quite a big crowd gathered for their stage and the result was praiseworthy, mainly playing songs off their best work "Antares" during the forty minutes they had. A fair show as quasi-headliners.
22:00 痛苦的信仰 [Miserable Faith] (China – Nu Metal / Crossover / Rock – Tang Stage)
There is quite a while to wait before the start of Escape Plan’s show, bowl-shaped hair and a huge crowd characterizes this pop/rock band from Beijing. The amount of people attending the show is crazy and, after a couple of songs, it’s definitely time to head to the Song stage in order to see one of the most interesting acts around. Miserable Faith, as tradition has it, will close the festival playing for an oceanic audience. Yet another of the historic bands from the early ‘00s, they were among the first to lay the foundations for the new Chinese rock. In recent years the band went on introducing rock and folk elements to their sound, resulting less hard than their 2002 debut. Gao Hu and the others deliver a great performance, well accompanied by the background videos and the audience, singing along most of the songs. Here nu metal is not dead (yet).
Packing things when a festival is over is always a somewhat sad moment. You get out of a place seemingly existing only in that time and space, in order to get back to what is your own routine. A couple of hours bus ride back to the immense capital, from where the trip will start again, thinking that the next Beijing Midi Festival is still one-year away.