CHINA: Black Panther - Hei Bao
Updated: Jan 21, 2021
The Chinese rockers prove their worth in this blisteringly brilliant debut album that demonstrates their lightness of touch as well as their ability to melt your face with pure rock
There is an interesting debate to be had as to why do we respond in the way we do to music? And why do some people react differently to different types of music, like how people either adore or despise heavy metal music? It’s a hard question to answer, and quite frankly, I won’t get to the bottom of it, but I do think I know at least one cause. I have a hunch that the music that you hear when you are young that you feel speaks to you the most is what stays with you throughout your life and impacts you the most when you hear brilliant songs in that genre. For me, that type of music is rock music. It gives me life. You can sit a musicologist next to me who will explain why jazz is superior on a technical level to at times simplistic rock music, but at the end all I would say is “yeah, but have you heard this?” as I turn on Back in Black, turned up to eleven on the stereo. It’s a visceral thing. It’s not scientific or rational. It’s sweet emotion, to quote Aerosmith, and nothing gives me that wonderful music buzz like it. Which brings me to Hei Bao (or, as they are known in English, Black Panther, but I shall use their Chinese name when referring to the band, and the English name when referring to the album), a Chinese rock band. When I was first recommended this by Danny, I was sceptical. How could good rock music come from a totalitarian regime? We have had a few examples on the blog before, namely Lay Phyu of Myanmar, but it still remains unusual. When I pressed play on the first song, it took be about five seconds of those fantastically crunchy and clean guitar power chords to know that I loved this. It bypassed any critical faculties and went straight to the heart, where it firmly stayed. I love this album. I love rock music.
“Hei Bao have true mastery of their genre, able to balance both the light and the dark, the sentimental and the realistic, the debauchery and the sincerity that often accompanies the best rock music.”
Hei Bao’s sound can be described as glam metal, a genre that isn’t particularly cool or well regarded, but I love it nonetheless. Think of bands like KISS, Twisted Sister, or Def Leppard, all of whom are monsters of rock who don’t mess about, give you powerful, memorable riffs and choruses, an epic guitar solo, and a key change for the final chorus if we’re lucky. It’s no-nonsense, and invariably does what it sets out to do. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea (though, for what it’s worth, this music usually isn’t Danny’s cup of tea and we’re in agreement that the album is excellent), and one might listen to this album and not agree with my assessment of it, but that’s OK. You will either have that emotional connection or you won’t, and if you do, you’re in for a hell of a ride.
Hei Bao’s self-titled debut album Black Panther was released in 1991 in Hong Kong, and then in 1992 in China and Taiwan, just as glam metal fell hugely out of style in the West due to cooler, angrier, and generally excellent grunge bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam coming onto the scene, making a mark with their often socially conscious or otherwise meaningful lyrics and simple, stripped back, and raw instrumentation. However, while Hei Bao may have sunk without a trace if they were a Western band, across the Pacific there was a huge market for their musical stylings, where the album was a huge success, with their beautiful power ballad Don’t Break My Heart staying at the top of the Hong Kong charts for three weeks. It made starts out of both the band and lead singer Dou Wei, who has gone on to have a successful solo career in rock, alternative, and ambient music. While this might seem strange having come out of a brutal totalitarian regime, it makes sense within its historical context. In the 1980s China began to open up to Western culture, and creating a more capitalistic market economy to encourage growth, and it was in this environment that Hei Bao flourished, though it is perhaps telling that they initially had to get signed in Taiwan and released in Hong Kong before establishing themselves in mainland China. Whatever their path to success, they succeeded because of their musical skill and authenticity, and were it not for their singing in Mandarin, you would believe they could be an American band.
The album itself kicks off with a barnstorming rock song called Shameless which delivers all you need from music like this. It’s easy to see why it became their most successful song. Put it simply, it rocks. Dou Wei’s vocals are alternately soaring and earthy, fitting the need for the moment of the song. In that regard he reminds me of Joe Elliott, Def Leppard’s lead singer, who similarly has that quality to his voice. There are some songs I think are less impressive, in particular the slightly overlong and comparatively uninteresting ballad Take Care, but overall, it delivers in spades. In fact, the album is broadly classifiable into two, with five songs being rock bangers and the other five being power ballads. What’s great is that Hei Bao prove themselves to be equally adept at both, with the best of the rock songs (Shameless) competing strongly with Don’t Break My Heart for the best song on the album. They’re both irresistible, and show that Hei Bao have true mastery of their genre, able to balance both the light and the dark, the sentimental and the realistic, the debauchery and the sincerity that often accompanies the best rock music. Rock music is always, at its best when about human experience, whether that experience is a raucous party, a break-up with a partner, or something abstract like alienation or longing. Even something as out there as Black Sabbath’s Iron Man is really about being resented and hated. Though I do not understand Mandarin, what Hei Bao get across in their sublime debut album is that essential feeling through the music. I understand them even without literally understanding them, and ultimately, that is what counts most when listening to music.