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A History of South Korean Metal and Hardcore Punk Part 1.

0 Map of Korea, 1890s small.0


This is the first of a three-part article chronicling the history of extreme music in South Korea.

After opening its borders to international cultural trade, South Korea experienced an enormous incursion of bands traversing all genres. A boisterous social and political history put constraints on what these Korean latecomers to aggressive music could produce and consume. Finally, after democracy settled, a micro-system of punk and metal enthusiasts emerged to oppose the encroaching monopoly of K-pop and longstanding traditional conformism.

“The Korean underground music scene in general is not very popular. Even many people who listen to foreign artists that play punk, metal, rock or whatever are not interested in the Korean scene,” said vocalist and drum programmer Lee Hwan-ho of grind outfit Mangnani, who recently released Hymns of Carnage EP on their Bandcamp in March.

Jang Jae-won, from death metal band Goatphomet and Fallen Angel Productions said, “In Korea, rock, punk and metal are barely surviving. Only about 150 to 200 people would go to a Cannibal Corpse concert, and 200—tops—would go to a Cradle of Filth concert. About 500 people would gather even if a punk rock legend like the Sex Pistols could come to Korea. I doubt that even a concert with Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax—the big four—would gather as many as 2,000 people.” Jang puts out compilations via Fallen Angel Productions in an attempt to spread the word about underground Korean death and black metal.

To a visitor, Korean underground music scenes seem virtually absent, but after considerable excavating, authentic punk and metal can be found focalized in a few areas of Seoul and Busan—Korea’s second largest city. In fact, bands like Judas Priest, Cannibal Corpse, Iron Maiden, Cradle of Filth, At the Gates, Napalm Death and Carcass have found their way to Korea, but with limited success.

This Korean disinterest in heavy music has a precedent. Even the “Godfather” of Korean rock music is still only in the mainstream peripheral.

The first individual credited as introducing rock ’n’ roll—something wholly outside the traditional Korean music common in the 1940s—to the Republic of Korea (also known as ROK or South Korea) was Shin Jung-hyun. He had been exposed to some rock groups as a child in Japan before returning to Korea. He thus paved the way for alternative groups in his home country.

Shin Jung-hyun discovered Western rock music before Korean radios broadcast it to the public while working on US army bases during the Korean War as a performer. When he began his own project, he mimicked English pop songs with catchy riffs and easy melodies. Soon after, he was drawn to the more virulent rock music that would characterize the majority of his career. It was difficult for the Korean public to hear alternative, international or experimental music in the last century, having been under Japanese colonization until 1945 and thereafter enduring political strong-man tactics, coups and dictatorships.

“AFKN was a radio station for the US army and for Koreans it was the only way to listen to rock music. The government inspected albums to be approved—even down to lyrics and album art,” said Yi Ki-bong, a prominent sound technician who has worked at Seoul clubs like Soundholic and Freebird and also freelances festivals.

“The debut of Shin Jung-hyun in the ’60s and growth of folk rock in the ’70s are two important factors in the history of Korean rock and metal. Rock music was only performed on stages in US army bases and Cabaret clubs in the ’60s, but it started making waves in small theaters and concert halls in the ’70s,” said Jang Jae-won.

During the era when Shin was active, President Park Chung-hee stressed economical and agricultural growth while fettering social and cultural growth. According to Kim Pil-ho and Shin Hyun-jung in The Birth of ‘ROK’: Cultural Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Globalization of Rock Music in South Korea, 1964-1975, Park placed heavy censorship on music, making it difficult for aggressive rock music to proliferate.

Changbal tansok, or “longhair crackdowns,” in which police would stop passers-by for inspections on the street, were carried out during Park’s presidency. If individuals had hair too long, it would be cut; if a skirt was too short, its wearer would be escorted home in order to change.

”Lady in the Rain” – Shin Jung-hyun

A broadcast by the American Forces Korea Network that specialized in jazz and rock ’n roll indebted Shin’s interest further, say Kim and Shin. Shin Jung-hyun soon released his own music and found notoriety with the song “Lady in the Rain” in 1964. This influenced other guitar, bass, key and drum groups with rock and pop nuance, like The Key Boys. “As true pioneers, both bands took a daring first step into the uncharted territory of the domestic market,” say Kim and Shin.

Shin Jung-hyun, however, found it difficult translating his musical style to a Korean culture, experiencing a, “…model of cultural imperialism…not wholly adequate to capture the great diversity and autonomy of local music cultures vis-à-vis global Anglo-American pop” (Kim, Shin).

In the 1970s, Shin altered his playing style to incorporate a psychedelic ambiance and furthered his foundation in the Korean music scene by working as a producer for popular groups. Shin’s psychedelic phase inspired the formation of rock trio Sanulrim (1977-2008), who became a formidable force in the rock scene in the late 1970s and influenced more experimental genres. Their first album, What, Already?, was met with critical and financial success.

A samples of Shin’s output in Sanulrim.

Allegedly, in 1972, Shin was asked by Park Chung-hee to write a song that would commemorate the Korean government—at that time an effective dictatorship—to which Shin refused. Shin performed an unparalleled gesture and symbolized another rift from Korean culture in refusing a song for the dictator. “Some [critics] go so far as to argue that this kind of local appropriation of Anglo-American pop creates points of cultural and political resistance, allowing the youth to distinguish themselves from the settled norms of national culture,” argue Kim and Shin.

Shin in Concert

Rock music became even further alienated from Korean popular culture in the years after President Park was assassinated in 1979, during which the country suffered political instability. Commander of the Security Command Shun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, his general, assumed control of the diminished political state. Backlash budded in the city of Gwangju, where many students and citizens protested. The military police and soldiers under Roh’s charge exercised violence during the protests and left over 200 people dead.

After years of political uncertainty, South Korea reformed its infrastructure and democratically elected its president. The country progressed exponentially over the next 20 years, solidifying economic and technological growth by the 1990s while opening up culturally on an international stage. Some cultural imports and exports, including music, which had been monitored or even banned were reassimilated into Korean society in the later 1980s. Access to previously unavailable online sources and new compact disc imports from America provided massive inflows of alternative sounds simultaneously. New forms of rock, punk, hip-hop, reggae, heavy metal and thrash appeared in Korea’s music stores.

“Green Day was big and I could even listen to it on radio. I think that’s how I found out about punk. Later I found Offspring, Bad Religion, Blink 182 and NOFX. I was a big fan of pop-punk and I still love it,” said singer Victor Ha of youth crew-style hardcore punk band Things We Say, who take their name from the Gorilla Biscuits song.

“Before that, there were no licensed albums, radio stations for rock or metal or internet. We used to copy cassette tapes and share them with friends,” said Yi Ki-bong.

Access to the internet hit the Korean culture with a heavy influence, but the decade prior saw western heavy metal influence musicians inspired by Shin’s work and aspiring to expand on the unique new sounds of their own generation.

—Clint Stamatovich

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