The Lonely Ghosts of Zuriaake
For approximately two decades, Chinese black metal legends Zuriaake have steadfastly refined their opulent, atmospheric approach to the genre. Though they’re one of the country’s oldest continuous black metal bands, they’ve remained relevant for the entirety of their existence -- unflagging leaders at the forefront of China’s metal scene.
Founding members Bloodsea and Bloodfire were joined by Deadsphere in 2006, and the band’s lineup has remained fixed since then. The three are known only by their pseudonyms and go to great lengths to maintain their ongoing shroud of mystique. On stage, Zuriaake are never seen without their signature tattered robes and inky black conical hats, casting their faces permanently in shadow.
Last summer, Zuriaake brought their folk-laden black metal to Europe for their first-ever tour across the continent. Now, they’re poised to return as the first Chinese band to take the stage at Roadburn in Tilburg.
We spoke with Bloodfire about the history of Zuriaake, the meticulous philosophy of their songwriting methods, their experiences as metal musicians in China, and what fans can expect from their live performances.
-- Ivan Belcic
The following interview was conducted in Chinese and English. Bloodfire’s answers have been partially translated to English by Kaine Lyu and then edited for clarity.
Can you speak to the inspiration behind your band name as well as your onstage appearance? What message do you hope to convey by the way you present yourselves?
For Zuriaake, our primary inspiration comes from a great Chinese poet named Qu Yuan (Chinese: 屈原) (ca. 340 BCE - 278 BCE). Qu Yuan's special life experience and charming work forms the Qu Yuan Complex, which is majorly influential for all Chinese people. He would rather die honorably than to live dishonorably, and he worshipped nature while venerating his legendary ancestors. He committed suicide by jumping into a lake.
Our costumes are based on an ancient poem, “Jiang Xue.” The original sentence is,“孤江蓑笠翁，独钓寒江雪”(An old man in his straw cape and hat sitting in a single boat, alone in the snow, fishing in the freezing and snowy river.)
How did you all become involved with metal, and with black metal in particular? What factors led to the formation of Zuriaake?
There were not many ways to get information in the 1990s, especially about metal music. It was really hard to find metal information. Back then, we found metal through dakou tapes (discarded cassettes smuggled into China from other countries) and once I started, I couldn’t stop collecting them.
Bloodsea was one of the first guys selling dakou tapes. That’s how I met him, and how we became brothers. I still remember my first time hearing Mayhem’s “Funeral Fog” -- I was stunned. The first time I heard “A Fine Day to Die” by Bathory, I was so excited, I could feel my blood rushing to my head.
The disposition and expression of black metal naturally fit us. We have many of our own thoughts that we want to put in this kind of music, especially the awakened awareness of ancient Chinese culture. All these factors contributed to the emergence of Zuriaake.
What sort of developments, trends, and changes have you observed over your many years as a band in the way metal is both perceived and practiced in China?
We think the metal scenes in China are getting better and better. People are open to learn about and listen to more things from the world. For black metal, we think the Chinese culture and philosophy about the living, religions, god, and ghosts are something fresh and new. It’s an opportunity for us, but also for the black metal scenes. However, as a vessel for philosophy, black metal is supposed to be lonely.
How would you describe your own evolution and development during this same period of time — from your 2007 debut album Afterimage of Autumn, through your 2012 EP Winter Mirage, to your 2015 full-length Gu Yan and beyond?
Zuriaake was formed almost 20 years ago. Last year we toured to commemorate the tenth anniversary of our debut album. But we haven’t really changed. The core members are still me and Bloodsea -- very stable, very stubborn.
With our music, Zuriaake’s philosophy was relatively mature from the beginning. Although we are aging, gaining more experience and seeing more of the world, our philosophy of the band has barely changed. We are just finalizing it and completing it.
You’ve mentioned in the past that you draw your lyrics from classical Chinese poems. Can you speak more about your songwriting process? What’s happening as you transform an ancient poem into a Zuriaake song?
A lot of our inspiration comes from these traditional Chinese folk sources, which we heard throughout our childhood. We’ve forgotten some of them, but their sounds still exist somewhere in the depths of our minds. We also turn to all the Chinese ancient stories, including myths and Chinese ghost and god culture. Chinese people don’t believe the world only has one god.
Zuriaake focuses on words [Chinese written characters] first, then music. This is how ancient Chinese culture works. China is a country that deeply worships its written language. We think our forefathers created the most beautiful and meaningful poems in the world. Chinese characters have their own souls. We engrave them on every single one of Zuriaake’s songs, blend them in every single drop of our blood.
We are very careful with our lyrics. As the classical Chinese poem says, “吟安一个字，捻断数根须” – “rubbing and breaking several hairs in one’s beard to come up with the word that fits." And that's also why we produce so slowly.
On a related note, you recently reissued Gu Yan with lyrics translated into English. What was that process like? Were there any particularly difficult challenges you faced when re-creating your lyrics in English?
Some of our fans had kept asking about the meaning of our lyrics, so wanted to give them an English translation for our new album, and we also translated our first full-length. We encountered some issues when attempting to translate our lyrics, as sometimes a Chinese word will have a specific cultural context or background story that can’t be translated, or it’ll lose its meaning. We tried our best to find the best person for the job, and we hope all our fans can understand our songs.
How involved or connected are you with the local scene in Jinan? How would you characterize the scene there?
Jinan is a very conservative city. It is a desert of modern culture. The elites of cultural communication won’t stay long in Jinan. Good band members and musicians all go international cities like Beijing. People ignore metal music here. No matter [what happens in the] the media or music venues, they all ignore the existence of metal music.
Maybe some trendy metalcore band will have a show here on one of their tours, but real metal bands all skip Jinan. We’ve had a few China tours, and we are about to have a second Europe tour, but we have never played in our hometown. Metal fans there are so miserable.
What does it mean to you to be the first Chinese band to participate in the Roadburn festival? What can Roadburn attendees expect from your performance?
Roadburn is a very tasteful music festival, it’s very different and eye-catching. As the first Chinese attendees, we are very proud and honored, as this means the European dark lords have recognized us as one of their own. We are looking forward to playing there, and we would love to show something about the darkness of the Orient. We’re currently planning some new stuff for our live show, but we can’t reveal it yet.
Can you relate some of your experiences and impressions from your first European tour last year?
Our first European tour was a pilgrimage for us. Europe is a holy land of metal music, it is the root of the music we make. We played with so many awesome bands on the same stage, and we were deeply impressed by the European festivals — both in terms of the professionalism of the promoters as well as the high quality of the equipment.
We didn't expect so many fans in Europe, but our merchandise was sold out, and we also bought many records to bring back. Oh right -- the European tour was also our beer tour. The beer there is so tasty, so, hey, we are back again.
Do you feel that there are any specific obstacles faced by metal bands in China as opposed to those in other countries?
I think judgmental opinions cause more obstacles than politics. So far, I haven’t heard of any band facing obstacles from politics; it’s mainly coming from their families. Metal band members’ parents, born in 1950 to 1960s, are very conservative. They wouldn't support their own kids making such noisy music as metal music. It’s different than with Western families. This strong parental obstruction will not stop even after the kids become adults. You can only count on time to solve the problem from such judgmental opinions.
These years, the environment for metal music in China is getting better, the number of the bands is increasing, the quality is getting higher. It is all because the conservative parents are old now. The new generation of parents are relatively open-minded.
Many of you are in multiple bands, and Zuriaake is far from your only project. What sets Zuriaake apart from all the other work you do?
I had some other bands, including Hellward [blackened heavy metal], Yn Gizarm [atmospheric black metal] [Editor's Note: other resources spell this "Yengisar," anglicizing Chinese characters is tricky.], Midwinter [black metal], Varuna [avant-garde black metal], and others when I was young. Being young was great. My inspiration was like spring water running non-stop. I came up with so many great riffs.
But I am very strict with genres. I can’t bear having different genres in one band, I would rather have different genres as different bands using different names to carry on. Those bands are also my blood and sweat. They all produced historical pieces in Chinese metal music history.
Are there any emerging or rising Chinese metal bands that have currently grabbed your interest?
Yes. We focus on these True Metal bands in China, and we do have some bands to recommend for Western metal fans.