The Five Best Stoner Bands in China (Where Weed is Illegal but Riffs are Not)
In Western countries, most people interested in the all-encompassing culture that is heavy metal start their journey hearing Sabbath classics on the radio while dad rolls up a joint before pouring a whiskey and coke. It’s these formative memories which foster a lifelong devotion to metal.
In China, however, there is no trust in weed, as it is illegal and probably always will be. There is little trust in whiskey, as the drink of choice there is beer, or if you’re an old man, baijiu. And there is just a shred of trust in Black Sabbath, as China has no real history with the band visiting the country or rock radio playing “Sweet Leaf.”
When it comes to “the devil’s lettuce,” laws are strict on drug use and anyone caught smoking it or having even a trace in their system can be fined or deported. Even discussing weed with Chinese people comes as a generally awkward experience, as the leaf has become quite stigmatized and folks usually associate it with criminal activity.
The weed mindset lends itself to certain musical motifs — slow riffs, hazy distortion, psychedelic album art and lyrics — that we, of course, have come to identify as “stoner metal.” So it’s no surprise that the style hasn’t flourished in China, with genres like punk, thrash metal or death metal being the most popular there on the heavy side of the spectrum.
Still, in spite of there being no foundation, reason or initial support for the style of music, musicians in China have managed to create a small but budding scene of ’70s-inspired, fuzzed out, slow-jamming stoner rock, metal and heavy blues bands.
Since the emergence of China’s first stoner metal band in 2011, other musicians have begun to slow down the tempos and turn up the fuzz. Let’s take a closer look at the new crop of stoner/doom bands in China below.
Named after the Deep Purple song, Never Before are the oldest stoner metal/sludge band in China, having started in 2011. Since their inception, they have raised the flag of stoner metal and culture within the country, inspiring others to follow suit. They curated their own Wild Dog festival and have put out a number of releases already, keeping Western psychedelic motifs intact with tracks like “The Man Who Came from Mushroom Land.” In 2020, they rolled up a new EP titled Savage, and as the name implies, it’s a harder-edged version of the band’s sound, featuring chunky, Fu Manchu-inspired riffs that are the sonic equivalent of burning through a burrito-sized joint. Expect a fresh new full length from these mushroom kings later this year.
Formed in Beijing in 2016 (though none of their members are from there), Ramblin’ Roze lean towards a ’70s blues rock aesthetic. Ramblin’ Roze borrow most heavily from Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, The Allman Brothers, Mountain, Graveyard and Church of Misery. Last year, they put all of their musical ingredients into the cauldron and out came their debut album, Howl of the Coomb, which features such slow jamming haunts like “Mountain of the Dead” about the eerie Dyatlov Pass incident. They, along with Never Before, are signed to Chinese label Sloomweep, a fuzz-friendly imprint that produces cassette tapes for those nonexistent van rides across the country.
King of Lazy
Buddha on the dashboard. Oh yeah! In the slow-as-molasses, tripped out, sludgy tracks by King of Lazy, hedonism, nihilism and Buddhist teachings run deep. Hailing from the hot and humid province of Yunnan, King of Lazy’s music, much like the NOLA bands in the US, ties in with their location. According to vocalist Smart, “There is a big cultural influence of drugs on rock and roll in Yunnan. Restrictions on weed are looser than other places in China, and the development of reggae and hippie culture here is substantial.” As they are far from cities like Beijing or Shanghai, the band has had to travel by slow train more times than they can count (van culture cannot be a thing in China due to the complex highway system, so trains are taken to tour) and Smart recounts a nausea inducing memory in which “the train was so crowded that one after another people fainted like dominoes.”
Conjuring the spirit of Hendrix for their namesake and aesthetic, Electric Lady, probably more than the other bands featured in this article, sound as though they actually come from the ’70s. Their debut album, Queen of Electricity and Her Coming Kingdom is gritty and low-fi, sounding like something hidden in the back of one of your mother’s old crates of records in the basement. Their cover of Sir Lord Baltimore’s “Hard Rain Fallin” sits as a centerpiece between original hard jamming tracks like “Space Lady #48” and “Laser Blues.” Claiming to reside in Beijing but hailing “from outer space,” the band have been around since 2013. After a few personnel changes, they are set to release a new album in the near future.
Since the release of Richard Stanley’s adaption of H.P. Lovecraft’s Color Out of Space last year, alpacas will never be seen in the same light again, turning into hideous monstrosities depicted by the alien influence in the film. Shanghai, China’s Alpaca, though, have been ahead of the curve and have been a frightening force for years. The band contains members from around the world who congregated in Shanghai and began to slow down the rat race pace of the city with sludgy, droning doom. The band chooses to write slow, methodical, lurching songs which scream in anguish at some points and branch out into a psychedelic jam at others. Song titles usually refer to vivid and uncomfortable life outcomes such as “Pulled Apart by Horses,” “Drown” and the very fitting “Slow and Painful Death.”