Independent record label Maybe Mars has been trendsetters of the Chinese underground music scene since 2007. On January 1, it dropped a “celebratory compilation” of 11 tracks from 10 releases over the last year for the price of…nothing (until the end of the month anyway*). The compilation contains songs from fresh signings such as Shanghai pocket-rockets Dream Can and Beijing post-punk revivalists Lonely Leary, as well as familiar fan favorites P.K.14 and Birdstriking.
But after a few listens, one track in particular that stood out: Demerit‘s d-beat double-track Do You Smell It / Sink or Swim. That’s right, you get two for the price of one.
Formed in 2003, Demerit gained a following in Beijing’s punk scene through consistent high-octane performances, fueled by politically charged lyrics and a disregard for social norms. The band recorded its debut album Never Say Die in 2006, and in 2008 released Bastards of the Nation, recorded with Public Enemy bassist and producer Brian Hardgroove. They have since toured across China, Europe, and, most recently, the United States. Almost 10 years after their last release, Out of the Fog dropped hard and heavy in April, and it has not disappointed.
Do You Smell It / Sink or Swim opens the album, introducing guitar feedback, bass hums, and pick-sweeps, laying the foundation for a motif that builds in intensity with each repetition, perhaps somewhat reminiscent of Anti Cimex’s crust-punk classic “Under The Sun.” Gang vocals galore, breakneck drum fills, and rip-roaring guitar solos ensue, reassuring the listener that the band’s hardcore/thrash crossover sound is present as ever.
Aside from sheer brutality, the album offers the occasional acoustic refrain, and a cameo on the ska-punk-influenced track “Boys Are Coming Back” from keyboardist David Bond, currently playing with Zakka alongside Demerit’s drummer, Xiao Guang. Bond notes Demerit’s “gleeful scrappiness,” carried through from the pre-Olympics “T.Z. Generation” era to the international touring band they are today, has never waned. He also appreciates that this is a band best appreciated live, likening playing with them to being “pulled onto a speed-train that’s flying past at 250 kph, gets you shit-faced-whiskey-wasted in three and a half minutes, and then tosses you out the window.” Charming.
“Do You Smell It / Sink Or Swim,” to me, is a song about biting the metaphorical bullet and getting on with life, even/especially when you’re just sick of it all. Do you smell it? That’s the sea of change, what are you going to do, sink or swim?
*It’s name your price, so technically, yes, it’s free, but go on and buy the band a beer. For more information about the history of both Demerit and Maybe Mars, and other pivotal figures in the evolution of China’s music scene, check out Shaun Jefford’s 2010 documentary Beijing Punk.