In the late 70s and early 80s, a dissonant clash of distorted electric guitars combined with the screaming frustrations of American youth spawned a movement that changed heavy music forever. Hardcore punk, or simply hardcore, spearheaded by groups such as Minor Threat from Washington D.C. and Black Flag from Hermosa Beach, California responded to the growing trend of skinny ties, dayglo rock, Peter Frampton and high end fashion with a heavy-hitting fury of angst ridden guitar chords, abrasive vocals, and a sometimes terrifyingly violent crew of loyal followers that gathered in any bowling alley or church basement that gave them wary permission. The genre would evolve in sound and purpose over time, beginning as a politically charged movement that used music as its vessel and eventually reducing to a musical style that melded into many genres globally.
In Chiang Mai, where the acoustic guitars are oh-so-delicate and the sweet lullabies of modern pop covers pair perfectly with a steaming, artsy latte, it’s easy to conclude that you’re in a musical fairyland void of anything heavy. But when they get the chance, Chiang Mai’s fledgling scene of metal and hardcore bands turn up loud, and force all virgin ears to run for the hills.
The heavy music community in Chiang Mai is tight-knit and compact, revolving around a small group of bands and fans that travel northern Thailand to present their music wherever they can. The abrasive, dissonant sounds and high energy of the crowd are not easy to accommodate, and with Thailand being historically unaccustomed to such a musical genre, the community isn’t necessarily welcoming with open arms.
Fortunately, the local hardcore community has found a single place where they can converge and share their music without the anxiety of how crowds will react or the fear of venue owners shutting them down prematurely.
Naruchit Wongkasit, or Oh, owns Pentatonic Rock Bar in the heart of the old city on Ratchapakhinai Road. On any given evening, you can headbang to the house band cranking out rock hits from ACDC to Pink Floyd or any heavy hitting jam you can think of. The space is dark and dingy, plastered with band stickers and vintage rock posters, and a charming duo of bartenders serving cold beer out of the fridge.
On a Sunday evening a small crowd gathered outside Pentatonic, but not for the cover songs. Pentatonic is the only place in town that features original heavy music, and on the Sunday I visited, three local bands were loading in their gear to feature their new material.
“This is the only place in Chiang Mai — I think maybe the only place in Northern Thailand that features this kind of music,” Oh says smiling, lounging on his white Vespa while watching the small crowd filter in to his bar. The crowd gathered is decked in tattoos, some from head to toe, with wardrobes of predominately black, their grown-out hair hanging over their faces, clad in metal t-shirts representing Cannibal Corpse, Slayer, and others, and many sporting “Chiang Mai HXC” (Chiang Mai Hardcore) t-shirts that represent the local scene.
During its emergence in the United States, hardcore bands and their fans were typically devoted to an agenda that often times resulted in violence. Venues were often vandalised, police forces would arrive in overwhelming numbers, arrests were typical, fights were common place, and the general ambiance of a hardcore show, for instance, in Hermosa Beach, California on a Friday night in 1983, was like a pot waiting to boil over. Hardcore was a means for American youth to band together with their alternative to what was becoming rock music; a life of glamorous wealth, loads of hairspray, drug addiction and shared sexually transmitted diseases. Hardcore bands presented a mentality that rose above the capitalism of the music industry, defied the tendency of rock and drugs to go hand in hand, shared in a general disdain for the current political administration under Ronald Reagan, and were predominately anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian, anti-military, and pro environmentalist among other things.
“I’ve never had any problems with fights or anything,” Oh says. “Everyone is very well behaved.” Despite the crowds’ aggressive appearance, most events at Pentatonic are had without incident; a stark contrast to other crowds that seem to drink themselves into a stupor and fist fight in the Zoe complex as if it’s their favourite hobby.
“We’re like a family here,” says Wipoopong Jiraprapoosak, who organised the event. Wipoopong became a fan of metal and hardcore when he was a teenager and would practice English by translating lyrics of his favourite bands. “Everyone here knows each other, it’s a small group so there’s not always new people that show up, we all know each other, and we support each other’s bands. This really is the only place we can play this music. Sometimes we can get another place, but we have to rent it out, and that can be pretty expensive.”
No cover is charged for the show, bands don’t make any money, and all band members have jobs at coffee shops, restaurants, working construction, or are looking hard to find work. The movement thrives on using their own personal money to fund time in recording studios, or travel to other provinces. If bands arrive from out of town, the crowd and other bands pool money to help them travel back home and feed themselves on the road.
But while the crowds are well-behaved, tight knit and family-like, the music itself is anything but warm and fuzzy in both musical style and lyrical content, and in certain instances resembles an embodiment of the hardcore that spawned in the 70s and 80s.
Local band Opportunity, composed of five Chiang Mai locals, while extremely kind and welcoming in person, do not hold back their frustrations when on stage. Their music leaves me wanting to go look up a thesaurus to find better synonyms for hatred or anger.
“It’s like, basically, against everything that’s horrible,” explains guitarist and backup vocalist “Earth” Pattapong. “We use our music to express our frustration, a lot of it is political. Frustration with crime, corruption, stealing, drugs and inhumanity. Some countries have strong rules, but in Thailand the rules are weak. Good people don’t agree with these things, why do they exist in our country?”
“Our recent music video was taken off YouTube. You can still find it through an English description, but in Thai it has been taken down.” The video Earth is referring to is the music video for their song “Fuck Off It All.” It exhibits their frustration with the entirety of the political climate and the social problems they experience on a day to day basis in Thailand. “Where is God? I see the devil,” goes the chorus, expressing how the flaws they observe in Thailand have caused them to lose view of what they love about their country.
The musical genre itself provides a cloaked medium for the youth to convey their true feelings in a country where honesty isn’t always welcome. Because vocals are mostly screamed, a technique that must be perfected in order to not destroy a singers’ vocal chords, the words are oftentimes indecipherable. Certain chants or choruses might be learned by audiences that can join in unison with the band, but otherwise, the method of singing allows bands to voice their opinions in ways that may not go over so well in other musical genres, or typed out in a Facebook status or opinion piece.
In between bands, local sound engineer Jirawat Sangsuriyan smokes a cigarette outside of the bar and chats with some friends. Opportunity packs up their gear as other musicians begin to take the stage. Jirawat works as the live sound engineer at Lism Cafe, a restaurant, bar and music venue in the Nimmanhaemin area. The cafe sees many touring acts, and has a relatively stable budget to bring in bands from out of town and even abroad.
“At Lism, we just do soft pop, and rock music live,” Jirawat explains. “Most people in Chiang Mai just aren’t open to this type of music, like their heart isn’t open to it. And on top of that Thailand grew up with different types of music, there wasn’t any music like this. So its small for now, I don’t know if it will get any bigger than this.”
Hardcore’s history is not generally known to the public, those aware are usually only loyal fans themselves, so its political agenda or violent past is probably not the reason for its stunted growth in Chiang Mai. Local bands Ask Me About and The Time Written Death, who performed with Opportunity at Pentatonic bar, do not generally steer towards political topics, which is typical of bands composed of younger members. These days as hardcore is passed down through generations, the genre has become more a musical style and less a means to form a cause, and lyrically songs drift towards topics of love, life, death—the usual.
As the Sunday night show at Pentatonic progressed, the stage lights shifting to vivid red, The Time Written Death unleashed an audible fury akin to a sort of demon chorus marching their way through some dark chasm on another planet. Tourists filtered in, took their snap shots of the epitome of a frustrated man on a microphone and ducked back out onto the streets without listening to a full song. Had they stayed, they would have seen Rattavut Puttacharoen, The Time Written Death’s vocalist, fall to his knees amidst a wall of distortion and scream at the top of his lungs in Thai:
“And if things don’t go right in this life, we only need a strong willed heart!”
If you ask me, they missed out.
To keep up on upcoming hardcore shows in Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand, check out the Facebook group “Chiang Mai HxC”.
For rock any night of the week, pay a visit to Pentatonic Rock Bar at Ratchapakhinai and Ratwitthi Road.