Metal, punk and indie is here.
When you think of Korean music, you typically think of K-Pop, that juggernaut of catchy lyrics and stylized videos. If you are a resident of Seoul, you are probably aware of the bustling Korean indie rock scene. But, even if you’re a fan of live music, rock music, or even metal you might be unaware that Korea has a thriving heavy metal music scene: an underground music scene that has a lot of crossover between genres, a welcoming atmosphere, a dynamic spirit, and a relentless energy. Let’s talk about this small, yet incredibly loud collective of musicians and fans, after which you’ll hopefully be encouraged to see the musical magic for yourself.
In the decades after the Korean War, rock music was unofficially illegal in Korea. Under President Park Chung-Hee’s administration, foreign music and albums were heavily censored. This had all changed drastically by the 1980s as these social programs ended and rock music became hugely popular, with many Korean rock and metal bands forming. Notable bands including Sinawe, Baekdoosan, Black Hole, H20, Black Syndrome, and others became popular mainstream acts that could be heard on the radio, be seen on TV, and sell out huge venues. Most of these bands still play regularly in Seoul at much smaller venues. This trend continued and later Korean rockers formed more specialized genres including punk bands like No Brain, death metal bands like Seed, and thrash metal bands like Crash. Korean music historians call the 80’s and 90’s the Golden Age of metal and rock as K-Pop music began to dominate all aspects of the Korean media by the late ‘90s, forcing out other music styles; a trend that continues to this day. Kim Hee-Ju of the death metal band Imperial Domination says, “The K-metal scene was not that bad until 2006. Usually almost 100 fans came, sometimes 200, to a major metal show. Bands like Crash could gather a couple of hundred people for a show easily. But since 2007, the scene just collapsed. It went to almost nothing. Like 20-30 fans, it could be called a good show. Big shame.”
Some metal rock stars transitioned into K-Pop, such as Seo Taiji of Sinawe, who founded one of the first K-Pop idol groups, Seo Taiji and the Boys. There was a societal shift from rock to K-Pop and as a result, today’s metal scene is small in comparison to the huge population of Seoul.
What is the Korean metal scene like today?
One of the biggest differences between seeing live music in Korea and in Western countries is how early the performances start. Opening bands usually start at exactly 6pm with the last band often playing their final notes well before midnight. This is to allow people to catch the subway before it shuts down, I was used to showing up at a venue fashionably late at 9pm or later and I would often miss half the bands.
Another characteristic is the incredible work ethic and dedication that most of the bands have. There’s rarely long set-ups between acts. One band will finish their last song and then immediately break down their equipment while the next one starts their set-up, usually starting the next set in 15 minutes. Also, Korean bands have a well earned reputation of never phoning in their performances; no matter how small their audience, they give every performance their all. ”And the other very specific thing about the Korean metal scene is that there are so many good bands [in relation to] the scene’s size. Almost every band is good. Of course the Korean metal scene is very small so there are not many bands, but all active bands are quite good so you won’t be disappointed whichever show you go to,” says Kim Hee-Ju.
There is also an encompassing sense of community between the bands and music fans. After the shows, there are usually huge group dinners involving the performing bands and fans – usually with a lot of drinking and chatting that goes on until the early morning. “After a show in Florida, I would just go home. In Korea, part of the whole show is eating and drinking with everyone afterwards,” says Dan Orozco, writer of AsiaMetalHead.
Probably due to the small size of the scene, a lot of shows will offer a mix of genres. Often there will be shows that feature a mix of punk, classic thrash metal, black metal, and grind-core bands. Faced with K-Pop’s brightly packaged sugary pop, many underground bands have moved to the other extreme of insanely loud guitar shredding and brutal guttural vocals. Thumbo Gumbo of Vermin Majesty explains, “The Korean scene is unique as its diverse and certain movements towards extreme music and activities are happening for sure…going deeper instead of spreading out.”
Metal, punk, and indie music in Korea are all small scenes, yet there seems to be a renaissance occurring. New record labels and organizers have formed in the last two years, including Dope Records, Vermin Majesty Records, and Hell Ride Productions. International metal bands such as NightWish, At the Gates, Kamelot, Behemoth, ArchEnemy, and many others have performed to large crowds. Thrash metal band Method has appeared several times on network TV along with indie music bands such as Gukkasten, and other bands considered underground. Every weekend there is a selection of metal shows to choose from in Seoul, as well as Busan and occasionally Daegu. And there is a much more developed network for the promotion of shows. Metal-focused website, AsiaMetalhead (http://asiametalhead.com) offers a schedule of concerts in English, and for a more comprehensive rundown of indie, punk, metal music concerts, check out the Korean Gig Guide (http://www.koreagigguide.com). Through its highs and lows, it’s honestly amazing that the Korean underground scene even exists in one of the world’s most Confucian and traditional societies. Yet, it has a thriving and evolving spirit of rebellion, community, and head-banging.
Who should you see and where should you go?
When talking about where to see metal and underground music, the majority of venues and bands are based in Seoul, with a few active bands in Busan and Daegu. Let’s talk about some of the active bands that are performing regularly in Korea.
Seed (death metal): Formed in the ‘90s, they’ve been active and instrumental in the Korean metal scene. Their shows are really fun and usually inspire crowds to do the “Walls of Death.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TxhwopU5_6Y
Fecundation (technical death metal): An upcoming duo that are making amazing new songs. https://www.facebook.com/Fecundationdeathmetal/
Ishtar (symphonic/operatic metal): A soprano singer fronting a melodic/progressive metal band that makes incredibly complex songs of love and anguish. I’m always shocked that this band isn’t super famous and touring the world as their music is so unique and inspiring. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O8sf7VmD5Z0
Dark Mirror of Tragedy (doom/gothic/symphonic): Usually accompanied by a live violinist on stage, they play highly original symphonic/melodic metal songs with a gothic style that is unique in Korea. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UOOPDjBmogE
Imperial Domination (death metal): Veterans of the music scene, their shows are fast, loud, and infectious with non-stop hammering speed. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QtTPRT7X7WI
Midian (melodic/progressive/death metal): Ranging from brutal death metal to very operatic progressive metal in the style of Dream Theatre. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4tcbK6DTHyg
ChristFuck (grindcore/shock): Offstage, ChristFuck are incredibly friendly people who are integral to the Korean punk/metal scene. On stage, they’re something that can’t be described.
Gwamegi (hardcore/metal): Veterans of the Korean southern coast who often play in Seoul, they play a mix of California hardcore and extreme metal.
Photos by: Michael O’Dwyer
Story by: Michael O’Dwyer