By Alan Ke
With the reunion of American Football and the success of new artists like Weatherday and Dogleg in recent years, there’s been buzz about the emo genre receiving a bit of a resurgence. After a decade of collecting dust in the closet, black jeans and beaten-up flannel are finally seeing the light of day again. But what most fans don’t realize is that emo never actually went away. Just as it began to fall out of favor in the west, the genre was just picking up steam in Asia.
From the desperate chaos of screamo bands like Killie to the capricious math-rock melodies of Toe, all the different sounds under the emo umbrella made their way into the hands of Japanese artists. Their influence permeated through the scene, eventually seeping into its neighboring countries, most notably in China’s emerging indie scene. The onset of these new sounds coupled with access to the classic records of bands like The Get Up Kids via the internet made possible the perfect hybrid of east and west – Chinese Football. Even their name embodies that very essence, a sport made popular in the west with one of the most loyal followings in China. Thankfully, Chinese Football the band plays far better than any of the country’s teams.
Though commonly categorized as Midwest Emo, it’s misleading to label Chinese Football that way. Sure, they boast the same twinkly telecaster sound to that of American Football – whom they shared a stage with in 2019 – but the comparisons really end there. Midwest Emo, to me, will always be a genre steeped in mellowness and melancholia. Understated, but with a purpose. If bands like The Get Up Kids and Snowing write songs about their personal laments about love and suburban life, Chinese Football evoke the sprawling, urban metropolises that have swept over every corner of China in the last fifteen years. Their sound is rooted in an outward expression of both wonder and urgency, simultaneous with the inevitable feeling of insignificance from living in a city as imposing as their hometown of Wuhan. Their music speaks not for themselves, but for a generation awash in both ambition and ennui.
Chinese Football’s self-titled LP is an album about growth that straddles a limbo between fantasy and reality. The album opens deeply rooted in the former, painting a picture of a precarious jungle our narrator finds himself in. The backdrop of buzzing cicadas is in itself a resonant image for anyone who has spent a summer in southern China’s pockets of humidity. Snapping out of his daydream, the drums that open “Goalkeeper” kick in with velocity, immediately bringing you to the narrator’s side, mid-game where he’s as lost on the field as he is in thought. The song wanders with vivacity, confronting its aimlessness with youthful optimism. This stride is thwarted by the steady buildup of “Flying Fish,” a song that sounds like it’d be right at home on Toe’s The Book About My Idle Plot. Dynamic and unraveling, it employs mathy guitars to full effect, punctuating its spontaneous riffs with momentum and intensity.
Eventually, the narrator’s underlying anxieties catch up to him in the restless “400 metres.” Though expansive and melodic, its lyrics are laced with self-doubt and regret. It’s no wonder the band is fond of opening their shows with this song. It not only sports themes of the album’s football concept but also captures their sound perfectly – emotional and with all its vulnerabilities in full view. “No. 10 Jersey ~Not For Anybody~” further develops these themes but with more tension and urgency than ever before. Not to mention, it’s imbued with a galvanic groove that culminates in one of the album’s most gratifying breakdowns. The song also demonstrates the band’s versatility with guitars that go from strumming beautiful, open chords that induce waves of nostalgia, to hefty riffs that are equal parts danceable and cathartic.
Unfortunately, the English name of “World Cup Fantasy” will never live up to the genius of its original title. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to admire the song for its gradual descent into wallowing sadness. If the emotions on the album could be graphed on a curve, this song would easily make for one of its peaks. Though it isn’t one of the album’s most immediately stunning songs (those come later), this one will win you over with time.
After a much needed instrumental interlude, the album spirals right into the aptly titled “The Last Emo Boy On Earth.” To say that the song lives up to its title would be an understatement. If any band could pull off a song that’s perfectly balanced with both blissful emo riffs and swooning vocals, it would have to be Chinese Football. Packed to the brim with heartache but also muted remorse, the song conceals something that remains unresolved. Each time the phrase “She runs from me, so emotional” is repeated, it undergoes subtle but meaningful transformations, making it clear there’s a side to the story that hasn’t been told.
We head into the next two tracks desperately seeking resolution, but none can be found. Both take on a math rock approach, leaning heavily into tightly composed instrumental jams, complete with left-hook rhythms and They build up tension and discord, accenting the fluidity that led to this point. “Hat-Trick” brings us back to the middle of another soccer match, but this time there’s a sense of direction – and goals being scored. Not even Algernon Cadwallader can compare to the dynamics of these instrumentals. Right after Chinese Football offers their first taste of triumph, they swing in with “Goodbye Milu.” “Milu” is shorthand for Bora Milutinovic, a former FIFA manager, likely indicating the narrator’s departure from the sport. The song sonically reflects this newfound freedom, lifted by a certain weightlessness. The guitars glide naturally, hovering over with breadths of tremolo-picked riffs and unfettered waves of chords. All we’re left with is an ambiguous farewell, “I know you’re everywhere, anywhere, anywhere.” No longer are we lost. The vagrant youth has found home in wandering.
Our narrator recognizes his naive inability to distinguish reality from fantasy, which is addressed in the final proper song, “Blind Men and an Elephant.” As is told in the parable, he can’t open his eyes to the truth. The damage is done. His fantasy has consumed reality. It’s Game Over.
Fluorescent letters that spell “Continue?” flash on screen, the timer ticking down, prompting a replay. You step outside, greeted once again by the nocturnal cry of cicadas. In a world this big, you’re the only one out there hung up on this relationship. It’s time to pack your bags and move on.
Now nearing five years after its release, Chinese Football’s self-titled LP has attained a legacy as a cult classic among the East Asian indie scene. Xu Bo, the band’s lead vocalist and guitar player, has since started up the DIY Sango Records and has worked with putting other small labels on the map like Qiii Snacks. Both structurally and sonically, their influence can be felt throughout much of the up-and-coming bands from the region. At each of their shows, dozens of kids in the crowd sing along to these songs with every breath in their body. Due to COVID-19, which hit their hometown before anywhere else in the world, they have yet to tour outside of Asia. But once they do, you can be assured that they’ll wring out the tears from their audiences. Chinese Football not only proves that emo is something that transcends language, but also age. They are the torchbearers for a generation of woefully distraught teenagers – you just might not know it yet.
Dog Knights Productions and their US branch Clever Eagle Records are reissuing Chinese Football’s first 2 EPs on July 31st, 2020. Please consider supporting the artists directly if you are able!