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North Korea’s Odd Relationship with Metal

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Unlike its “good twin” to the south, North Korea is not known as a musical force in pop culture, but that doesn’t mean that its citizens don’t enjoy or perform music. There have been groups within the country such as Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble, Wangjaesan Light Music Band, and various orchestras who perform a load of patriotic, communist themed songs like “Arirang,” branded in the hearts of every citizen. 

Most North Korean tourism jaunts include visits to a concert hall in which you’ll see expertly trained children showing the prowess of the North Korean musical education system. If you can’t make the tour, there are Pyongyang restaurants in neighboring countries where waitresses wield keytars and perform smiley rock/pop hybrid songs for customers on a nightly basis.

While genres like punk or metal are not practiced in North Korea, there are plenty of connections to it, including songs about the hermit kingdom, videos filmed within the country, a metal concert by an international band and a handful of fake bands which capture the “spirit” of the nation.  

Round Eye – The punk band who filmed a music video in a DPRK theme park 

Many expats who have already taken the plunge to work and live in China also have an interest in the DPRK. Since the country is close by, taking a tour there is not as hard as it would be for someone living overseas. You basically contact a tour group, sign up, meet your group at the airport or train station, and then embark on the journey of a lifetime. Round Eye, a punk band who reside in Shanghai, are no different. The band filmed their “Sifter” music video in the midst of a North Korean tour, filming it at the Mangyongdae theme park (yes, North Korea has theme parks). In the video, the band members can be seen trying out the rides, including a roller coaster and bumper cars. The video ends with some high fives from the locals. Also, on their song “Pink House,” the band included a song played over the PA on the streets of Pyongyang, and eerie track about a nurse in danger on the war field entitled “Where are you, Dear General?” As an aside, Round Eye are not the only group who have filmed a music video in North Korea, as the rap group Peso and Pacman also filmed a video in snowy Pyongyang.  

Laibach – The first foreign band to perform in North Korea 

“All art is subject to political manipulation, except for that that speaks the language of the same manipulation,” is the opening message to Liberation Day, a documentary about Slovenian industrial/avant-garde band Laibach, who own the distinction of being the first Western band to perform in North Korea. The band (who dress, you could say, fashionably fascist), says director Morten Traavik, is misunderstood just like North Korea, which made them a perfect fit for each other. During their performance, businessmen can be seen plugging their ears during their concert, though in a newspaper afterwards, it was said that the event was “very interesting and a success.” Fans in North Korea could only hope that Rammstein are the next band to add a tour date in Pyongyang. 

MegaDragon – Give us a lesson in DPRK cinema with “Pulgasari” 

Like Round Eye, the members of Qingdao metal band MegaDragon have also been to the hermit kingdom, and in their song “Pulgasari” present some controversial film history that’s stranger than fiction. The 1985 movie is a loose remake of a lost 1962 South Korean kaiju film. Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il admired the director and wanted a Godzilla film to call his own, so he used the resources he had to create the ultimate North Korean monster movie by kidnapping South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his wife, actress Choi Eun-hee. After making the film, and several other propaganda flicks, Sang-ok and his wife escaped during an Australian tour. The MegaDragon song and accompanying video give you a good idea of the plot, with scenes from the movie making up the video. So if you don’t have the time to watch the entire masterpiece, this music video will do. 

Idle – More Pulgasari Destruction! 

Pulgasari Returns! The Detroit city slamming deathcore band Idle named their 2020 EP after the North Korean Godzilla. This 11-minute Dissolution of Pulgasari does exemplify the carnage and destruction the metal-eating monster could enact on the city of Pyongyang, though it shouldn’t attack at night as there are hardly any lights on in the buildings and it could get lost. Besides the name, though, there is little connection to the DPRK, but if you need some new deathcore in your life, here is a quick fix. 

Nuclear Power Trio – Dear Leader/Dear Drummer 

The modern-day axis of evil — Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un — have decided to ditch politics and unite together with the sole intent to melt faces with riffs instead of nuclear warheads. Nuclear Power Trio have made these antagonizing figures something everyone can love, as you can’t help but marvel at how cute the band’s costumes look. The instrumental powerhouse released their first record, A Clear and Present Rager, via Metal Blade last October, and in their accompanying music videos for the title track and “Grab ‘Em By the Pyongyang” the three world leaders play and rage in a private plane and play basketball together. It makes me wonder about Mr. Jong-un’s private life; he has access to a lot of media and loves basketball, so why wouldn’t he like metal? (He recently said he thinks K-Pop is a “vicious cancer.”) After getting his massages in his private mansion, he may very well be smashing those skins along to “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

Henry Rollins – “Good people, bad government.” 

Hardcore icon Henry Rollins took a solo trip to North Korea and discussed the adventure with Tom Green on Larry King Now. In the clip below, Rollins explains that he went to the DPRK because he has the West “sewn up,” that non-Western environments fascinate him and he wants to learn about how humans can get along in this century, the only one he has left. He gives an anecdote about his tour guide, Kim, who he says broke character at the tail end of his journey, hugging Rollins and saying “You’re my friend! One day I’m going to come to Los Angeles and I’m going to visit you!” Rollins says he’ll take Kim out for a burrito, to which Kim replied “What’s a burrito?” 

Red War – 붉은 전쟁 – Brutal death metal “from North Korea” 

Holy shit, a brutal death metal band from North Korea?! Don’t get your hopes up, bud. Red War are an interesting case, as the band is something of an urban legend. Although there are songs posted online and a photo of the band members with their backs to the camera, the general consensus is that they are actually a joke/gimmick band, possibly from South Korea, though the lyrics are in English and unrelated to the song titles, so another theory is that the songs were lifted from another band and the name Red War was slapped onto it. Still, the concept is intriguing: a militant, patriotic, anti-American band that writes songs about the nastiness of imperialism with titles like “War With U.S.A.” What a way to rile up the youth of the DPRK, right? Why not have a cup of tea with your Red War? Another band who claims to be from North Korea are pornogrind outfit Teagirl, but I also wouldn’t bet on seeing them during your next DPRK tour.  

The Moranbong Band – North Korea’s most famous band 

Personally selected by Kim Jong-un for your listening pleasure, the sixteen-woman strong Moranbong Band wear the pride of North Korea on their instruments and are the most popular group in the country. Since emerging in 2012, they’ve been called North Korea’s version of the Spice Girls, but I wouldn’t sell them so short; these girls can definitely shred, playing a technically challenging fusion of pop and rock that sounds quite progressive and orchestral and at times brings to mind prog rock acts of the ’70s. Speaking of that decade, The Moranbong Band have covered songs from the era including “Theme from Rocky.” They attempted to perform in Beijing, but the show was canceled, according to the Korean Herald, because China had requested that North Korea’s missiles should not be shown during (the backing videos of) performances.  

“Peace is on our Bayonet” as performed by the Korean People’s Army Merited Chorus 

When visiting North Korea, you will most likely be taken to the Victorious War Museum. Here, the North Korean military officer in charge of the tour will gleefully show you the USS Pueblo, an American battleship they seized, and various American and South Korean planes shot down (apparently by a lone gunman) during the Korean War. They are quite proud of these accomplishments and aren’t shy about telling you the gory details. Same with some of their songs of patriotism. It’s not metal, but the lyrics here could just as easily appear in a Sodom album booklet: “If the aggressors pounce upon us, we’ll annihilate them bravely. With the General’s orders in our hearts, we’ll take up arms to smash the enemy.” Now, who will be the first to cover this one? 

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