Interview: OU Discuss 蘇醒 II: Frailty, Working with Devin Townsend

Interview with drummer Anthony Vanacore

Beijing’s OU are poised to become China’s progressive metal phenoms with their second album  蘇醒 II: Frailty, due April 26 via InsideOutMusic. The band went all out on this release to ensure its impact, having enlisted legendary Canadian mastermind Devin Townsend to produce the album and to also lend guest vocals to the song “淨化 Purge.” I speak to drummer Anthony Vanacore about the journey of the band, working with Devin, and the state of prog metal in China.

How did OU initially form?

OU initially formed around 2019. Originally some songs were written that I had my good friends, bassist Chris Cui and guitarist Jing Zhang record. Later on we found Lynn and she added vocals. We were so blown away by the result that we decided to make a full album.

Your first album came out in 2022. Could you tell us about the reaction to it and the path of the band leading up to the release of your sophomore effort?

The reaction overall was very encouraging. The general consensus was that it was something unlike anything they’ve ever heard before. That was very nice to hear! The second album is a logical continuation of the vibe that is OU, but we like to keep the idea of whatever it is a little bit of mystery even to ourselves.

Your music does combine metal, electronica, ambience and melodies combined into something fresh and progressive. What influences cultivated together to form this sound? Were you inspired by any other bands in the Chinese scene?

Just speaking for myself, there are many influences! A broad spectrum of progressive rock and metal, experimental, pop, world music, jazz, etc: Devin Townsend, Sikth, Dream Theater, Rush, The Gathering, Bjork, Steve Reich, Yoko Kanno, Geinoh Yamashirogumi, Balinese music, Miles Davis, some movie soundtracks and many, many more. I think some melodic elements in traditional Chinese music played a sub-conscience role in their composition.

When it comes to progressive metal in China, I find that this genre wasn’t as cultivated as the others (aside from a select few bands like Tang Dynasty and The Last Successor), though progressive elements are sometimes added to genres like deathcore (Lie to the Silence/Human Instrumentality Project/Leviathan) and death metal (Horror of Pestilence). Do you feel that OU is filling a prog metal void in Chinese metal music?

I know the drummer to Tang Dynasty, Zhao Nian, a really great guy. I’m not sure if OU is filling any void and don’t quite feel I have the right to say one way or the other. But of course we hope the music resonates with people!

What concepts and storyline is on display with 蘇醒 II: Frailty? Is there an overarching theme from One?

This might be a better question for Lynn as she wrote the lyrics. She mentioned to me that there are some common themes found in Buddhism that run throughout the lyrical content.

“Recall” has a bit of a Philip Glass feel. What was the process like for creating and later having Devin produce a track like this?

That’s an interesting observation! I think that track is a little more inspired by Steve Reich, but I suppose both composers fall into the more “minimalist” category (though I feel that categorization is a little unfair). It was cool how Devin dealt with that track because it was the most acoustic track of the album. All the instruments are real percussion instruments, including a Balinese instrument called the jegog, and the only thing other than that are vocals. So it was written kind of as a meditation, lots of repetition. There are some very interesting rhythmic structures cycling that organize how it unfolds.

I have noticed that musicians from abroad have been guesting more frequently on Chinese metal band recordings. Some examples include Dehumanizing Itatrain Worship’s latest release featuring Kyle Medina from Bodysnatcher, Tom Barber from Chelsea Grin, etc. and Horror of Pestilence recently collaborating with Kyle Schaefer from Fallujah. Do you feel as if Chinese metal is getting more noticed in general, which is leading to more collaborations?

I hope so! There’s a lot of creative energy here that I hope gets tapped into more and more. The drummer of Horror of Pestilence, Yuli, is a friend of mine here too.

Devin Townsend had a string of production efforts for other bands aside from his own work in the 2000s including Lamb of God, GWAR, and Soilwork. How did you get involved with him to both produce 蘇醒 II: Frailty and to guest on “淨化 Purge”?

Devin’s involvement came as an idea from the head of InsideOut, Thomas Waber. He put us in touch around the beginning of 2023 and we discussed some details about the album prior to the beginning of the mixing process. During the end of the mixing process I asked him if he would be interested to sing on one of the tracks in Chinese. He was very cool about it and agreed to try it out! I think it came out super cool!

Devin came to Shanghai in 2016 for a special performance at Music China. Did any of you manage to catch this show/have you asked him about his experience playing in China or his thoughts about the Chinese music scene?

During the mixing process, we would chat about things here and there and once he mentioned he came to China. It was probably the same time you spoke of, but unfortunately at that time I wasn’t even aware he came. It could very well have been because at the time I was living in Beijing…

The collaboration has led to some Western exposure for OU—I have found that generally, it’s hard to get regular metal fans interested in Chinese groups unless there is some sort of familiarity attached to the package or special exposure (such as the Global Metal documentary). Now that you have the attention of the fans, what is the next step for OU? Do you have plans for touring abroad?

Yes, playing live is something we would love to do and we hope to start that up coming in 2025! We also have a lot of things in the pipeline, including a short animated series featuring an entity called “OU,” which will start to be released this year. In addition, some singles that are in the works separate from the album, as well as some remixes, etc. So, lots of stuff is in the works to be excited about in the world of OU!

OU (@ou.theband) • Instagram photos and videos

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