Just last year, Chinese musician Helen Feng featured on an album that attempted to re-define her culture to a modern day context and picture it from the beer-goggled point of view of western culture – piracy, industrial factories, stereotypical gongs, flutes and bells. The album was Fatima Al Qadiri’s Asiatrich and Feng featured on the opening track “Shanzhai” – a haunting and fake-Mandarin cover of Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares To You”.
This year, she strives to achieve a similar feat of re-definition with her new English-language band Nova Heart, showing the world that Chinese music shouldn’t be pigeon-holed. Although it has to be said that her two former bands Free The Birds and Pet Conspiracy (Kraftwerk, Gary Numan, LCMDF, Ladytron) already broke the mold, Fang has lived in America for a lot of her life and that this debut was produced by in Germany. Nonetheless, it has a point to prove to the masses because all member are from a Chinese heritage.
Nova Heart was named after Helen Fang’s awe at how the planet is formed magically by space particles forced together by nature and this analysis of life is one of many admirable idiosyncrasies on their infectious, intoxicating and marvelously well-produced debut. Unlike an actual nova, it shines bright consistently, cleverly pairing the electrorock of Garbage, the impactful drum heartbeat of Kate Boy, the freedom of Denki Groove and alternative spooky and seductive rock of Vienna Ditto. Whilst simultaneously travelling through the space dimensions of a Doctor Who opening sequence.
Fortunately, Fang is an audiovisual artist and has already exemplified her band’s cohesive blend of the two medias on introductory single “Lackluster Number“. Elegantly saturated noir, it’s an abstract vision of a woman’s pre-determined purpose in life in the eyes of a misogynist – to be a baby-making machine. Submission, insecurity and overcoming adversity are also covered on other tracks “Queen Is Dead” and “No Controversy“. “Boys staring at me, feeling naked in clothes. Tell me what you need and see“.
Introspective mumbling and reversed speech – a technique used much on the album including on the Caribou-meets-Eye Of The Tiger “Evil” and in a Bat For Lashes style on the minimalistic “Dancing Barefoot” – zig-zags with Fang’s ear-pleasing pseudo – trip hop phrasing on the magnetizing downtempo “Lackluster Number”, as she suggestively speaks the line “she’s out on the prowl tonight…” over the top of a drum machine and Wang Hui’s melodic electric guitar. There’s a surprising synthesizer spasm in the bridge which is matched perfectly with pulsating dance moves in the video and Feng’s beloved tambourine and wind-shaking percussion enters – a regular occurrence in Nova Heart’s live shows.
“Queen Is Dead” is the second best track lyrically. Guilt and submission reflected in lines such as: “Dance in the shadow of disbelief” and “Crawl to my body on your hands and knees“. Influenced by The Smiths album of the same name, it’s more hard-hitting, dirtier and punk blues than “Lackluster Number”, with the vibe of Manna, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and PJ Harvey in vocal style, sharp cymbals and bass drum. Flutters of cowbells and tin cans synchronize as patterns and wood-block playfulness keep things interesting as the song promises to be a prolonged live number.
Instrumental tracks “Drive To Our End” and “Interlude” shows their ability to create an enthralling atmosphere and potential for cinematic soundtracks. “Interlude’s” electronic raindrops, fresh breeze of tranquility and futuristic button noises would fit seamlessly on Vangelis’ Blade Runner score and its detailed suspense matches it with science fiction horror. The journey is definitely nocturnal on “Drive To Our End” in a Heroin In Your Veins sense but the difficulty at pinpointing whether it’s set in a jungle with will-o-the whisps – credit to Fang’s impressive and experimental vocal sounds – or in a light-flashing spaceship cockpit containing teleportation devices (also featured on Nova Heart’s Pati Yang-reminiscent “My Song 9”), is a testament to their originality.
Out-of-this-world highlight “Starmaker” features R2-D2 communication, narrates about “rising into a galaxy of stars” and also contains spacious chill-out moments but is a lot sexier and psychedelically exotic than the aforementioned tracks – with the sophisticated disco beat of Roísín Murphy and mystique of Portishead. “No Controversy” follows suit along with a Friends/Ting Tings crowd interaction moment – in fact much of the album sounds like Friends – and a blues rock coating.
The chorus on the gothic new wave “Right Wrong” is perhaps the most commercially-friendly occasion on the album but it’s surrounded by so many sonic surprises such as a whirlwind oscillation, groaning of electric guitar and a piano rock jam that like most of the record, it complies with Helen Fang’s self-confessed mentality of music (from The Sound Stage channel): to do new things without fear with a professional quality and to challenge yourself. Expect them at indie discos around the UK very soon. Nova Heart’s self-titled album is out on October 2 via Fake Music, purchase it on iTunes here.
Words by Matt Hobbs