Black Syndrome - “Fatal Attraction” (1988) and “On The Blue Street” (1991)

Well, this is it.  The last of the as-of-yet unreviewed vinyl from our May visit to Asia.  I enjoyed digging at the various shops in Seoul’s Hoehyeon Underground Shopping Center, and it was down there at Pastel Records that I found this pair of Black Syndrome titles.  I was even able to get them at a slight discount, showing up with cash in hand at closing time.

I couldn’t find much about Black Syndrome.  They were one of the early South Korean metal bands, and like their peers they borrowed heavily from the hair metal scene both in sound and in look.  So let’s just take a listen to each of these and see what they have to offer.

Fatal Attraction (1988)

Black Syndrome come out of the gate fast and hard on their debut with “I’m Your Man”, establishing a fast pace and revealing that at least some of their songs are sung in English.  The guitar work is intricate, especially on the ballad-ish “기다리는 마음” (“A Waiting Mind”).  Throughout side A I was wracking my brain trying to figure out who these guys remind me of, and it finally hit me - Cinderella, specifically how those glam metallers sounded on the song “Gypsy Road”, which came out the same year as Fatal Attraction.  Black Syndrome feel a tad heavier than their better-known contemporaries but hey, what do you expect when one band is named after a princess and the other after something that sounds more like a lung disease you’d get from working too long in a coal mine.

Recommended track:  “Rock The Speed”.  This is probably the most metal that Black Syndrome get on Fatal Attraction - driving guitars and rasped vocals that show some range.  The lyrics are in Korean, but the chorus is in English:

Rocking desire Rock the Night
Rocking desire Rock the Speed.

You get the gist.  It’s a song about rocking that has an interlude filled with all kinds of fancy guitar flourishes.  Honorable mention to “I’m Your Man”.  Dishonorable mention to the last song not he album, “온 국민이 함께 부르는 노래”.  Is this actually by the same band?  It doesn’t feel like it.  It’s more like some poor audio quality 1970s style folk rocker with a female singer.  Seriously… is this supposed to be on this record???

If you’re buying this on vinyl, check and see if includes the half-sheet insert with lyrics on one side and a color band photo on the other.

On The Blue Street (1991)

Black Syndrome’s third record opens with a song called “Feed the Power Cable Into Me”. That title alone is enough to give me pause.  It’s actually a decent hair metal jam even if the lyrics are a bit weird.  Next up is “개인적인 외로움”, and now we’re moving into blues-based hard rock, and I like it.  The B side starts off with the two-minute instrumental rocker “Blue Revolution” before taking us into a Ratt-like direction with “First In Line”.  Good stuff.

This one comes with a four page insert with lyrics and photos, so once again make sure to check to see if it’s inside before pulling the trigger on the vinyl.

 

I gotta say, those South Korean bands in the late 1980s/early 90s knew how to rock!

Sinawe - “Heavy Metal Sinawe” (1986)

I’m finally circling back around to some of the records we brought back from South Korea that still remain on the “to listen to” shelf.  In one of Seoul’s tiny record stores I found what looked like a whole run of excellent condition albums by Sinawe.  Since my cash was limited I had to make some strategic decisions and I figured it was best to go with the band’s first album, 1986s Heavy Metal Sinawe, because it’s considered one of the very first Korean metal records and I wanted to hear what that was all about.

Sinawe guitarist and founding member Shin Daechul is a second generation rocker.  His father Shin Jung-hyeon is often referred to as the nation’s “Godfather of Rock,” starting out playing guitar to US servicemen and putting out his first albums in the late 1950s.  Unfortunately an arrest for marijuana possession in 1975 put him in the grips of a dictatorship’s security apparatus, landing him in prison where he was tortured before being sent to a psychiatric hospital.  When he got out four months later he was banned from performing, an exile that remained in place until 1979 and the assassination of South Korean President Park Chung-hee.

Shin Daechul followed in his father’s footsteps, and the guitarist founded Sinawe in 1986 at the ripe old age of 18.  The band’s debut, Heavy Metal Sinawe, sold over 400,000 copies, and given that the lyrics are all in Korean I have to think that pretty much all of those copies were sold in their home country - an impressive feat.  It looks as though it originally came out only on vinyl, though I can’t be 100% sure and there was definitely at least one CD release put out in 2012.  Musically you get exactly what you’d expect from a mid-1980s metal album, or at least what the mainstream referred to as metal, with driving, guitar-based songs and soaring vocals.  There are even a couple of slower songs thrown in for good measure.

Sinawe has gone through various periods of inactivity and re-formation over the last few decades.  Their last album looks to have come out in 2006 (Reason of Dead Bugs), though there were rumors that a new album was in the works as recently as 2015.  As for me, I’m filing the name Sinawe into my mental database and will make sure to be on the lookout for their records when I’m out digging.

Crash - “Endless Supply of Pain” (1994)

This is another gem I bought on our recent trip to Seoul.  Who knew South Korea was putting out such great hard rock/metal back in the early 1990s???  Not this guy…

Crash let you know what you’re in for right from the get-go with the thrash tune “Scream,” it’s heavy and staggered guitar riffs not as much provide a flow as they do a series of jackhammer bursts to break up the rocks inside your brain.  The vocals are aggressive with violent lyrical content, which is why you’ll also sometimes see the band described as death metal.  What I find particularly interesting about Endless Supply of Pain when compared to the debut of Crash’s South Korean contemporaries Asiana, 1990s Out On The Street, is the production value.  Whereas Out On The Street felt sonically flat in the recording, Endless Supply of Pain is extremely well constructed, no doubt due to the able assistance of UK metal producer Colin Richardson.  This album is perfectly mixed, with each instrument (including the voice) finding space to be heard - even the bass is right there in front of you, not something you have to strain to hear as separate from the drums.  It doesn’t sound flat like Asiana does, but instead full and rich.

The most intriguing song on the album is “최후의 날에” (♠), which closes out side A.  The only tune with lyrics in Korean, it starts slow and makes you think you’re in store for something ballad-like before exploding into a thrash-fest reminiscent of Pantera, and that’s praise I don’t thrown around lightly.  The riffs are cohesive with transitional sequences from one part to the next that give it a better flow that many of Crash’s other songs.  Crash also treat us to a very heavy cover of “Smoke On The Water”, shouting the lyrics at you like an accusation as if you were the “some stupid with a flare gun” who burned the place to the ground.  Guys, it wasn’t me, I swear!

(♠) “On The Last Day”

Asiana - “Out On the Street” (1990)

Loverboy tells us that “everybody’s workin’ for the weekend,” and that doesn’t change as you get older.  Seemingly endless hours of work and commuting don’t leave a lot of time for much during the week other than the essentials - eating, sleeping, and basic hygiene.  But the weekends?  That’s where you get to bust loose and go wild and party, right?  Except eventually you reach a certain again and you look forward to the weekend for other reasons, like maybe going to bed early, sleeping in, and, well, maybe a nap if you can fit it in.

I decided to take my first foray into the vinyl we brought back from our recent trip to Seoul, starting with Asiana’s Out On The Street.  And man does this take me back to a simpler time, a time when the weekends were about going out and getting after it, rocking out with your friends and tossing back some beers if you could find someone old enough to buy them for you.  It still sounds great to my much older brain as I sit here on a Saturday morning, having gone to bed early last night, slept in this morning, and now waking up with my second cup of coffee. (♠)  The fast tracks scream NWOBHM with strong Judas Priest and Krokus influences, while the slower, heavy numbers like “Tom Kat” feel more like Guns N’ Roses.  It’s surprisingly good, though may have been a bit dated by time it came out in 1990.  But South Korea was relatively new to the metal game then, having only recently broken free from rule by a series of strongmen and de facto dictators to emerge into a freer democratic society.  The South Koreans were quick studies, however, because Out On The Street is a solid effort every bit as good as what was being played on FM radio at the time, plant of shredding guitars and lyrics that flip between raspy and soaring.  As an added bonus the whole thing is sung in English, making it very approachable to North American and European metalheads.

I picked this up at a nice little shop called Coda in the Myeong-dong Underground Shopping Center.  Seoul has a lot of these little underground malls - they look like entrances to subway stations from the street and serve the dual purpose of allowing you to get to any corner of the massive downtown intersections quickly and without having to wait on crossing signals, with the added bonus of being full of little shops.  This particular center has tons of music stores and is ground zero for any vinyl junkie visiting Seoul, packing half a dozen shops into a few hundred feet.  Unfortunately this copy of Out On The Street has some water damage on the jacket reverse and is missing the insert, but the vinyl is in great shape and it was the only copy of this I found, so there was no way it wasn’t coming home with me since Asiana is one of the few metal bands from this period that showed up in my pre-trip research.

The recording is a tad flat to modern ears, but I’m coming to see that as not so much a failing of 1980s and 90s recordings as to how the “Loudness War” changed the way we all hear music.  It’s a real thing, and for better or worse the damage to a large extent is done.  I’m partial to the title track which you can check out below.

(♠)  You don’t need coffee when you’re younger.  But the older I get, the more essential it becomes.

Record Shopping - Seoul, South Korea Style

Holly and I are in the midst of a week-long visit to Asia, specifically Seoul and Osaka.  And of course a vacation isn’t a vacation without some record shopping (♠).  I’ve done some digging in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hong Kong in the past, but both these cities are new to me so I was pretty excited to see what I could find.

Seoul isn’t particularly known for having a strong vinyl culture, and throughout our first full day in the city I was thwarted at almost every turn.  In the morning we failed to find an underground shopping mall I’d read about that was supposed to include some second hand vinyl sellers, another store totally eluded us, and a third apparently didn’t open until 2:30PM which did us no good since we were leaving that part of town at 1:30PM to attend a baseball game. (♥) Fortunately the planets aligned in the early evening and I managed to track down the used vinyl Promised Land located in the Hoehyeon Underground Shopping Center, which turned out to be about two blocks from our hotel in Myeong-dong.

I learned of this hidden gem from a young Bulgarian female metalhead and blogger named Velina, who publishes the cool blog My Rock Mixtapes.  We missed it the first time because I thought it was in the Myeong-dong Underground Shopping Center… but a check back to Velina’s blog pointed me in the right direction.  You’re looking for the subway entrance near the Shinsegae department store.  There are a bunch of these underground shopping centers, some that are part of the subway terminals and others, like Hoehyeon Underground Shopping Center (below), that are simply little malls under the city streets.  The quality of these centers varies wildly, and the one at Hoehyeon appears to specialize heavily in coin/stamp dealers and little used vinyl shops.  I didn’t actually count them all, and some were closed during my visit because it was Sunday, but best guess is there are at least half a dozen record shops down there.

I’m not much of a foreign pressing guy in that I’m not going out of my way to get an obscure pressing of something I already have.  Unfortunately for me that’s a lot of what was on offer down in Hoehyeon, as well as an absolute ton of old classical records.  But there was still plenty to keep me occupied for around 90 minutes, and honesty I could have spent way more time there had I wanted to really dig through the 1980s and 90s South Korean artists.  I’d done some research in advance, but to be honest the country isn’t well known for producing a lot of the kind of thing I’m interested in like punk and metal, so there wasn’t a ton here for me.  Plus the dealers were clearly aware of the going rates on Discogs, so I didn’t see any major bargains on vintage South Korean artists.  Thankfully, however, the stuff I was interested in was in great shape and I came away with a few interesting purchases.

Some of the shops have signs, others don’t, making it a bit hard to give you the full specifics.  Also, most of them have their inventory spilling outside their shops in fairly well-ordered bins, the shops themselves being quite small - seemingly every turn of a corner yielded more stacked shelves in front of stores.  The one major down-side is that many dealers had their wares in cube shelving with the spines facing out making for a more challenging digging environment, especially when you’re looking for South Korean releases and like me can’t read the Korean on the spines.  I could have easily spent half a day down there digging, even ignoring the huge swaths of classical vinyl that many stores seemed to specialize in.

My first stop was the tiny but well organized Coda which offered more traditional flipping bins.  I stated with the rock/metal section and found a few interesting bootlegs, but then my eyes fell upon the South Korean section so I switched my focus.  I had a small list of punk and metal bands to look for and it didn’t take me long to find my first one - Asiana’s 1990 metal debut Out On the Street.  I also found some bands there that looked promising, and fortunately Holly and I decided to rent our own secure mobile internet hotspot so I was able to look stuff up online using my phone.  I eventually settled on another metal debut, Sinawe’s 1986 Heavy Metal Sinawe.  Both records were immaculate, though the Asiana jacket had a bit of wear.  Prices weren’t cheap - $40-50 US apiece, but that’s in line with Discogs pricing when you factor in shipping, so I pulled the trigger.

After that I popped next door to LP Love, a slightly larger space with a similar selection and prices.  LP Love was also well laid out for digging, though I didn’t find anything the excited me and I was trying not to overcommit too early before I got to see the other shops (♣).    LP The Disk had a nice assortment of SK metal and hard rock pressings, but that wasn’t my objective.  Another seller, smack dab in the middle of the shopping area, had a massive wall of shelving full of bargain priced LPs at 5,000 wan each - about $5.  I didn’t spend much time here though as I was still on the hunt for more SK artists and these were mostly just SK pressings.

I found a few more items at Pastel Records, ironically on some of those spine-out shelves because I saw some English writing - Black Syndrome.  I couldn’t find much about the band online, but the one song clip I came across (“Rock the Speed”) sounded pretty great so I picked up their 1988 debut Fatal Attraction and their third On the Blue Street.

One last tip.  If you’re interested in K Pop there are tons of kiosk-like shops offering up insane amounts of merchandise.  CDs, however, proved harder to find (I was trying to pick some up for a friend’s son).  However, we tracked down a joint called Music Korea that had tons of the stuff, so if that’s you’re jam, that’s where you’ll want to go.

We had a great time visiting South Korea.  While the vinyl scene isn’t as substantial as that of say Japan, there’s some good history here and the releases I picked up from the 1980s and 90s all appear to be of good quality.  If you find yourself in town, you’ll definitely have the opportunity to pick up a few records with just a bit of effort.

(♥) Many shops don’t open until early afternoon, and quite a few are closed on Mondays, which also sucks.

(♠) Nor is it a vacation without us trying to track down the best local burger and some local wine and/or beers.

(♣) But don’t feel too bad for LP Love.  On our last day in Seoul we realized we had more local currency on hand than we needed, a situation I rectified by picking up a copy of Crash’s 1994 album Endless Supply of Pain from LP Love.