No Party For Cao Dong – ‘The Clod’ review: generation-defining Taiwanese indie rockers return with clouded catharsis
Written by ABR on 25/05/2023
Few bands can genuinely claim to be “generation-defining”, but for Taiwan’s indie scene in the 2010s, nobody made a splash quite like No Party For Cao Dong. You could attribute their impact to many things: the powerful voice of frontman Wood Lin; their visceral mix of grunge grit, disco grooves and post-rock catharsis; a maturing and receptive independent music culture in Taiwan.
But above all, it was their lyrics. Dripping with cynicism yet always romantic, elegant and poetically concise, the band’s earth-shaking refrains on their breakout 2016 debut ‘The Servile’ struck a deep chord. Inspired by their own experiences in life, the band’s anthems about social malaise quickly became a voice for a pessimistic generation of Taiwanese youth, facing political and economic despair. Folkloric levels of success swiftly followed: across the strait, their songs received infamous covers at Chinese singing competitions, while at the Golden Melody Awards, the band even dethroned Mandopop institution Mayday to win Best Band – a previously unprecedented achievement for an independent act.
Last year, tragedy struck No Party For Cao Dong when Fan Tsai, whose raw, explosive drumming had powered their music, was found dead in a quarantine hotel room. It’s under this cloud of devastation from which Cao Dong emerge with their second album, ‘The Clod’. It bears the marks of their grief – and possibly that of the potentially pressurising fame that took them to international stages at Rock in Rio and Glastonbury: this album feels almost haunted, struggling to find an emotional center.
Before Fan’s passing, No Party For Cao Dong were due to take their concert series ‘We Were All Born To Our Mothers’ to its largest venue yet: the Taipei Dome. Those stadium-sized expectations might explain the sheer sonic bombast that characterises much of ‘The Clod’, for which Cao Dong have reunited with founding drummer Shih-Wei Huang. The record begins with a bloated introduction that exemplifies its core flaw, wandering between cinematic builds, skittering trap-like hi-hats, and an abrupt chugfest. Possibly seeking to match the scale of those massive shows and outdo its predecessor, ‘The Clod’’s amped-up grandiosity often backfires.
No Party For Cao Dong’s debut showcased the band’s capacity to deliver powerfully immediate music. Their sophomore record, though, struggles to deliver resonant payoffs, with its first half often feeling unfocused and uninspired. After the passable dance-punk cut ‘Pool’, the band jump the shark: the urgent ‘Space’ devolves into a cheesy breakdown that approaches nu-metal, while ‘B’ boasts riffage so overblown it could soundtrack ESPN highlight reels.
Even the atmospherics feel overly laboured: ‘The Human, the Hole and the Mountain’’s one-dimensional 3/4 groove only serves to make its rushed climaxes seem louder, while on ‘Daydream’, Cao Dong distract from guitarist Chu Chu Chan’s touching lament on touring life with a strange patchwork of electronic beatwork and contrived crescendos.
This excess leads much of the lyricism to ring hollow too. Often, the band seemingly sidestep moments of genuine introspection for blanket statements of self-loathing and vague expressions of destructive impulses (“Wanna let myself go before the world gets swallowed,” goes a particularly offending line on ‘Space’, which alternatively translates to: “Before the world is destroyed, you really want to destroy yourself first”). Even their signature group chants feel clumsy, almost cliché; ‘Pool’ features a dreadful “1, 2, 3, jump”. Between the unengaging hooks and meandering ideas, Cao Dong – a band that captured imaginations with their evocative poetics – feel brusque and inaccessible for much of ‘The Clod’. As a result, these first few songs are largely unrelatable, devoid of the band’s previous charisma.
Thankfully, the band sound more in their own skin as ‘The Clod’ progresses. In the record’s latter half, Cao Dong revisit older material (past live renditions of which can be found online) – there, they patiently rediscover their magic. On lead single ‘Lie’, delicate acoustic guitars and rising synths gently build a simmering, resonant melody, eventually exploding into a reflective observation: “Since when did the longing to break apart / Load up the whole heart?”
Then, on longtime fan favourite ‘Chang’, the band reach a sobering turning point. One minute in, Lin’s voice emerges crisply into focus: “I am drunk on the fallen road,” he sings. The band sound rejuvenated after that rare moment of clarity, delivering the song’s pre-chorus and refrains together with poised conviction. After the graceful ‘Shoot’ injects some much-needed breathing room, the band appear to finally reckon with the raw loss of their friend on ‘Damn’. “You said you don’t want to be here, me neither,” Lin bellows before a visceral storm of beats and guitars blows in.
Brutally honest self-examination follows: “Want to pen down something / Feel it’s mightier than a sword swinging / Getting ignored is nothing / At least I still have our thing.” Sounding as if it were directly written to Fan, this song offers the record’s most crushing lines: “我愛你 / 可惜關係變成沒關係 / 問題是沒問題 / 於是我們繼續” (“I love you, but relationship sailed into a sunken ship / Not facing the problems in our grip / We go on with the trip”). After the forced ragers and opaque bluster, the stark anguish on ‘Damn’ is heartbreaking.
On its final lines, the record’s English title finally resonates: “I love you, so I’m not tied up by those matters / But you left here / And our youth disappeared”, Lin and Chan conclude. Like the William Blake poem “The Clod and the Pebble”, the band acknowledge the difficulty of selfless love, hardened by life’s realities. An introverted group whose star has risen far beyond the simple university friendships at its foundation, No Party For Cao Dong seem to be at a sobering crossroads.
Where tragedy might usually tempt darkness, the band choose to fight their characteristic self-loathing and end the record on a genuinely reflective note. They may not yet have an answer on how to proceed – but in courageously acknowledging their vulnerable history, allow themselves ways to move on.
- Release date: May 20
- Record label: Independent
The post No Party For Cao Dong – ‘The Clod’ review: generation-defining Taiwanese indie rockers return with clouded catharsis appeared first on NME.