Those that thought they had Alex Zhang Hungtai pegged on account of his debut Badlands are in for a big surprise when confronted with its sprawling successor Drifters / Love Is The Devil - all 16 tracks and 75 minutes of it. The leather-clad hellion on Badlands` cover was apparently just a character, Hungtai's Twitter stream confirming his demise recently: "If you want the old stuff, it's over."
Though, if you've been keeping tabs on Hungtai for any length of time, it was kinda obvious his next move would be anything but predictable. Before Badlands there was a variety of styles with numerous collaborators, since then an ambient, drone-filled documentary score. Newly single and struggling after two solid years on the road, Drifters / Love Is The Devil is Hungtai's pained cry at transience (see the tellingly cathartic "This Is Not My City"). Suffice it to say his mood is far from parallel with the exotic locations of his track listing: Lisbon; Belgrade; Berlin - the latter his adopted home during much of the double-album's recording process. Where exactly he was staying during this time however is anyone's guess, as the brutal rhythm of "Aurevoir Mon Visage" borrows the bleakest of the city's techno over which he totally loses it, screaming in abstract French.
Tied together in concept, Drifters and Love Is The Devil are artistic statements first and commercial endeavours second, a battle Hungtai has been waging and, according to him, losing for some time. Love Is The Devil deals with romantic loss and is almost entirely instrumental, the exception coming very late on via "Like The Ocean We Part", a track which contains the last vestiges of those 50s pastiches from Badlands, Hungtai's desperate and disembodied croon wailing in oceans of space and echo.
The remainder of this side roams through ambient sad-scapes, periodically bumping into chameleonic monsters: here red-lining squall; there fractured sax. Its tail-end is particularly damaged and dangerous stuff that shouldn't be listened to alone under any circumstances. On hearing the very self-explanatory "I Don't How To Find My Way Back To You", for example, it's easy to hear why Hungtai claims he was crying his eyes out during recording.
Interesting too is the sequencing, which sees Hungtai place the highly challenging and alienating "Woman" back-to-back with the neo-classical title-track "Love Is The Devil". Its teary strings are so far removed from the antagonistic noise of its predecessor that their beauty is enhanced, perhaps suggesting too that, in time, Hungtai may be able to love again. The serene "Alone At The Danube River" certainly confirm he's been doing a lot of thinking, its cold metallic chimes vaguely oriental in their solemn isolation. Who knows?
We've all been there though. It's not pretty. And we all know that before the moping and soul-searching comes anger. Hungtai calls his Drifters and he uses it unleash unforgiving kraut-drone that demands to be banged up loud. The post-everything groove he digs out for "Casino Lisboa" evokes memories of Blade Runner, only minus the retro-futurist kitsch and with added themes of apocalyptic dystopia in which fragments of former cultures swirl like all the radios on earth converged - an depressingly easy trick, maybe, when you remember that Hungtai - now a naturalised Canadian - was born in Taipei and, as well as Berlin, has also previously lived in Hawaii and Shanghai to name but a few.
Adrift then in the world, Hungtai seems nevertheless to have found an affinity in Alan Vega and Martin Rev`s iconic industrial electro-punk, continuing the harsh, Suicide-esque adventures that Badlands started with the dark "Night Walk" and No Wave crash of "I Dream In Neon". Later, mercifully, the bedroom-budget beats of "ELLI" will clear the air, allowing ghostly echoes of of the Wu-Tang Clan to sidle into the void. And peace manages to reign too for the opening half of 10-minute centrepiece "Mirage Hall", its ecclesiastical organ-drone slowly contorting into a frenzied Spanish-language howl at the moon.
Yet despite these moments of clarity, these mirages on the road to hell, it's not just the battle between art and commercial viability that Hungtai would seem to be losing. Casting himself as some sort of wandering albatross he's ripping himself apart in search of a home. Here's wishing him the best of luck laying down some roots for whilst his breakdown is fascinating, its influence on his work is both striking and deeply disturbing in equal measure.
Advised downloads: "I Dream In Neon" and "Alone At The Danube River"
A double album, or perhaps more accurately a double EP. Lo fi and often sounding as though it was recorded using a microphone onto a 1970's tape deck. Drifters is grimy 1970s disco, well some of it is. The vocals are deep in the mix and Drifters is a challenge to listen to in places mainly due to repetition provided by endless loops of music that just drone on. Of course that is probably the point. Love is the Devil is mostly instrumental with a definite ambient sound. It is quite beautiful and moving and oddly has a tune resembling Memories emerging through the mist. So, difficult yes, but also a very rewarding and ultimately uplifting album that is mysterious and merits multi plays.