Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City has a history of infamy, dating back to its origins as a Chinese military fort, later transforming into an enclosed, dystopic community rife with drug use and prostitution (and unlicensed medical care), and ruled largely by the Triad syndicate. Its fortified structure largely kept out sunlight, and as a sprawling den of iniquity, mostly avoided government intervention, a neutral outpost for vice that brings to mind the short-lived “Hamsterdam” on The Wire. Still, a large number of its residents kept a humble, crime-free existence in spite of its dark and dangerous reputation, but eventually Hong Kong’s government found it too much of a nuisance to remain standing, and in the ’90s, the city was demolished and converted into a public park.
The backstory behind Hong Kong’s infamous, fortified community fits San Francisco noise rock outfit Kowloon Walled City, whose sludgy, dark sound parallels the bleak menace of the neighborhood before it met the business end of a wrecking ball. Container Ships, the band’s second full-length album after a handful of singles and EPs, moves slowly and with a sinister groove. The band has received comparisons to the likes of Neurosis, and that’s near the center of the target, though not necessarily the bull’s eye — if Neurosis is an oppressive, apocalyptic kind of terror, KWC is more of a gritty, grimy every day sort of menace.
On Container Ships, Kowloon Walled City pummels out a monstrously heavy sound that can go toe-to-toe with any contemporary metal band in terms of sheer power, but they’re not really a metal band. KWC’s closest contemporaries are blunt and brutal bands like Unsane and KEN Mode, bands whose approach might flirt with the idea of going full sludge, but still keep one foot in post-hardcore feedback and melody. As such, Kowloon’s sound is certainly massive, but a bit more melodic, and occasionally drifts into eerie atmosphere. The band’s `90s post-hardcore roots show pretty clearly in the driving “Wrong Side of History,” while “The Pressure Keeps Me Alive” clangs and jangles like Slint gone evil. A surprisingly catchy alt-rock undercurrent blows through the harsh riffs of “Beef Cattle,” and the epic closer “You Don’t Have Cancer” is breathtaking in its unsettling churn.
The din inside the parapets of Kowloon Walled City is a bruising and organic one, though it’s pretty intimidating all the same. Very little light shines through, and its darkness intensifies deeper into its center. To some this may appear as a warning; I choose to view it as a worthy challenge.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.