Beasts in the East – Saigon Thrash
Neil Massey's photographs of the Saigon underground thrash metal circuit, taken in the last decade. Use the little arrows either side of the images to scroll through the folio.
The first band photographer Neil Massey saw live, aged 15, was The Damned. After relocating with his family to Vietnam in 2010 – chosen for its large and lively young population – he found himself at an underground metal gig in Saigon, where this arguably very Western form of musical rebellion had been appropriated and bastardised into esoteric thrash metal, with a thriving scene to support it. Massey began documenting the bands, people and venues, just like he had photographed Thailand’s Full Moon parties, Somerset’s druids, Middle American teen ‘mooks’ and other subcultures for magazines like The Face.
“Sixty percent of the Vietnamese population is under 30, most living with their parents until marriage,” says Neil, “Pressure to conform comes from all sides; the Communist Government, state run media and the family unit itself. Private moments are shared in public spaces like crowded coffee shops, bridges and parks. But high quality Internet access, provided by the state but not censored nearly as much as, say, China’s, provides a glimpse of life outside the borders.”
The bands were mostly inspired by western equivalents and had names like ‘Rot’, ‘End of Road’ and ‘Seismic Origin’. Although one band, ‘Wừu’, was named after “Bok Wừu, an ethnic minority hero from Pleiku in the central highlands of Vietnam,” explains Neil, “In 1939 he joined the communist backed revolution against the French colonial power. Twice he was caught by the French army but escaped, the third time they caught him they cut off both ears, all of his fingers and nose.” Massey named the London photographic exhibition that followed after the scene’s number one record label: Bloody Chunks.
The gigs take place in front of crowds of 80-100, in thirty-plus degree heat, in dive bars, decrepit 80s-style discotheques, shacks and even living rooms. Sometimes, the police decide that they’re not going ahead and festival ‘Deathfest’ was required to make unofficial arrangements with local law enforcement.
Details spread by word of mouth and social media. “They’re young and broke, so drinking is limited and drugs are imperceptible. The energy is akin to a straight edge crowd,” says Neil. Bare feet are common in the moshpit, because many Vietnamese take off their standard issue flip flops at the door.
“The atmosphere is less ‘angsty’ than at a metal gig in the west. The impetus seems to be on brash self-expression for its own sake,” says Neil, “criticism of the authorities is heavily frowned upon, but this way the youth can be outrageous without provoking their ire. The government creates a little uncertainty over what is or isn’t really allowed, which actually generates a wild energy. And that’s partly the appeal of the place, why it’s becoming an alternative holiday destination to Thailand – it’s a little harder to get to and has that untamed vibe which suggests creativity.”