First listen: Ai Weiwei, The Divine Comedy - Activist, artist, architect... and heavy-metal singer

Dissident Chinese artist makes musical debut

Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei makes his debut as a recording artist today with the release of his first album The Divine Comedy, a dark industrial dirge that explores the lack of free expression in contemporary China.

While flagged up as a heavy metal album, it has more gothic and electronic overtones, at least until the album’s final track, “Dumbass”, which boasts some crunching guitar.

The album has six tracks, on which Ai displays his lyrical dexterity with part-sung, part-spoken texts to music composed by local musician Zuoxiao Zuzhou.

Fans of Radiohead and Nick Cave may be keen to know that the opener, “Just Climb the Wall”, combines elements from both artists. The song explores Ai’s efforts to scale the Great Firewall of China, and his fellow dissident Chen Guangcheng’s daring escape over the wall of his compound.

Ai spent 81 days in detention in 2011, prompting an international outcry. In September, a Beijing court upheld a £1.6m fine against him for tax evasion. While imprisoned, guards asked him to sing songs, which spawned his idea to make a record.

Somehow, it’s hard to imagine the custodians in a Chinese detention centre snapping their fingers to “Chaoyang Park”, in which Ai describes a criminal justice system straight out of a Kafka nightmare. “Are you still following me? I won’t do it any more. Tell me, what’s your name? Beat me and I won’t tell.”

While the message of the songs is invariably political, Ai has never been interested in conventional forms of narrative. His fans may well love the record, but it is unlikely to win too many new believers.

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