Vietnam is a far-away place and often our perception is limited to cinematic exposure and (in my case) snack food. I’m not stating this to make light of it, just to illustrate how little we sometimes may know about the world around us. Vong is a black metal project, hailing from the South-East Asian nation, and its sole contributor Indigo Tongue weaves the history and culture of his country into the tapestry of its music.
Vong has released a debut, titled ‘A Wander in Liminality’, in 2019. A record that stands on its own, with a distinct flavour and identity. I was happy to find Indigo Tongue willing to fill me in on its contents, the Vietnamese metal scene and more.
A Wander in Liminality with Vong
How is Vong doing? How has the pandemic been treating you?
Greetings, it’s been an honor to represent my home country and take part in your project.
Aside from not being able to hang out with my friends or jamming with my bandmates, I’m not really affected by the pandemic. Normally I work from home and staying in means I get more time to finish my artworks, record new materials, or tend to my cat and my plants.
Your moniker is Indigo Tongue, can you tell me what that means for you?
It was an alias that I picked for my illustration projects. It came to me pretty randomly and doesn’t necessarily mean anything much, other than bearing a mystic vibe to it. I figured it had a nice ring and decided to adopt it for the black metal project as well.
What got you into metal music?
I couldn’t say much, other than the fact that I developed a taste for it in my teenage years, just like most people. It started with something like Metallica or Black Sabbath and got gradually more extreme down the line.
Can you tell me how you started the project (which I understand is a one-man band) and what bands inspired you to make this kind of music?
It’s not hard to point out that I was inspired mainly by several second wave Norwegian bands, or specifically, the most notorious one-man black metal project that I need not mention. It was their sound that bought me: raw, uncompromised and gritty, cold and grim like a rusty blade cleaving into your flesh. What fascinated me was the fact that they made do with whatever equipment they had at hands, which was a similar situation that I found myself in: I was in college studying fine arts, all equipment I had around the house was a cheap guitar whose neck had broken twice and got glued back, a combo amp, my cellphone which I used to record everything and my laptop. So me, being a DIY guy, decided that I’d try to make black metal with whatever I had lying around.
At the same time, I found black metal to be the subgenre that I’m most comfortable with, compared to other subgenres that I had listened to. I’ve always been drawn to themes like romanticism, occultism, nature, death, human emotions,… and dark medieval aesthetics. Black metal just happens to have most of them to offer.
You’ve released your debut in 2019, titled ‘A Wander in Liminality’.
What can you tell about the process of creating this record?
Like I’ve mentioned, it was all DIY, from the process of recording, mixing to the artworks. It was a fun experience, as I was new to songwriting and audio engineering at the time so I got to experiment recording with a cellphone and fooling around in the digital audio workspace.
I built a pillow fort around the amp and just stuck the phone in to record it, and samples on the title tracks were from creaking cupboard doors, amp static noises and me gargling water over the phone. For the intro of the track “Lệ Chi Viên”, I used the bell and mokugyo (or fish drum, a small wooden percussion typically used in chanting and ceremonies) from the family altar (probably without my ancestors’ permission).
The creation of the artworks was my favourite too. They were all hand-drawn and took many weeks to finish. But the end results were worth it, I believe they were the best artworks I’d ever completed up to that point.Overall, it was a fun experience as I learned a lot about songwriting and audio engineering from it, despite the horrible sound quality, which was a result of recording on a cellphone.
Some of your song titles are in Vietnamese, yet your lyrics are in English. Why did you choose this language and not your own? Black metal has never had an issue with different languages, it would appear, so it would be a valid choice.
Vietnamese is a complicated and colourful language that works very much different from Germanic or Latin. For example, there are dozens of different pronouns depending on age, genders, relationships and context of the speech, which makes wording a chore. If I were to write a romantic poem in Vietnamese, it would flow elegantly like a petal in the stream. But we are talking about black metal, so the lyrics tend to focus on sorrow, war and hatred,… you know, the whole nine yards. Writing about such matters in Vietnamese often feels kinda cheesy (to me, at least). It’s just really hard to explain to non-native speakers.
But the most important reason why I stick with English is that I knew the majority of listeners were going to be foreigners because I was pretty much unknown in the local scene back then. I’d spent a lot of time on the lyrics, so I wanted them to be heard and understood. At the same time, most Vietnamese metalheads (or the youths in general) are capable of understanding English since they are no strangers to Western culture, so it’s a win-win situation.
I understand you are inspired by literature and history, specifically of your home country of Vietnam. Can you say something about this? And can you give some insights into what sort of stories and writers those are?
History and culture have always been among my favourite subjects, and when I took a look at our own history and customs, I found a lot of aspects that would fit well in the context of black metal. For example, over the course of three millenniums of our recorded history, we had fended off foreign invaders numerous times, got subjugated and revolted again and again until we gained sovereignty, which inspired a patriotic theme (not to be confused with ultranationalism) similar to those observed in some of my favourite projects. When it comes to history, I often draw inspiration from tragic events (foreign oppression, famine, persecution of innocents…) or decisive battles that shaped the country. Sometimes it was wartime stories from family members who served in the army as well.
Asides from history, I took inspiration from folklore as well, most of which however are orally passed on from one generation to the next, so no one really knows the dates or who the authors were. Typically these stories either serve as explanations to origins of beings, or fables that reflect the perspectives and moral values of Vietnamese people.
Like most Oriental cultures, our customs and beliefs are heavily based on spiritualism and have a connection to death and the afterlife, with rituals and ceremonies involving the dead. Although Buddhism is the most popular religion in the country, people found ways to integrate folk religions into it, like worshipping ancient deities and saints alongside the Buddha, or ancestor veneration, which is considered unique to the Vietnamese culture, also inspired the themes of Vong.
Vietnam is a country which is to most, including to myself, known mostly for the Vietnam war, which I’m sure has its reverberations to this very day. As you intentionally chose themes from your culture and the English language, is it a purpose for you to change of at least affect that view?
You could say so. Southeast Asian countries have a rich history and cultures but they are often overshadowed by East Asian nations. It wasn’t until the 50’s that we were actually recognized as an independent country internationally when the French colonialism was put to an end, and not until the breakout of the Vietnam War that we were put on the map. Yes, the Vietnam War very much shaped the country as we know it today, but I wanted to point out that there are much more to Vietnamese history rather than the stereotypical “American PTSD experience”.
You’ve also been active in Elcrost, which would seem to focus on a more western romanticism in the lyrics and themes. How did you get into this project and how does it relate to the obvious other direction you embrace with Vong?
It’s a small scene. I’d known the guys from Elcrost before joining their live lineup and we have been good friends ever since. At that point, we were the only two active black metal bands with original materials in the North, they needed session members for live gigs because two out of three guys were abroad and I’d need live members since I’m a one-man project. So we formed up as a 2-in-1 kind of lineup, where we’d perform songs of both bands at gigs under Elcrost/Vong, featuring members of Vietnamese bands like Rot (black metal) and Cút Lộn (thrash/punk) at the time.
Well, just because Vong embraces national history and culture, doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy Western literature and arts. After all both projects are influenced by Western arts and music. The only difference is that I chose to integrate Vietnamese themes in the lyrics. So even if the themes or music of both projects contradict, we share quite some common interests in visual arts and Romanticism. I very much enjoyed their materials and it was a great experience playing in their live lineup and taking part in their EP “Foregone Fables”.
What is it like to make this kind of extreme music in Vietnam? Is there a connection with surrounding countries?
Like I’ve mentioned, the extreme metal scene in Vietnam is relatively small, so as soon as you drop new materials you will certainly get support from the Vietnamese metal scene, which I find rather wholesome.
I’m aware of black metal acts in neighbouring countries like Thailand or Laos and to a greater extent, the Southeast Asia region. I have made contact with the Thai black metal project กาฬพราย (Kanprai), but other than that I don’t know much about connections between bands within the region.
How free are you to explore darker themes in your music? Is there censorship to take into account?
To a certain extent, but in general, it’s rather easy to breathe. Most extreme metal bands are under the radar of mainstream media so most people don’t know or care if you write songs about butchering humans or burning churches. They would just call it noisy or unintelligible music and turn their heads. But of course, censorship is a thing here and there are certain parts where one should tread lightly if you don’t want to catch the attention of the authority, i.e. controversial topics like politics or history of the past 70 years.
Vong is associated with House of Ygra. What sort of cooperation is this and how did you connect?
House of Ygra is a new label based in Hanoi, founded by members of the local scene. Their specialities are black metal, melodic death metal, gothic and experimental stuff, so naturally, I was offered to join their roster, which I gladly accepted. Their role is to produce and distribute merch like CDs, shirts and art prints for bands as well as taking part in visual designs.
What are the future plans for Vong?
I plan to save money for a recording mic and a proper bass (the bass on the demo was played on a guitar pitch-shifted an octave down), finish the artworks for CD releases, record another full length or two, probably another EP or a split before retiring it and move on to other projects.
If Vong was a type of food, a dish, what would it be and why?
Not exactly a dish but I’d go with green tea mixed with passion fruit juice and a spoonful of honey, solely because it’s my trusty beverage during vocal sessions.