Various Artists

Radio Pyongyang: Commie Funk and Agit Pop from the Hermit Kingdom

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One of the joys of the Sublime Frequencies series is that its founders, the Sun City Girls, don't limit it to collections they do themselves, with others bringing their expertise and experience to the fore. Such is the case with the jaw-dropping Radio Pyongyang, compiled by Hong Kong resident Christiaan Virant from a variety of shortwave radio broadcasts from North Korea. As Virant explains in his enjoyable liner notes, North Korean broadcasting is totalitarianism in the all too classic style, with any number of propaganda events, sports festivals, dramas, and even classic espionage numbers part of the mix. The result is less a straightforward documentation with specific credits than a collage, as the title of the opening track, "Motherland Megamix," makes clear. The history of the North Korean state itself is one of heartbreaking repression and terror, so the effect of hearing the tracks ultimately consists of the blackest of comedy, but comedic, bizarre -- and weirdly catchy -- it all is. Veering wildly between unaccompanied duets sung in extreme ascending chords to pomp-heavy mega-ballads that would put Journey at their most maudlin or Diane Warren at her most ridiculous to shame -- not to mention any number of echo-laden massed choruses, doubtless meant to uplift the toiling masses -- the nearest comparison would be Japan's pop extremities (as well as its banalities), but this sounds all the more strange. Western pop idioms of all sorts are used, quick-paced arrangements sound like collisions of Bollywood and video game soundtracks, and children's voices sing what sound like rather strained lullabies. Occasional English-language snippets make the bizarre state of things all the clearer to non-Korean speakers, as celebrations for the birthday of the head of state are announced or the like -- the voices all too friendly in tone.

Track Listing

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
blue highlight denotes track pick