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District 105 Leads Saigon's Metal Scene Into a Bright, Loud Future

"You don't listen to music like this usually, right?" Huynh Hoang Huy asks before he and his bandmates rip into another hard-driving song from their catalogue.

The honest answer is no, I don't usually listen to music like District 105, the Saigon-based hardcore metal group. I've dipped my toe into a few metal sub-genres over the years, experimenting with bands like Mastodon and Dream Theater. I even tried listening to Meshuggah, the Swedish extreme metal band, a couple of times, but decided it felt like being inside a washing machine at maximum speed.

Today, when I listen to metal it tends to be groups like Porcupine Tree and Tool, known for their long, elaborate songs and complex structures. District 105, with their sledgehammer riffs and screaming vocals, isn't my typical cup of tea. Yet there I was, sitting in the studio they practice in along Truong Sa Street, while heavy bass reverberated through the room from another metal band playing in the studio across the hall.

"We started at the end of 2017," Huy said in between songs. "At that time I was the bassist, then the vocalist had family issues so he quit and I became the vocalist and we got a new bassist."

The group of four, including Huy, guitarist Tran Tuan Khanh, drummer Tran Tuan Dat, and bassist Nguyen Huy Khiem, has blazed a trail of relative success in a difficult industry since early 2018. In August they released the excellent music video for 'The Red Death' (their third video), and they have played in Bangkok, Taiwan and Singapore while completing two albums as well.

I was curious how Huy found metal, given the popularity of EDM and pop in Vietnam.

"MTV was how I got into metal," he said. "Back in the day when I was in elementary school they had a show called MTV Amplified every Tuesday, so I'd run back from school, eat a snack and watch MTV. There was Bullet For My Valentine, and Linkin Park obviously, which was everybody's favorite."

Professional wrestling provided another in, as Huy watched Smackdown and was drawn to one wrestler's theme song, from a band called Killswitch Engage. "It was so dope, and that's how I know about metalcore and hardcore," he said.

Starting is the hardest part

Metal is far from mainstream in Vietnam, meaning those who want to play need to be passionate about their music. 

"It's definitely difficult to start a metal band," Huy explained. "The hardest thing is how to explain it to your parents. You show your music to your friends, but your parents are never going to listen to it. They're asking you all the time, 'Is this shit gonna make money?' If you play in some genres you might, but playing metal/hardcore, even the popular bands, you're not."

District 105 is now one of those popular bands, headlining metal nights at locations like Soma and acting as a leader of the community.

"We have shows every one or two months, and over 100 people come," Huy shared. "Before it was only like 50-60 people, but now we're sure that every time we have a show, over 100 people are going to show up."

The musician community, meanwhile, is extremely close and supportive, as Huy estimates there are only about 20 metal groups in the entire country. "We try to work with bands in other genres as well, as all of the underground scenes have to work together," he shared. 

From left to right: Nguyen Huy Khiem, Tran Duan Dat, Tran Tuan Khanh and Huynh Hoang Huy

Slow but steady

Meanwhile, Huy and his bandmates have witnessed gradual growth in the metal community, both among musicians and fans, along with increasing awareness of Vietnamese metal in other countries.

"Usually people in the region are like 'oh shit!' about us," he said. "We've been working with Thailand for a long time, and Singapore definitely knows about Vietnam too, but not elsewhere. The last music video featured a musician from Tokyo in a band that's getting more popular."

Huy's passion is admirable, and he is well-aware of his genre's tiny size relative to the most popular types of music: "Compared to mainstream music, the numbers are nothing, but I feel like we did something [with the video for 'The Red Death'] because the last two music videos took eight months to get 4,000 views, and for this one after two weeks we got 6,000."

As of this writing it sits at 7,947 views.

District 105 has more live shows approaching, and they take their role as one of the underground metal scene's leading bands very seriously.

"It's a big responsibility to play overseas," Huy said. "But one problem with the Vietnam scene is that there's no band that's been around for a long time. Other countries have that band that's been around for like 10 years. We need a band like that, so we're trying to be it."

I took my leave so the foursome could continue their weekly practice session, and double bass kicks and headbanging riffs still rang in my ears as I drove home. Whatever District 105 does next, you can be sure it won't be quiet.

Follow District 105's Facebook page for updates on gigs and new music. They can be found on Spotify as well.

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