Taiwan's Chthonic return with a concept album
When you think black metal, you probably think Scandinavia: long-haired dudes wandering the frost-bitten forests of Norway and Sweden, their faces painted black and white, and their spiked boots sinking into the snow as they look for ancient churches to burn ... right?
In fact, black metal has spread across the planet like some new malignant flu strain, emerging in the U.S., the U.K., France, various South American countries and even Tasmania, with each territory offering its own spin on the sound. One of the most interesting black metal bands — and one that's been making a surprisingly powerful impact on the worldwide metal scene — is Taiwan's Chthonic.
Formed in 1995, the group went through numerous membership changes during its early years but settled on a relatively steady lineup by 2000, with only the keyboard slot remaining in seemingly permanent flux. Over the course of five studio albums, including this year's Mirror of Retribution, Chthonic has combined a melodic black-metal style reminiscent of Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir with lyrics — and face paint — derived from the history and mythology of their own culture rather than importing Scandinavian concepts. This insistence on asserting their Taiwanese character brought them support from the country's Democratic Progressive Party, which ruled Taiwan from 2000 to 2008.
"In some countries, they will encourage cultural groups to expand and express their music, their dance or their art all over the world," says bassist Doris Yeh. "The ruling party didn't care about cultural issues. But in the past eight years, the new [DPP] party formed by all Taiwanese started to encourage cultural issues. So they started to support Chthonic, a dance group and other art groups to express their art all over the world. But in the past year, the old government was restored, so it's a complicated political situation. They thought we were pro-ex-government, so they don't support us anymore."
Fortunately for Chthonic, they seem to be doing fine on their own. They took part in 2007's Ozzfest tour, they're currently on the road with Satyricon, Bleeding Through and Toxic Holocaust, and Mirror of Retribution is receiving glowing reviews throughout the metal community.
Yet they're not the only metal band in their homeland. "The [old] government didn't care about cultural stuff, but the Taiwanese party started to encourage that, so a lot of live houses and music halls started showing up," says Yeh. "They encouraged artists to record their albums, and when that happened, there started to be more and more bands, including metal bands. Ten years ago, there might have been 10 or 20 metal bands in Taiwan, but now there's over a hundred."
Just like their previous album, 2006's Seediq Bale, Mirror of Retribution is a concept record rooted in Chthonic's Taiwanese identity. The story revolves around the 1948 228 Massacre, where mainland Chinese troops murdered thousands of Taiwanese. In Chthonic's version, a psychic who lives in the Sing-Ling Temple (a real place) attempts to enter hell to retrieve the mystical Book of Life and Death to use as a weapon against the invading forces. This being metal, he fails and is sentenced by the gods to a suitably hellish fate. (It's much, much more complicated than that, of course; the full story can be found on Chthonic's Facebook page.)
Produced by Anthrax guitarist Rob Caggiano, Mirror of Retribution is somewhat heavier than previous Chthonic records. Yeh's vocals have frequently served as a counterpoint to frontman Freddy Lim in the past, but this time she only plays her instrument. "We wrote the same amount of female vocal parts as before," she says. "But when we recorded the album, we discussed it with Rob, and he thought that on this album, we should connect the riffs with the melody [so] the audience will get the point more clearly. So he took out some of the female vocal parts."
Yeh doesn't seem to mind, since the trade yielded a louder bass mix. "Our earlier albums were recorded in Denmark, and the producer didn't like to put the bass as equal to the guitar or the other instruments," says Yeh. "Rob likes the sound to be heavy and likes the album to be more aggressive and full of power. So he encouraged the sound of bass this time."
One of the most distinctive elements of Chthonic's sound is their use of the erhu, a traditional Chinese two-stringed violin. Its high-pitched, keening melodies add an emotional undercurrent to the blast beats and roaring guitars. Unfortunately, the band's erhu player, Su-Nung, left earlier this year and joined the army. He's been temporarily replaced by a laptop.
"Before he went to the army, he recorded his sounds into the computer, [which] our drummer plays onstage," says Yeh. "It's hard to train a new player, not only based on the music aspect — it's also the personality. We have to get used to a new member, and we don't have too much time."