Chthonic – Takasago Army (2011)
I have waited a long time for a band to sound like this.
Merging heavy metal with traditional folk instrumentation of Europe and the Middle East has been done successfully for years. But the folk traditions of the Far East, including instruments like the erhu, have taken longer to catch on. This is surprising to me, because this music, with its ethereal, flowing melodies, calls out mightily to be joined with metal in a fascinating new way.
But not just any band could pull this off. The two worlds cannot just be thrown together pell-mell, which would lead to a disappointing and cheesy-sounding mess. Rather, each half–the metal half and the Eastern traditional half–needed to have its space, asserting itself while respecting and complimenting the other’s space. The band members needed to be passionate and knowledgable about both, and approach it all with a dignified sense of purpose.
With heavy metal becoming more global and accessible by the day, it was only a matter of time before this sound became reality.
The metal gods have answered my prayers.
That band exists, and it is called Chthonic.
1. The Island
2. Legacy of the Seediq
5. Southern Cross
7. Broken Jade
8. Root Regeneration
10. Quell the Souls in Sing Ling Temple
“A lot of people think that we are black metal, but…we don’t come from that tradition,” says bassist Doris Yeh. “Only about 5% of Taiwanese people are Christian; most are Buddhist. We play what we like to call ‘orient metal.'”
She’s correct in the sense that this is not a traditional black metal record–it certainly can’t fit purely into any subgenre overall.
Take the bi-lingual, headbanging hit “Takao,” for example. It has elements of thrash and death metal, two kinds of vocals (the grunt and the shriek), a piercing lute riff, and religious chant. It’s a hell of a song that is sure to confound those who try to force it into a subgenre.
And that diversity of sound continues throughout the record. “The Island” is an instrumental that reminded me of the music from the real-time strategy games I used to play, like Empire Earth. It really does make you think “Formosa” (what the Portuguese first called Taiwan upon discovery–meaning “Beautiful”). “Legacy of the Seediq” features that wonderful erhu, and by then Chthonic has arrived in full force.
The themes in “Takasago Army” are as varied as the music, and the focus is on the experience and struggles of the Seediq (the aboriginal Taiwanese mountain people). During World War Two, they were heavily recruited by the Japanese Empire for military service, forming the Takasago Volunteers in the belief that the Seediq’s proud warrior tradition would serve well on the battlefield. It did, and the Takasago Volunteers developed a fearsome reputation. In fact, a holdout from that unit was discovered in Indonesia in 1975, having lived in the jungle for almost 20 years. But this service wasn’t without its conflicts.
For a visual depiction of that one, need only look at the cover, which depicts one of the soldiers marking himself as a Seediq by wounding his forehead–displaying the inner torment between the cultivated Japanese Imperial identity and the native born Taiwanese one. The struggle follows them through the songs depicting their exploits: “Oceanquake,” about the action in the Pacific Theater; “Kaoru,” about a special group of Takasago chosen for a suicide mission on Leyte; “Quell the Souls In Sing Ling Temple,” which finds them at their Thermopylae: dying to the last man at Sing Ling Temple at the hands of the Kuomintang.
“In the early years, we played a kind of metal like the western kind…we used to write metal, and then add some Taiwanese feelings and emotions, but this time I wrote Taiwanese songs,” says frontman Freddy Lim.
One can only hope that continues for Chthonic’s next record, which at this time of writing is about a month away from release. I, and many others, await it with trepidation…
Written by Matt P