Monday, September 24, 2007

Chthonic Article

Made in Taiwan
Taiwanese black metal band Chthonic comes to Hartford, again
Thursday, September 13, 2007

Black metal bands aren't knocking down my door, asking how to stand out from the crowd. That's too bad. If they did, I would give some very useful advice. Like make sure you're from someplace weird, like Taiwan, and then get involved with a political cause that only subscribers to the Economist would understand.

Musically, I'd suggest including spooky atmospheric songs in between the over-the-top operatic metal ones. Or employing a native folk instrument that no metal head in the world has ever heard of into the music. And, lastly, having their band's name begin with a silent "ch." All of that advice and more was taken by Taiwanese melodic black metal quartet Chthonic (pronounced "thonic"). On their seven studio recordings and in their hundreds of live shows, the 10-year-old band employs many seemingly standard black metal moves, and combines them with a distinct Taiwanese flavor that makes everything seem novel.

Their onstage makeup and outfits, which at first glance appears similar to King Diamond or Kiss style, are derived from Taiwanese Taoist priests and pay tribute to the Eight Generals, face-painted figures that figure in southern Chinese ritual dance. And their lyrics fulfill requirements for black metal, but also have a Taiwanese twist. While their Scandinavian black metal compatriots sing about the devil and Vikings, Chthonic's lyrics are about the conflicts between ghosts and gods in traditional Taiwanese folk stories.

"It would be ridiculous for an Asian to write about Vikings or the anti-Christ. We write about Taiwanese mythology and folklore, and we think that's the right way," lead singer Freddy Lim said.

Chthonic shares musical DNA with other leading metal groups. At their heaviest, the guitars are fierce, the drums are battering and Lim's vocals swing from guttural growls to stratosphere-soaring screams. It's loudness polished to a high shine in the mold of Emperor and Enslaved. It's the definition of "Ozz-festian."

But their quieter, spookier sounds are what sets them apart. Their sounds are unique to the genre, notably their use of the folk stringed instrument called a hena, or erhu, which adds a haunting element to their music.

"I was looking for the right instrument for a melody that couldn't be played on a keyboard or a guitar. The core meaning of those melodies are sad, and the hena fit perfectly," Lim said.

They're playing Hartford twice this month; their first was an intimate show last week at the Webster Underground, and the next will be on Sept. 21, opening for Cradle of Filth on the Webster's main stage. The shows are part of Chthonic's Unlimited tour, across America and Canada.

"We're going to play unlimited to the end," Lim said.

The tour name refers to their Taiwanese roots and the message they hope to convey. "The second meaning is to let the fans know that Taiwan is still limited by the United Nations," Lim said.

Taiwan has a thorny political identity. The island, located off the coast of China, has one of the world's 20 largest economies. Self-ruled since 1949, the country had a seat on the UN by the name "Republic of China" until 1971, when the Chinese government claimed sovereignty over Taiwan and threatened military force if it tried to secede. Applications to have Taiwan recognized as an independent nation by the UN have been repeatedly denied, most recently this year.

"Taiwan is as independent as America or Canada. We vote for our own government, we have our own army, everything," Lim said. "The only difference is that we have a country that always wants to block our way, which is China."

Metal is often a bastion of nihilism, but Lim is at the forefront of a political movement. He's active in the movement within Taiwan that seeks recognition as a country independent from China. Lim organized a huge a concert in Taiwan for the cause. On Sept. 16, Chthonic plays a New York show to coincide with the beginning of the Sept. 18 UN session.

The Taiwanese government is evidently grateful, as they've footed some of the bill for the tour. Also, Taiwanese show support in other ways, attending concerts and making sure the band doesn't go hungry. Lim said the gifts of Taiwanese food were overwhelming.Their tour bus was overloaded with Taiwanese delicacies.

"Taiwanese Americans always attend our shows. Maybe one percent of them are metal heads. There are some older people. At some of our early shows they tried to get close to the stage and were smashed by the mosh pit," Lim said.

The rocking call for Taiwanese independence has garnered attention from surprising sources. Articles about the band's politics have appeared in high-end daily newspapers like the Washington Post and the International Herald Tribune, and the band has been interviewed about its political beliefs on National Public Radio and at the National Press Club.

The focus on geopolitics sometimes frustrates the band — they'd prefer the music to speak for itself — but they understand that it's necessary.

"This tour is a musical tour and the biggest priority for us is our musical career. But if we can't join the international society, we have no other choice," Lim said. "If a French musician or a German musician suffered the same thing, their citizens would treat them like us."