Manic Pixie Dream Girl (不合時宜)
To measure Brit-pop’s influence on Taiwanese indie music, look no further than one of the scene’s most beloved bands, 1976. The decade-old group has inspired a new generation of indie-pop bands and is seeing its own brand of new wave rock gain wider acceptance in the mainstream.
1976 stepped up its profile last year by signing with Sony BMG, and has been quick in releasing its second album with the label, Manic Pixie Dream Girl (不合時宜), finishing it in less than a year.
The haste has not made waste here. While the band hasn’t come up with new innovations in sound, Manic is a strong collection of songs that ought to please fans and will hold the attention of new listeners. 1976 has added polish to this production by working with several pop-oriented producers and singers, including label mate Deserts Chang (張懸) and Mando-pop singer Valen Hsu (許茹芸), who each lend their vocal talents to several tracks.
Lead singer Ah-kai (阿凱) sounds better than ever. His syrupy, effeminate voice, which grows on you, is well matched to the synth-pop of Sail to Neverland (世界盡頭) and The Smiths-influenced A Friend of Mine (我的電視迷朋友). He maintains a pitch-perfect delivery throughout one of the album’s most dramatic tracks, All Is for Love, which ascends into an inspired frenzy.
Manic is more atmospheric than the band’s last release, Asteroid 1976 (1976這個星球). Synthesizers and electronic drums play a bigger role this time around, which are featured on danceable anthems like Underworld (地下社會), a tribute to the indie-rock club on Shida Road (師大路).
On the surface, 1976 sounds like just another a throwback to the 80s and 90s. But the band’s long-standing appeal runs beyond the Brit-pop beats and mod-rock hipster looks. Many of the band’s lyrics tap into the thrill and confusion of youth. As another anthemic track, A Clockwork Orange (發條橘子), goes: “We are young and free/the me of tomorrow will perhaps not understand the me of today.” (We are young and free/明天也許我自己也不了解今天的我). — DAVID CHEN
Mirror of Retribution (十殿)
If there were a heavy metal group to convince you of the merits of the genre, that band might be Chthonic (閃靈). The group has attracted a cult following in two different worlds: metal buffs voted them as the second best band in UK magazine Terrorizer (they placed ahead of their heroes Megadeth and Slayer). In Taiwan they are celebrated (and vilified) as champions of independence for the nation, with the articulate and charismatic lead singer Freddy Lim (林昶佐) playing an offstage role as a spokesman and high-profile activist.
But the metal is much heavier than the politics in Mirror of Retribution, the band’s fifth album and first major label release.
Drawing inspiration from Scandinavian black metal bands, Chthonic has been working toward creating what it calls “Taiwanese metal” by incorporating local mythology and history into its music. Lim, who is also the group’s lyricist, weaved an elaborate background story for Mirror, which takes place at the time of the 228 Incident of 1947.
The album’s hero, a young mystic named Tsing-guan, travels into the spirit world of hell to steal “The Book of Life and Death.” The book holds the key to saving his friends in the material world, who have started an armed rebellion against Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) troops descending upon Taichung.
Although in a recent interview Chthonic said it had little interest in talking “politics” in its music, some will argue, and rightfully so, that setting the story around the 228 Incident is a political statement in itself.
That said, the lyrics, sung in Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese), or in English for the international version of the CD, mostly dwell more on what metal bands want to do: convey fear, dread and gore.
Lim concentrates his efforts on creating an “Oriental Hell,” a spiritual underworld based on Taoist mythology. Many of the songs depict epic battles with evil wizards who torture, and “Ghost Kings” who oversee an “Ocean of Blood” where “the shores fill up with corpses.” Beneath the gore and fantasy, Lim shows a keen and elegant sense of storytelling. Mirror, like most Chthonic albums, ends in tragedy. Tsing-guan fails in his mission and is banished to the border of hell, where he is condemned to watch the universe end through the Mirror of Retribution: “And, although there was nothing more to see in the mirror, he continued to gaze; eyes fixed on the void reflecting back at him.”
As with all symphonic metal, Chthonic’s music requires technical precision and clean execution from the band’s five members, each of whom is up to the task. Chthonic adds a somewhat unique touch to its sound by using the erhu (二胡), which drives the melody on tracks like Blooming Blades (刃綻) and 1947, a quiet and gloomy interlude.
The production was given a professional sheen by engineer and producer Rob Caggiano, who is the guitarist for Anthrax. He also helped Lim re-write the lyrics for the English-language version of the album.
Die-hard fans and critics will happily nitpick at Chthonic’s stylistic nuances: one Internet reviewer lamented the band’s shift to a “raw, almost grindcore sound”; another hailed them as “extreme metal’s premier band.”
On the other hand, the uninitiated will hear what one imagines “extreme metal” to be: lots of shrieking, howling and growling, noisy guitars and neck-breaking tempos. But Mirror’s imaginative story might keep them listening.—DAVID CHEN
Jeremy Liu (劉子千)
The son of the famed Taiwanese composer and movie director Liu Chia-chang (劉家昌), singer/songwriter/producer Jeremy Liu’s (劉子千) debut album Mr Why comes highly anticipated. He might be the most promising all-round musician since Jay Chou (周杰倫). Mr Why does not disappoint either, serving a rich array of musical styles handled with superb craftsmanship.
Having composed all 10 tracks and produced the whole album, Liu shows great self-assurance as a musician. The opening song Occupying (佔據) is an infectious folk ballad that celebrates the bliss of love with its stripped-down sounds. Taking a jibe at the complicated come-ons and rejections of romance, the title track Mr Why is a hip-hop-driven anthem with irresistible grooves and very credible rapping by Liu. Rose (玫瑰), a track featured in Jay Chou’s adventure movie The Treasure Hunter (刺陵), is an effective ballad about eternal love elevated by its wise use of a whispering chorus. Thinking (想), a Brit-pop-flavored rouser with electrifying guitar riffs, is a memorable ballad about unrequited love. The climactic track is Empty Scar (空傷), a contagious ballad about frazzled love delivered in virtuostic R ’n’ B vocals with impressive melisma.
Because of Liu’s inability to write in Chinese (he grew up in the US), all the lyrics penned by professional lyricists have been tailored to his grasp of the language. Some of the dumbed-down lyrics do not live up to the ambitious melodies, with whacked-out song titles such as Who Is the Fox (誰是狐狸) and Living at the Zoo (住在動物園).
Offering a refreshing take on the timeworn Mando-pop ballad genre, Liu blissfully strays from convention and verges more on world music (as seen in Rose) or folk rock (as witnessed in Empty Scar). Mr Why follows the by-now-standard formula of merging eclectic styles such as folk, R ’n’ B, hip-hop and rock, displaying Liu’s versatility across the genres.
As the latest traveler on the well-trodden trail of Mando-pop singer/songwriter, Liu is definitely one to watch out for.— ANDREW C.C. HUANG
Karen Mok (莫文蔚)
Karen Mok (莫文蔚) is in danger of becoming the next Faye Wong (王菲) — a performer who creates meticulously crafted tunes with little emotional resonance for the audience. Mok has even inherited Wong’s former long-term producer/songwriter partner Zhang Yadong (張亞東) to boot.
Originally released as a digital album on a China-based music site, Aftertaste (回蔚) takes what Mok started in her Golden-Melody winning album L!ve Is ... Karen Mok (拉活…莫文蔚) and pushes further. Mok continues her daredevil sonic journey of mixing original compositions with classic songs both in Chinese and English. It’s at once a cover album and a kaleidoscopic fusion of styles.
Mok’s choices of classic tunes here run the gamut from Chinese folk and classic Mando-pop to Italian opera. With Green Mountain (青山在), her adventurous spirit misfires when she introduces thumping rock beats into a simple aboriginal folk song. Mok’s coquettish voice is seen in flirtatious top form in Full Moon and Blooming Flower (花好月圓), a pop classic by 1940s Chinese songstress Zhou Xuan (周旋). The undisputed highlight is Mok’s retake on The World Outside (外面的世界), originally a theme song sung by actress Zhou Xun (周迅) for the movie Perhaps, Love (如果．愛). With this song, Mok’s voice reaches a haunting poignancy unheard in other tracks. With Half a Moon Climbs Up (半個月亮爬上來), Mok delivers surprising fireworks by merging folksy Chinese music with segments of Italian opera aria. She mostly uses her vocals as a musical instrument rather than as the purveyor of emotions that holds the songs on this album together. Mok thus fails to achieve the emotional resonance found in her earlier Mando-pop classics such as Love (愛情) or If I Don’t Have You (如果沒有你).
A musical tapestry that manages to find unexpected sparks in its bravura fusion, Aftertaste is brilliantly imagined and immaculately executed. Many will admire its beauty, but few will be moved by it. There is no hint of heartbreak or remorse behind these tracks. Audiences would be wise to play the album once at a dance party and then shelve it.— ANDREW C.C. HUANG
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