Sun, Sep 25, 2011 - Page 14 News List

CD reviews: Taiwan

Staff Reporter

Takasago Army (高砂軍), by Chthonic (閃靈).

Heavy metal and Taiwanese history might seem like an odd couple, but pairing the two has made perfect sense to Chthonic (閃靈).

One of Taiwan’s better known musical exports, the quintet has released its sixth album, Takasago Army (高砂軍), a new set of black metal songs and the conclusion to a trilogy of albums inspired by events in Taiwan during the early 20th century.

Takasago Army tells the story of a group of Taiwanese Aboriginals who fought for the Japanese Army during World War II. This may bring to mind Seediq Bale, Wei Te-sheng’s (魏德聖) film about a major Aboriginal uprising during the Japanese occupation — and indeed there is a connection.

Bandleader and vocalist Freddy Lim (林昶佐) first learned about Seediq Bale in 2003, when Wei had produced a five-minute promotional demo. Lim was so impressed with the film that he decided to tell a similar story on a Chthonic album. Like Wei’s movie, the band looks at the Wushe Incident (霧社事件) on its 2005 album that started this trilogy, also titled Seediq Bale.

The Wushe Incident refers to an uprising in 1930 that saw hundreds of Sediq Aboriginals (spelled Seediq by the filmmaker and Chthonic) in Nantou County rebel against the Japanese. Most of the rebels were killed.

Takasago takes place after the Wushe Incident, and centers on the main character, Wubus, who is an “orphan” of a warrior. The album begins with the song Legacy of the Seediq (殘枝), the English lyrics for which commemorate his ancestors: “I hear your dying breath/Fall like rain from the sky/Grant protection from the fear of death/Wash away the pain of the past’s lies.”

On a note on her Facebook page, bassist Doris Yeh says Chthonic set out to explore the “interior identity conflict” experienced by Taiwanese soldiers who fought for the Japanese during World War II and their quest for “values and dignity as human beings.”

The band does so in a way that appeals to metalheads, with the lyrics full of netherworld images. “Vultures fly, circling the dark skies” in Takao (皇軍). “Shadows stalk the land, draw the demons out” in Southern Cross (南十字星). And in Mahkala (大黑天), the narrator, presumably Wubus, describes his mindset on the battlefield: “Ingrained in my eyes/Crimson of foes and I/Ocean of blood below/Machetes in the sky.”

The true weight of Chthonic’s gloom and doom is found in the music, with the songs on Takasago containing the standard elements of symphonic black metal: a constant barrage of double kick drum riffs and screeching vocals, all offset by melodic orchestration provided by atmospheric synthesizers and fast, ultra-precise guitar shredding.

Chthonic’s music is so full-on that to untrained ears it might sound like jarring, oppressive noise. I am not a huge metal fan, but I was impressed with tracks like Oceanquake (震洋), which has a captivating, dynamic arrangement. A plain but beautiful melody on the erhu (二胡) weaves around Lim’s voice, which alternates between guttural bellows and shrieking, and culminates in a virtuosic and tasteful guitar solo by Jesse Liu (劉笙彙).

Takasago Army is a step up for the band, which deserves credit for its constantly improving musicianship. The songs are more polished and accessible than Mirror of Retribution (十殿), Chthonic’s previous album (that is, if it’s possible for black metal to have general appeal). The band also sounds more comfortable bringing in Asian elements to its brand of metal. Instruments like the erhu and traditional flutes play a more prominent role on this album than on Mirror.

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