o understand ChthoniC, one must understand Taiwan's history. This is no easy task, as its history is complex and subject to constant debate by interested parties. For the purposes of this review, an extremely simplified version follows.
Taiwan has been colonized and conquered by the Dutch, Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese. The original aborigines of Taiwan now comprise 2% of the island's population, with the rest mainly composed of descendants from Han Chinese that immigrated in the 17th century. In 1895, the Japanese began an occupation of Taiwan that lasted until the end of World War II. After the War, civil war resumed in China that began in 1927 between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), led by Mao Zedong, and the Kuomintang (KMT), led by Chiang Kai-shek.
In 1949, the KMT lost the war and fled, along with 1.3 million adherents, to Taiwan. The KMT set up the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan as an authoritarian, often brutal, regime. Taiwan became a democracy in the 1990’s; in the meantime, its independent status has remained indefinite. The ROC has claimed sovereignty over all of China, a position the UN recognized until 1971. In turn, the People's Republic of China (PRC) asserts sovereignty over Taiwan, threatening military action if it tries to secede. In the middle are the US, who urges each side not to do anything rash, and the aborigines, who can't do anything about their occupier.
ChthoniC is Taiwan's biggest metal band, and it is quite vocal in its politics. In an interview with the Taipei Times, singer Freddy Lin said that ChthoniC was not a pro-independence band. This claim was either disingenuous or nitpicking, as in the same interview, he said, "[W]e are safeguarding our mother culture and the history of Taiwan…we believe it is unique from China." While the band does not directly advocate independence in its lyrics, its albums explore Taiwan's aboriginal legends and history, including the struggle against the Han Chinese. If inclusion in history books is a political matter, ChthoniC's decade-long discussion of aboriginal issues is as political a statement as any.
Its fourth album, Seediq Bale, deals with the aboriginal Seediq tribe. When the Japanese occupied Taiwan, they banned the traditional Seediq practice of facial tattoos, which were considered marks of great honor. The Seediq rebelled, resulting in the bloody Wushe Incident, in which most of the tribe was killed or committed suicide. ChthoniC's lyrics describe this time poetically:
Alien rule exacts heftyAnd simply:
Tribute, scar-pits Motherlands
Lineages of honor-marked faces
Fade like wilting cherry blossoms recite
Clans destroyed and brokenMusically, the band plays symphonic black metal. Except for that rare band (i.e., Dimmu Borgir) that can afford a real symphony, "symphonic" in metal usually means "keyboards." Thus, keyboards loom large here, and they're a mixed blessing. At their best, they're majestic; at their worst, they're glorified haunted house music. The guitars mostly stick to machine-gun riffs, with the keyboards carrying the melodies.
Survivors hunted to the last
Painful history recast
Not only are the keyboards prominent in the mix, they're also competing with black metal rasps, female singing, distorted guitars, drums, bass, and erhu, the traditional Chinese two-string violin. The latter is the most interesting part of ChthoniC's sound. "Sadness" is a word Lin frequently uses to describe Taiwan's history, and the erhu, usually heard in weepy Chinese movies, adds pathos to the band's thundering attack. Live, the band sometimes breaks into dual erhu solos—quite a sight, especially for metal shows.
With its polished production and catchy songs, the band is a far cry from the raw origins of black metal. "Indigenous Laceration" is basically Swedish melodic death metal with black metal trappings. Such hybridization is to be expected for a band that cites third-generation black metal bands Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth as influences. Minus the erhu, ChthoniC doesn't sound too different from these bands.
The difference is that ChthoniC is saying something. In fact, its message parallels that of old-school black metal bands, who decried the desecration of Norway's pagan history by Christian invaders. "Folk metal" and "pagan metal" bands these days use traditional instruments and vocals in native languages. Perhaps ChthoniC, too, could ease up on the keyboards and let its erhu truly be heard.