At its core, black metal is protest music. Put aside for a moment the infamous associations with intolerance, the unfortunately all too true connections to genuinely heinous crimes such as church burning and even murder: what remains is the same sense of societal disaffection that sparked "Masters of War" and "Gimme Shelter." It's even closer to John Lydon's famous proclamation: "No future."
In Norway, black metal was the product of kids taking out their frustration toward society by blaming the Christian church for its stifling effects. Some acts espoused a Satanic credo: "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law," as Aleister Crowley put it. Others fantasized about a return to an idealized pagan past of nature worship and Viking swordplay. (An unfortunate few damaged souls allowed the power trip to play out too far, earning the scene its grim reputation.)
From this perspective, it doesn't seem like such a stretch that ChthoniC, a black metal band from Taiwan that has suddenly become ubiquitous here over the last month or so, chose to adapt what might seem a fundamentally Aryan sound and frame of reference for its own music.
Having missed a few earlier opportunities, the Determined Dilettante and I finally caught ChthoniC live on Wednesday night at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill, at an obscenely early 6:30pm. To the band's immense credit, it gave its all in a tight four-song set performed before no more than 40 audience members at a show headlined by old-school Florida death-metal band Obituary. (Apparently this set was crammed in at the last minute after ChthoniC was dropped from an opening slot on last week's Katatonia bill at B.B.'s; previously the band opened here for Nile, and also played the second stage at Ozzfest in New Jersey.)
Specifically, ChthoniC's style resembles those of Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth: a big, bombastic mix of crunching downtuned guitar riffs, screeched and growled vocals, and symphonic keyboards. Lyrics are sung in a mix of Taiwanese and English -- though honestly, it's not as if you'd notice without crib notes. The most visible departure from metal orthodoxy is band member "Su-Nung, the Bloody String," who plays hena, a two-stringed, bowed instrument known more widely as the erhu.
The members of ChthoniC took up black metal, according to interviews, because they were fans. But it's no stretch to assume that they intuited its fundamental impulse, since ChthoniC's songs dig into native history and mythology as a means to underscore their real message: international recognition of Taiwan as an independent state, in particular by the United Nations.
Fascinatingly, the band evens links its use of what looks like standard-issue Norwegian corpsepaint to Taiwanese tradition: in one online interview, singer Freddy Lim -- a.k.a. "Freddy, the Left Face of Maradou" -- traces the look to Taoist mythology:
Corpse paint is not the monopoly of the Scandinavian metal bands. It also originates from the “Eight Generals”, who appear in religious parades based on Taiwanese folklore. When these deities wear corpse paint, they are empowered with the eight Taoist spirits to be the judge of good and evil. The corpse paint of some Scandinavian black metal bands reminded Chthonic of the Taiwanese “Eight Generals”. Therefore, Chthonic gradually incorporated their corpse paint with the influence of the “Eight Generals”, such as the reverse hook emphasis on the corners of the mouth, etc.
No wonder, then, that some of ChthoniC's songs are banned in China. What's much stranger is that the band has attained a surprising degree of celebrity and official approval in its homeland: when ChthoniC claimed the prize for "Best Group" at the 14th annual Golden Melody Awards, Taiwan's version of the Grammies, in 2003, the trophy was presented by the nation's president, Chen Shui-bian. The Taiwanese government, according to several reports, supplied funding for the band's current, seemingly endless North American trek.
Normally at B.B.'s metal showcases, the Dilettante and I assume a standard position behind the soundboard, giving the moshers their space. Here there was no need, so we got up close behind the front row of headbangers in Obituary jerseys. What we learned was that official status hasn't tamed ChthoniC's ferocity.
Lim employed a stellar range of shrieks and growls -- never mind that the audience had no idea what he was going on about. Guitarist Jesse Liu ("Jesse, the Infernal") and keyboardist C.J. Kao ("CJ, Dispersed Fingers") provided a suitably infernal racket and the occasional florid solo. Bassist and backing vocalist Hsiang-yi Yeh ("Doris, Thunder Tears"), a strikingly beautiful woman who more than held her own in this boys' racket, offered thick, meaty bass lines that were unusually audible in the mix. Drummer "Dani, Azathothian Hands," adorned in a spiky bondage mask, managed blistering blastbeats sans electronic triggering, playing double-bass kicks on a single drum that was visibly miked. Su-Nung maintained a state of statuesque solemnity except when he was called upon to play, at which time he burst to life with keening string melodies that soared above the din.
Playing by B.B.'s harsh clock, ChthoniC hit the stage at 6:30pm and was finished by 7. Having not snagged a set list, I can't report most of what the band played, but the closer was "UNlimited Taiwan," its most recent tune and definitely its bluntest political diatribe. Beforehand, Lim roused the crowd with an obscenity-laden rant against the U.N., in English. It was enough to prompt this tiny but enthusiastic audience to thrust devil horns skyward in support of... whatever the guy onstage was going on about.
Lim took several opportunities to plug ChthoniC's hastily arranged date as a headliner this Sunday night at the Highline Ballroom, a show the band has dubbed "UNlimited New York." This well-deserved showcase will allow ChthoniC to regale its fans at greater length, as any band might wish to do -- a point Lim made in an interview for Blabbermouth.com.
But there's also a strategic component to the concert's timing: the United Nations convenes on the following Tueday, and Taiwan is once again trying to forcibly press the issue of its independence. If true comprehension has probably eluded most of the audiences ChthoniC has faced during its current American sojourn, perhaps the band hopes that a patina of evil funk will drift lazily toward the East River next week.
For more about this utterly fascinating band, here is an excellent recent Ozzfest brief from Toronto's Eye Weekly. And here is a more substantial piece from the International Herald Tribune -- a spectacularly detailed feature that digs into the band's political ties, revealing, for instance, that Freddy Lim was once enrolled at the Lee Teng-hui Academy, a finishing school for potential politicians.
Giuseppe Verdi - Macbeth - Carlo Cossutta, Christa Ludwig, Sherill Milnes, Vienna State Opera / Karl Bohm (Opera d'Oro)
Maurice Ravel - Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2; Rapsodie Epagnole; Igor Stravinsky - Le Chant du Rossignol Suite; The Firebird Suite - New York Philharmonic/Lorin Maazel (Deutsche Grammophone download)
Do Make Say Think - You, You're a History in Rust (Constellation)
Michael Gordon - Weather - Ensemble Resonanz/Evan Ziporyn (Nonesuch)
Gavin Bryars - Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet - Gavin Bryars Band with Tom Waits (Point Music)