Taiwanese oriental black-metal fiends Chthonic have always been well known for their fervent Nationalistic political agendas and novel usage of traditional Asian oriental instruments, adding an element of exoticness to their otherwise straightforward and melodic black-metal style. With this six studio full-length album, they have taken both of these unique traits a huge step further, with a backstory in the CD booklet that reads like an excerpt from a history textbook on the rise of East Asian Nationalism and a stronger presence of oriental tunes in their music than ever before.
Up until their previous album, Mirror Of Retribution (their debut on Spinefarm Records), they had only ever utilized the Chinese oriental violin called the erhu, but on “Takasago Army”, they have included two more Chinese oriental instruments: the Pgaku flute and the guzheng. Additionally, coupled with the fact that they have abandoned their ghost paint in favor of military-style costumes (The band got tired of how tedious it was to don and remove ghost paint), they have completed their metamorphosis into a truly oriental metal band, leaving behind much of their older style of symphonic black-metal, but it is still a welcome and apt change nonetheless. After all, the focus on Taiwanese Nationalism in their lyrical themes has only grown stronger over the years while their focus on Taiwanese supernatural mythology has waned instead. Being part three of a trilogy of concept albums, Takasago Army is a decent curtain call that doesn’t leave a superbly strong impression but deserves praise anyhow for its ambitious and appropriate approach to East Asian Nationalism in extreme music.
Together with Chthonic’s last two albums, 2007’s Seediq Bale and 2009’s Mirror Of Retribution, the trilogy espouses a lyrical theme that mainly deals with the defiant spirit of early Taiwanese colonizers, fictional wars waged between Taiwanese aboriginal deities and Chinese Han gods, Taiwanese folklore and mythology, and historical events such as the Wushe Incident, 228 Incident, and the Takasago Volunteers. However, if you look specifically at Takasago Army, bassist Doris Yeh had commented earlier this year in June that “The Takasago Army was a Taiwanese troop of Japanese force/Axis powers that fought in the Pacific War/World War II between 1940 and 1944. The Takasago soldiers were descendants of a brave and powerful people from the mountains of Taiwan, people with a strong warrior tradition. They impressed their rivals with their cunning, tenacity and skill on the battlefield, and they became the most revered and most feared combat unit in the Japanese Imperial Army.” So, in a nutshell, it’s about a bunch of suicidal Taiwanese Arnold Schwarzeneggers whom were fighting on Japan’s side back in WWII, and it is probably trying to tell China how she shouldn’t mess around with Taiwan because they might still have kickass citizens like them around today.
Clean group vocals chanted in the Chinese dialect of Hokkien are a welcome addition to Chthonic’s music, as they add a nice touch of East Asian flavor to Freddy Lim’s otherwise atypical black-metal shrieking and death growls. Unfortunately, the only moment on the album they are utilized is in the chorus section of single “Takao”, which is a real pity because the subsequent eight tracks are worthy of such embellishments—Lim’s harsh, monotonous vocals get dull after awhile. Fortunately, the introductory instrumental track, “The Island”, has a kind of tranquil yet epic atmosphere, very akin to the soundtracks of John Woo’s Chinese war films, Red Cliff 1 and 2, and together with the creative usage of Hokkien chants, they are the kind of stuff that really drive home the concept of “East meets West” in the realm of cross-cultural metal.
However, as with many bands that become commercial after experiencing great success, Chthonic has under-performed in certain areas in which they used to previously excel. Even though Sunung “The Bloody String” Chao’s decorative erhu melodies and CJ Kao’s hypnotizing synths constantly make their presence felt throughout the album, they are no longer as dominant as they used to be on the older Chthonic records before their time with Spinefarm. They take on more of a secondary role now, clearly overshadowed by Lim’s vocals and Jesse Liu’s guitar, probably a marketing strategy to cater more to the tastes of the Western crowd, whereas previously on older albums like Seediq Bale, they held primary roles and often led the music in a beautifully surreal direction, as can be heard on “Bloody Gaya Fulfilled” and “The Gods Weep”. You don’t hear any of Doris Yeh’s haunting clean singing (like she did on “Seediq Bale”) anymore either, with the sixth track “Kaoru” being the only moment on the album containing some form of female vocals (performed by guest singer Chan Ya Wen), and even then, it is done in a melancholic but not very ear-pleasing operatic style known as enka, a traditional Japanese art form. Similarly, Liu no longer has any of those slow, melodic moments (like on “Onset of Tragedy” off of Chthonic’s third studio album, Relentless Recurrence) that make goosebumps spring up all over your body—he has chosen instead to take a more thrashy route on this album, mostly chugging along in an uninspiring manner. His only melodic moments are melo-death style guitar solos that only appear after the halfway mark of songs like “Oceanquake”, “Southern Cross”, “Mahakala” and “Quell The Souls In Sing-Ling Temple”, which come off as being too little compensation to the listener—it’s not worth having to sit through boring chunks of repetitive guitar passages filled with pounding chords and breakdowns before arriving at Destination Sweden. Lastly, the sepia-toned album artwork has a dated look that really should be commended for its synergy with the Nationalistic lyrical theme, but it lacks the disturbing feel and visceral visual appeal of the cover of the last album, Mirror Of Retribution.
Still, this is a great record to add to your collection for its sheer exotic value as an epic Nationalistic concept album. It’s filled with plenty of fresh oriental tunes that will seduce your ears into a brief respite from traditional forms of metal. In fact, you might even find yourself unconsciously booking a flight ticket to the Far East for your next metal holiday destination.