A Voice for Taiwan's Freedom, History

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 24, 2007

Not a lot of metal bands appear at both Jaxx nightclub and the National Press Club, but Chthonic will be doing just that, with appearances at Springfield's Jaxx on Monday and Sept. 13. The latter date is also when the Taiwanese ensemble holds a downtown news conference to discuss its "UNlimited Taiwan" campaign as well as its experience as the first Asian extreme metal act to take part in the Ozzfest tour -- an appropriate showcase for a band called "the Black Sabbath of Asia."

According to lead singer and songwriter Freddy Lim, the September events are particularly important because they coincide with the Sept. 18 opening of the annual session of the United Nations, which Taiwan will once again attempt to join, an effort blocked every year since 1993 by China, which asserts sovereignty over the island.

Chthonic -- pronounced "THON-nic," it's Greek, meaning "of the underworld" -- has recorded a single called "UNlimited Taiwan" and made a short film for the song, protesting their homeland's isolation in the international community:

"We have the land, the strength, the power / Rise up, overcome, take it over / Ignored too long, we became stronger / Tear down the walls and let us run over."

It's all part of an effort to drum up sympathy and support among a younger generation of music fans that may not be aware that Taiwan has been self-ruled since nationalist forces fled there in 1949 after losing a long-running civil war with communist forces. It had a U.N. seat as the Republic of China until 1971, when China asserted sovereignty and threatened military action if Taiwan tried to secede. The United States has been trying to encourage a peaceful resolution ever since.

"The things that we can do are not too much," Lim admits. "We didn't organize this tour for a political reason -- first of all, it's a musical tour -- but as citizens of Taiwan we had to express our political message in the same time when our country needs our support." Lim says the band has "met fans here and in Europe, even in high school, who are involved in social justice action and want to write about Taiwan, let their classmates know about Taiwan. Who knows? Those young people may be somebody who in different areas can support Taiwan in the future.

"So we do the most that we can do and hope that after we honestly express our opinion, we can inspire more Taiwanese citizens to bravely express their own opinions in international society, like the many movie directors and the baseball players in major league baseball in Japan. We are just a heavy metal act and we have to fight for our own musical career, but at the same time we want to fight for our country."

Seeking international political recognition while asserting its independence has been difficult for Taiwan, Lim says. "In my opinion -- and I think the opinion of all the citizens in Taiwan -- they consider Taiwan is already an independent country," he says. "We have all rights like the citizens of America: We pay the tax to our own government, we vote for our own president, we have our own army. It is for us an independent country, no doubt. That would be the point we want to mention: Accept 'unlimited Taiwan,' like the song.

"But we don't write anything political in other songs," Lim adds. "All our songs are about mythology in Taiwan. I'm a fan of all kinds of mythologies since I was in kindergarten. When I started to write music, I made up my mind to write about things that normally human beings cannot do -- I love to write about gods, ghosts, spirits."

Good subject matter for the kind of music he chose, no?

"Yes!" Lim responds enthusiastically.

And thank goodness for metaphor and allusion.

Lim says he and his fellow band members grew up on a diet of Slayer, Anthrax, Deicide, Iron Maiden and Megadeth, as well as Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir, "the bands we liked the most when we first listened to black metal in the mid-'90s, especially their arrangements." (Chthonic headlines club dates on its off days from Ozzfest with Egyptian-themed death metal band Nile.) Lim also cites Emperor and Enslaved from Norway and England's Hecate Enthroned, bands whose complex structures and arrangements sired the "symphonic black metal" movement. England's Cradle of Filth and Norway's Dimmu Borgir wrote about their native cultures after traditional pagan religions had been forcibly replaced by Christianity.

Chthonic incorporates stories tied to Taiwan's culture and history, including the struggle against the Han Chinese, who after assuming control of the island about 350 years ago, subjugated aboriginal cultures. The band's 1998 debut, "Where the Ancestors' Souls Gathered," is about the original journey across the sea and the Han dreaming about a brighter future in Taiwan. The follow-up, "9th Empyrean," deals with a war between the gods of the Han and Taiwan's aboriginal people.

Chthonic's most recent release, "Seediq Bale," is also inspired by history. When the Japanese ruled Taiwan between 1895 and 1945, they banned traditional aboriginal practices, including facial tattoos, which were considered marks of honor. The Seediq, part of the Atayal, one of the 12 officially recognized indigenous peoples in Taiwan, rebelled in 1930, resulting in the Wushe Incident, an infamous massacre in which most of the tribe were killed, with women and children hanging themselves in trees to let the warriors focus on fighting. Revolver magazine called Chthonic's album "a booming blend of beautiful brutality and theatrical gloom." (There's an intriguing trailer for an as-yet-unreleased feature film, also called "Seediq Bale," about the conflict at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dS8Ojljcy7A.)

As the band's album covers, videos and photos show, Chthonic makes dramatic use of facial tattoos, also known as "corpse paint." Painted rockers go back to Alice Cooper and Kiss, and death and black metal bands in the '80s and '90s, particularly those from Scandinavia, embraced particularly dramatic, foreboding imagery. As with the Oskorei, a legion of ghoulishly painted dead souls found in Norse mythology, Taiwanese folklore had the Eight Generals, painted deities empowered with the eight Taoist spirits to be judges of good and evil.

"The makeup that we have is very traditional," Lim says. "Taiwanese Taoist priests would have to communicate with the gods and ghosts, to let the spirits into their bodies to transcend themselves. And because our songs are about Taiwanese ghosts, we need to be strengthened on the stage as well. That kind of makeup lets our fans know about Taiwan, and they become more and more curious about Asian culture. And it lets our music fit into the whole Chinese culture, lets people not think it's weird to use heavy metal to express Taiwanese history and culture."

Chthonic's sound is generally familiar: Guitarist Jesse (the Infernal), bassist Doris (Thunder Tears), keyboardist CJ (Dispersed Fingers) and drummer Dani (Azathothian Hands) deliver machine gun/jackhammer accompaniment to Lim's throat-shredding, guttural screams. But you'll also notice Su-Nung (the Bloody String) on erhu (hena in Taiwanese), a two-stringed traditional Chinese violin. It's often buried in the tumultuous sound mix but sometimes gets a solo showcase that capitalizes on the sad, morose sounds that have made the instrument a favorite in tragic or melancholy films and plays. Lim once said that the band tried the Western violin but that it "was just not sad enough."

"There are a lot of die-hard fans who always know when the hena will come out," Lim says. "In our performance, you can see those big eyes as they stare at it. Many people cannot figure out which part is the hena [and] which part is the guitar or keyboards because all things are mixed together, but that's the beauty of symphonic black metal."

Since its second album, Chthonic has recorded Mandarin and English-language versions, though Lim is clearly more comfortable in his own language. "Some parts are really difficult to translate from Taiwanese, particularly the ones that are speaking of the gods or the spirits, and I don't want to write in English because it doesn't feel natural. It is not too difficult for us because we work with many writers in Taiwan to do something in English, but I feel like in extreme metal the fans maybe don't really care about the lyrics."

This last observation is both pragmatic and personal, Lim says. "I like Emperor, I like Immortal [black metal bands from Norway], I like In Flames [from Sweden], but I don't really know what they are singing about. I know that they are writing about Scandinavian myths and some Satanism stuff -- that's all I need to know. I don't really have to look at the lyrics sheet -- it's a different kind of music." And his own lyrics are sung with such brutal energy that the actual language hardly matters.

Chthonic, Nile, Azrael and Aeturnus Animus Appearing Monday at Jaxx More than a concert T-shirt: Concertgoers can always pick up souvenir CDs and tour T-shirts, but Chthonic is likely the only band offering paper doll versions of themselves. It's traditional Taiwanese folk art, and fans will find six dolls modeled after the members of Chthonic (with their instruments), along with others representing the Eight Generals.

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