Chthonic are a melodic black metal band incorporating classical Chinese music, with a penchant for the theme of Taiwanese independence. Sounds intriguing, right? On paper, this band should be good – but upon repeated listens to their newest offering Takasago Army, it becomes sadly apparent that they aren’t going to live up to expectations. Rather than building a solid foundation of extreme metal into which the band can weave their traditional instrumentation, they seem to have elected for a kind of Children of Bodom tribute act sound – only substituting keyboards for the Erhu. It’s such a shame, given the instrument’s haunting qualities, that it isn’t utilized to create something more unique in a genre which relies so heavily on atmosphere.
This record kicks off with melodic Erhu/keyboard instrumental ‘The Island’ – which gives the listener a sample of what to expect throughout. Although I’ve certainly never heard an album open this way, and thus have no gripes as far as originality is concerned, cracks can be observed in subsequent listens. Although you can appreciate that Chthonic are trying to exploit their instruments’ haunting poignancy, the associations just aren’t there. Whereas a Chinese listener may make associations with ghosts, magic and more standard black metal fare, I myself (and I fear other western listeners) am reminded of old men on boats catching fish with a bird (the stuff HSBC ads are made of)! In a nice contrast to the delicacy of ‘The Island’, during ‘The Legacy of Seediq’ we start to gather pace, as Freddy Lim’s vocals tear through a mid-tempo intro and display what we can pretty much expect from every subsequent track on the album. Although a perfectly passable metal offering in terms of speed, aggression and intricacy, there really isn’t anything to single this out as something unique, which is something that a band with Chthonic’s USP really ought to be able to boast.
Proceeding onto ‘Takao’ – my personal pick for the album’s stand-out track – we are treated to some tasty fret-board wankery punctuated with some meaty pinch harmonics. This is really where Chthonic’s obsessively precise production will divide opinion. Make no mistake, the production on this record is absolutely top notch – the question is, do you the listener really want that from a black metal record? Personally, I can’t stand how clean and sterile it all sounds, but to a more mainstream-oriented listener I’m sure there’s probably plenty to love here. ‘Oceanquake’ passes by in 3:45 of much more of the same – note no significant variations in terms of tempo so far, hampering the light and shade relationships established at the beginning of Takasago Army.
‘Southern Cross’ alleviates this tedium somewhat as a much punchier, politically-driven protest anthem, augmented with keyboard work allowing you to almost start to feel the anger of an oppressed nation. Next up, ‘Kaoru’, one of the longer tracks on the record at 5:38 begins to supply some of the savagery displayed on Chthonic’s previous releases as we finally get up to blastbeat speed, once again with Freddy’s vocals sounding vicious in places. However, it’s not long before the mediocrity sets in again with the more credible sections being offset against metalcore-ish dreck that sound beyond tired, and some vocals that recall Dani Filth in a heated debate with a Yorkshire terrier.
‘Broken Jade’ passes by in much the same spirit, leading into the mellow interlude of ‘Roots Regeneration’, which harks back to the Erhu-led album intro. Kudos to Chthonic for attempting to reintroduce some feeling of light and shade back into proceedings, but for one thing it just seems like too little too late two tracks away from the end of the album, and then there’s the inescapable fact that this really serves no purpose in terms of atmosphere. It remains my belief that Western audiences won’t see the incorporation of classical Chinese influences as something which contributes to creating a dark, ominous, majestic or haunting ambience, something arguably vital to the genre. That said, there is a hint of majesty in closer ‘Quell the Souls in sing Ling Temple’s intro, but then into yet more of the same.
To summarise, therefore, if you’re more into Borgir than Burzum you could well find something you like here. If, however you’re more of a die hard black-metaller, you’d probably do well to give this one a miss. Chthonic, then could well serve as a gateway band for those making tentative forays into more extreme metal genres, but if you want an oriental band with more credible black metal tendencies and a penchant for experimentation my money would be on the likes of Sigh rather than Chthonic.