Thursday, 3 April 2014

Review: Chthonic 'Bu-Tik'

CHTHONIC (from left): Doris Yeh (bass/backing vocals), CJ Kao (keyboards), Freddy Lim (lead vocals/erhu), Dani Wang (drums), Jesse Liu (guitars/backing vocals)


By James C. Stewart

Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of the Taiwanese act Chthonic. I should’ve added some sort of genre designation before the word act…maybe the usual western bullshit terminology like “black metal”, “death metal”, or “symphonic metal”. But none of these labels—and we all know how the metal scene loves its labels—really define Chthonic’s music. Instead Chthonic produces a genre-bending brand of Taiwanese heavy that meshes the familiar with the unfamiliar.

The unfamiliar is found in the distinctive and unique instrumentation. Doris Yeh (Chthonic bassist and FHM covergirl) has said, “Even though Chthonic was inspired by European black metal early on in the band’s history, over the past ten years, all of the album stories were based on Taiwanese myth and history.” And to this myth and history Chthonic brings traditional Taiwanese sound, instruments and East-Asian pentatonic melodies.

I’m certainly a Chthonic noob, especially when considering they’ve been around in various forms since 1995. I’ve exposed myself to a couple of their discs; Takasago Army (2011, Spinefarm Records) and Bu-Tik (2013, Spinefarm Records). Both of these albums are inspired, masterpieces of heavy, showcasing stunning song-writing and changes that dazzle in their velocity and virtuosity. And both albums refuse to forget their country’s sordid past, using horrific moments from Taiwan’s bloody history to remind humanity of a century of atrocities.

It’s extremely intense stuff, and definitely not for the musically faint of heart. The throat-shredding vocals of Freddy Lim (also the Chairman of Taiwan’s Chapter of Amnesty International and a dedicated activist) rake across the brain, sometimes in English, sometimes in Taiwanese. Lim also intermittently employs an erhu (a two-stringed instrument vaguely reminiscent of a violin), which lends a bittersweet flavoring to many of the tracks on both albums. On Bu-Tik, the erhu provides views of melancholy beauty in a shrieking guitar and metal dominated landscape.

On the most cinematic tracks, such as “Supreme Pain for the Tyrant” (the video captures the seething undercurrent of emotion and raw, yet controlled aggression that is Chthonic), and particularly the last half of the song “Defenders of Bu-Tik Palace”, this melancholy is brought to the surface. But then there’s no way to express how much I enjoy “Defenders of Bu-Tik Palace”. The video is one thing—and it is wonderful in its cheese and fun—but the music is another. It’s sonic heaven…the fusion of vocals (both male and female), classic heavy riffs and Asian melodies produce a startling if not moving cut…this is an incredible statement considering the sheer depth of the album.

Bu-Tik is a slicker, if not slightly more produced version of Takasago Army, the band’s 2011 outing. Takasago Army is a typhoon of storming riffs, searing synths and harpyish screams. The album once again sees Chthonic using the erhu and Asian sound (perhaps even more so than on Bu-Tik) to evolve into something beyond black metal. The instrument adds a sadness rarely seen in metal. Cuts like “Takao” showcase the stellar guitar work of the massively underrated Jesse Liu, and the rhythms of drummer Dani Wang rarely leave the 300 BPM range on either album.

Critically acclaimed for their work on Bu-Tik, the group was honoured during Taiwan’s 2013 Golden Music Awards, winning “Best Album Award”, “Best Band” and “Best Musician”. The group was nominated for seven awards at the event. Chthonic was also dubbed “the band to watch” by the popular music magazine Revolver. Chthonic’s albums and world-wide tours have been discussed in the renowned music magazines Terrorizer, Metal Hammer, Rock Sounds and Kerrang!. They’ve been covered by media outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the TV network ABC.

Chthonic’s outstanding achievements over the past decade have made the band a favourite among Asian metal well beyond the Pacific Rim. Always on the cutting edge, in February 2013 Chthonic shared the stage with Japanese kawaii-metal sensation Babymetal. This after Doris Yeh surprised Babymetal in their dressing room before their All Nippon Live in January with a Taiwanese TV crew. In what has to be one of the cutest moments in metal history, Doris presented various New Year’s gifts to the trio.

If you are in or near Toronto on May 1, 2014 and would like to see Chthonic, they will be playing the Opera House (735 Queen Street East) at Paganfest 2014.

Get your copy of Bu-Tik at YesAsia.
Order HERE!

Get your copy of Takasago Army at YesAsia. Order HERE!

Here's the whole lineup of their upcoming dates in North America as part of Paganfest with ticket links:

04/25/14 - Springfield, VA
04/26/14 - Baltimore, MD
04/27/14 - Philadelphia, PA
04/28/14 - New York, NY
04/29/14 - Quebec City, QC
04/30/14 - Montreal, QC
05/01/14 - Toronto, ON
05/02/14 - Columbus, OH
05/03/14 - Joliet, IL
05/04/14 - Minneapolis, MN
05/05/14 - Winnipeg, MB
05/07/14 - Calgary, AB
05/08/14 - Vancouver, BC
05/09/14 - Seattle, WA
05/10/14 - Portland, OR
05/11/14 - San Francisco, CA
05/12/14 - Ramona, CA
05/13/14 - West Hollywood, CA
05/15/14 - Denver, CO
05/16/14 - Kansas City, MO
05/17/14 - Detroit, MI
05/18/14 - Worcester, MA