Black Metal Politics in Taiwan

Cthonic bassist Doris Yeh. London December 2011.

‘It doesn’t cohere’. That was my first thought on hearing Chthonic’s new album Battlefields of Asura. In fact, it’s been my first thought on hearing all of their work. Taiwan – and Asia’s – biggest metal band don’t quite make sense.

Not that the songs, the instrumentation, the voices sound incoherent – far from it. As always, Chthonic’s music is expertly played, perfectly produced and tightly constructed. Battlefields of Asura is as impressive as its seven predecessors. Their lavishly orchestrated, highly accessible version of black metal has an irresistible grandeur and power.

But I’ve never been able to reconcile the sounds of Chthonic with the band itself and their extra-musical commitments. They are a highly political band from a country whose politics is nothing if not fraught. Chthonic’s embrace of Taiwanese identity, which includes using the Taiwanese and aboriginal languages, and drawing on local folklore and mythology, is a highly political act given mainland China’s characterisation of the island as merely a renegade province. And it is equally uncomfortable within Taiwan itself, where the relationship with China is a highly emotive issue.

Freddy Lim, Chthonic’s lead singer, is a Taiwanese MP who supports independence. The bassist, Doris Yeh, is a women’s rights activist. The band has taken stances supporting Tibet and, through their interest in Taiwanese aboriginal culture, have raised uncomfortable questions about China’s quasi-colonial dominance. They’ve even burned the Kuomintang flag in one of their videos.

So why the sense that something does not fit? Simply put: Chthonic are not how politically progressive music is ‘supposed’ to sound. When I hear the sweeping synths, the driving guitars, the screams and growls, the first thing that jumps into my head is ‘Dimmu Borgir’ or, perhaps, ‘Cradle of Filth’. European bands like these, at the more accessible end of black metal, are the closest musical analog to Chthonic. Like their Taiwanese counterparts, such bands create metal that is lavish, richly orchestrated, with equally striking visuals. Yet unlike Chthonic, they are ideologically committed to very little, beyond faintly echoing their original limpid Satanism.

Metal fans sometimes label bands like Chthonic and Dimmu Borgir as ‘symphonic’. This isn’t necessarily a reference to the modes and tropes of classical music, so much as the expansive tones and timbres produced by the orchestra. While some symphonically-inclined metal bands, including both Chthonic and Dimmu Borgir, have collaborated with classical musicians (in Chthonic’s case, Chinese classical musicians), the symphonic in metal really connotes keyboards. More specifically, this means those keyboard stylings that cast an all-pervasive wash of quasi-string sounds over the mix. 

And this is what does not fit in Chthonic’s case: In metal, their keyboard sounds don’t connote the political. Nor does the way that most of their songs are constructed, as a kind of endless climax, a self-consciously dramatic, even filmic, sense of being just about to consummate…something. Chthonic emote in a heavily stylised way, like the final act of a late 19th century opera.

What does the political sound like in metal? This is a genre that has often had enormous difficulty acknowledging that it even could be political. Indeed, disclaimers often subvert even the most shockingly confrontational forms of metal. So when I refer to the political in metal in this context, I mean the overtly political. This is often, but not exclusively, the domain of metal subgenres which are close to or crossover into punk and hardcore.

Bands like Napalm Death or Sepultura (in the 90s at least) are heavily influenced by punk, but there are exceptions such as System of a Down or the newly emergent field of anti-fascist black metal. What such acts have in common is that they usually eschew keyboards, certainly the ‘symphonic’ keyboards of Chthonic. 

Sometimes, I need to be reminded of what I’ve always known and always accepted: that the ways that music connotes are purely arbitrary, albeit deeply-rooted. If Chthonic could be said to have a subversive presence in metal, it is in showing us that the meaning that genres hold can always change, that sounds can mean new things. That uncanny sense I have when listening to Chthonic, that something does not quite fit, is a productive one, forcing me to question my sonic assumptions.

Perhaps there is something else going on here too: Chthonic may sound ‘Asian’ in a more fundamental way than those of us who have spent their lives listening to metal in the west might think. I’m not talking here about the band’s occasional use of ‘traditional’ and ‘folk’ Chinese and Taiwanese instruments – interesting though that is – but that they refract a musical environment that may be subtly or not-so-subtly different from my own.

Perhaps, in Taiwan and other East Asian countries, the political simply sounds different. I remember listening to Cui Jian in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre while travelling in China as a student. From what I’d read of him, I’d thought he’d sound as subversive as his words. Yet to me he sounded bland and harmless – but that was me internalising smug western assumptions about what political subversion sounded like.

Of course, I would imagine that most Taiwanese people who don’t listen to metal wound hear Chthonic as cacophony – the vocals are, after all, screamed rather than crooned. Musical meaning is always contextual. I listen to Chthonic as a metal fan from the UK, and so I hear something different. An awareness of the contextual nature of listening can be a source of pleasure. That is certainly what I enjoy about Chthonic; a pleasurable sense that something doesn’t quite fit between my world and theirs.   

Photograph courtesy of crusader//ky. Published under a Creative Commons license.