2011 sees Chthonic come at us with their sixth studio album, the second released on Spinefarm Records, Takasago Army.
If you know Chthonic, you know it’s always more than just hard-hitting music for this Taiwanese metal institution. Takasago was an ancient Japanese term for Taiwan and to quote the band’s website:
“The latest album "Takasago Army" recounts the stories of the 200,000 Taiwanese men drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. Listeners could feel the complex emotions of courage, confusion, pride, loneliness, despair, and sorrow.”
The incomparable Doris Yeh, bassist and gateway into understanding Chthonic for us English-speakers, commented on the new album:
“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.”
The band also talk of the process in writing these songs being reversed. Rather than laying down the metal first, this time the Taiwanese folk melodies were the launching point and because of this, along with the subject matter of Takasago Army, there is more use of oriental instruments – not just the èrhú or hiân-á (a Chinese 2-string upright fiddle) as on previous albums but also the Japanese koto (zither) and Tibetan instruments.
‘The Island’ opens Takasago Army, an atmospheric instrumental featuring guest musician Pitero Wukah playing the pgaku flute. CJ Kao’s synths are prominent, with traditional percussion adding to the build-up as the hiân-á is brought into the mix. The tension is built, the air is electric and then… we wait. A quicker transition, cross-fading into the second track ‘Legacy of the Seediq’, would have delivered the punch perfectly.
Never fear, ‘Legacy of the Seediq’ has the punch. Dani Wang’s battery of percussion gets us right on track and Chthonic are as tight as ever, accurately shifting gear and changing metre. The ‘oriental’ flavour is evident immediately with the plucking of the Japanese koto, the hiân-á joining later in the song. The slow grind ending the song is a powerful conclusion.
‘Takao’, also a featured video from the album, hits you straight away. Traditional instrument strains supported by synth woven through big metal hits. Freddy Lim’s voice regularly heads for the heights before joining guest vocalist Yu Tien in a Taiwanese aboriginal chant. A strong track.
‘Oceanquake’ sends Freddy into the depths before the hiân-á soars with an arching melody supported by short machine-gun bursts of drums. Jesse Liu’s guitar leads us to another section with a tight riff, which later returns over a thudding Doris Yeh bass suspension – cue the machine-gun with added synth, and we have our first guitar solo of the album, nicely passing over to the hiân-á. Roar Freddy, roar.
The pgaku flute returns to open ‘Southern Cross’, a nicely matched introduction to the full band, perfectly timed. Now we begin to hear the bass and guitars coming to the fore. It feels like the opening of ‘Side 2’, to use old LP speak. Head-bang people. Thrash is here and Jesse’s back with a screaming solo, a touch of double-lead in there too. The ending works but only just, we could have kept going, or maybe it’s just me enjoying it all too much.
‘KAORU’ has The Opening of the album. Yeah! Some variation here, in Freddy’s vocals, the addition of guest Chan Ya Wen adding a female element (Doris appears not to be featured in the vocal department this time round), and Dani making more prominent use of his snare as he mixes up the beats and is rewarded with solo fills. Chthonic are on form.
Iron Maiden comes to Taiwan – to my ear ‘Broken Jade’ has an unmistakable nod to the British metal pioneers. Chthonic make it their own though, heading off to overlay background chants and hiân-á. An effective voice-over near the end of the song had me checking my lane for vendors, excellent mixing Mr Bengtson at Sweetspot!
A respite from the battery comes with ‘Root Regeneration’, an atmospheric natural soundscape featuring the pgaku flute playing and spoken word of Pitero Wukah. But not for long…
‘MAHAKALA’ is a full-frontal assault. Turn it up. This is Chthonic angry. On first hearing all I could think was BANG. Great double-lead between hiân-á and guitar, tearing riffs and vocals of conviction. This is a powerful track, a reward as we near the end of a powerful album.
The final track ‘Quell the Souls in Sing Ling Temple’ ramps it up with an operatic, monster opening, which would be great to hear live. CJ’s keys are prominent and Jesse throws out a scorching, extended guitar solo.
Takasago Army ends just after the 40-minute mark, a Slayer-esque ‘80’s running time, but it’s a quality portion of your life spent. Do they have Noise Control in Taiwan? If you are fortunate enough to purchase the Taiwan limited edition, you’ll have a army-style pack as well, which sets the tone for the album.
Chthonic is a tight band, in music, in ideals, in message. Takasago Army is a worthy addition to their discography and a must for your collection. Awesome.