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Taiwanese history and Metal history meet - 98%

joncheetham88, August 11th, 2009

An autoscopy is the act of seeing oneself, usually through an out-of-body experience. There you are, looking down on yourself in a fitful sleep, blurred figures bent over your body, whispering in voices that get louder and louder until you awake and find yourself back in your body. And then all you can hear is your own gasps for breath, growing louder in your ears as sleep and sanity drift further out of your grasp.

So starts Chthonic's Mirror of Retribution. After this intro - which will have your skin crawling depending on your CD player's volume and the amount of light still coming into your room - you may think you are back in familiar territory with the explosion of classic second wave Black Metal that begins the second track, Blooming Blades. Until seconds later, the guitars drop into back-place for the album's first erhu solo. The erhu, my friends (and the bloody word processor doesn't even recognize the word) is a Chinese violin, that actually sounds halfway between a fiddle and a cello. It is typically played at funerals and by homeless guys in parks late at night. In far east Asia it is also associated with a long tradition of ghost movie soundtracks. If you are lucky enough to have heard this beautiful and mournful instrument before (and if you haven't, I recommend the work of Chinese-Japanese composer and erhu player Jia Peng Fang) then you will find your immersion into Chthonic's dichotomy of Chinese tradition with English and European Melodic Black Metal already well on the way. Later, the track Sing-Ling Temple ends with a yearning Erhu strain that will have you weeping like an elderly Taiwanese lady in front of one of those historical love stories they are known for. Or attempting to play the air erhu. The instrumental track 1947 twins a synthesized soundtrack with a lengthy solo on the erhu that should give you a greater understanding of the instrument; it is possible to play very simplistic melodies on it while still capturing an exquisite sense of sorrow and wist.

This album isn't all cheongsams and tearful goodbyes however; Venom In My Veins (the title is a possible homage to a Trail of Tears song of the same name) blasts along with the rhythmic fury Cradle Of Filth tried so hard to attain with Thornography, and on the closer Spell Of Setting Sun: Mirror Of Retribution there is a melodic guitar riff that will remind you of Dusk...and Her Embrace. These guys have done their homework, but rather than simply referencing their favourite bands they use sounds from throughout the history of Black Metal to create a varied and interesting album.

The more typical BM sound of previous release has been updated with crisper production and heavier tendencies. The Aroused has the cascading wall of sound of classic Emperor, while Sing-Ling Temple begins with Freddy Lim bellowing with the throaty might of Behemoth's Nergal over a crushing death metal riff. On Forty-Nine Theurgy Chains he shrieks like a mid-nineties Dani Filth. The same track features more thrilling blast beats and jagged riffs than you will be able to process on a first listen, each riff not dominant for more than 30 seconds before the track shifts focus again and of course there is eventually an epic erhu solo. Ending with an extremely satisfying 'Uuggh!!' from Freddy, the song is their greatest technical and compositional achievement here and would stand up to anything offered by the European scene this year. Rise Of The Shadows has a coruscating guitar riff with all the menace and malevolence this genre used to have... seriously, blaze up and stick this shit on your headphones and you will wonder what you ever did without Taiwanese exports. Jesse Liu almost singlehandedly dominates the middle of the album with raging guitar riffs and tempo changes; just with the guitars and a drum track it would still be an incredible album. Her tremolo scales on Bloody Waves Of Sorrow make you feel like you have NEVER heard Black Metal before, before crashing into a doom-laden riff Candlemass would pay good money for.

Behind the venomous vocal delivery is a revolutionary lyrical message drawing upon the 228 Incident in Taiwan; the name refers to the date, the 28th of February, when an anti-government uprising in Taiwan was responded to with vicious force by the Republic of China - which was put in place by the Allied Forces - resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of Taiwanese. This began the White Terror of Taiwan, weeks of bloodshed that led into a period of martial law, only ending in 1987. Put it this way; a couple of decades ago, Chthonic would have been in prison for their Black Metal long hair, let alone their lyrical content. However, the 228 Massacre is now spoken of openly in Taiwan, with the families of people killed in the 228 Massacre pardoned and absolved of all crimes. Taiwan is making a name for itself as a country which, much like South Korea, has a freedom of speech and action far more sophisticated than its neighbour (The People's Republic and North Korea, in these cases). This allows Chthonic to try and breathe new life into the history and culture of Taiwan that was lost with the assimilation of Taiwan by the Han Chinese and the Japanese. What will surprise you the most is that in Taiwan, they are more popular than Dimmu Borgir is in Norway; their visit to Europe to promote themselves and conduct interviews was accompanied by the Taiwanese ambassador, and their Best Band 2003 Award was presented by the President of Taiwan himself. You may feel I am digressing somewhat; well you are wrong, this history of Taiwan is essential to the context of the band.

These trials and tribulations are why Chthonic play with such vigour and fury, why their production is almost obsessively crisp to allow the searing guitar riffs to really make your ears bleed, and the frantic drum patterns to break your neck. The ever-controversial form of Metal is ideal for their startling message. Dimmu Borgir play their brand of Black Metal with the relaxed air of those who are creating a concept album about religious hypocrisy aesthetically, while Chthonic reach the end of Mirror of Retribution with the impression that they still have more to give. Their indignation and fury at the destruction of their mythology and heritage by Han insurgence is fresh, blood-drenched, raw and stinging in their minds, and not even an album of such blinding quality can right the wrongs done to their people. So you can be certain they will be back, they will teach you more about Taiwan, and they will continue to rejuvenate the ailing Black Metal scene (blighted as it is with Wolves In The Throne Room and their many, many knock-offs) with driven, meaningful political music that most importantly will rock your fucking socks off.

This deserves a classic rating. Don't believe me? Just you wait for the copycats.