Review: Chthonic: “Takasago Army”

The problem with the age of buying albums online is that we’ve lost the joy of browsing the record store.

To buy an album online, of course, you have to know exactly what you want. While record labels and zines do everything they can to publicize bands, only a small percentage of the bands are likely to get through your filter.

That wasn’t true back when we had record stores; in those halcyon days, I would spend a good hour or two just browsing through the aisles, checking out album covers, reading lyrics and song titles and bugging the clerks for info about particularly interesting bands. Part of the fun was taking home an album by a completely unknown (to me) band — yes, I got some stinkers that way, but I also ended up with great albums by bands like Type O Negative, Megadeth, Manowar and The Dead Milkmen.

I had a new “hoooley shee-it” moment recently, when I stumbled across the new Chthonic album, “Takasago Army” at record store in a nearby city. While I think I had heard of Chthonic before, I knew absolutely nothing about them … so my ears perked up and my eyes popped out when the Taiwan-based band hit me with an original blend of traditional Taiwanese melodies and instrumentation and roaring symphonic black metal.

A concept album based on Taiwanese history, “Takasako Army” is a blistering disc and surprises again and again with the inclusion of Chinese and Taiwanese melodies.

I’m not talking about just samples here and there, either; the music of Taiwan is inextricably woven into the songs. Metal is a western creation — but Chthonic doesn’t attempt to imitate western metal. Instead, they make the genre their own. To the uninitiated, it’s an incredibly refreshing.

But, thankfully, injecting Taiwanese culture into the music doesn’t stop Chthonic from being incredibly heavy. With the exception of two brief instrumentals, “Takasago Army” roars from beginning to end.

“Takasago Army” tells the story of Taiwanese aboriginals who were recruited to fight for Japan during World War II. After the war, the men returned home, only to be recruited again when Chinese nationalists invaded Taiwan after the nationalists lost the Chinese civil war. The Taiwanese defenders lost the battle — thereby losing any chance the island nation had for independence after the defeat of Japan.

You don’t have to know all of that to appreciate “Takasago Army,” however. This is symphonic black metal — and the Taiwanese musical references make this as innovative and surprising as Emperor must have been when they first burst onto the Norwegian metal scene in the early 1990s.

Fans of black metal — and metal fans tired of the countless bands that seem to be working overtime to sound as generic as possible — will find much to enjoy here. “Takasago Army” is highly recommended.

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