What do Taiwanese politics and heavy metal have in common? Freddy Lim.
In the twenty years since releasing their first album, Chthonic have become the biggest name in Taiwanese metal. Their success has been built on those old staples of hard work and staying true to your principles, both musically and ethically. Whilst there has been some evolution over the years – as you’d expect – their sound has remained firmly rooted in melodic and symphonic black metal, and also in the myths of their homeland.
But whilst there’s a tendency with many black metal bands to filter the origin myths of their home countries through a conservative, right-wing lens, Chthonic are notable for having remained steadfastly anti-fascist throughout their existence, taking those legends as inspiration for the fight against oppression and intolerance. The result is a distinctive sound, with traditional Taiwanese folk instruments complimenting extreme metal, and a message of hope and defiance.
For Chthonic, these aren’t simply empty words or ideals lacking action. In one of the more surprising developments in metal in recent years, frontman Freddy Lim decided to run for the Taiwanese parliament as part of the left-wing New Power Party which he helped found, and was elected in 2016.
Following the release of new album Battlefields of Asura, we asked frontman Freddy Lim about the ways that history can be used to oppose authoritarianism; collaborating with pop stars; and what the future holds for the band, now that their vocalist is a politician.
There’s been a lot of changes for the band in the five years between Bu-Tik and Battlefields Of Asura. Did those changes – most notable with yourself entering the Taiwanese parliament as part of the New Power Party – make it harder for the band to get together and write the new album?
Yes, after I decided to run for the Parliament in early 2015, the songwriting process had to be paused for a while. In the Lunar new year vacation in 2017, Jesse and I started to work on the new material again.
The album artwork is very striking, blending traditional imagery with the modern “business suit” attire. What inspired this?
The character in the cover is Asura, an Asian god who has three heads and six arms and is always fighting. The album title Battlefields Of Asura written in Kanji characters as “修羅場”, and it means harsh battlefields. The cover art is an appearance of Asura with a modern suit. We think in the modern world, many fields of the society are all like battlefields of Asura. Such as the political field, financial fields etc.
Chthonic’s music, imagery, and lyrics have always hearkened back to the history of Taiwan, with the use of traditional folk instruments and lyrics inspired by folklore and history. Do you think it is important that people retain this kind of connection to their past?
I don’t think it’s necessary for each person to strongly retain this connection. It depends on people’s life experiences and their senses on different subjects. It’s just that we have been always inspired by these stories, so naturally we write songs based on these inspirations.
Related to this, we are seeing a growing trend worldwide of politicians and journalists using the history and legends of their countries to promote right-wing, authoritarian views. Given that Chthonic have a long history of opposing authoritarianism and hate, how do you think people can use these same histories and folk legends to promote tolerance, and oppose fascism and tyranny?
When we all look at things from the perspective of the weak or the oppressed, we naturally speak for them. No matter what myths or legends we quote.
Battlefields of Asura features contributions from Denise Ho, whose pop/rock music is very different from that of Chthonic. How did this collaboration come about?
We knew Denise when she came to Taiwan to play Megaport Festival in 2015. And since she’s quite outspoken about social issues, after then we have exchanged some ideas once in a while. When we were preparing our new album, the idea of having her guesting on one of our songs just naturally came up.
Given that all the members of the band are now incredibly busy with their lives and responsibilities outside of Chthonic, do you think Chthonic will ever be able to tour again, or will special festival appearances – such as that at the Japanese Metal Blizzard festival – be the only way to see Chthonic live?
It is almost impossible to do long tours as we did before. But we will still take part in festivals hopefully.
In the twenty years since the release of Where The Ancestors’ Souls Gathered, you’ve arguably become the biggest metal band from Taiwan. Did you ever expect that Chthonic would be such a long-lived or successful band?
I don’t know how to define “success”. But when Chthonic was just formed, I was expecting to be able to keep going and write a lot of songs.
What are the plans for Chthonic, following the release of Battlefields Of Asura?
Hopefully, we will play some festival shows next year if I have time… Really hope to meet all of you soon again!
Battlefields Of Asura is out now. Purchase here.
Words: Stuart Wain