Chthonic – Mirror of Retribution

Chthonic – Mirror of Retribution – 4.5/5

First they impressed me with “Relentless Reverence,” then they packed in more venom with every lyrical punch in “Seediq Bale,” and continuing their streak of self-improvement this album proves no different. Maintaining the strong black atmosphere and melodic core to their sound, part what makes this release stronger than before is the inclusion of the ‘erhu’ – a sort of two stringed violin with an oriental folk-like earthy timbre – adding a layer of sorrowful torment, combining with the distant, soft backing vocals to provide more than just simplistic demonic aggression. Like the odd lovechild of “The Red in the Sky is ours” (At the Gates) and early “Sigh,” it is tremendously worked and more than worthy of equal praise.

Dealt with in a manner that almost feels theatrical or operatic in the manner each track feels like it has a specific purpose, telling the story that was intended. From the opening ‘Autoscopy’ (meaning an out-of-body experience), it chronicles the journey of Tsing-guan who in 1947 delves into (Taiwanese) Hell, through the hundreds of layers (of which the mirror of retribution is the first, forcing you to observe your sins to determine which layer you belong) to steal the ‘Book of Life and Death’ and return back to Taiwan. This is all so he can kill the Chinese tyrant responsible for the 228 massacre. Whilst reference to their interpretation of Hell proved difficult, I believe it is a reference to ‘Diyu,’ somewhere between the ‘Buddhist’ and ‘Taoist’ equivalent of hell, consisting of 18 layers suited for different sins, with a further 18 sub-layers depending on the severity or specific nature of the crime. The history regarded the 228 massacre, however, is well documented, and indeed is one of those atrocities ‘The History Channel’ always forgets to mention, and with the government body responsible for allowing it to happen recently re-elected it seems an apt a time as any for such an endeavour. Black Metal with a purpose beyond the religious seems rare enough, but finding an example of it performed well, and with an absolute conviction in their beliefs (and it isn’t hard to see why) is like finding a needle in a haystack.

With prominent drumming and an audible bass line, it would seem the crisp production (by Rob Caggiano of Anthrax fame) has done excellent job of making each instrument crystal clear. The bass maintains a steady framework and the drumming complements this aptly, with no shortage of styles beyond the blast beating, they combine with the vast quantities of layers presented to provide that all important wall of sound. Riffs are supplied in two main forms, the almost Gothenburg-influenced pedal noted style and the blackened tremolo riffs, they retain an essential – if simplistic – melody that alone may get tiring, but is seamlessly integrated into each tracks composition to work as another intriguing layer to this well woven tapestry.

Adding to the composition further is the lavish keyboard work, never becoming dominant as in more symphonic work, the style is broken up between ‘Imaginary Sonicscape (Sigh) like snappy keyboard riffs and a backing chord work assisting the flow of the more gentle passages, which they aren’t afraid of displaying. The vocals are used sparingly, the lead vocalist growling as though he is desperate to remove the poison that is killing him inside, spitting out a venomous rage in an uncontrollable fit of chaotic aggression, complemented by soft ethereal female vocals that serve to add a mournful torment to the chaotic torture. And this is not forgetting the strong, prominent work from the erhu, lending an unconventional, distinctly ‘oriental folk’ tone to the proceedings, it blends into the music begging why hasn’t anyone done this before? Slow and emotional, its use wouldn’t feel out of place in a slow classical music epic (in fact, the first artist that it reminded me of was the recently reviewed ‘Kono Michi,’ a classical violinist), but here provides a startling contrast, a connection that despite its simplicity, draws in the listener, and gives you something harrowing to cling on to through this anarchic journey through the hell they’ve created.

And despite the number of layers – easily enough to sustain my interests for multiple consecutive listens – they never lose sight of the beautiful, haunting atmosphere being strived for. So much more than the simple satanic aggression contemporaries in the genre seem to sport, a genuinely emotional and powerful work as fascinating as the subject matter it explores. I am a fan of sigh – I make no attempt to hide this fact – but as excited as I am of the oncoming prospect of orchestral arrangements and a new vocalist for the forthcoming release, I can help but wonder if this year will see a new champion for my affection. And after all is said and done, the only question that remains is when do they tour?

Highlights: Blooming Blades, 1947, Forty-Nine the Urgy Chains