TAIPEI, Taiwan — The first time Taiwanese metal band Chthonic toured America, audiences didn't exactly give them a warm welcome.
"They stood there with open mouths, and some shouted that they wanted to see the headline band instead," recalled bassist Doris Yeh, in an interview early this month.
But Chthonic would typically silence the hecklers with their first tight, bone-crunching number. "I don't think they were prepared for seeing a band from the Orient," said Yeh. "They were shocked by our outfits and songs."
Freddy Lim, lead vocalist of Chthonic.
Chthonic has played Taiwan since the mid-1990s, mixing an "extreme metal" sound, derived from Scandinavian bands, with Asian flavors and a strong pro-Taiwan political stance.
Now, the band is starting to win converts abroad, too. They're recently back from a second tour of the U.S. and Europe, which featured songs from their latest album, "Mirror of Retribution," slickly produced by Anthrax guitarist Rob Caggiano in English and Chinese versions.
Chthonic was named second best band in Terrorizer magazine's 2009 reader poll, after Behemoth. Chad Bowar, the heavy metal editor at About.com, said in an email that when it comes to the best-known Asian metal band on the scene now, it's now a "toss-up" between Chthonic and two Japanese acts, Sigh and Dir En Grey.
"Their look is definitely unique, with the makeup, and using traditional Taiwanese instruments like the erhu (a mournful string instrument) also sets them apart," said Bowar, explaining Chthonic's appeal. "Their political activities help keep them in the spotlight."
"The music is also very good, and without that the other things wouldn't matter."
Bassist Yeh's sex appeal can't hurt, either. She's posed for FHM Taiwan and, to judge by fan websites, has already inspired more than a few metalhead crushes. "She's like three or four fetishes rolled into one," quipped one fan at Chthonic's recent show in Taipei.
Yeh's on a roll: She was voted the second most popular bassist in the Terrorizer reader poll, made Revolver magazine's "Hottest Chicks in Metal" calendar and was featured as GQ Taiwan's "GQ girl" for this January.
In Taiwan, the band — especially 33-year-old songwriter and vocalist Freddy Lim — is well known for their outspoken politics. "Freddy," as he's known here, was a regular on political talk shows in the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election, and rallied youth support for the pro-independence party.
Now, Lim says he's told producers he's not interested in more talk show appearances, despite the easy pay (about $150 per show). He'd rather go on the unpaid university lecture circuit to speak out on his favorite causes.
"I want to influence young people on issues like Tibet, and global human rights," said Lim. "Tibetans, Uighurs, people in Myanmar — they face even worse situations than Taiwan. As Taiwanese, I feel we have the power and responsibility to support them."
Such causes haven't made Chthonic any friends in the Chinese government. Lim says he's been to China seven times, but hasn't been able to go after he organized a "Free Tibet" concert in 2003. Said Yeh: "We know we're on the blacklist."
Lim says he would love to tour China again, and that he stands on the side of Chinese human rights fighters. "I'm not anti-China, I'm anti-Chinese government," he emphasizes. The problem isn't the Chinese Communist Party's ideology, but its repression.
"China's communists aren't communists," said Lim. "They're communist in name, but they're really just tyrannical bastards."
Lim started the band in 1996, inspired by Scandinavian acts like Norway's Emperor and Sweden's At the Gates. But though he loved such music, he couldn't relate to the cultural symbols and messages, especially the anti-Christian themes.
"I'm always an outsider in their culture," said Lim. "The percentage of Christians here is very low, so there's no reason for us to be anti-Christian."
A search for themes to inspire Chthonic's lyrics and message led him to local history instead. "I felt like, if I want to write my own extreme metal songs with the same anger and feeling, it wouldn't be anti-Christian, or Satanic, because I have no emotion or passion about that."
"So I started to think more locally. What I really care about is my homeland."
In Taiwan's history, Lim found plenty to be angry about. "The whole of Taiwan's history is one of oppression by different empires — Dutch, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese," he said.
The oppression persists, this time from China's current government, which has some 1,300 missiles pointed at Taiwan and has vowed to some day absorb the self-ruled island, by military force if need be.
"We're under another kind of oppression, so we write our songs from these roots, and we put in stories from history," said Yeh.
Hear more from Yeh in this interview:
One album's theme was Taiwan Aborigines' resistance to Japanese colonial rule (1895-1945). The latest album, "Mirror of Retribution," tells the story of a spirit medium who journeys to hell to try to steal the book of life and death so he can rewrite Taiwan's history.
The backdrop is the real-life 228 massacre of 1947, when Kuomintang troops under Chiang Kai-shek slaughtered tens of thousands of local Taiwanese who had risen up against the KMT's bumbling, tyrannical rule.
Lim said the story was one way to introduce fans to the "oriental philosophy of hell," which includes 18 levels, 100 small levels and 10 courts presided over by 10 ghost kings.
In a packed basement club in Taipei in late December, scores of Taiwanese banged their heads in unison and made the "devil's horns" sign with their upraised hands.
Now and then a fan threw in the air a fistful of paper "ghost money," traditionally burned here to appease ancestors or wandering spirits.
On stage, Lim screamed into the microphone between strands of long black hair, one booted foot planted on a monitor. His voice was nearly drowned out by a thunderous wall of distorted guitar and furious drumming.
When the number was over, two well-dressed youngsters took the stage to hand Freddy a bouquet of flowers. The gift was from a pro-independence candidate, who just won a county commissioner's post, to thank Freddy for his support.
It was clearly a love-fest for Chthonic and their loyal Taiwanese fans. On the first U.S. tour, though, Freddy said they heard that some Chinese students — angered by the band's pro-Taiwan stance — wanted to protest outside one of their gigs in California. In the end, it didn't happen.
"Most of our fans there were very strong guys with tattoos — Mexicans, white guys — and some older Taiwanese-Americans too," said Lim, with a chuckle. "I don't think the Chinese students wanted to fight them."
He said he hasn't yet been confronted by Chinese students at lectures, as happened recently here to a prominent, exiled Chinese democracy activist. (Taiwan's government is allowing Chinese students to study here in increasing numbers.) In any case, Lim welcomes such showdowns and said they're healthy for Taiwan.
"If you don't deal with Chinese people and talk to them, you don't know how different you are, and how different your values are," said Lim. "Without the people you hate, you don't know the people you love."
Chthonic hopes to tour the U.S. and Europe again before September, when their American visas expire. Another album is in the works for 2011. They're currently looking for a new manager.