The darkness held them in a blanket of shadows; shadows the warriors had now become as they waited to strike. Soldiers of the red rising sun stood firmly as stationed unaware of the penance to be paid. Pouring from the shadows like a torrential storm, the Seediq warriors soaked the Japanese in their own blood. The ambush had proven successful and the enemy was wiped from the holy mountain lands they had once occupied. But that day proved lightning rarely strikes twice.
A wounded Japanese pride lead to a brutal extermination of the Seediq warriors and their people. The 298 remaining warriors were jailed indefinitely and their leader, Mona Rudao, was found four years later hanging dead from a tree on Maho Hill. The legend says only half of his body had decayed. The ancestors of his people believe the decayed half leads the dead across the rainbow bridge into the next world while the remaining half stays on to protect his ancestors and the holy mountain land throughout the history of Taiwan. And it is this history and the spirit of Mona Rudao that live on through the musical art of Chthonic (Chthonic.org).
Chthonic are a Taiwanese extreme metal band that carry on a musical tradition of loud, fast, heavy, and often visually intense performance. In their early work, they often used a makeup style coined “corpse paint” by the pioneers of the genre as it imitated the pallor of the dead mixed with the tribal/ritual face painting of the dark arts and/or ancient pagan worship. They also wear horror inspired outfits that allude to torture and malice in their design. The drummer wears a mask over his mouth as if muzzled perhaps to protect us from his unimaginable jaws. This also serves to remind one of being silenced by a dominant master as we often do to dogs in western culture. The keyboardist wears a cloth that bears a Chinese spell designed to raise vampires from the grave. Wherever you look, Chthonic leave you with an unsettling feeling that forces you to take note of their message. And that message is simple: When you oppress the people through coercion and force there will be revolution socially, physically, and in the case of the Seediq, spiritually.
Description of the Artifact
Chthonic take this message all around the world as they tour the four corners of the globe. In 2007 they embarked on one the biggest musical festivals in the western world as they played the second stage at Ozzy Osbourne’s Ozzfest. This tour took them across the United States and helped cement them as a legitimate metal powerhouse on a global scale. The album they promoted throughout the tour which made up the majority of their set-list was 2007’s Seediq Bale. The album details the story previously discussed in this work and serves to honor the memory of Taiwan’s ancestral heroes.
What is so unique about their presentation is their use of a particular style of heavy metal in a way that has never been done before. Though they refer to themselves as “Orient Metal,” Chthonic are blending traditional Chinese and Taiwanese instruments and melodies while utilizing the sounds and sights of a metal genre known as Black Metal. Black Metal is traditionally characterized by fast guitars, screaming/growling vocals, atonal note work, face paint, spikes and leather, horrific lyrics and imagery, strong anti-Christian themes, demonic and occult images and lyrics, and a belief that one controls their own personal freedom and destiny. While Chthonic fits most of these characteristics, they do not follow the usual anti-Christian or anti-theist themes. They also support a strong sense of community as an ethic of working with and for others in your “tribe” or nation which tends to be a very Asian cultural sentiment and is the opposite of the western individualistic ideal.
Chthonic take the genre of heavy metal, which functions as a particular form of carnivalesque rhetorical styling, and perform a carnivalesque critique of their own unique creation. In a way, Chthonic are a carnival within a carnival which makes them so crucial in the understanding of the rhetorical method and its evolution. It is my belief that examining the lyrical content of their 2007 work Seediq Bale will reveal a new way of applying the carnivalesque to the Black Metal musical genre opening up possibilities for the art form that previously did not exist. In this work, we will examine the song Bloody Gaya Fulfilled as an introductory look into the rhetorical construction of Chthonic’s musical art.
Description of Method
The carnivalesque rhetorical style utilizes three specific characteristics to perform its intended function: utilizing grotesque realism, inversion of hierarchies, and structural and grammatical experimentation. These characteristics are used to challenge the status quo of society, groups, organizations, ideas, and even the art form in which they are being utilized. Referring to Bahtkin’s work in defining the method in the 1960’s, Martin and Renegar state the carnivalesque as being “the place for working out, in a concretely sensuous, half real half play acted form, a new mode of interrelating between individuals, counter posed to the all powerful socio-hierarchical relationships of non-carnival life (Martin & Renegar 2007).” Carnival is used as a method to free audiences from the norms, conventions, accepted truths, and imposed order of societies and the hegemonies that create them. The carnivalesque does not rely merely upon negation, but also provides a “route to knowledge” (Emerson 2002) as power based ideologies are rebutted while the laughter/frenzy of the spectacle helps to alleviate fear and promote open inquiry in the viewer (Martin & Renegar 2007). It is vital to understand, however, that this process does not always happen for the audience. If the audience believes the established order or truth in question to be proper or “as it should be” they will more than likely disregard the spectacle of the carnivalesque (Little 2011). In such a case, the participant will see the carnival to be nothing more than a disgusting or distorted display of all that is vile, juvenile, taboo, or intellectually empty. The performer’s responsibility is then to “lure” such a viewer into the grotesque celebration if they wish change that perspective (Little 2011). The rhetoric specifically relies on the use of parodic extremes and stereotypes meant to enhance the level of experience to that of spectacle. It is meant to be seen and must be extreme enough to stir the audience internally. This rhetoric is meant to disturb.
Carnival enables “subjects to enter a liminal realm of freedom” that serves to “create a space for critique that would otherwise not be possible in normal society (Bruner).” This realm exists in the experience of the performance and the interplay between the performer and audience. This brings a previously non-existent world into being. Within this world all truths can be seen as false and all falsehoods may be seen as truths (Little 2011).
Genres like extreme metal music and their performances rely on the use of grotesque realism to “[constitute] a proto-utopian liminal alternative to the impersonal, conformist, superficial, unequal, and numbing realities of commercialism and, more abstractly, a resistance to a society of spectacle and nothingness (Bettez Hanlon 2006).” Heavy metal does this through creating what Boje calls “a theatrics of rant and madness seeking to repair felt separation and alienation (2003).” Furthermore “in its parodic inversions…[carnival] reveals that the established social hierarchy, indeed all of social reality, is a human construct (Harold 2004)” which can therefore be challenged, attacked, dissected, and when proper, done away with completely (Little 2011).
Basically, the carnivalesque is summed up in the three characteristics mentioned earlier. First, grotesque realism can be defined as degradation or the lowering of ideas, ideals, persons, etc. to the human, animal, dirty, banal, earthly, or bodily realm (Bahtkin 1965/1984). The mortality and materiality of the world and the human moment are made immediately present. This is achieved through the use of gore, violence, sexually explicit material, defecation, pregnancy, death, war, disease, dismemberment, and other biological processes (Little 2011). These serve to further ground the viewers as “earthbound animals (Martin & Renegar 2007).” Grotesque realism requires the “soiling” of good names, references to the elements that expose our animal nature, and the essential degradation of kingship and purity in hopes of revealing the reality of the material world. The carnivalesque seeks to refocus the audience on the “truth/s” the performer intends to reveal.
The inversion of hierarchies is a natural extension of this realism. Established orders and monarchies are made fallen to become equals with the subjugated classes in their shared grotesque animal-ism. Their material finality allows for the subjugated classes to usurp the roles of dominance held by their oppressors. The inversions are utilized to show the hierarchical structures to be invalid or at the very least arbitrary. Themes of revolution, mutiny, blasphemy, protest, and war abound in these carnivalesque works. In these inversions, kings become peasants while gods become mortal and die all in an effort to reveal that the accepted order is malleable. Much of the inversion used in extreme metal music involves the inversion of the concept or character within itself/themselves such as in the case of an instrument of peace becoming a weapon for war (Little 2011).
Finally, grammatical and linguistic play is a fairly simple tool to comprehend. The destabilization of normative forms pushes boundaries of structure and communication revealing language itself to be arbitrary undercutting its power to create reality through its form and performance (Martin & Renegar 2007). “By subverting all order in a surreal representation of anti-reality, it is proposed that true reality will be the only message left once the walls of the established illusory order crumble from the assault upon and subsequent destruction of their foundations (Little 2011).” A critical distance is created allowing the audience to observe the structures challenged from outside their respective emotional, social, and ideological walls. And, in the case of Chthonic, such tools are vital to the message of the Seediq ancestors.
Examination of the Artifact
First, let us look at the grotesque realism of the piece Bloody Gaya Fulfilled. The lyrics:
“Breaths cut off, as their heads fall
Shades formed as shadows shorten
Hunting knives hew down
relay the first bloody strike of the Seediq warriors against the Japanese soldiers. The image of soldiers gasping for air with slit throats and decapitated brethren by their side is immediately arresting in its vivid depiction of the moment of death. As the Seediq leap forth from the shadows, their cover of darkness turns to them into “shades” like spirits as their knives “hew down” upon the Japanese. Mentioning that these knives are made for hunting and that they “harvest” death creates a scene in which the Seediq are exalted as rightfully reaping what is theirs to take like hunters and gatherers. The Japanese lives are equated with the usual bounty of the holy lands of the Seediq mountains. This takes the Japanese soldiers from aloft as dominant occupiers and lowers them to be beneath the Seediq Bale. The soldiers are reaped for the sake of natives survival just as one would reap a harvest.
Again, further on in the song, the lines “War cries signaling the cleansing of enemies. Headless bodies, Litter the ground” deliver another grotesque lowering of the mighty Japanese invaders. The notion of cleansing relays an equation of enemy as disease. A blight of invaders is made pure by the spilling of blood in sacrifice. The bodies without heads that cover the battle ground are said to “litter” it calling to mind images of trash tossed off as worthless afterthoughts. The bodies are quite literally discarded as garbage as the illness of occupation is purified.
And as the song finalizes, the last lines bring the bloody realism to its pinnacle.
“Seediq, with unbridled fury
Blades stabbing holes, bleeding life
Colony flag torn
Sons of Rmdax Tasing
Dying gurgles glut their bloodlust
Seasons of scorn and derision
Freed by their actions”
The brutal images of soldiers stabbed to death by the knives of the warriors is coupled with the words “bleeding life.” This creates a sense that, while the Japanese are being drained of their life force, the land of the Seediq is being reborn as it soaks up the sacrifice. This is further supported by the words “freed by their actions” in the final line. We see that the slaying of the occupiers is the very action that humanizes the Seediq.
As the “colony flag” becomes torn and broken the Seediq have their lust for blood quenched by the fallen invaders’ “dying gurgles.” While grotesque, these images lower the Japanese from their glorified thrones as dominators and force the listener to encounter the many facets of death in its brutality, materiality, and ever changing meaning. As the meaning, purpose, and symbolism of death is allowed to change and morph freely, it is freed from the common static position it holds in ordinary life. This creates a spectacle that is directly experienced by the audience forcing a shift in perspective as the audience must seek to make sense of the atrocity and inevitably take a stance on the historical moment they had not previously encountered in the way presented here.
The inversion of hierarchies is fairly evident in the piece. As previously discussed, the Japanese are mercilessly killed in an ambush of Seediq warriors. The Japanese, referred to as “celebrated high ranks” and “former despots,” are reduced to “headless bodies” and “dying gurgles” as they are hunted and harvested by the Seediq. Early on in the lyrics we find the line “Colony flag flies, Mocking beacon” which refers to the Japanese occupation of Taiwan as symbolized by their colonial flag. Later on, we see this raised flag described as “Colony flag torn, Broken beacon.” Not only is the flag destroyed and most likely no longer flying upon high but on the ground desecrated, but the very power structure of the colony itself has been inverted. As the symbol inverts, so too does the reality of the roles of colonizer and colonized. The colonizers are said to be performing an “unjust oppression” supported by “arrogance” through “scorn and derision.” While the beginning of the piece shows their flags as the “rising red sun,” the end of the work notes them as “red sun flags fallen.” The very essence of the Japanese has been inverted as the eternally rising red sun sets while the shadows of the Seediq warriors envelop them in perpetual night.
The wordplay is also of great note in this song. A great deal of personification and symbolic importance is given to nature. In the tradition of the Seediq origin story, nature is placed as a living force which breaths life into the Seediq while opposing the mechanical and unnatural nature of the invading Japanese. Nature functions as a foreshadowing element in the beginning as the “Autumn wind starts” serving as an “icy omen” of the death to come. “Dawn greets” the Japanese soldiers and “Woods shroud” the Seediq while the “Breeze sweeps away sadness, Clearing the road to fiery hell” for the fallen soldiers. Again nature is brought to life as “Opposing wind seethe, Outraged, Provoked” near the end of the song. Nature serves as a personal force aiding the Seediq in their quest to remove the occupying forces of the Japanese. This is directly in line with the origin story of the clan as they were believed to have been formed by lightning striking the mountain and forming them from the giant tress and rocks. Quite literally, the story of the Seediq and the lyrics of Bloody Gaya Fulfilled propose that nature is the enemy of colonial empires. The Japanese invasion, in this sense, is an affront to the natural order.
Other wordplay fills the remaining lines of the work to intensify the building tensions and the spirit of the Seediq as it threatens to explode upon the enemy. We see that “Seediq wrath grows,” the people hold “Accumulations of crippling hate,” they “thirst for revenge,” are “harvesting death,” “wrath filled eyes scoured” the “Enemy base of former despots,” and find “arrogance tarnished.” Each instance of imaginative word play gives either a sense of building suspense or points directly to the metaphysical action taken through physical violence. The murder of the Japanese soldiers is shown to be a tarnishing of the arrogance displayed by the invaders. The eyes of the Seediq “filled with wrath” use that wrath to “scour” the camp of soldiers who now become “former” tyrants as they have become “cleansed.” All of this occurs due to the magical quality given to things like wrath and hate which are said to “grow” and “accumulate” over time. The word play enables the message to be more than the retelling of a historical event. It allows it to become a symbol of a metaphysical occurrence that Chthonic hope to honor and elevate in the place of hierarchies now shown to be defiled.
If one were to continue this examination through Chthonic’s catalog, they would find a recurring theme of carnivalesque rhetorical style used to support a message of Taiwanese national pride and a sense that the oppressed classes of Asia and the world at large are due reparation. The members of the band work outside of their art to help fight the oppression in places like Tibet and their homeland of Taiwan. They seek to stop the abuse of the panda population and the impoverished. And through their music, they hope to show their audience progress is not always about marching onward. Sometimes it is about looking to the past in order to remember the spirit of those who came before you. In the Seediq, Chthonic find a story that suits their carnival perfectly. It has a grotesque reality of its own. It offers many cases of hierarchical inversion and carries a mythology of fantastic and magical words that displace the audience and force altered perspectives.
Their story and work as a band is something altogether different from the history of extreme metal. The stories and themes of invading cultures are not wholly new in the genre as many black metal artists relate stories of invading Christianity wiping out their native cultures and death metal acts use grotesque violence to comment on human frailty. But the story of Taiwan is different. It is the story of the colonized not the converted. It is a story of many Asian cultures told in a way they have never accessed prior to Chthonic. Their rhetoric does not seek to blaspheme the faith of the “invader” but rather to call attention to the blasphemous treatment of their culture and spirituality. It does not seek to dethrone kings and queens but to enthrone the rightful leaders. It does not seek to kill the enemy as much as it seeks to allow the spirit of its people to live again. Such a rhetoric inverts the inverted. It parodies a system which is shown to be parodic itself. In a wonderfully postmodern way, Chthonic’s style of carnivalesque rhetoric goes so far that it comments not only on the illusory hegemonies of the oppressors but also upon the rhetorical method itself. Further research into this style could open a whole new understanding of the effectiveness of its method to reveal greater truths and enhance perspectives regarding the notions of third world, our understanding of indigenous populations, and the reality of imperialism and colonization. What Chthonic does is entirely new to this art form and genre. It is now our present duty to experience this spectacle in order to learn from our past as we look to the future possibilities of carnivalesque rhetoric.
“CHTHONIC.” CHTHONIC éé. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 July 2012. <http://chthonic.org/>.
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Lim, Freddie, and Sandee Chen Shan-Ni. Seediq Bale. Perf. Doris Yeh, Jesse Liu, Roger Su-Nung, Alexia, and Reno Kiilerich. Chthonic. Down Port Music, 2007. CD.
Little, Ian (2011). Angels of Abomination: Exploring the Carnivalesque in the Rhetoric of Slayer.
Martin, P., & Renegar, V. (2007). The Man For His Time”: The Big Lebowski as Carnivalesque Social Critique. Communication Studies, 58(3), 299-313. Retrieved September 26, 2011, from the JSTOR database.