It can be difficult to make it as a musician in Taiwan. A conservative society that traditionally places age and experience over ability and innovation is a stifling one not conducive to creative endeavors, especially when those aspirations stray from the norm.
Beneath the uniform skyscraper skyline and business suited facade of metropolitan life, the city’s hardest working members scrape away pursuing their dreams.
Most work full time, using the wan moments after a day’s hard work to craft, to endlessly practice and refine. It’s a brutal schedule, requiring intense dedication and commitment. Their work spans many fields, the lucky ones work in music — as promoters, importers, producers, or performers. Yu of Infernal Chaos is a professional drummer, who plays with some of the nation’s top pop acts.
Others have their own professions. The drummer-founder and vocalist for symphonic gothic band ‘Crescent Lament’ are both doctors – a physician and psychologist respectively.
Symphonic Gothic Metal, Photo Courtesty of Cresent Lament
Many work in food industry, “It’s easier because it’s hourly,” says Take of Future After a Second, one of a new generation of metal bands rising from the depths of the city. “You clock out and that’s that — you don’t have to worry about getting called during off hours or be responsible for anything.” This isn’t the case for everyone though. Bruce, guitarist-vocalist and founder of grindcore outfit “Ashen”, is also owner of a quaint cafe in the capital’s trendy dongchu Eastern District. Previously merely a worker, he inherited the store when its previous owner wanted to invest in other ventures. Now he runs the place, which is as much known for its limited hammock seating as for its made-to-order western cuisine and lovingly crafted kitten-faced lattes.
Matcha latte cat, featuring grindcore. Image from Instagram @wengu.cafe https://instagram.com/p/BbEVxwslaop/
The physical exhaustion of running shop 6 days a week with a skeleton crew of 3 make it difficult to make music on the side, but Bruce’s fine attention to detail and hardworking spirit are apparent in both his professional and musical endeavors. Although finding and retaining talent can be difficult, and the band is further constrained by the fact the members are scattered throughout the island. Drummer Chewie runs an eatery, an omakase (menu-less) foraged and farm-to-table restaurant in faraway Taitung on the island’s Eastern coast, which likely makes Ashen the most chef-heavy grindcore outfit in the world.
Take works at a ramen shop, where he learned Japanese from the noodle masters there. That skill has allowed him to connect with Japanese bands like MIVK, leading to gigs abroad, one of the best ways for bands to grow their fanbase, given the island’s shrinking metal populace. Most of the more successful bands such as Flesh Juicer – who gained national recognition for their debut album GIGO – regularly tour Japan and other parts of eastern and southern Asia. But this wasn’t always the case.
“Five, maybe ten years ago, metal was in,” muses Kenneth, vocalist for Bloody Tyrant and Dark Charybdis, two well-respected outfits. “Everyone was in a metal band. If you were on the indie music scene, you were playing in a metal band.” The number of bands in Taipei alone numbered in the double digits, and shows regularly drew hundreds. Things are different now. A recent metal fest Autumn Attack, a combination of 4 heavy bands spanning metal, deathcore, and emo, drew a paltry crowd of 80, which was above average, according to the vocalist. “Used to be, in Taiwan, the biggest crowd I’ve ever played was probably…300. In Tokyo, 500.”
Dark Charybdis 暴噬者 – Selling Short (Official Music Video)
Yet, if attendance like those seen at Chthonic’s boxing day concert in 2015 which drew a crowd of over 10,000 indicate a wider fanbase than may be hidden in the midsts. But perhaps it is the band’s other activities that speak to broader audience than just metalheads. The band is well-known for their vocal critique of the nationalist government as well as the vocalist Freddy’s role in politics and human rights work. Lyrical content may be another factor, heavy bands are usually associated with a pessimistic worldview and dark lyrics, but FAAS is hoping to change that perception. “I write encouraging lyrics because I have a lot of friends that are often down,” says Take. “I hope that by listening to our music, if you’re in a bad mood we can be that thread of spider’s silk that lifts you back up.”
When asked why metal, a genre more popular than pop, isn’t as popular here, the theories are varied. “Some people age out,” says Kenneth, “They get married, have kids, stop going to music festivals. If you think about it, it’s always the same people going to the festivals. There isn’t really any new people entering the scene.” Some say people aren’t used to paying for music, there isn’t the same culture of live music enjoyment that there is in the west. Others cite a stagnating economy, although analysis has revealed it isn’t as bad as most suppose, and may even be improving.
Another factor may be the incredibly high cost of home ownership, which is regarded as a hallmark of success. A commonly cited statistic regurgitated by local media says a young family would have to neither eat nor drink for 15 years in order to afford to own a house in Taipei, the nation’s capitol and most populous city. Studies have shown that metal is most popular in wealthy countries, and while Taiwan isn’t doing too bad for itself, generally ranking in in one of the world’s top 20 economies, it’s not as affluent as say, the Scandinavian countries where metal is almost mainstream.
Trailer for the newest movie, Tshiong《衝組》
The movie is set in a village in the South of Taiwan
But there is hope yet on the horizon. Despite frontman Lim’s side-cursion into politics, the nation’s most famous band Chthonic is releasing a new album soon, as well as their movie, both of which feature Randy Blythe of American heavy metal band Lamb of God. Deathcore outfit Flesh Juicer were awarded the prestigious golden melody award for best album design last year, and younger bands continue to release new material.
Image from Chthonic Facebook page.
The film will be a comedy. Image from Chthonic Facebook.
The below photos courtesy of CHTHONIC 閃靈, they can also be found on: https://www.facebook.com/chthonictw/ (Official CHTHONIC 閃靈 Facebook page ).