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Someone needs to pinch Freddy Lim. The 31-year-old Taiwanese singer thinks he's living the ultimate heavy-metal dream. His long-time black metal band, ChthoniC, has been traipsing across the country all summer as part of Ozzfest and getting more exposure than band members ever could have imagined. They're the first Asian extreme-metal band to play Ozzfest in the concert's 11-year history, and they're somehow creating more shock and awe, both on and off the stage, than any other act on the tour.
That's not easy to do among metal fans — the concert is headlined by Ozzy Osbourne, a man who once bit the head off a bat — but ChthoniC is managing to become its own traveling freak show by using loud music and aboriginal face paint to push forward a relatively under-discussed political agenda.
"We're playing heavy metal and having lots of fun but also educating the world about our country," Lim says during an interview at last week's Ozzfest in West Palm Beach. "We let the crowd know that Taiwan represents the underworld, because we're outcasts. I don't know if the people understand our words, but they definitely understand our music."
During the band's way-too-brief set — a brisk 20 minutes — ChthoniC, which in Greek mythological terms means of the underworld, ripped into songs about ghosts and spirits. But it also protested Taiwan's exclusion from the United Nations — something that Lim wants to see changed. The band's signature song, "UNlimited Taiwan," speaks out about the untapped potential of the Taiwanese people. The whole tour is timed to coincide with the September 18 opening of the U.N.'s annual session, which Taiwan will once again attempt to join. The efforts by the tiny island nation, which is still claimed as a possession by China, are consistently blocked by China, and this year is expected to be no different.
It's a fairly heady subject to take in while chugging beer in 95-degree heat, but ChthoniC members are determined to lobby on behalf of their homeland any way they can.
"I won't beg for the U.N. to let us in — that's not my way," Lim says. "I use metal language. Lots of f words and cursing." He laughs. "Sometimes, Taiwanese people don't like that, but we don't really give a shit."
Although the throng of metalheads at Ozzfest thrashed, crowd-surfed, and appeared to dig the band's music on the surface, the political message underneath ChthoniC's music looked like it was going right over audience members' heads. How could it not? Despite his best attempts at English, Lim says, he sings in Taiwanese on stage because, at the blistering pace at which the band plays, he can't remember the song's English translations.
But that doesn't mean his message wasn't being heard.
"I think their music is very important," said James Kuo-sheng Yu, press officer for the Taipei Economic and Cultural office, who trekked up from Miami with a small contingent to support ChthoniC's show. "They're cool because they mix Western instruments with Taiwanese instruments, but more importantly, someone has to get this message out. If young people are paying attention, it's a good thing."
It's not every day that a quasi-embassy sends its delegates to a heavy-metal concert, but Lim says it's fairly common for ChthoniC, which draws large Taiwanese audiences at most of the venues where it plays. Sometimes this is a blessing, Lim says; other times, it's more of an annoyance, as local organizations tend to shower band members with food to help them along on their odyssey. Their tour bus is filled with Asian snacks and gifts that fans and nongovernmental organizations bring them. Since none of the bands on Ozzfest are being paid this summer, the ChthoniC boys aren't really in a position to turn their noses up at anything.
"We're eating very well on this tour," Lim says with a smile. "Even when we don't want food, people bring it to us anyway. We never refuse, and Taiwanese organizations always want to take us out for dinner or something, but they don't understand we're a rock band. Sometimes we just want to hang out with other bands."
Lim concedes that, as a torchbearer for the Taiwanese cause, he feels pressured. A good portion of the UNlimited Taiwan tour, which continues through North America and Europe, was funded by the Taiwanese government. And Lim is aware that the international community has its eyes fixed on ChthoniC... a fairly rare position for a metal band to be in. But Lim isn't shying away from the challenge.
"I understand why [the Taiwanese government] support us so much. Our government is weak in the political society, and they need citizens to lead the way."
Fortunately, the band still knows how to have fun. During a recent show in Charlotte, which coincided with the Taiwanese Ghost Festival, ChthoniC had a blast entertaining all the bands on Ozzfest.
"We invited all these bands to come and eat with us, and they actually came," Lim says. "All the bands that showed up had demon names, and there we were celebrating demons and ghosts."