After five years spent successfully spearheading a successful new political party in Taiwan, Chthonic is back, and no, they do not come bearing gifts of blackened metal. For those of us who were won over by 2013’s Bu-Tik, this is not necessarily bad news. That record, which marked a full transition from peak Cradle of Filth-esque extreme metal to soaring, folk-spliced melodeath, executed the transition with aplomb. Five years on, the latter style remains the status quo, and Battlefields of Asura handles the aesthetic with confidence indicative of half a decade of preparation. Exhilarating and bombastic yet carefully arranged on virtually all fronts from a musical standpoint, it’s a record that is likable front to back, yet bafflingly poor production decisions make it difficult to fully commit to the replay button.
As an outgrowth from the sound established on Bu-Tik, Battlefields of Asura excels. If there is one area of Chthonic‘s toolset that has been significantly bolstered, it’s Jesse Liu’s riffcraft. The melodies represented in the rhythm guitar work feel less generic and more essential to track structure and atmosphere than on the prior outing, without losing the quicksilver edge expected from melodeath inspired by the genre’s Scandinavian mainstays. While melodic emphasis has been heightened, tempo dynamics have also received plenty of additional consideration, with mid-paced grooves providing textured nuances in between the expected thrash-based blasts. As a result, songs are well-rounded, engaging, and often unpredictable, enabling highlights such as “Taste the Black Tears” to soar through immense choruses that intriguingly contrast with the restrained verse material. Aside from a handful of throwaway interludes, there is very little to complain about, compositionally speaking.
This all sounds pretty great, right? Now, take all of that instrumental excellence, and imagine Freddy Lim shrieking directly into your eardrum as you try to enjoy the riffs that you came for, only to find the latter saddled with shitty, muddy tones. This is the conflicting crux of Battlefields of Asura: the piss-poor production job. Chthonic has never exactly been held in high esteem for engineering balanced sounding records, but Battlefields sounds exceptionally poor. With thin, plasticky drums, zero bass presence, and overloud keys all contributing to the mess, I don’t think there’s a single component of this record that comes close to sounding good. Aside from the fact that it’s not the most original thing I’ve ever heard, I have almost nothing else negative to say for Battlefields, yet I feel like its poor production has likely cost it a full point. What a shame.
As bad as it sounds, Battlefields of Asura isn’t the worst sounding record of its type this year (that distinct honor is shared by Battlesoul and Into Eternity), and its spread of well-assembled tracks ensured that I never once bemoaned a repeat listen. While Chthonic unfortunately indulges in a throwaway intro, outro, and interlude, the rest of the record is well paced and consistently adrenaline-pumping. “Souls of the Revolution’s” smooth, flowing grooves translate wonderfully into its hectic, breakneck chorus, making it an instant highlight. Elsewhere, “One Thousand Eyes’” slow build towards its swift, bombastic conclusion makes for an especially engrossing cut, while penultimate track “Millenia’s Faith Undone” showcases the most complex riffs and intriguing melodies that Chthonic has to offer. Though his contribution is way overemphasized due to mix displacement, I still enjoy Freddy Lim’s Dani Filth-esque shrieking, and the various instances of both male and female clean singing effectively round out the Battlefields’ vocal package.
Even with so much going for it in terms of songwriting and instrumentation, Battlefields of Asura is a record that has left me with an impression that’s merely a step above lukewarm. I hate to blame something as far removed from the quality of the musical execution as the production, but as I listen to it, I can think of no other source of my mild disconnect. Yet listen to it I do, and likely will again in the future. Though not as replayable as Bu-Tik due to its engineering shortcomings, Battlefields feels like the stronger record thanks to its strong songwriting and pacing. As I distance myself from the review process, I may ultimately find myself warming more strongly to its inescapable charms, but until then, I’m comfortable giving this one a full recommendation to Chthonic fans.