Friday, April 8, 2011
Screaming Mimis! aka Some Women in Metal
For me, it started with a blond. A German, muscled and pretty in that hard way you get working in the underground. And make no mistake—metal that isn’t Metallica is a real underground, a place of indigenous rituals, rights and lingo, where selling 15,000 copies world wide is considered a smash hit.
But back to that blond. Her name is Angela Gossow, her band, Arch Enemy, one of the most killer death metal bands in the game.
In interviews, Gossow sports the vibe and soft muscularity that suggests a helpful gym instructor. In performance, she’s terrifying.
The smile curdles, the voice becomes a pan-gender shriek run through the woodchopper in Fargo, the perfect accompaniment to the band’s battering ram brand of finessed death metal. On CD, there is no way to tell Gossow from a metal dude. Her success has positioned her as many a metal fans’ first encounter with the new wave of female vocalists, or what I’m calling Screaming Mimis or SM for short, for obvious reasons.
This current SM explosion—it’s contextually kind of awesome when you think of how totally depressing the history of women in heavy music has been. How, until the '90s, there was no real history of femme metal partially because artists appeared and disappeared in loud bursts.
After paying hard dues under the (creative) whip of the legendarily foul Kim Fowley and his invented group, The Runaways, Lita Ford found power anthems could be metallic and had hits before falling off the charts. Doro Pesch, aka Doro, also had metal-pop hits but she was just too European for the English-speaking world.
The real and most lasting queens of noise were Girlschool, who kept the metal faith at a time (the '70s) when there seemed no sane reason to do so, and Jarboe, who spent hard mid-'80s time in the aural concrete that was Swans.
Jarboe’s voice has mad plasticity, going from girl's school coo to nightmare caterwaul and has graced records by all sorts of metal combines, including A Perfect Circle, Cattle Decapitation, Cobalt, Jesu, Neurosis and more.
The in-your-face punkisms of '90s Riot Grrls like Babes in Toyland, L7, Bikini Kill and Hole to set a loud precedent for females in hard, fucked up music but real balls-to-wall female metal almost happened.
Sure, as early as 1994 Crisis and their shamanic lead wailer Karen Crisis crafted a unique form of metal, but the band promptly imploded.
Most of the '90s were spent suffering the waking hour nightmare of nu metal, unaware that something better was on the way and a woman was at the helm.
Alas, the breakthrough didn’t come from someone like Otep, the GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination) Award nominated, political-metal powderkeg. And it did not come from the brilliantly bonkers Made Out of Babies, whose Julie Christmas squealed, squeaked, snarled and in general became the only lead singer in metal comparable (in a good way!) to Bjork.
No, unfortunately, the paradigm-changing breakthrough came in 2003 via the viral strains of Evanescence, led by patient zero Amy Lee.
What the Twilight film series is to real horror cinema, Evanescence was to metal. If you ever wanted to know what a Broadway show led by a generic metal band would sound like, here was your chance.
Evanescence sold mad amounts of records and the virus spread worldwide. Taking advantage of a Balkanized Eastern Europe that left many a symphony with time on its hands, soon every girl who could scruff up a band, an orchestra and a choir went all Evanescence on our asses.
Some of the better ones are After Forever (Netherlands), Amberian Dawn (Finland), Battlelore (Finland), Eyes of Eden (Germany), Nightwish (Finland) the dreadfully named Sirenia (Finland) and Within Temptation (Netherlands).
The post-Evanescence explosion continues to prove that goth is a surprisingly fertile soil. Ava Inferi uses the gloom and general high-strung emotionalism but with a far more sophisticated sense of atmosphere and even restraint: in a way, this is what Cocteau Twins would sound like as a post-goth metal band. At the wonderfully loony end of everything, is Spain’s weird/wonderful Forever Slave (insert dominatrix joke here.)
Imagine a Hot Topic Bangle (Lady Angellyca) fronting a tinkertoy light metal version of t.a.T.U. with touches of discount store techno and you have Forever Slave. Such studied bizarreness, it is my belief, must be supported.
By the late '90s and onward, women were beginning to do everything imaginable in all of metal’s endless subgeneres.
The Dutch band The Gathering, with exquisite lead singer Anneke van Giersbergen mixed prog, pop, and metal without sucking the life out of any of their subgenera. While Giersbergen may not have used a true SM voice, she did find a way for a ‘clean’ vocalist to work in a balls-out context.
Similarly, Lacuna Coil’s clean-voiced Cristina Scabbia mixed more naughty gothy S&M imagery, ass-scraping real metal and the "beauty and the beast" approach, wherein the girl switches vocals with a death metal dude’s growl. Compared to, say, Five for Fighting, Lacuna Coil’s sales are thin gruel but in the teensy world of real metal, she’s a bone fide, unit-shifting diva.
Even that most extreme metal terrain, the quick-picked, reverb drenched, and super disturbing, discordant and depressing world of black metal (in the Addams Family world of metal, "disturbing, discordant and depressing" are buzz words) found its ranks filled with excelling females.
And so the rusted iron miseries of Melancholia Estatica (music and voice by, yep, a gal named Melancholia) and Maria Kolokouri’s seductively fucked up Astarte. And for anyone who thinks Takaski Miike’s Audition had a black metal soundtrack, there’s the terrifying yowls of Japan’s black/doom agonistas Gallhammer, led by the charmingly named Vivian Slaughter.
Metal genres are notoriously hard to parse, so just take our word for it that for neo-death/grindcore, nobody touches Landmine Marathon, whose Grace Perry whose shriek seems the immediate result of ripping her vocal cords out with her own small pointy fingers.
For melodic death metal there’s Luna Mortis, The Project Hate MCMXCIX (Sweden) and our old friend Angela Gossow/Arch Enemy. For the most interesting industrial metal out there that isn’t Rammstein there’s Chicago’s I:Scintilla (US) although Toronto, Canada’s The Birthday Massacre sells more doing a similar thing in a more juvenile manner.
Metalcore (metal with a seasoning of hardcore) boasts Maria Brink’s In the Moment and Walls of Jericho’s Candace Kucsulain. Melodic deathcore (you can figure it out) has Alissa White-Gluz shrieking and crooning in The Agonist.
The current stoner/sludge/doom boom offers the distaff, weed-ready pleasures courtesy Blood Ceremony (Alia O’Brian) and Serpentcult (Michelle Noon).
Dillinger Escape Plan fans needn’t go cold turkey with the likes of strangeness, Rolo Tomassi (spazzy mathcore, UK) and Iwrestledabearonce (spazz metal WTFcore, US) around.
And finally, for those craving basic meat ‘n potatoes metal, there’s Scotland’s Firebrand Super Rock (Joplin-esque flame-thrower vocals courtesy Laura Donnelly) and the UK’s Pythia (Emily Alice).
Operating in and out and to the brilliant sides of all of metal’s genres shmooshed into one are Norway’s Madder Mortem, who are simply awesome, as in instilling awe.
Madder’s singer is Agnete M. Kirkevaag, that vocalist we talked about earlier, the one would could be the best in any imaginable popular music.
Kirkevaag can coo, croon, shriek, scream, mutter and clean your windows with her voice for all I know. Depending on a song's demands, she can become metal’s own Sinatra, its Grace Slick, it’s Angela Gossow and it’s Natalie Maines—often in the same progressive/art/doom metal song.
The list complied here is stunningly incomplete. I’ve not even talked about the artists behind the best CD of 2011 yet, “No Help for the Mighty Ones” by Utah’s Subrosa, a never-heard-before cauldron brew of doom, psych, the Incredible String Band, Dixie Chicks and the meaner lower end of classic ‘Sabbath.
And yet, with a straight face and pen, music writers writing about any femme-led bands will, at some point, inevitably, feel compelled to contextualize the band with the phrase "despite working in a male-dominated field."
Seriously, I think they have special keyboard retrofitted with this phrase. Are some, many of these obscure? Of course they are! But when did ‘obscure’ put off a hipster trying to up his cred by babbling over the next newly found freakfolk obscurity from Slovenia?
But seeing as writers really do know most of these bands and still use that phrase, I think there’s something else at work here. Something more . . . sinister.
Okay, not sinister anymore really—just lame. Misogyny. Just typing “misogyny” makes a person un-cool. It’s such an earnest thing, pointing it out. There’s nothing ironic about it.
Anyway, at the crap end of the misogyny shit pool are dickheads who out and out insist chicks can’t do the metal. These are knuckledraggers may think they’re just in some way layin’ it down but share the same DNA with those who listen to Sarah Palin and hear sweet sounds.
The lousy reality of metal’s Joe the Plumbers hit me in the face when I emailed a prominent webcast that tended to treat women as Megan Fox-shaped meat. In a jocular we’re-just-guys-here tone, I suggested they might not do so if Gossow or Jarboe were present.
The response from listeners was rabid with ignorant people taking nitwit umbrage. Which just proved again that nobody likes being called a bigot. Especially if one is a bigot.
On the other end of the scale is the post modern metal male, the one who lives in the hipster enclaves of America, wears a Serpentcult tee to go with his distressed rock jeans, and is super aware of this unisex situation. Their acceptance of SMs is more nuanced, ranging from sullen assent, with a dawning understanding that having some kick-ass T&A around can’t be all bad.
You see this later reaction, a sort of passive/aggressive attempt to maintain the primacy of the penis by good-natured objectification, in Metal Hammer and Revolver magazine's calendars of the hottest babes in metal.
It’s exploitation and negotiation. The guys get to see Maria Brink spill out of her corset; the women get free publicity that they can say is feminism by quoting the 1950s pin-up craze as third wave, self-reflective feminism.
Misogyny crops up in more weird, stealthy ways. When a screaming Mimi screams, male reviewers suddenly get all puritanical and pissy about vocal authenticity, accusing her of augmenting her shriek with electronics, like that was a bad thing.
Like John Lennon didn’t electronically alter his voice in "A Day in the Life," like David Bowie didn’t phase shift his vocals in "The Man Who Sold the World" for maximized spookiness, to say nothing of the ProTools plug-in that’s turned Kanye into a hot robot or James Blake into a sad-face hipster boy toy.
Frankly, if a metal singer didn't do everything s/he could to sound evil as all fuck, I’d feel like they weren't trying. Is Gossow’s symphonically fucked up caterwaul on "We Will Rise" the product of one clean voice? Did Mastodon’s Brent Hinds suddenly learn how to go all Electric Light Orchestra on the poppier songs on “Crack the Syke” sans ProTools? Bitches, please.
All this shit aside, I’m thinking that, ultimately, what makes screaming Mimis so valuable is the screaming itself. It’s the sound of anger, the forbidden emotion for women even at this late date.
The fact is that the ichorous seepage of Christianist fanaticism into the public discourse, pop culture has gone seriously retro in terms of how a woman can express the less dainty emotions. And so we’re at a point where what a woman screams at is immaterial: just the act is nothing short of revolutionary.
Today’s endlessly reiterated cool It girl is the archetypal indie wall flower, she of the asymmetrical haircut, haute irony, and Pitchfork-dependent identity, whose emotional palette starts at off-white longing and peaks at beige wistfulness.
But metal? In metal, blood-red piss-offed-ness is the dominant identity color and there is no single congruent subcultural text.
The secret trick of expressing rage, especially when backed by stacks of ridiculously loud amps, is that it’s mobilizing, cathartic, freeing. It’s healthy.
It’s why Gossow sprints off the stage after an Arch Enemy show flush with more energy than when she started. You may not be able to live on a diet of anger, but an hour or two at max volume could be the difference between sanity and madness, submission and freedom.
[Images: Angela Gossow, Julie Christmas, Jarboe]