by Ian Grey
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 25,000 copies world wide is considered a smash hit.
But back to that blond. She has a feral grin that suggests a delight in viscera-ripping when on stage with her ass-battering band Arch Enemy, but when facing interviewers, a softer smile emerges that when coupled with her athletic body makes you imagine her as a ski or gym instructor. Her name is Angela Gossow, and good fucking Lord Odin, the sound that comes out of that unlikely mouth when howling with the ol’ Enemy.
It’s a shriek, an Orc’s death howl run through the woodchopper in Fargo. On CD, there is no way to tell Gossow from a metal dude. And so I imagine those not familiar with Gossow cupping crotches in scared unison when they first encounter this true screaming Mimi (or SM for short).
I mean, there have been women in rock for ages but rock isn’t metal (the yawning differences between music styles will be the subject of another column. Sorry.) But thanks to the mad success of a lousy heroine we’re enjoying an increasing awareness of a worldwide explosion of female-fronted metal, from primal doom groaners to arty prog-metal shriekers to black metal rasp merchants, and finally, to a band whose singer may have the best singing voice in all of popular and unpopular music. And no, I’m not fucking kidding.
But onward, 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 gosh-darned 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, Neurosis, Jesu, Cobalt, Cattle Decapitation 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-the-ricin-drenched-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 something better was on the way and a woman was at the helm.
Alas, the breakthrough didn’t come from someone classy, like Otep, she of the scathing feminist jeremiads against the corporate hegemony. 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 big-ass 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 to back her up went all Evanescence on our asses.
Some of the better ones are Within Temptation (Netherlands), Nightwish (Finland) and the dreadfully named Sirenia (Finland). Others of varying quality were/are After Forever (Netherlands again), Amberian Dawn (Finland again), Battlelore (Finland yet again) Beautiful Sin (Belgium), Beseech (Sweden), Eyes of Eden (Germany), the are-you-jokingly named Fairyland (France), Leaves’ Eyes (German-Norweigan), Stream of Passion (Netherlands/Mexico). In the baffling tradition of adding an ‘a’ or ‘ia’ to the end of a noun, there’s Epica (Netherlands), the aforementioned Sirenia, and the doomy Tristania (Norway).
The post-Evanescnce explosion did produce one fascinatingly weird/wonderful SM band—Spain’s Forever Slave (insert dominatrix joke here.) Forever Slave is some weird sui generis shit: 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 screaming mimi 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 and our old friend Angela Gossow/Arch Enemy. For the most interesting industrial metal out there that isn’t Rammstein there’s I:Scintilla (Brittany Bindrim), although 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. 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). And finally, for those craving basic meat ‘n potatoes metal, there’s the UK’s Pythia (Emily Alice) and Scotland’s Firebrand Super Rock (Joplin-esque flame-thrower vocals courtesy Laura Donnelly).
Operating in and out and to the brilliant sides of all of metal’s genres shmooshed into one is 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. And yet, with a straight face and pen, music writers writing about Madder Mortem and other bands with females in them, 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. At the crap end of the acceptance scale are dickheads who insist chicks can’t do the metal. These are often the same grunting knuckledraggers who listen to Sarah Palin and hear the sweet sound of truth unfettered.
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," to say nothing of the ProTools plug-in that’s turning Kanye into a hot robot.
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 fantaticism 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 depressing, endlessly reiterated cool girl is the archetypal indie wall flower, with her perfectly girlie wisp of asymetrical hair, sweetly submissive voice and studied haplessness.
For visual, think Zooey Deschanel. For sounds, think of the professionally helpless and miserable Cat Power, the way Karen O’s ragin’ rock stylings with the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs are safely neutered with layers of distracting high fashion and low irony, think of all those quietly quirky indie girls whose sonic vanilla ends up backing an iTouch ad.
Like the acidic Aimee Mann before them, I’m of a feeling that the brilliant pop group The Cardigans hit it big because they made idiots of themselves with the aptly titled "Love Fool," but when lead singer Nina Persson started writing world-class pissed-off songs they were doomed to be tossed off by male critics as "shrill"—the sexist version of "uppity."
Even Pink, our greatest manipulator of image, sound and identity had to add a layer of goofiness to her terrific no-really-fuck-you song, "So What," knowing what it takes to get a hit in a retrograde world.
But metal? In metal, sounding royally jacked off is a starting point. Anger is the basic currency. Nobody who feared the safety of their balls has ever complained to Gallhamer’s Vivian Slaughter that she was too angry.
And that’s the secret trick of expressing rage, especially when it’s backed by stacks of ridiculously loud amps—it’s mobilizing, it’s cathartic, it’s freeing. It’s why Gossow sprints off the stage after an Arch Enemy show with this breathless, luminous, wide-eyed glow about her. 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. And that sort of thing cares not about gender. With metal on the rise and slowly creeping out from the fringes to the charts, I’m feeling that we’re now at this exciting juncture in time when both genders are figuring this out.