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Iron Maidens

Ladies Living Loud in the Manly World of Metal

By P.J. Gach | Posted 7/10/2002

Women in Metal: It sounds like a Playboy pictorial, or some weird porn flick. Given the way metal has typically used females in the past, it may be hard for headbangers to accept them as credible musicians. Most of the time metal bands use women as props--naked or scantily clad on the album cover, or standing there all goth-pale in the band photo. The Dutch band Goddess of Desire goes so far as to list band members Lilith and Delilah as "female effects," since their role is to run around the stage skimpily dressed and screech.

How, then, to explain the success of Girlschool, the Runaways, Lita Ford, Joan Jett, Kittie, the Donnas, and a host of other bands? Women can rock. They are an increasingly common alloy in metal and hard rock, and not just as the token girl. (We're not looking at you, Sean Yseult. We know Rob Zombie picked you to play bass for White Zombie because you kick ass.) Women are coming to the fore as metal vocalists, songwriters, players, and leaders--enough so that in 1995 a Dutch woman founded Metal Maidens, a quarterly magazine dedicated to them.

Otep and Arch Enemy are two prime examples of the new generation of female-fronted metal bands. These aren't mainstream metal bands in the Korn sense of the word. Otep and Arch Enemy make the sort of serious underground rumble associated with Cannibal Corpse, Dark Tranquillity, and Immortal.

These women are attracted to the genre for the same reasons guys are. "I wanted to make aggressive music," says Otep Shamaya, lead singer for the band that shares her name. "There's nothing more aggressive than metal." The Los Angeles-based band is playing Ozzfest for the second year in a row, and its debut album, Sevas Tra (Capitol), is out now. Onstage, Shamaya is as aggressive as any guy, but her publicity photos make her look like a 12-year-old.

Women in metal are still judged by how they look, but like Shamaya, Angela Gossow, vocalist for Sweden's Arch Enemy, delights in overturning expectations. With her big hair and shiny smile, Gossow looks like a beach bunny. But with her classic death-metal growl, last year she replaced male AE vocalist Johan Liiva.

Gossow started playing black metal because she appreciates its ferocity. "I loved the intensity, the raw power, the loudness," she says. "It wasn't nice. It felt real. Metal moves me, kicks my ass."

Winning the Arch Enemy job was no paradigm-subverting fluke. The Cologne, Germany-based Gossow sang with Mistress and Asmodina prior to auditioning for Arch Enemy. "I was so fucking nervous," she says of the tryout. "We performed old Arch Enemy tunes. Blasted the wrecked PA speakers. Decided to continue in the studio. There it worked out great." When fans first heard sneak-peek tracks earlier this year from the band's latest, Wages of Sin (Century Media), posters to the Arch Enemy forum at wondered if the new singer was a man. When the album came out in March, band photos put the question to rest, but debate continues about whether Gossow uses effects to lower her voice and, inevitably, which AE vocalist is better--the departed guy or the current gal.

Gossow had to prove herself to AE fans; Goddess, the singer/songwriter/guitarist in the Eureka, Calif., metal band Iron Rain, avoids that uphill battle by forming her own bands. "I don't believe that I've ever joined a band," she says. "Not that I didn't audition for other bands, and not that they didn't want me, but I felt that I needed to follow my own path and have like-minded people around me."

Goddess endured her share of bad scenes, though. "At first there seemed to be some males not thrilled with the idea" of a woman playing metal, she says. "Maybe I was threatening to their own insecure egos. I remember, after sitting in one night with a band, I was helping them tear down, and the bass player--I had played bass that night--turned to me and said, 'Rock is a man's world.' I didn't blink an eye and told him, 'Too bad you're not a man.'"

Ferocious New York metal vixen Great Kat came to the genre from another discipline where frontwomen are rare, classical music. Born Katherine Thomas in England, she started playing the piano at 7 and the violin at 9 after moving to Long Island and matriculated at the Juilliard School at the age of 15, graduating with honors. She won numerous awards, including the Artist International Competition in New York, debuted at Carnegie Hall, and toured the Americas and Europe as a solo violinist.

In the late '80s, Kat switched gears. "After realizing that classical music was dead I discovered the viciousness and power of metal," she says. "And I began updating classical music with speed metal."

Opting for the electric guitar, Kat is now a fixture on the metal scene and created her own subgenre--shred/classical. A good example of what that is can be found on her latest release, Wagner's War (TPR Music), which contains a lightning-fast interpretation of Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyries" complete with symphony orchestra, shred band, and chorus.

Musically Kat knows she needs technically adept performers who can handle her hyper-speed sound. So when musicians audition for her, she gives them scores to sight read. "I don't waste my time getting any point across to musicians," she says. "I give them music scores, and they must be prepared. If they suck, I toss 'em."

And she apparently doesn't care what metalheads make of her. "Who cares what the idiots think?" she says. "The Great Kat is God and the new Beethoven of the new millennium."

Kat's aggressive confidence fits her over-the-top persona, but not every metal woman compares herself to Beethoven--or God. They'd be happy being taken on their own merits. For many female musicians, the highest compliment they ever hear is not that they play well but that they they "play like a man."

"It's pretty lonely sometimes and can be extremely frustrating," Shamaya says. "We are not socialized [in the music industry] to accept women based on the quality of their jobs rather than on the quality of their appearance. I hope to destroy this paradigm and open the minds of those willing to evolve."

Gossow agrees: "Some guys still think you need balls to scream. Well, I have bigger balls than they have. They just hang a bit higher and are called tits."

The longer women do it, though, the tougher they get. Goddess is sanguine about metal's gender issues. "It never really bothered me," she says. "I knew someday I'd find a male or two that I could become musical partners with. Just like real life, you play your assets to fit the situation. And like everyone knows there are advantages and disadvantages for both sexes."

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