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Women in Metal cover

Only a chapter in and already I found myself with very mixed feelings.  You just know this isn’t going to end well…

On the one hand, as listeners to the podcast and followers of the website are doubtless well aware, I’ve had a lifelong appreciation for females in metal.

Sure, the ladies in the audience were great (and many still are), but that’s not what I’m talking about.  I mean the female frontwomen.  The vocalists, mainly, but further, the unfortunately all too rare guitarists and drummers of note. 

Early Lita Ford (both with the Runaways and on her untouchable debut, Out For Blood – still one of my favorite guitar records, jam packed with her best playing). 

The ladies of Phantom Blue, the “female Racer X”. 

The distaff Yngwie, Lori Linstruth of Warbride

The late Kelly Johnson of Girlschool.  

And let’s not forget local thrasher gals Meanstreak.

And don’t get me started on vocalists – Doro Pesch of Warlock, Leather Leone of Chastain, Sandi Saraya, Ann Boleyn of Hellion, Betsy Bitch, even the likes of Lorraine Lewis (Femme Fatale) and Jeni Foster (Princess Pang) have been longstanding favorites in my collection.

Even before metal, I was a huge fan of the Runaways, Pat Benatar, Wendy O and the Plasmatics and Siouxsie Sioux, just to name a few.  In fact, one thing that held my own band back from our dreams of glory was my absolute insistence on finding a female singer – no substitutes acceptable. 

In my return to metal after a self imposed detour into other styles of music during it’s long death throughout the 90’s*, the first place I gravitated was to the gothic symphonic genre, with 9/10 of the acts I followed being female fronted – early Epica, Within Temptation, Leaves Eyes, Edenbridge, Autumn, Krypteria, Delain, Unsun…the list goes on and on. 

*Face it, particularly here in the States, metal in all its forms was dead and gone at the very beginning of that sorry decade.  I just refused to give up on the dream for a good portion of it.

On the podcast, I’ve had some of these ladies on air – both Leather and Liv Kristine twice each, Gigi Hangach of Phantom BlueSandy Sledge, Cara McCutchen of Mortillery, even Jill Janus of Huntress and Angelica Rylin of Murder of My Sweet.  In fact, some of these women were among the very first guests I got in touch with in transitioning from our original focus on cult film to music (and mainly metal).  So after all these years of experience and affection thereto, I think I’m pretty well qualified to comment on the subject of women in metal…and rock, and punk, and goth, for that matter.

So…the book.

I certainly appreciate the subject matter being broached, and made the focus of a book, particularly not part of a feminist-lens women’s studies diegesis.  There are dozens of often excellent photos, many of which I hadn’t even seen before.  Further, a fair portion of these ladies have provided a quote or two.  All excellent so far.

Unfortunately…

Ever read Newser?  You know, that internet website that pulls a USA Today and digests actual news into easy to digest but exceedingly brief and insubstantial bite sized chunks?

Picture that in book length form.  Add a few minor errors and a dash of unsubstantiated nonsense*+, top it off with a crass title (yeah, I’m sure using the word ‘tits’ will get you front placement at Amazon or on bookseller shelves).  And this is what you get.

* please inform me when the hell Leather was ever “dubbed the “voice of the cult” (page 16)?  That’s an ALBUM TITLE.  She was never referred to that way in any metal magazine or publication, ever, and I used to read and collect ’em all…

+ Bolt Thrower “fronted by” Jo Bench (the band’s bass player)?  So Gavin and Barry are just sidemen, despite Jo not being an original member and…oh…not being the vocalist?  But no, she “really helped pave the way for women fronting death metal bands” – a boo boo repeated twice in the same paragraph!

Things tend to be kept simple.  Beyond the sparse sub-wikipedia take on the history of females in metal and decided short shrift given to the pioneers of the late 70’s and 80’s, you can almost hear the (rather basic) questions being asked of each and every respondent, whose responses only manage to fill out a given chapter by sheer volume of those who answered: “who were your inspirations?”  “tell us about some of the challenges you face as a female musician.”  “give us some words of encouragement for budding femme metalheads.”  Seriously.  I’ve just described the entire book.

Moreover, as hinted at above, the bulk of those interviewed appear to be obscure and quite current participants in some form of the scene.  Bigger, known commodoties in the traditional, gothic, symphonic or underground scenes do appear, but are literally drowned out among a sea of unknowns.  As a fairly comprehensive fan of the gothic symphonic scene throughout the millenium, I can tell you I have no fucking clue who half of the people Ms. Kirtland is polling even are.  I have a female acquaintance who’s into Halestorm – one who’s not into metal at all.  My understanding is that this is “hardish” pop-rock along the lines of, say, Paramore, or perhaps The Donnas (both of whom I’ve been known to give a spin to now and again).  But the others?  Who the hell?

It was nice to see “metal queen” Lee Aaron and Show-Ya mentioned, but these were on the part of Doro and Linda McDonald, respectively – the authoress apparently didn’t find them (or Mari Hamada, former hard rock/metaller who was inspiration for many a female J-rock/metal gal, for that matter) worthy of mention.  Ditto for some of the bands I mentioned at the outset.

As we progress in the book, the standard tropes of modern female metaller interviews get trotted out ad nauseaum, particularly among the growlers and screamers of death metal and aggro acts.  “I wish people would stop seeing us as women or comparing us to other women in the scene”. 

While I get the frustration here – after all, someone like a Ji-In Cho of Krypteria (also absent from the proceedings here) has little or nothing in common with Angela Gossow or the screamer from The Agonist.   The fact is that with an ever expanding scene, listeners need points of reference, and the natural tone of a woman does tend to be lighter and reedier than that of a male singer.  While some deep growlers can certainly fool the casual ear, once you listen closer, it’s noticeable, even in the rawest of vocal styles.

And just as there are differences between people in terms of height, looks, dress sense, cultural background and manner of speech, there are differences in tone and approach that should be accepted and celebrated, not hidden away in shame.  Unless you want the ‘politically correct’ grunge/indie 90’s to come back (God help us all), we really need to start appreciating these differences. 

There’s also the flipside, where bands and labels deliberately play up the femininity, effectively selling themselves on sex.  While there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it – as mentioned earlier, a sexy lady is a hell of a lot more aesthetic than yet another hairy guy – it can tend to exacerbate the issue these women are concerned with: namely, being seen as, and marginalized as, a sex object, commodified as such rather than seen as a person of equal value to others of similar style and talent (or lack thereof, as I could say for one or two of the bands mentioned or interviewed herein.)

In fact, to that point, I remember a particularly mismatched triple bill in NYC a few years back, with a big name gothic symphonic band, a short lived up and coming one of quality, a French Canadian math metal-progressive oddity and an initially unbilled opener…some awful screamo act, whose singer appears fairly prominently in the quotes herein.  To be quite blunt, both she and they were awful, and I remember getting a bit of a laugh at seeing her screaming and kicking at her van, which apparently broke down after the gig…all that negative screamo energy has karmic consequence, I guess. 

She’ll know who she is, and I found it telling that she was one of the more quoted personages in the book, bearing little or nothing in common with any of the ladies of metal I’ve followed and enjoyed through the years.  It’s like getting a book on metal and having them focus on Pantera – I mean, really?

Zuberoa Aznarez of Spain’s gothic/symphonic Diabulus in Musica gets it right when she notes that the term ‘female fronted metal’ really only came into being with the rise of the sub genre and style she inhabits.  As a mettaller since the mid-80’s, I can tell you that there was no scene segregation or distinction between, say, Ratt, Lizzy Borden and Obsession and Warlock, Bitch and Hellion, except that the latter wound up with posters or magazine photos on my wall.  After all, who wants a bunch of sweaty guys staring at you?  But either way, the fact was there was no separation in shows, billing or sections at the record store until natural voices and operatic tones began to appear across the European scene.

Overall, whether from personal bias or the fact that we’re all of similar experience, I find the comparative veterans of the scene have a lot more intelligent and worthwhile tidbits to offer.  Doro Pesch (both of and post-Warlock), Betsy Bitch (Weiss, of Bitch), Ann Boleyn (of Hellion), Linda MacDonald (of Phantom Blue), Sandy Sledge (of Warbride, Rude Girl, Malibu Barbi and Sledge Leather) and Lita Ford (both of and post-the Runaways) seem to be the most even tempered and bear the more amusing stories.  Gothic symphonic pioneers like Simone Simons (of Epica) and Liv Kristine (of Theatre of Tragedy and Leaves Eyes) seem to have a fair handle on things.  There are even a few brief quotes from Leather Leone (of Chastain) and Mika (“Dr. Mikannibal”) of Sigh, each of whom I was happy to see included.

But the younger crowd, generally comprised of bands and names I have little familiarity with and apparently skewed towards screamer types, appear to be hearkening back to the shuddersome days of acts like L7, Four Non Blondes, Babes in Toyland, Cycle Sluts from Hell and so forth*, all abrasive and in your face with neo- if not radical-feminist politics. 

It wasn’t exactly a breath of fresh air then, and I don’t enjoy hearing this sort of thing trying to make a comeback now – the vocalist for a band named Todesbonden actually comes out and says she “will always miss the old days when…if you classified a band by its gender, you would likely get slapped”.  Yeah, I remember those days too, lady.  They were the grunge years, the years of Lollapalooza and snotty, whiny ‘alternative’ acts.  The decade that killed metal and musical and aesthetic taste in general.  They kinda sucked.

*I’d mention Bikini Kill as well, but I actually liked the band and (gasp!) agreed with a certain extent of Kathleen Hanna’s material.

Again, there’s some great photos in here, and if you have no awareness of the subject or the people involved, it’s a great basic, ground floor entry level primer.  That said, huge swathes of history are glossed over in the course of a thinly texted page or two, and areas that could easily have been explored in some semblance of depth are trotted out like a dog and pony exhibition, then quickly shuffled offstage.  It’s a clip- and soundbite-fest for the ADD generation, not any sort of proper exploration of the subject or women in question.

I could understand if there were a particular era she chose to focus upon, or a certain thematic subtext she were using these tidbits of unexplored info to build a case for, but not really.  In effect, it’s the Twitter version of history.  Give a quick nod to those who were there, get a brief and not incredibly substantial quote and move along, there’s nothing to see here.  Did she get a 5 minute hallway conversation with each of the ladies in question?  Or was this really all she could get out of them?  The reader, and the text as a whole, suffers either way.

Again, this is a subject I do believe in and which I think needs to be explored in depth.  But Lords of Chaos this ain’t, nor is it Sound of the Beast, Lucifer Rising, Choosing Death, Bang Your Head or any number of far worthier and more meaty texts on the scene to date. 

Consider it a picture book Dick and Jane Reader’s Digest version of a subject that deserves greater attention.

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