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Misogyny Is for the Living

How extreme metal makes gender irrelevant




There is no more masculine genre than extreme metal. Death, drone, black, or doom, it's overwhelmingly about aggression and anger, with monstrous vocals growled out by men for men in a manly male ecstasy of hate and testosterone.

At first listen, the latest album from San Francisco black-metal stalwarts Ludicra doesn't seem to buck the trend. "Stagnant Pond," the lead track on The Tenant, opens with a tolling, trudging guitar that suggests funeral bells and vocals that sound, in true metal fashion, like someone's throat giving birth to a swarm of insects. The liner notes tell me that the lyrics are "Be still, remain still / Do not unveil / The stained and marked / Portrait of your soul," but I'll be damned if I could've made that out unaided. Nor, I think, would I ever have guessed that the evil, gravel-voiced singer was a woman.

In fact, two of Ludicra's five members are women: Laurie Sue Shanaman, the vicious lead singer, and Christy Cather, who plays guitar and sings backup. One female band member in extreme metal is unusual; two and you start to think they did it on purpose. Still, it's not completely unprecedented. And the extreme-metal bands that include women tend to have important features in common: First, they sound just like bands that don't include women. And second, they present themselves just like bands that don't include women.

In pop music, unisex is unusual. Hip-hop, for example, includes a ton of women—but most of them are background singers or R & B vocalists making guest appearances. Female MCs often rap about subjects rooted in femaleness: wearing lip gloss, being ultrahot, screwing or not needing to screw guys. Women in hip-hop also tend to be glammed up like Foxy Brown, so you can't miss the important bits—if they dress like Missy Elliot, they come across as deliberately butch. Even in a genre like grunge, which has roots in metal, gender differences remain important—which is why the awesomely guttural early-90s Sub Pop band Dickless named themselves Dickless and wrote songs with names like "The C-Word" and "Saddle Tramp."

It makes sense that gender would matter in pop music, because pop music is obsessed with sex. There are songs about sex, love, losing love, not getting enough sex, betraying the one you love for sex, bonding with your boys over your mutual disrespect for women, and bonding with your sisters to get over those no-good men. Most pop simply couldn't exist without gender differences and the angst and ecstasy that surround them.

Extreme metal, though, is coming from a different place. You can see it just in song titles: Murkrat's "Plague Gestation," Gallhammer's "Endless Nauseous Days," Astarte's "Twist, Nail, Torture," Acrostichon's "Immolation of the Agnostic." The first three bands are all female; the last has a female vocalist. None sings about being a woman and searching for love, or even about being independent and not needing a man—their lyrics are about pain, hate, torture, and defilement. The members of Astarte, a Greek group, bow to market forces by wearing revealing outfits and sultry expressions in their publicity photos, but their music is uncompromising black metal: noisy, raw, and about as sexy as an enraged wolverine being torn apart by industrial machinery. The members of Japan's Gallhammer wear modified corpsepaint and growl like sexless, sluggish behemoths, dragging themselves ineluctably toward the end of days. And the front woman of Dutch group Acrostichon, Corinne van den Brand, sings in a full-on, Hades-scraping, clotted death-metal rumble.

Ludicra are relatively accessible for black metal—they don't do the fucked-up ambience of Xasthur, the fucked-up folk weirdness of Drudkh, or the straight-up fury of Darkthrone. Like, say, Nachtmystium, they combine blackness with touches of more mainstream rock—giving them a swagger that actually makes them sound fiercer than many of their peers. "In Stable" is a monster of a song, bordering on thrash-metal speed, with jackhammer martial drumming, a thick old-school guitar riff, and Shanaman screaming as if the words were fracturing her jaw. "Clean White Void" is another rocker, with an actually catchy chorus, proggy syncopations, and a complicated song structure—a little like High on Fire, if High on Fire were meaner and grimier and didn't suck. "Truth Won't Set You Free" starts with that metal staple, the quasi-classical acoustic intro, then heads into pure blackness with racing, monotonous drums, repetitive guitars, and desperate shrieking; the conclusion downshifts into lovely, chiming, slow-pan-across-the-fjords doom. "The Tenant" makes effective use of spookily evocative female background vocals that actually sound like female vocals—which sets Ludicra apart from male-only black-metal bands, or at least from the ones that don't use synthesized female vocals in similar ways.

The fact that when the women in Ludicra sound like women they're essentially being used to replace a synthesizer is emblematic of how gender works in extreme metal. Which is to say, it doesn't work at all. Extreme metal doesn't care about men and women. It barely cares about bodies. Johnny Rotten howls "I'm not an animal!" and extreme metal responds with a louder and even more hideous howl of indifference. Misanthropy, to say nothing of misogyny, is for the living. Extreme metal's aggression may sound male on the surface, but a corpse isn't masculine even if it has a penis. Extreme metal seeks a monstrous oblivion; it uses unrelenting noise to destroy not just the dying animal but also the angel fastened to it. "Teach me to mask the spirit . . . The farce of human bonds / Of dignity and respect," Shanaman howls. "Let me be the clean white void / The slate . . . the unwritten." You don't have genitals when you're a mask upon a void.

That's not to say gender is completely inconsequential in the metal scene. I have no doubt that women in extreme metal have to deal with sexism. Satanists aren't much for PC, and though most metalheads aren't satanists, they're still guys. And of course people notice when you've got women in the band; most profiles of Ludicra go out of the way to mention it. Still, I can't think of another genre in which it matters so little. No one thinks of Astarte or Gallhammer or Ludicra as less authentically metal than bands without women in them. They're as technically accomplished as men; they spit bile like men; their lyrics and album covers are for the most part just as bleak and sexless as those created exclusively by men. They sound the same. For all intents and purposes, they are the same. The feminist egalitarian ideal has been achieved not in gynocentric folk or riot-grrrl punk but in the almost entirely male world of extreme metal, where the war of the sexes, like identity and love and hope, disappears in a blank roar of loathing and degradation.   

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