So, It’s International Women’s Day Today, and frankly, women have come to the end of putting up with the patriarchal nonsense that assumes it rules the world. You will have seen all the news about protests, events and marches around the world. Why am I writing about Death Metal then? Stay with me here. I know Death Metal is not everyone’s listening choice, and not mine until very recently. It wasn’t until I heard Alissa White-Gluz of Arch Enemy use the distinctive Death Metal Growl vocal technique that a whole genre of music made sense to me. It also says a great deal about how women are creatively bending the world around them.
What is Death Metal Growl?
For those of you who have never heard a Metal Growl, it is a vocal technique that essentially creates a deep beast like grunting and, well, sounds like the singer is vomiting up the words, cute huh? Often referred to as Cookie Monster vocals you can understand why it’s a bit of a niche style left to a genre of music covering the darkest of human experience. Maybe we don’t want to hear the words?
Arch Enemy Turned My Head
Having said that I have been loving the new Arch Enemy album. They are a group of Swedish melodic and proggy death metallers. The World is Yours is an astonishing song, and I love the way that in Dream of Retribution you have the vocals plotting hideous revenge while the guitars are utterly oblivious to this and play this cheerful catchy riff in the chorus. Yes, cheerful, soaring and optimistic, also blithely unaware of what’s going on behind their backs. Made me smile anyway.
Female Vocals are Supposed to Sound Lovely, Right?
Until I heard a woman do it, the Metal Growl technique made no sense to me sonically. The male voice growling is muddy and lost amongst the drummer’s blast beats, and busy heavy guitar playing and, well it sounds awful, sorry lads*. The female growl, on the other hand, has an entirely different texture and place in the music.
Traditionally female vocals are supposed to be pretty and sound attractive, which is not what Alissa White-Gluz, or Angela Gossow her predecessor in Arch Enemy do at all. Quite the opposite. Their voices are not at the top floating prettily over everything else (although Alissa’s regular singing voice is entrancing and she occasionally uses it to beautiful contrasting effect). In Arch Enemy songs it is the guitars that take over this treble ground and often have the “pretty” melodic line.
Carving out Her Own Space
Female growl is not heavily bassy either, unlike the male which gets lost in amongst blast beats and bass. I’ve not heard anything that sits in quite the same place as a female growl. I think it has to do with texture, intent and how the female vocal chords distort to create a very unfamiliar sound that occupies a distinct sonic space and allows the other instruments to have their space as well. The sound is balanced and makes sense. Both Arch Enemy singers and other women in metal have sonically and personally carved out space for themselves in the male-dominated world of music and specifically heavy metal music.† Their extraordinary skill and energy are an excellent metaphor for where we are as women at the moment, angry but continuing to make our own space with every new skill, every refusal to accept the status quo, every piece of creative perseverance. Alissa White-Gluz summed it up perfectly in a recent YouTube interview;
“Right now the world is in a state of uproar and rebellion, and it only makes sense that music that has always been about that is joining with those causes” source: YouTube ARCH ENEMY – Will To Power (Alissa White-Gluz Interview)
So why should you care about women in Death Metal?
You should care because the lessons learnt in art apply to every sphere of life, restrictive traditional female roles, assumptions and boundaries are still affecting us in the 21st century. How we occupy space as women is a live issue, be that real, metaphorical, musical, artistic, scientific, academic, legislative or simply having space to voice our own opinions. These women carve their own vocal space in a death metal band amongst the loudest instruments on the planet growling like a woman, the rest of the band in harmony. It is about finding your own place, space and skills, pushing the boundaries and questioning every orthodoxy, it benefits us all to be able to work as equals and in harmony. Perhaps our daughters, nieces and granddaughters won’t ever have to put up with this shit; now there’s a thought.
*There is the possible exception Johan Hegg of Amon Amarth but I’m just not that into songs about Vikings.
† See also Jinjer for this style of vocal used in a different way.