(March 10, 2019) As someone who is mostly an old-school R&B, hip-hop, classic rock and pop music guy, every now and then I step outside of my comfort zone and into a music world that I wouldn’t otherwise dare venture.
And there is likely no music genre as scarily vampiric, yet so ominously luring – never mind one with which I’m less familiar – than the underground heavy metal type known as “death metal,” or any of its various musical cousins.
For full disclosure, I am a black male – for those readers who didn’t already know – and death metal, or any of the other extreme sub-genre metallic music forms such as black metal, thrash-metal, speed metal, deathcore, grindcore, you name it, largely appeal to a young white-male fan base.
I am clearly not part of that demographic.
And at the risk of perpetuating stereotypes, while there may be a sub-genre known as black/death metal, I have never met a death metal fan who was black, my own burgeoning curiosity about the music notwithstanding.
I mean, here you have this extremely aggressive brand of rock with its lightning-fast, complex guitar riffs, double-bass drums pounding at breakneck speed, heavy distortion in chords, and intense, male-dominated growling vocals – not to mention the morbidly dark and sometimes menacing themes the genre immerses itself in, including satanism, nihilism, necrophilism, Nazi-ism, fascism… plus a bunch of other -isms with which I don’t normally associate.
Then there’s the fact that I couldn’t understand it enough to sing along even if I wanted to. I figured death metal fans either must have a specially trained ear for the oft-warbled lyrics delivered in Cookie Monster cadence, or they spend countless minutes searching them on the internet after multiple listens (okay, so there actually is a similarity to today’s hip/hop).
So, with all of that informing my perspective, I figured there was nothing in it for me, beyond the intrigue of it all.
That is until recently, when my curiosity was piqued about this mostly foreign (both to me and in terms of where many of its artists originate) music form. It was when I visited a good friend – we’ll call him “Glenn” – and watched on YouTube some of his favorite death metal artists, particularly one named Arch Enemy.
What I saw and heard was enough to challenge my belief structure – not about death metal so much, but about the limits and capabilities of the gender of the person doing the growling…err singing.
There, on video, was this tiny vessel of a woman firing off some of the grittiest growls and most screeching vocals I had ever heard scraping through a female larynx.
Think of Big Bang Theory character Howard Wolowitz’s late mother screaming at the top of her lungs and then intensify that by a factor of a thousand and you might approach what I heard.
The woman was Alissa White-Gluz, current lead singer of Arch Enemy, a veteran death metal group formed by guitarist Michael Amott, which originated in Sweden and has been making albums since the mid-1990s. Their brand of music is more formally known as “melodic death metal” (melody is a pop guy’s dream, so…) and they were originally defined as a “supergroup,” or one consisting of members who were originally parts of other groups before coming together as Arch Enemy in 1996.
Alissa is the band’s third lead singer, after Arch Enemy’s more famous and legendary (I didn’t know this before researching it) predecessor – and now manager – Angela Gossow. Gossow, who hails from Germany, is often considered one of the pioneers of female death metal vocalists and is still very well respected in the industry.
Since 1996, when the band’s first lead singer Johan Liiva fronted the group, Arch Enemy has released ten studio albums, several EPs, plus many compilations and live albums.
Their prolific nature aside (and despite what Wikipedia says about their first five albums), none of those releases made the Billboard 200 album chart until nine years in when their sixth, 2005’s Doomsday Machine, climbed to No. 87; none have gotten any higher than No. 44, that being their 2014 release War Eternal.
Their most recent studio album, 2017’s Will To Power, peaked at No. 90.
None of their albums has gone gold or platinum in the United States, and as might be expected, none has generated a U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart single. Both of those milestones would be indicators of the kind of mainstream crossover success that such bands eschew, as it would be a clear violation of death metal’s underground status code.
Still, the band has been a permanent fixture in the global death metal scene and a critic’s darling in its own circles over the years, particularly with their earlier albums like 2003’s Anthems of Rebellion, which I took the opportunity to listen to upon reading some of its favorable reviews.
To call it dizzyingly mesmerizing would be an understatement. Arch Enemy is clearly a master of its art. The complexity of the second track “Silent Wars” alone, which hits you like a freight train after you’ve been lured in by the slow-building, anthemic chant of the opening intro track, merits multiple listens just based on its sheer technical genius, with a song structure so clever you’re tempted to hit the rewind button midway through just to analyze it again.
Never mind that you also almost fully understand former lead-singer Gossow’s yowls as she rails against hate in lyrics like “We have chosen to suffer, feeling nothing – but hate. It’s eating us up from the inside, taking our feelings away…”
The album’s third track, “We Will Rise,” is considered one of the band’s anthems as well, with Gossow’s snarling vocals about resistance taking center stage along with the triplicate of in-your-face guitars driving the anti-establishment point home even further.
But blood-curdling yowls and growls aren’t the only thing Arch Enemy is capable of vocally.
In the same album, the group introduced the backing harmony vocals of Amott’s younger brother Christopher on the successive tracks “End of the Line” and “Dehumanizing.” In those two tunes, you can hear Amott’s melodic harmonies behind Gossow’s larynx-lacerating screeches, which added to the sonic appeal of it all and went over very well with critics.
While the group’s distinctive vocal work is clearly one of its hallmarks, it’s the band’s founder and longtime guitarist Michael Amott whose stellar riffs drive Arch Enemy’s songs.
Another part of their allure is that their more uplifting lyrical themes appear to bust stereotypes about the genre being so morbidly focused, despite being delivered with the same menace of bands with far more horrifying lyrics.
Still, I found it intriguing – particularly during Women’s History Month – that Arch Enemy has become one of death metal’s staples while being fronted by three separate – and very capable – women who could mix it up with any male in the genre, at least by my nascent estimation.
Perhaps due to Arch Enemy’s influence, the field of death metal now includes dozens, maybe even hundreds of women like White-Gluz and Gossow who snarl and scream their way through sweet little ditties, like “Party Void” or “GTFO” by a newer Seattle group named Fucked and Bound (inappropriate fetishy name aside), featuring Lisa Mungo on vocals.
That new Seattle outfit isn’t anywhere close to Arch Enemy in terms of accomplishments, technical ability and overall quality, but it is proof that women are making a big dent in a genre that I once thought was completely engorged with testosterone.
Or there’s even this entry by Venom Prison from just last year, in which the lyrics rail against rapists in a way that would make any potential perpetrator think twice before approaching his next victim.
So yes, I came late to the party – admittedly – and I have my friend Glenn to thank for expanding my musical horizons, if even just a little bit, to include a death metal genre that is as daring as rock music gets anymore, fronted by the least likely of growlers, women.
And that’s gotta count for something in an otherwise dreary rock music landscape these days.
Thanks, Glenn! This article is dedicated to you.
Oh, and Happy Women’s History Month!
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
XXTRA Side Note: Both Alissa White-Gluz and Angela Gossow came under fire in the past year after an incident involving a photographer who took pictures at an Arch Enemy concert and then tried to get paid after one of the band’s associates/sponsors used one of the photos in an ad for their business, without the photographer’s permission.
After some lengthy email exchanges between the photographer and the band, the photographer – who was also a fan of the band – was essentially blacklisted from ever doing photo shoots at any of Arch Enemy’s future concerts, prompting him to post a revealing article about his bad experience with the band and causing a recent backlash.
Here’s hoping that both parties somehow work this all out, and that I either haven’t used any of the photographer’s images for this article, or the band doesn’t ban me from any of its future concerts…should I attend, of course.