Swedish band Arch Enemy’s assaultive 2002 album Wages of Sin begins as any earnest death metal album should — pretty, plaintive doomsday piano notes, building guitar noise, a bone-shattering riff, a music-major thesis arpeggio, drums that kick like an Al Capone movie. After the 90 seconds or so of pounding that opens “Enemy Within,” a demonic voice hurls us into a spiraling depression: “Dark thoughts rise up/Deep in your mind/The killing of hope/The end has begun/The locked psycho-door breaks down.”
A cute chick wrote those words — and sang them too.
At another metal extreme, the title track to Genitorturers’ 1998 album Sin City is an AC/DC cover, one from the gloriously scumbag Bon Scott-era no less. That’s about where the AC/DC connection ends, though, with this Los Angeles-by-way-of-Florida band, as it dedicates most of its catalog of songs to describing almost unspeakable acts of sexual violence and kinky orgasm-hunting. Sample titles include “Asphyxiate,” “Razor Cuts” and, the newest work just released through the band’s Web site, “Take It,” as in … well, you know. The band — which has been perfecting its act for more than a decade and is not a bandwagon S&M act — uses an industrial, Goth-adoring backdrop to hawk its perversions. Listen to it casually, and you might mistake it for late-’90s Marilyn Manson or Rob Zombie.
’Cept those vocals come from a cute, smoky-voiced chick too.
It seems as though there’s any number of obvious reasons to embrace the dark recesses of metal. Gender equality isn’t usually one of them. There may be no other subgenre of popular music as brutishly male as this one — even gangsta rap allows for love songs, tributes to dead homies and mom remembrances. Listening to grindcore and industrial’s clinically blistering din, though, you can’t help but picture a head of greasy hair and a Venom-patched black denim jacket or, in the other gestation, a pair of patent leather pants, hideous eyeliner and a pierced penis. More than that, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem can go schtupp themselves for all these guys care, though if they do scrap, they should do so in a ring of mud while wearing form-fitting leather vests and nipple rings — and maybe toss their own feces at each other while they’re at it. In this realm, it’s all depravity, all the time.
But that seems to suit Arch Enemy singer Angela Gossow and Genitorturers mastermind Gen just fine. These women accept the limitations of their roles and step into the spotlight with astounding confidence, a defiant act that makes them even sexier.
In the case of Gossow and Arch Enemy, the band’s albums make a compelling argument that death metal can be seen as an exercise in androgyny, both physically and aurally. The German-born Gossow has a deceptive elfin beauty; when she struts on stage dressed in gray and black T-shirts and those stereotypical studded wristbands, it isn’t immediately apparent this is a woman commanding our attention. With her soft features and pleasant stage disposition, however, she puts a new spin on that old “angel of death” tag. She brings conviction to the head-banging afterlife with a wink and a cute smile.
She also bellows better than just about any other vocalist in death metal. While guitarist Michael Amott and his fellow guitarist brother Christopher Amott write a majority of the band’s music and lyrics, it is Gossow who embodies the material and makes it her own. Her singing voice is so deep, so bone-crunchingly evil and so gleefully disturbed that on record it seems almost inhuman — which is kind of the point. No one, save Rosemary’s Baby auteur Roman Polanski, ever said the demon had a definite sexual identity. The demon, you have to figure along with Gossow, is just a big, ugly thing that likes it when you’re dead.
More impressive is the fact that Arch Enemy’s original lead singer was a dude named Johan Liiva. In the eyes of BBS-posting metalheads and critics, the band’s two-guitar harmonizing, pulverizing speed-metal art has improved immeasurably since Liiva’s departure before Wages of Sin. Gossow sauntered into the studio and captured the proper sickening voice that Liiva never could. Last year’s Anthems of Rebellion, driven by standouts like “Exist to Exit” and “Dehumanization,” propelled Arch Enemy toward death metal’s front lines and afforded them the opportunity to open for seminal genre superstars Slayer in the United States last fall. They did so without Gossow resorting to any cynical sexual marketing. She didn’t suddenly become a pin-up girl in the pages of Circus or Revolver. She just dressed down, stood there, smiled and sounded like the guts of hell. And that made her hot.
By contrast, Gen of the Genitorturers is wicked hot, and she wants you know it — and then rub your face in it and shock your testicles with electrodes too. The band’s stage show is as much of a sex-store expo as it is a rock concert. Gen, statuesque with breast-length blond hair and wild tats on her shoulders and clavicle, struts in fetching dominatrix outfits — is it any wonder her band is a fave on the fetish-ball circuit? She (of course) also brandishes the assorted sick-bastard whips, chains and other sex-toy props that hurt just to look at. She may give you a wink and a smile too, but the implications run a little deeper.
For however feminine as the on-stage presentation might be, Genitorturers’ music is as slovenly horny as any of Gen’s male industrial counterparts. Replace the word “dick” for “pussy” in her lyrics, and there wouldn’t be much difference in the narrative. Separated from the visuals, the words are dumb and ugly. Take this nugget from “Flesh is the Law,” the title track to a 2002 EP: “Awaken for your savior she’s coming tonight/To change your sex slowly, shape your member right/Join the pussy worship tonight.” Beyond the stunted logic (What shape do you want that member in? A giraffe?), you’d think her a mere Trailer Trash Jolene talking with that brand of slutty sentiment.
Yet with this band, you just can’t separate music from theater. Gen is charismatic and electric in the way she tosses prim sexual conventions into the nearest snow bank, thus allowing her to make the big provocative Artistic Statement, namely that sexual obsessions run deep and can veer into nasty, genital-slapping territory, regardless of what your crotch is concealing.
At minimum, Gen’s come-ons, much like Gossow’s rebel roar, are enough to keep the lance in the dragon-slaying, torture-loving metalboy’s pants throbbing on through morning.
Genitorturers will perform with Silvertide on Friday, May 7, at Harpo’s (14238 Harper Ave., Detroit). Call 313-824-1700 for info. Arch Enemy will perform at Harpo’s with Machine Head on Saturday, May 8.Christopher O’Connor is a freelance scribe. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.