The brilliantly named Dickless (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Extreme metal is a stereotypically masculine genre. Growly voiced demon spawn bellowing at high volume about death and dismemberment and violent, bloody conflict—you can cut the testosterone posturing with a vile oozing goat's phallus while shrieking aloud band names like Mayhem, Slayer, Death, Gnaw Their Tongues, and Teitanblood.
But while the genre is in just about every way coded male, that maleness has oddly little to do with specifically male bodies. R&B soul men or swaggering rock stars, from Isaac Hayes to Robert Plant, from Elvis to D'Angelo, perform maleness as an embodied come-on. In metal, though, the maleness is utterly divorced in most cases from sex, or romance, or living, male people. It's a masculinity of aggression, but the aggression isn't sexual; it's existential. The bodies referenced aren't thrusting or gyrating, but moldering and decaying. Metal loves the evil daddy thing, but it's an evil daddy thing as abstract demonic force; a kind of spiritual, platonic violence that only rarely references any sort of human relationship or desire.
As a result, women in metal are both rare and unexpectedly equal. In contrast to the he said/she said country music dynamic, or the male rapper/female singer performances of hip hop, women who make metal tend to sound just about exactly the same as their male counterparts. Like the men, they shriek violently; like the men, they hate; like the men, they are, in most respects, from album art to lyrics, sexless.
That isn't to say that there's no sexism in the metal community, because there certainly is. But strictly in terms of performance, metal has, or can have, the monstrous egalitarianism of the grave. Like a corpse, metal has no gender.
Below, then, are some of my favorite female metal bands and performers, participating, every one, in the great metal tradition of blinding aggression, violence, and shrieking sexless agony.
Dickless, "Saddle Tramp"
The fiercest, most brutally and consistently metal band of the grunge scene was the little known and little recorded all-female Dickless. Kelly Canary sounds like a deranged Tom Waits with his vocal chords put up to a power-sander as the band does a brief but brutal brontosaurus lumber over the Ramones. They were sometimes considered a parody band, and with that name you could certainly see them as making fun of a hyperbolic machismo. But you could also see them as claiming it for themselves. Certainly, when you place their music next to that of Pearl Jam or Soundgarden, it's not difficult to figure out who's castrating whom.
Often considered a '90s hardcore band, the Doughnuts belong at least as much to the fearsome, clotted death metal scene. "Impure" and their other songs of degradation and filth combine the lyrical concerns of metal with the thematic concerns of feminist performance art—or actually just demonstrate that those concerns are virtually identical, as both glory in the cleansing power of blood and impurity.
Acrostichon, "Immolation of the Agnostic"
The classic early '90s Dutch death metal band Acrostichon featured vocals from Corinne Van Der Brand, a woman who sings like Satan himself is crawling out of her throat. Death metal fans sometimes get cranky if you refer to cookie monster vocals, but it is what it is, and cookie monster has never sounded more frightening than when Van Der Brand lowers herself into his register.
Gallhammer, "Endless Nauseous Days"
Japanese all-female (and later duo) Gallhammer make nightmarish, repetitive low-fi blackened doom by which to thrash slowly while demons gnaw your vitals. "Endless Nauseous Days," the first track off their first album from 2004, has to be one of the best metal song titles ever. Bassist and bandleader Vivian Slaughter said in an interview, "I wanted to express the mental instability and mental cruelty which a girl has. Now we are holding up pride, hate, and life in the front. We are not wearing that dress."
Murkrat, "Plague Gestation"
Australian Mandy Andresen's Murkrat makes funeral doom that sounds like it crawled out of a feral grave: slow and staggering, but with a fiendish, ominous crunch that lets you know the plague is coming for you. Her most recent project is Crone, which is more by-the-numbers doom, but still worthwhile.
Astarte (Lloth), "Satisfaction of the Dead"
An all-female band, Astarte, unlike most of the performers on this list, would occasionally play up their sexuality on album covers and publicity images. There's nothing sexy about their music, though—it's basic, low-fi, buzzing black metal, suitable for any foul pit. "Satisfaction of the Dead" comes from their first and best album, when they were called "Lloth."
Insect Ark, "Long Arms"
Dana Schechter is best known as the leader of the indie rock band "Bee and Flower"—but I much prefer her most recent, more abrasive project. "Insect Ark" is theoretically classified as electronica/drone, but it could just as easily be drone metal—all abrasive, evil moans, and tiny legs of static skittering over your eardrums.
Sewer Goddess, "Slaughter Sequence"
A black/industrial/noise band fronted by Kristin MacArthur, Sewer Goddess sits on the abyss between goth and metal—like NIN if Trent Reznor just stopped dancing and started to decay already. Sewer Goddess's new record, Painlust, will be out in early 2015 and is recommended for anyone fond of the sound of lost souls (of whatever gender) hissing from inside hollow metal tombs.
Edge of Attack, "Forever"
Singer Roxanne Gordy leads this power metal quintet through towering cheesy anthems and cheerfully preposterous lyrics ("through the darkness and endless pain/I search for my soul to remain"). Treading close to rock, with that genre's acknowledgement that sometimes some people have sex (look, corsets!), this still retains some of metal's gender blindness—Gordy sings like Robert Plant or Rob Halford, whose ear-splitting vocals in turn seemed based on a female blueprint.