Death’s Metal Maiden: The Portrayal of the Grotesque Female Body on Extreme Metal Album Covers

I’m taking a much-needed break from writing my actual thesis and instead looking at the art produced for extreme metal music albums. In this way, I feel like I’m paying homage to my first love in academia: art history.

I recently came upon an interesting CFP on my blog feed from the University of Winchester. This upcoming summer, they are holding a conference on Death, Art, and Anatomy and put out a call for papers on any research having to do with the following topics:

  • Death and art
  • Anatomy and death
  • Anatomy and art
  • History of anatomy
  • History of death
  • Religion and anatomy
  • Religion and death
  • Medieval and early modern death beliefs and practices

It got me thinking, and I started to explore the idea of how some extreme metal album art could be an extension of the medieval concept of grotesque realism.

So I began reading and discovered previous research making this claim by author and Professor Karen Bettez Halnon. In her paper, Heavy Metal Carnival and Dis-alienation, she examines the use of grotesque realism in performance, lyrical construction, and the appearance of bands like Gwar, Slipknot, and Cradle of Filth. Although these bands are not all categorically extreme metal, it made me think about controversial extreme metal cover art that has been produced in the past few decades.

Referencing philosopher and critic Mikhail Bakhtin, Halnon defines grotesque realism in relation to her study as a form of “heavy metal carnival,” whereby the noise of commercialism is dismantled and transgressed by heavy metal’s ability to challenge societal norms of conduct, dress, taste, morality and civility (Halnon, 2006). What this encompasses is a fandom and culture that encourages the obscene and bizarre, disassociating it from general musical audiences that would favor more socially-accepted styles of popular music, visual art and fashion.

As an example, she cites the band Gwar, who spray their “slaves” (the audience) with red-colored water (symbolic of blood) and other bodily fluids, effectively enacting a spectacle of grotesque through fantastic and fictional displays of human dismemberment, torture and beheadings. On its most base level, this spectacle transgresses the limitations of real and fantasy for participating fans. Like Halnon believes, “the display signifies the creative life-death-rebirth-cycle”. (Halnon, 2006)

GwarWithin the paper, Halnon echos Bahktin’s own definition of grotesque realism as:

“Eating, drinking, defecation, and other elimination (sweating, blowing of the nose, sneezing), as well as copulation, pregnancy, dismemberment, swallowing up by another body—all these acts are performed on the confines of the body and the outer world, or on the confines of the old and new body. . . . The grotesque image displays not only the outward but also the inner features of the body: blood, bowels, heart and other organs. Its outward and inward features are often emerged into one.” ([1936] 1984: 317–18)

Does this not sound like extreme metal to you? Hanlon goes on in her paper to talk about inversion within the heavy metal carnival. What really caught my attention was the following:

“The carnival-grotesque is not only exposing the deep (hidden, vile, disgusting), interior aspects of anatomy but also what is spurned, spoiled, stained and hidden in the body politic. Inverting the ordinary devaluation, invisibility, or “symbolic annihilation” of those positioned at the bottom of (social) hierarchies (Larry Gross quoted in Gamson 1998:22)”

These two statements mark further evidence of the grotesque for lyrics constructed by extreme metal bands like Carcass, Cannibal Corpse, or Deicide. However controversial the works of these bands and bands like them can be construed, it made me curious to explore the imagery depicted on albums of this nature.

Furthermore, I wondered if the often violent and horrific covers of extreme metal albums were indeed an extension of both the medieval grotesque and heavy metal carnival, then what research, if any, was being conducted specific to the treatment of women, so often depicted in controversial images flagging the albums.

If I decide to write a paper for this conference, I think it will broadly speak to the use of grotesque imagery on extreme metal albums as a form of intentional aesthetic and then move more specifically to the depiction of women, particularly the thematic imagery of Death and Women on covers.

\m/ –Hail Metal– \m/

Heavy Metal Studies and Gender

MeralandGenderLast week, an article was published over at No Clean Singing that caught my eye. The article,A Metal Gender Study is a follow-up post by cultural anthropologist David Mollica who put a call out through No Clean Singing last March to recruit participants for his study about gender and metal.

Since Mollica’s research is very much aligned with my own work with regard to gender, I thought I’d share my thoughts on his article in hopes of opening a discourse about how gender has been examined in the past as well as how the perspective of women conducting the research themselves can offer different insights than previous studies done by men.

We_Can_Do_It!First off, though Mollica’s writing is aimed at the general audience in the blog post, I wondered about several aspects of his study. For one, he writes:

“…I ended up interviewing 6 women and 5 men, making this the first study of its kind that I know of to have equal gender representation.”

Since I’ve had to research a lot of literature on this topic, I found this statement to be  misleading and, with no sources cited, I also question the depth of his actual research. In the last decade or so, though statistics may have not shown an exact and equal ratio of men and women on studies like Mollica’s; the fact is there has been research done with women and men regarding the subject of gender and metal.

One example is the research done by scholars Leigh Krenske and Jim McKay entitled,Hard and Heavy: Gender and Power in a Heavy Metal Music Subculture“, in which gendered structures of power in a specific music club within the heavy metal subculture in Brisbane, Australia were studied. In this study a total of 10 participants were interviewed, 6 women and 4 men.

Additionally, in my own research, I have referenced academics such as Sonia Vasan from the University of Texas, whose dissertation,Women’s Participation in Death Metal Music was extremely influential on much of my ethnographic approach. Likewise, Sarah Kitteringham from University of Calgary has written and interviewed a variety of women from the Canadian Extreme Metal Music Scene, authoring her findings in her thesis, Extreme Conditions Demand Extreme Responses.  There are other scholars from around the globe – Rosemary Hill, Gabrielle Riches, Jasmine Shadrack, Laina Dawes, Pauwke Berkers, Julian Schaap, and Keith Kahn-Harris – who have written about women in and around metal music. This also assumes one has referenced older and staple academic works written by Arnett, Walser, Wallach, Hickam, Purcell, Pillipov and Weinstein which mention and address different aspects of gender in metal. I’m sure I’m forgetting more.

KarynCrisisOn top of the lack of reference and context (which in Mollica’s defense, was probably due to not wanting to sound too academic on a commercial website), I thought the sample size of 6 and 5 to be small. In my own research, I interviewed – either in-person or electronically – around 80 participants from the NY area alone. If not for the cut-off period instituted by the IRB, there would have been many more – something I will probably use for a follow-up paper.

In addition, I’m left wondering about other aspects such as the demographics of his interviewees–Where was this study conducted? How old were his interviewees? What were their ethnicities? What were their educational backgrounds/careers?

Mollica points to conducting inductive research, assessing patterns as they arise. While this is a valid form of research, asking and answering such demographic questions is integral to finding out the patterns among his participants.

For example, in my study, I found that many of my online participants (which were women only) identified with Caucasian or Hispanic backgrounds. Asians, Native Americans, and African Americans had the lowest representative numbers. This becomes an important part of understanding identity construction, especially within an area like the NY tri-state region which is considered to be quite diverse.

Moreover, the women in my study (of which 72 were surveyed online) identified with the following stats: 18% between 18-24 years of age, 56% between 25-34 years in age, 18% between 35-44 years in age, 5% between 45-54 years in age and finally and most surprisingly 3% between 65-74 years in age. Considering age demographics is one way to reveal listening reasons. One can infer the musical styles that would have been around during the participants’ birth years for each age group and what may have been influential as well as what they were moving both away from and towards.

Also interesting – and not surprising – were the differences in our observations of women participating and producing within the scene. Mollica writes,

“Another thing that was mentioned was the stereotypically feminine tendency to herd up, move in groups, and sometimes stand on the periphery of the action.”

Though his interviewees mention this as fact, I and many of my participants witnessed otherwise – at least as the NY-area goes. Interestingly, many of the local extreme metal shows I attended had women attending by themselves. Perhaps this was due to the age of the women I noticed attending; they were often older and more mature, in their late 20’s and on, whereas younger adult women attended in groups, both mixed and unmixed. But, there are reasons outside of metal for this, and men are shown to move with their friends as well.

He also talks about authenticity within the metal scene, mentioning the similarities with geek culture and the acceptance of women within that subculture. I agree with his point and would add that this “burden of proof” placed on women to show their true fandom and authenticity elicits a form of tokenism, whereby they become objects which are judged and criticized. Schaap and Berkers work, “Grunting Alone? Online Gender Inequality in Extreme Metal Music”, explains this tokenism within extreme metal scenes, further supporting how sexism is widespread and cultivated throughout the subculture.

Finally, on Mollica’s last section, “What’s the Point?”, he writes:

Overall, most metalheads are probably not sexists who don’t want women in their “club”, as some other research has concluded. The reality is probably more that we bring our ideas about the world to heavy metal when we make ourselves part of the group.

I think I’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. For starters, this might be the case for the particular region of Mollica’s study. Since I’m not sure where that was, all I can offer are my own insights and experiences as a woman from the NY tri-state area. Most of the women I met with and interviewed felt that the extreme metal scene in NY was an arena that could be both restrictive and open in its acceptance of women as consumers and producers. Though many women felt established and included with the community, they also cited the difficulties in getting there.

My interviewees cited that their acceptance within the subculture did not eradicate the constant “testing” of their authenticity once there, whether it was being tested as a musician, fan, music journalist, or critic. Many women felt that this openness and acceptance also changed regionally, often telling me that once they were outside of urban and diverse areas like NY, they were more likely to experience sexism, racism and violence at shows.

castrator1In addition, the construction of the lyrical content does not offer many avenues for the dismantling of misogynist and sexist content. I can only think of NY’s Castrator as an example of a band that has turned traditional death metal lyrical content on its head.

With that, I leave you with a quote from one of my anonymous participants:

“Heavy and Extreme Metal still have a long way to go”

Individual Thought Patterns: Women in NY’s Extreme Metal Music Scene – 10.19.15

Cover of Natalie Purcell's book

Cover from Natalie Purcell’s book, Death Metal Music: The Passion and Politics of a Subculture

I just realized that although I’ve been working on this research for some time, I’ve rarely posted anything that’s part of the draft thesis. So in case you were wondering…here’s a sample of what I’ve been writing about. I’ve included the abstract, table of contents, and just the working introduction, which reads very auto-ethnographic.
Draft – Individual Thought Patterns
And of course, please feel free to contact me if there’s something just glaringly odd/off. It’s still a draft form so I’m sure my advisor and second reader will have changes in mind.

Thanks  \m/

Castrator and Cannibal Corpse – A Love Story

CCandCastratorMashupSo as I finish up my thesis chapter devoted to the women of Castrator, I thought it would be nice to preface my section to the chapter with some lyrical comparisons from both Castrator and Cannibal Corpse songs, since really, each band has a way of textually inter-playing with each other.

In addition, Castrator’s decidedly feminist content make for some interesting call and response dialogue with Cannibal Corpse. The fact that Castrator can transgress the inherently masculine domain that is death metal, makes for an alluring discourse. Looking at the lyrics below, I’ve paired Castastor’s song Emasculator with CC’s Stripped, Raped and Strangled to offer a re-imagined version had the power shifted from the rapist to the victim. In my mind, I call it Emasculated Rapist and if I were any kind of musician, I’d find a way to actually cut and mix the two songs.

They think they know who I am
All they know is I love to kill
Face down, dead on the ground
Find me before another is found

Vigilante women on the loose 
Instruments of vengeance
Balance Restorers
The hunter will be hunted
Spirits of their victims rejoice
No longer will they endure

I come alive in the darkness
Left murdered and nameless
Dead, unburied and rotten
Half eaten by insects

Tightly she holds the blade
With which the rapist will be raped

She was so beautiful
I had to kill her

Tied her up and taped her mouth shut
Couldn’t scream, raped violently
Rope tight, around her throat
Her body twitches as she chokes
Strangulation caused her death
Just like all the others
Raped before and after death
Stripped, raped, tortured

Castration
Of the rapist!
Emasculation
Take his weapon!
Castration
Crush and cut the balls!
Emasculation
Oriectomy!

They’re all dead, they’re all dead
They’re all dead, by strangulation

I come alive in the darkness
Left murdered and nameless
Dead, unburied, and rotten
Half eaten by insects

It felt so good to kill

Castration
Of the rapist!
Emasculation
Take his weapon!
Castration
Crush and cut the balls!
Emasculation
Oriectomy!

I took their lives away
Seven dead, lying rotten
Unburied victims
Their naked bodies putrefy

Strangulation caused her death
Just like all the others
Raped before and after death
Stripped, raped, tortured

Form a line of prisoners
Led up one by one
Leaving genital parts behind
Penile amputation
Remove the weapon
From the offender

Summer Work Never Ends when You’re Metal Thirsty

In case you’ve been wondering what I’ve been up to – it’s been a couple of things, but the most exciting thing this summer is the fact that I’ve got about 56 pages of my master thesis on women in EMM written, that’s excluding all the appendices–Woo hoo!

Metal researchIn addition, the folks over at the Society of Ethnomuiscology’s Student Union Blog were gracious enough to allow me to post about my experience with academia, motherhood, librarianship, and metal. Check it out!

Moreover,  I just finished writing a book review for Choice Magazine and I’m now in the midst of writing another review for ARLISNA on John Sharp’s Works of Game:On the Aesthetics of Games and Art. Which, by the way, I totally recommend as summer reading!

worksofgameLastly, I’ve been lucky enough to see Gospel of the Witches twice this year! I’ve made a handful of good friends through the academic metal route and the experience has really imparted some enlightening insights for me.

With that said, here’s a couple of pics from the GoTW show at Blackthorn21, July 10, 2015. It really was a great show and unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to get pictures of the other bands–all female fronted too, like The Missing and Earthbound!

Finally, it was super cool to finally see Alekhine’s Gun, since I’ve heard so much about Jessica Pimentel’s engaging metal  performances, but of course, I didn’t get any pictures, so here’s a link to some photos of the event from Skullnbones.com

Enjoy!

EP Review: Castrator’s “No Victim”

Screen-Shot-2015-04-04-at-11-28-42-PM_vice_970x435

My review of Castrator’s new EP. This can also be found on Metalriot.com.  Enjoy!

“Tightly she holds the blade
With which the rapist will be raped.
Castration Of the rapist!
Emasculation.”

Talk about a reply to any number of songs from Cannibal Corpse’s discography! Having discovered these ladies last year, right before their demo was released, I was ecstatic to finally hear Castrator‘s 4-track EP released in early May under the Horror Pain Gore Death Productions label. These five ladies hail from all over the map (Sweden, Colombia & Norway to name a few countries), marking this group as both ethnically diverse and fem-tastic! Shrouded in a bit of mystery, the ladies are credited as M.S. (vocals), M. Akesson (rhythm guitar), R. M (bass), C. Perez (drums) and P. Serrano (lead and vocals). You might already be familiar with many of the ladies from their other bands, which with time, I’m sure you’ll all figure out.

It’s sort of a supergroup in the making. Castrator’s EP has brushed off the dust to reinvigorate traditional death metal, and, in fact, does so with a healthy dose of feminism. And for you males out there who shy away from the f-word – put simply, it’s about leveling the field.

No need to cry misandry; these ladies are playing within a genre that’s definitely seen its fill of violent lyrics towards the female body. So in a lot of ways, though traditional, their lyrical content and approach has definitely revived and made for a refreshing and innovative change for the scene. The ep’s success lies in its ability to make your ears bleed with death that harkens to a time when classic death metal was still a driving force to be reckoned with. On first play, one might just think it’s all blood and gore with a little bit of fun inserted for shits and giggles, but really, throughout you get the added dose of subversion of content.

Opening with their song titled, “Honor Killing”, you’re made immediately aware that the narrative will speak of women’s injustice, but accompanied by growled vocals, driving guitars and rapid blast beats; the rhythms oscillate between intense drumming and savage guitar riffs, incurring some very vicious melodies.

My favorite song is “The Emasculator”- Not unlike many death acts from the early 90’s, it opens with a gory clip from the movie Hostel 2. You hear a man calling a woman, “a f**** c***”, (wrong move!) as she proceeds to go Lorena Bobbitt on him. What makes this a successful interpretation of what could easily be called a “man-hating” song based on its intro is its political confrontation of rape culture through its lyrics. It’s a transition from women being victimized to being empowered. And of course, this is most evident from the EP’s self-titled and title track, No Victim.

Overall, the EP is traditional death composed of melodic grooves and interspersed with guitar solos and growled death vocals. I felt that by the end, it made for a compelling reversal in which feminist politics serve to undermine the typical stances of a genre almost always aligned with patriarchy. Fans of early death would appreciate this project and probably be left like me, waiting for more, as Castrator continue “Unleashing her plague upon the earth”.

Full Track Listing:
1. Honor Killing (3:14)
2. Brood (3:09)
3. The Emasculator (4:06)
4. No Victim (3:24)

A Need for a Metal Music & Special Collection’s Library in NYC

MetalLibraryPic1

I’ve decided to add the task of starting a Metal Music Library to my list of life goals. As a side effect of all the research I’ve done, nothing feels more professionally fulfilling to me than merging my two loves at the moment – metal and librarianship. Living in New York, it just seems so senseless to me that there isn’t already a physical manifestation of some sort of metal library and collection here. I guess I’m finding it hard to stomach because New York’s history is rich with metal culture and ephemera. We are the birthplace of some of metal’s most notable bands like Anthrax, Dio, Kiss, Life of Agony, Manowar, Nuclear Assault, Tombs, Type O-, etc., Not to mention more extreme metal bands like Brutal Truth, Cannibal Corpse, Demolition Hammer, Immolation, Internal Bleeding, Malignancy. Mortician, Suffocation and on and on. Some of these have spearheaded entire sub-genres of metal.

When I worked at the Met, the Costume Institute Department had a number of music-related exhibitions like, Punk: Chaos to Culture, AngloMania: Tradition and Transgression in British Fashion, and Rock Style. I can easily see these kinds of exhibitions displaying the material culture of heavy metal, perhaps record collections, even the fashion, which believe it or not, there is. Just take a look at how the latest Kardarshian brood is co-opting our style.

Kendall-Jenner-loves-Slayer

Or just celebrities in general:

And I’m not posting these images to make metal-heads angry; on the contrary, it’s says a lot about mainstream culture appropriating and encouraging a heavy metal style, even if its a misinterpretation. Is heavy metal music becoming more acceptable, and if so, why? How are perceptions changing and what is the historical importance? Preserving aspects of “our” popular culture and subcultures are important for a variety of reasons.

Take a look at fellow WordPress blogger and musician/scholar Jason Netherton’s book, “Extremity Retained: Notes From the Death Metal Underground” in which he collects an oral history of death metal music from the musicians and people involved in the early scene. Additionally, he’s been scanning and making available early death metal zines from the 1980’s and on, in his blog Send Back My Stamps! – talk about preservation and accessibility!

As I research and work alongside my metal academic comrades, I see further evidence of the need for preserving metal music and it’s material culture. My colleague and fellow librarian, Brian Hickam, maintains a wonderful online bibliography for the International Society of Metal Music Studies (ISMMS) with categories for searching via books, articles, chapters, etc. It’s been very helpful in my own studies.

There are other institutions such as The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Library & Archives, which, of course, collect under rock-and-roll, but also includes a variety of subgenres, metal being one of them.

Over in the UK, there is The Home of Metal, a project started as collaboration project with the Black Country Arts Partnership, The New Art Gallery Walsall, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and Wolverhampton Art Gallery to celebrate and preserve the birthplace of heavy metal in the West Midlands.

Gary Shafer, the man behind Heavy Metal Museum, is also catering to heavy metal preservation and offering a platform for sharing and selling metal memorabilia. And if I couldn’t push the case for Metal Music studies and libraries being important, this article from the Wall Street Journal does the job for me.

In my own home library, here’s what I’ve been collecting and hoping to preserve for my daughter…(it’s very much a growing collection)

Home_HeavyMetalLibrary