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!

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Album Review: Karyn Crisis’ Gospel of the Witches – Salem’s Wounds

I was asked to write an album review over at MetalRiot.com of an inspiring musician I’ve mentioned on this blog in the past – Karyn Crisis! Her band is Gospel of the Witches. Below is a copy of the text that you can find over at Metal Riot.

Enjoy!

Review: Karyn Crisis – Gospel of the Witches (2015)

As most loyal fans of Crisis will find—Gospel of the Witches is a departure from the core metal/death sound of their 90’s heyday. But that’s to be expected. Away from the East Coast metal scene after the Crisis break-up, Karyn travelled to California to learn more about her experiences with the incorporeal, having had countless episodes of what could best be described as “encounters with the supernatural” during her childhood and onward.

In between self-discovery and music-making with a brief stint in husband Davide Tiso’s band Ephel Duath, we find a new Karyn, grounded in her abilities to communicate with her own spirit guide and with humanity through the medium of music. Ever the creative soul, she’s crafted and pursued leatherworks, paintings, and mediumship and come back full circle to music.

From metalinjection.com

From metalinjection.com

Gospel of the Witches’ debut album, Salem’s Wounds, is Karyn’s latest mesmerizing project with husband Davide Tiso of Ephel Duath and Bob Vigna from Immolation on guitar, Ross Dolan, also from Immolation, on bass and backing vocals, and Charlie Schmid from Vaura on drums. Each member brings a range of experience to the table.

To me, the first significant song is the opening track, aptly-titled Omphalos, which becomes just that – an object of power, positioned to propel the listener on a journey of arcane reflexivity. Karyn’s “I am no one, I am nothing, I am nowhere,” juxtaposed with “I am everything, I am everywhere, I am everyone,” starts with clean vocals and quickly metamorphosizes into a growled delivery layered atop Ross Dolan’s own deathly vocals and sets both the tone and expectations high with a powerful intro to the album. Its subtle ascending vocal tempo creates an escalating mood, a musical ascension of sorts. Short, simple and leading; it directs the listener right into the second song, The Alchemist, in which the theme of being an acolyte learning the ways of the occult arises from both the composition of Karyn’s music and lyrical content that points heavily towards mysticism and transmutation – “I am no longer the dust and lifeless, waiting to be swept away…” and “…I hear those words, kept unsaid, and I walk in the world of the living and the dead.” A little more than halfway through the song, we hear a bit of the old Crisis as Karyn alternates styles with bits of clean and heavier vocals with Dolan backing the choruses.

And so begins our journey, alongside Karyn, towards self-discovery. In a Lovecraftian way, we learn of ritualism and guidance from both Ancient Ways and Aradia, where verses become chants foretelling haunting revelations of mankind existing as only a small part of the greater world. The driving melodies lead the ear to witness the rites in progress. Karyn’s lyrics paint a haunting, yet enlightening, revelation of liberation. Aradia, itself, is used interchangeably for “Gospel of the Witches,” featured as part of the title of the original book or religious text, from which the band’s name most likely originates. Its also the name of a person in the book, allegedly the daughter of Diana, Queen of the Witches and Lucifer, portrayed as a sun god. In 1899, it later caused quite a stir and came to be a major influence on the modern Wiccan belief system. It details rites and beliefs of a sect of Italian witches, which is intriguing considering that Karyn’s husband lives in Italy, and she, herself, spent several years living there with him.

Its interesting to me to note that Gospel of the Witches has a pronounced gothic tinge to their overall sound. With both Dolan and Vigna from Immolation on board, I had expected to hear a composition replete with shredding guitar and complex death metal composition, tempered by Davide’s somewhat lyrical guitar-work and pacing. Instead, we’re indulged with a surprising side of Immolation’s palette that moves in a more gothic-rock direction and has Karyn, at times, invoking early Switchblade Symphony with her vocals instead of Dawn Crosby or even her own previous works.

As two halves of a greater whole, the songs Mother and Father are a nice compliment to each other. They’re a payment of respect to the progenitors of the universe and not just the parents that gave birth to us-though one can interpret its multilayered meanings to differing conclusions. With Mother in particular, the lyrics really resonated with me as I lost my own mother to disease when I was 23, so I took the lyrics of “Mother, I can feel your flesh burning, Mother, I can smell your sacrifice” as both profound and cathartic, with a call-and-response relationship built in. However, what Karyn is doing here is relating Aradia’s story, her origins, the depth of her beginnings. In contrast, the song Father radiates a more anchored feeling than what Mother produces. Its potent lyrical structuring with repetitive chants like “I am” followed by words such as invictus sets forth a dominant tone of invocation making it read like Delphic verses in the night. What we can infer here is Aradia’s conversation with her own Father, stating her known identity; she is aware of her origins and unconquerable spirit.

In many places throughout the album, Karyn layers her voice with Dolan’s, creating an interplay that harkens to a singer possessed. This maniacal effect plays with our aural assumptions of what is masculine and feminine, giving equal play to both genders and allowing them to become one. What results is a ritualistic profoundness similar to an altered state of consciousness. We become active listeners in her tale of the first witch.

Perhaps the one song that really brings this concept home for me is Goddess of Light. In particular, the part where Karyn sings, “Bear witness to my eternal rebirth”. Through a quick perusal of the definition of the Goddess Light deity that Karyn refers to, its possible to interpret the song as an homage to the divine feminine. What also struck me about this reference to the Goddess of Light was how it ties into my own conversations with my mother-in-law, who is a Hindu. An equivalent deity to the Goddess of Light, tales of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi relate a story of The Churning of the Ocean in which her disappearance from the world leads to darkness and chaos overtaking the earth with asuras (spirits) taking over. After much work and perseverance between the other deities and humans, Lakshmi returns, overturning the demons and making the world safe once again. Karyn’s music alludes to this kind of ethereal world-building.

With a surprising change in tone, at least in its intro, we hear The Secret, the tenth song on the album. It opens with a spacier introduction bordering on lounge-like beats. Her lyrics, “if you don’t go within, you go without,“ seem to sum up her inner discoveries and confessions. There’s a subtle extended invitation to join the dark with her, making it feel as though you’re witness to something beyond the sacred. However, the lyrical play on words could also reference Buddhist Zen ideas of self-discovery and self-evident truths contrasted with a activities of people looking for external signs of faith as a validation or sign of reprieve from their life’s troubles through pseudo-spirituality and mysticism, or people who superficially claim to practice “black magic” or “witchcraft” without knowledge of the traditions, lore and history of what they’ve appropriated.

Compositionally, I was surprised by the relative simplicity of the music compared to her earlier works, as fans who go in expecting anything resembling Crisis aren’t going to find what they’re looking for instrumentally here. Immolation fans will frankly be shocked. There’s nothing inherently wrong with musicians of Immolation’s background coming together to produce music of this type, but it should almost come with a warning for certain types of fans who may be more close-minded or fixed in their ideas of musical expression and range and are put off by change.

In many ways, what Karyn has done here is exactly the opposite of the progression Carl McCoy underwent when transitioning from Fields of the Nephilim to simply, Nephilim. His was a journey from atmospheric and gothic rock to gothic-influenced death metal, also steeped in mysticism. Hers has been a journey from metal to atmospheric, metal-influenced gothic music – with a movement from introspection and to the occult.

With Salem’s Wounds, we’re once again sharing in her confession with a leading gothic rock melody. There’s an abject feeling listening to her use of “hallelujah“, conveying an inversion of Christian traditions. Her repetition of the word “samsara”, the reincarnation cycle, reminds me of Hindu myths and how the religion at one point, and still to a degree today, was considered pagan to western Christian hegemony. It’s through these intentional nuances of lyrical construction that Karyn imparts a spiritual epiphany. If the NBC tv-series Constantine stays afloat next season, this should be on the series soundtrack.

I’ve had an advance copy of the album for about a week now, and ultimately, I had to listen to it twice before I began to realize its full thaumaturgic intentions. As each song unfolds, Karyn’s ability to build a world very different from what we’ve known of Crisis emerges. The same can be said of Vigna and Dolan’s parts here – maybe even more so. I, myself. had to shed my preconceived notions of a possible death metal album because of Dolan and Vigna’s involvement. What we see, instead, is not a brutal, in-your-face assault of Karyn’s previous politics, but the mature, cultivated cosmos of a world that she’s been quietly exploring for decades. As a personal project for Karyn, it’s evident that her spiritual and existential experiences are grounded in her musical composition, paralleling her growth as an artist and medium. It goes with the tone she’s set for the entirety of the album.

By the end of this album, the listener is left with a somber and dirge-like atmosphere, prepping the ear to trade in what’s it known from its physical life for a second helping of spiritual self-discovery. In a manner common to all things esoteric, the album’s chants and dark, meandering atmosphere leaves the listener with a feeling of transition, waiting for something “more”. Whether that “more” is in the form of an actual visitation, only Karyn Crisis can tell us.

Full Track listing:

  1. Omphalos (2:00)
  2. Alchemist (6:28)
  3. Ancient Ways (4:34)
  4. Aradia (3:42)
  5. Mother (6:05)
  6. Father (4:54)
  7. Goddess of Light (4:00)
  8. Howl At The Moon (5:45)
  9. Pillars (3:16)
  10. The Secret (3:32)
  11. Salem’s Wounds (4:48)
  12. The Sword and The Stone (4:05)
  13. The Ascent (5:22)
  14. White Willow (2:24)

Developing Death Metal Vocals – Part 1

As a child growing up in a typical Asian household, I began taking piano lessons when I was five. In fact, I still have my keyboard from kindergarten! I played piano for a couple of years during elementary school and then I moved on to clarinet in 6th grade and middle school. Later in college I began experimenting with guitar and violin. I could never stick to one instrument and I never became an expert in one either. I just always found music and music theory interesting.

During college, if I wasn’t painting or drawing, then I was reading about art or going to local music and art shows. I even worked in an art gallery for a time. In college, I remember taking an elective class on music theory and we explored classical music with our professor playing the piano and testing our ears on the different parts and structures of a piece. It’s no surprise that as of late, it feels like I’m coming round full circle.

With my current research on women in metal and all the various paths that its opened up for me, I find myself wanting to develop my musical side again. This time around, I’ve been curious about singing. In particular, I’m fascinated with the techniques used to develop metal vocals and growling sounds. Now that I know it’s entirely possibly for women to achieve male-sounding death vocals, I’ve become curious if its something I could learn. Like I mentioned in previous posts, my initial exposure to women who employed harsher vocals was Crisis. Karyn Crisis’ voice was unique in its ability to alternate from extremely harsh and tonal to melodic and feminine, a technique that’s still not too common.

I’ve since become a fan of other extreme female vocalists like the women from Mortals, Derketa, 13, Abnormality and Jucifer–just to name a few. All of this inspiration has, of course, had it’s effect on me, and I’ve found myself writing a lot of non-academic stuff in the form of lyrics for potential songs.

My husband has been pretty supportive and has been helping me research singing technique–(yes-we are geeks). We’re possibly thinking of starting a husband/wife duo with him on bass and me on..well, I’m not sure yet. I want to get the vocal thing started but would love to take up drums, cause then, of course, we could be a drum and bass duo. But I digress…

Back to vocal training……

Why is exploring this important?
In the course of my interviews with women, the pattern of appropriating male-coded behavior such as singing with extreme metal stylings became apparent. As anthropology lecturer Estelle Murphy writes,

“…the female growler plays with the listener’s gendered aural comprehension of the voice; her voice is gendered as masculine. Thus, through the appropriation of the masculine voice, the female growler manipulates and exposes a system of masculine filtration, whereby the listener is mislead by the performer’s mask or ‘audio drag’. However, such performances of female masculinity (Halberstam, 2010) raise questions about performative intention and of the masculinity performed by male death-growl vocalists.”(Murphy 2014)

What better way to explore this subversion than to try it out myself?

Blogger Geordi Linsey writes a little about her journey in experimenting with developing metal vocals as well. I found her insights and self-explorations both interesting and helpful. As you can imagine, embarking on such a journey leaves lots of room for introspection!

The Plan:
I decided my first task in this exploration would be to simply find songs I want to sing. This might appear to be easy, but in actuality, it’s not. First off, I’m working from the knowledge that as a grade-schooler during choir, my teachers frequently referred to my singing range as a “contralto” or “alto“. Now skip to almost 20 years later and I’m not sure if my vocal range has changed. I’m actually not sure how one gauges what kind of voice they have if they’re not versed in deciphering such things. Luckily, there is the internet!!! No really…it’s a great starting point. For example, I found the post, “What’s My Voice Type?” from the website Choirly quite informative.

I hadn’t realized that many women get categorized as contralto/altos but are actually mezzo-sopranos. A reason being that many instructors don’t want to spend the time in actually training what they believe sounds off-tune. Instead they end up directing these off-tune mezzo-sopranos to sing as altos where their off-tunefulness blends more easily.

Having realized I most likely fit the category of a mezzo-soprano helped me in figuring out what kind of song I was going to test. As much as I would love to sing Crisis’s Different Ways of Decay (see below), I don’t think I’m skilled enough to pull off the way she alternates her voice throughout each measure.

Additionally, I’ve been more curious about techniques employing guttural death growls and inhalations. An example of one of my favorite singing styles with regard to pitch and timbre is the way John Tardy from Obituary sings, “Slowly We Rot” (see below). There’s a point in the song that Tardy is producing a slow inhalation that comes out like a deep growl. Moreover, I’ve come to like the raspy and deep vocal style he and many early death vocalists employed in the 80’s, like Chuck Schuldiner, Kam Lee or David Vincent.

Interestingly, your actual singing voice doesn’t necessarily impact the style of death vocals you choose. One example of this is Angela Gossow , ex-frontwoman for Arch Enemy. Apparently her vocal range is mezzo-soprano.

Another song I would love to emulate, and which might be a little easier for me, would be “Norge” (see below) by Thorr’s Hammer. It’s got a strong intro by Runhild Gammelsaeter. She opens the song with chant-like verses followed by a deep, almost inhuman growl. I love it!!!

In terms of musical sound, it would be nice if the hubby and I could cultivate a mixture of elements from bands like Godflesh,  Amebix, Mrykur, King Woman, or Fear of God. All in all, this is all a boiler plate, so if you all have some insights, feel free to comment below.

About Me: Depth & Transgression

JoanI realized, the “About Me” section in this blog is a bit wanting and I thought that even though I’ve been relaying all the sordid details of my research, I haven’t really let my audience know about me (although one can argue that you’d get a feeling about who I am if you’ve been reading my posts!)

But anyway, here’s some details about me and where I’ve been going both academically and professionally. First off, this blog was started back in 2011 as a way for me to get my bearings with writing in academia as well as a way to force me to just, well, WRITE!

I’ve always been a fan of all types of music, especially 80’s New Wave, Classic Punk, and, as you can tell–Extreme Metal. By Extreme metal, I am mostly talking about Death, Doom, Sludge and some Grind.

My first life was spent as an Art lover and student. I went to SUNY Albany for my Bachelors in Studio Art (Drawing) and Art History (Medieval Art and Architecture). Having experienced first hand working in a Visual Arts Library, I thought to myself, wouldn’t becoming an Art Librarian be cool???And I wouldn’t have to be a starving artist to boot! So about a year after I graduated college, I went to Pratt for my Library degree in Library/Information Science with a Certificate in Archives (which is gathering dust by the way).

In the midst of my Pratt life, I ended up, very luckily, working at The Thomas J. Watson Library in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I worked there for about 6 years as an Art Librarian, enjoying the highs and lows that accompany art reference, cataloging and inter-library loaning! This was a great way to merge my love of art with reading and organization.

However, somewhere down the line, I ended up thinking about getting a second masters degree. I remember talking to some mid-level librarians who told me that in order to work in a college library, having a second masters for specialization was helpful. So that’s what I did. I decided to go to Hunter’s CUNY program in Anthropology with the beginning intention to write about Anthropology and the Pacific. Having found out that most schools in the NY didn’t really have faculty focused in that area-unless you’re going for the PHD, I was outta luck. So I started thinking about what else was fascinating about humans and culture.  And then I had an enlightening conversation with my husband. He brought up Karyn Crisis from Crisis and her influence as seminal person in the death metal scene in early 90’s NYC metal. It got us to thinking about women in Heavy Metal Music. And it most certainly led me to researching what, if any, academic literature was written in Anthropology about women and their experience in these often “hyper-masculine” and “misogynistically” described musical genres. We talked about Dawn Crosby from Fear of God/Detente, as well as women who were musicians  not vocally fronting in bands, like Jo Bench. I wondered what led them to participate in this sub-culture of extreme metal and I wondered if they felt marginalized or empowered by the scene.

Side cutFor me, around 2007, my reasons on listening to Death Metal became apparent. For one, my ears had slowly become trained to actually listening to the genre as form as oppose to just hearing loud noise. And two, no other music for me could correlate to the passing event that I had just overcome, that of my mother’s death. Down-tuned guitars, heavy bass-lines, and blast beats all lent itself nicely to both the angst and grieving I was undergoing. Finding women as vocalists and musicians in the scene served as a way to connect. This became very poetic for me and it’s what I believe happens to people when they connect to a particular style of music. It was a transgressive experience.

But where has this left me? It’s left me at a point where I am still learning from many of the women I have surveyed and interviewed during my research. I am finding, that like me, they are empowered by the music and their acceptance. Although bad experiences exist in any sub-culture, emerging patterns of tolerance have also been relayed to me. I am finding that in NYC, diversity and gender are ever the forefront in cultural concerns. What that may mean for women in the EMM scene can have a variety of meanings. For one, if feminism, especially that of the third wave feminism can be applied to EMM, then the make-up I am seeing, which is fairly diverse when compared to EMM scenes outside of NY, aligns itself well with the third wave.. There is a predominantly Hispanic population of women involved in the the local EMM scene and it does indeed encompass, “many colors, ethnicities, nationalities, religions and cultural backgrounds”.

In the near future, my professional plans are to finish up this thesis and disseminate it. After that, I plan on going back to my first love of art and perhaps dabbling in creating music. All of this research has cemented to me that there isn’t many female artists lyrically writing about what it is to be a women, if they even get to write the songs!

For example, what would it be like to hear something like Cannibal Corpse’s “Stripped, Raped and Strangled” from the point of view of the victim? Or maybe lyrics that relay the pain, terror, and joy when birthing a child? How about lyrics about being a female serial killer or the pain felt when having a miscarriage, etc? These are all reasonably within the motifs of Death Metal but align themselves with a feminist agenda. It’s something I have yet to hear with maybe Brooklyn’s Castrator being an exception.