The whole “women in rock” thing is trite and boring and sexist—everyone knows that. That said, what makes metal bands with prominent female members unique is not about gender, but experience. When watching a powerful woman perform, it allows you to see the world as they see it, a view that can often be very different than frontmen experience, and something from which the less fair sex could learn something.
Kung Fu Necktie, Philadelphia, September 16
King Woman is a beautiful nervous breakdown, music to chain smoke to. Its music seems depressive, but you can tell it’s a release and not the symptom but the cure. Despite barely moving, Kristina Esfandiari commands the stage; she is the obvious focal point even when her hair shrouds her face from eye contact. While staggeringly clinging to the mic stand and appearing vulnerable, she still exudes strength; her unique whispered wail far is more forceful than a hundred screaming screamers. As the 30-minute set ended, she wandered off the stage into the crowd, still singing as the music receded. It wasn’t triumphant; it was just where she needed to be.
If King Woman runs from the darkness, Subrosa (pictured top) celebrates it as part of the human condition and that condition is critical. Rebecca Vernon’s whispered intro to “Black Majesty” to start the show was all the mourning the band permitted.
Only one of the two violinists who make up the Salt Lake City group, Sarah Pendleton, is on the tour (Kim Pack is home pregnant), which might have made a difference, but it’s hard to imagine Subrosa being any more intense. Set closer, “The Usher,” with vocals shared with Vernon and Pendleton, is stoic and stunning, as heavy on the soul as it is in every other way. The crescendo builds up over the length of the song, which lasts more than 14 minutes on 2013’s More Constant Than the Gods, but seems twice as long here. The rhythm section slowly increases in intensity while the guitar and violin play off each other so perfectly it transcends the physical and takes the whole room on a spiritual journey. Forget going to space, this is how you slip the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.
In contrast, Wovenhand (pictured above) leader David Eugene Edwards is quite content to praise God, a healthy metal following who claims the devil has the best tunes notwithstanding. At least that’s what the devout Christian has said about his music, likening it more to gospel than doom folk.
Wovenhand has no female members, though the last time they hit Philly was supporting Chelsea Wolfe. The band’s powerful spirituality stems from a Native American culture that has a lot of respect for women which lends itself to these kinds of bills.
I’ll bet Edwards thinks of himself a simple man, decked out in snakeskin boots, weathered face underneath a feathered hat, mic stand adorned with southwestern regalia. He is a man steeped in at least two traditions and his band is similarly conflicted. Folk music is not supposed to be this loud, and rock music is rarely this passionate.
But a rock band Wovenhand is, not just a solo project for an erstwhile folkie. Guitarist Chuck French also added backing vocals, using one of those vintage-looking Shure microphones like Edwards. The rhythm section (bassist Neil Keener and drummer Ordy Garrison) provided a solid foundation for Edwards to lay down trippy psychedelia and helped make it far more accessible than seems possible.
Witness “The Refractory,” during which Edwards plucked a mandolin while the rest of the band churned out psych-rock drone a la American Gothic, a melodramatic epic that is as intense as anything else you could think of but as memorable as any pop song earworm that gets stuck in your head after hearing it in the grocery store. There was no encore. There didn’t need to be one. Wovenhand said all that needed to be said.
“I am immune… And I am protected.”
So says Robin Wattie during “Borer,” repeating the phrase over and over and over again until she is hoarsely screaming the words, like she is trying to convince herself of its validity. The fact is you’re never quite sure if she’s ever quite sure. Even the band name, Big Brave, is possibly false bravado to overcome insecurity and vulnerability, a cathartic tool to purge any self-doubt in ways that show strength beyond imagination.
Ardor (Southern Lord) is the second release for the Montreal trio rounded out by guitarist Mathieu Bernard Ball and drummer Louis-Alexandre Beauregard. The group doesn’t have a bassist, though contrabass courtesy of Thierry Amar from Godspeed You Black Emperor and the down-tuned droning guitars offer more than enough low end. Jessica Moss from Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra adds violin, but even that instrument is menacing and foreboding.
The release has three songs, each with a short one-word name, but each running no less than 11 ½ minutes. Despite not being particularly complex in the slightest, Big Brave challenge the listener. This is sometimes through repetition—the buzzing post-rock drone of SunO))) is a touchstone—but an overall sense that something’s not quite right.
“Sound,” the lead track, is probably the most memorable, kind of like if Chelsea Wolfe collaborated with Neurosis. It weaves different vocal and guitar textures while the distorted violin practically turns into a rhythm instrument, that rhythm being set to dirge. “Lull” is exactly what the name implies, possibly what passes for a smoky lounge number in some unrecognizable parallel universe, relying far more on Wattie’s expressive, haunted vocals than anything else on the album.
Comparisons to the last Cult of Luna disc that employed Made Out of Babies’ Julie Christmas will be made, but as brilliant as that release was, there is a completely different dynamic at work here, a starkly dark pallor that renders Mariner an upbeat party record in comparison. Despite there being a ton of like-minded artists making melancholic art-drone, many of them with female voices at the forefront, Ardor stands out for its ability to make the depressive revelatory.