INTO THE COVEN: WOMEN OF OCCULT ROCK
I suppose “occult rock” is a handy enough term for it, anyway; it’s easier than stringing together “70’s-influenced psychedelic doom rock” to describe the aural spells these wicked women weave. The Devil is bigger than ever (bigger than the Beatles!) and the chorus of converts singing his praises has grown louder with every Ghost album downloaded or pig’s blood-smeared Impiety shirt sold. Rock’n’roll has always been the Devil’s music. Bluesmen gave it its desolate soul, but in the late 60’s, Coven draped it in black velvet, lit the candles, and sacrificed it, fanning the flames straight back down to Lucifer. In the ensuing decades since Jinx Dawson and her merry men first married black magic with heavy psych, plenty more women have ventured down the left-hand path. The following bands aren’t truly metal, but they flirt with enough occult references and genre staples to warrant a free pass. Any band/musician who can tour with Electric Wizard, call half of Watain their BFFS, rock the stage at Roadburn (or, you know, essentially introduce the concept of Satanism to American rock music way before even Black Sabbath or Pentagram were beckoning us forward) the way they have already boasts enough cred to put half the crowd at MDF to shame.
So here you have it, a handful of my favorite feminine purveyors of occult rock – most of them are vocalists, but a couple of them play other instruments as well. I definitely want to hear from you guys on this one, as this particular sound occupies a place very near to my metal heart. The thought of including Chelsea Wolfe and Zola Jesus (recent discoveries that I am unabashedly loving) crossed my mind but they seem a too close to the gothy end of the spectrum to warrant inclusion (good call/bad call? Wolfe’s Burzum cover was pretty neat).
Alongside England’s Black Widow, Coven are credited as being one of the very first rock bands to embrace occult imagery and outright Satanic references, and chanteuse Jinx Dawson also claims to be the true progenitor of the “devil horns” (though Dio may have had something to say about that). The band released their first album, Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls, in 1969 after signing a contract with Mercury Records in their own blood. The inside album cover features the first documented appearance of the horns being thrown, the inverted cross, and the phrase “Hail Satan” in American rock/pop culture. Suffice it to say, Coven and Ms. Dawson are owed a fuckton of royalties from pretty much every extreme metal band ever! The music itself isn’t as heavy as the imagery and subject matter would suggest, but has got a definite eerie, trippy aura about it — groovy Seventies’ style rock with psychedelic touches, Jethro Tull-isms, and some seriously wicked vintage Wutlitzer action. Think the Jefferson Airplane at a black mass. Dawson’s sultry vocals exhorting sex, Satan, and witchcraft slither overtop it all, and the record closes out with a thirteen-minute track of weird chanting and Satanic prayers entitled “Satanic Mass.” Coven released a couple more albums, toured with the Yardbirds and Alice Cooper, courted controversy (they were often mentioned in the same breath as Charles Manson in sensationalistic news stories), and eventually broke up. Dawson released a solo record (Metal Goth Queen – Out of the Vault) in 2008, and is rumored to be plotting a reunion and new Coven record (stoked!). Without Coven and their demonic frontwoman, metal as we know it would be a very, very different beast.
Jex Thoth is one of doom’s most enigmatic and entrancing high priestesses. Formed in 2007 under the moniker Totem, Jex Thoth the band soon took its frontwoman’s name, and released a series of monumental acid rock jams (including a split with the mighty Pagan Altar!). Their self-titled LP (2008; I Hate Records) is my favorite. It’s all woozy, meandering, thudding doom and swaggering desert rock, augmented and propelled into the outer limits by Jex’s inimitable smoky, soaring wail. Live, the band is ritualistic — crimson capes, burnt sage, swaying forms — and absolutely impossible to tear your eyes away from (their performance at Roadburn 2010 was one of the very best of the festival). As of late, Jex has been pulling double duty in Sabbath Assembly, a collective who reinterpret the cult chants of the Process Church of the Final Judgement and weave their carnal conjurations into a gorgeous tapestry of gospel, 60’s psychedelia, pop, and stoner rock (look it up, their debut Restored to One is positively addictive). Everything this woman touches turns to pure, molten gold.
Taking some heavy cues (and a gnarly flute fetish) from Jethro Tull, these Canadian retro rockers are the wildest of the bunch. Their odes to magic, madness, and the ancient tales of old are imbued with a truly strange, otherwordly atmosphere, thanks in no small part to the ominous organ accents by multi-instrumentalist Alia O’Brien (who also sings and plays flute). Black Sabbath meets Dionysus, progressive rock dabbles in witchy horror, folk music wrestles with doom, and the pan pipes invoke pagan evils of yesteryear. Blood Ceremony look innocuous enough, but there’s a darkness to them. O’Brien switches from vintage organ to flute to microphone, looking lost in a world far far away, making it all look easy while commanding attention. Her voice is full, throaty, hypnotizing, and homegirl can play a mean flute solo! I’m most partial to their self-titled record, but their latest LP, Living with the Ancients, is just as essential.
THE DEVIL’S BLOOD
The Devil’s Blood hail from the Netherlands, and are perhaps the most intensely Satanic of all the bands mentioned. Their interviews are tangled, esoteric manifestos, their artwork drips with menace and occult symbolism, their presentation is darkly theatrical, and their music — well, the music draws as much from Coven as they do Pentagram. They embrace chaos and welcome destruction (it’s no wonder they’re such good buddies with Watain!). At times you’d swear their tunes were rare Roky Erickson demos in disguise, were it not for the powerhouse vocals of Farida, a velvet-clad, blood-drenched siren (Venus in furs…). To say her pipes are formidable does her a disservice; the woman can SING, and sing she does, in praise of all that is wicked and wrong in this world. Her voice recalls the glory days of soul and jazz — husky, expressive, entrancing, and just a little evil. Go buy all their records, you’ll thank me later.
An English rose, she’s not; Rose Kemp is lovely, of course, but is swathed in such a dark, brooding aura that not much sunshine peeks through. Her music isn’t as Satanic or obsessed by cruelty as the others discussed herein, but it’s surely earthy and raw (and a little bit unsettling) enough to please Ol’ Scratch. The young singer/guitarist has deep roots in English folk, but summons up an unholy combination of doom, drone, and stonerisms to add to the potion. After catching her at a tiny afternoon show at Roadburn a couple years ago, I immediately tracked down all her records — her songs are weighty, as memorable as they are disturbing. She wields her guitar with purpose, strumming along slowly as her vocals take charge. She’s composed lighter, poppier fare alongside her more experimental heavy compositions, but her clear, airy voice ties it all together. Simply wonderful.
That’s all for now. Stay tuned for the grindcore/powerviolence/crusty edition, and don’t forget to hail Satan on your way out.
Kim Kelly (or Grim Kim, if we’re being formal) scribbles for a number of sweet metal publications (Terrorizer, Brooklyn Vegan, Invisible Oranges, Hails & Horns, and tons more), promotes wicked records with Catharsis PR, and road dogs for your favorite bands. Keep up with her exploits & numerous band recommendations on Twitter, or peep her blog Ravishing Grimness.