Why Does Ultra-Violence Against Women Remain an Unchallenged Theme of Extreme Metal?
by Harvey Wilks
A few weeks ago I heard a freshly released album by a UK extreme metal band I’ve followed since their inception almost ten years ago.
It’s an outstanding release – apocalyptic, animalistic, nauseatingly uncomfortable, sonically original and super enjoyable.
But amongst the cheerless cacophony, something caught my ear that was neither original nor particularly enjoyable.
The first 40 seconds of this 32-minute-long bushwhack feature the apparently real testimony of a man voicing, in pretty graphic detail, his experience of strangling a woman to death – from having to loosen the grip of his cramping fingers, to the victim “writhing around… moaning half dead, half alive.” We’re even given her name.
A minute before the song’s conclusion we’re treated to a second voiceover installment, this time focusing on the defendant’s intensifying fondness for terrorizing women, one that soon evolves into a penchant for rape and murder.
To the unaccustomed ear, this is certainly upsetting stuff. But to those who, like me, have acquired and fiendishly nurtured a taste for extreme music, this garish recital of ultra-violence perpetrated against women is anything but novel.
There are whole subgenres of metal that ostensibly worship at the altar of sexual violence – slam, goregrind and pornogrind being possibly the most notable offenders, and bands with names like Prostitute Disfigurement and Vulvectomy enjoy acclaim in varying degrees.
Without even hesitating I can reel off a handful of prominent artists, some – relatively speaking – not extreme at all, whose lyrical and visual content contain some rather choice imagery.
The brilliant driving album, The Misfits’ Famous Monsters, includes songs like “Helena” (“if I cut off your arms and cut off your legs, would you still love me, anyway? There’s a spot on the floor where your limbs used to be and I close the door on my fantasy”), and “Scream,” the video for which shows an attractive female nurse being stalked around a dark hospital by flesh-eating band members in their iconic ghoul getup.
I’m not sure I remember a UK death metal band enjoying so much hype and acclaim so early in their career as Annotations of an Autopsy. What I do remember, however, is standing aged-19 in the now-demolished London Astoria, surrounded by similarly aged guys, chanting back up at the stage “she bled from every fucking hole” and “when I’m done with you, you won’t have a cunt left.” In hindsight, not my proudest memory.
Ingested’s Skinned and Fucked and Condemned to Rape are just two tracks from another UKDM band’s album, Surpassing the Boundaries of Human Suffering. I guess the clue’s in the name.
In 2015, Kranium released Chronicles of Perversion. Now, I’m a gay man and I’m certainly not prudish when it comes to sex – vaginal, anal, oral or otherwise, so long as it’s consensual and between adults. But again, looking at track names like “Sodomize Her Headless Corpse” and “Rusty Knife Defloration,” and the fact they have another album called Post Mortal Coital Fixation, kind of suggests that consensual lovemaking in the dim glow of candlelight surrounded by rose petals is the precise antithesis of their particular brand.
Believe me when I say I wince with both moral and physical discomfort just typing these samples. And believe me also when I say it gets even more evil. Who wants to get home after a hectic day, pour a gin and slim and listen to “Stillborn Neurotic Fuckfeast?”
Death metal and the slam-, grind-, gore- and -core subgenres that stem from it are violent by their very nature, and of course there are more obvious male victims, too (“Blunt Force Castration,” anyone?), but it’s not nearly as widespread as the portrayal of women – habitually identified as sluts, prostitutes and whores – meeting some sort of abhorrent yet somehow deserved fate.
Everyone has to draw the line somewhere, and the line I’m drawing is becoming clearer the older I get and the more sensitive I grow to issues of gender and the struggles women and girls face with regards to welfare, social issues, politics, profession and representation.
I balk at the objectification and shaming of women in mainstream media and applaud those who are willing to call it out, so that one day my mother, sister, friends, fellow humans and perhaps even the daughter I don’t yet have can live not as 0.77 citizens.
And therein lies my quandary:
As a man who listens to, and, to some degree promotes, an art form that so grotesquely portrays the female form as nothing more than bone, meat, gristle and genitalia to desire, diminish, torture, fuck and sadistically kill (seldom in that order), am I being irresponsible? Am I a hypocrite? Am I part of the problem?
Taking a break from other forms of teenage rebellion often meant visiting the local record shop and tittering with mates at Deicide or TSOL lyrics, and my descent into extreme metal – routinely at odds with the nascent exploration of my sexuality – was one fueled in equal parts by morbid, fiery intrigue, pure aural enjoyment, pushing one’s own limits and getting a thrill at all of the above from records and live performances. You know how it goes: one minute you’re listening to Korn and coyly eyeing up the nail polish aisle at the chemist; the next you’re bailing on friends to go alone to see some powerviolence band that hasn’t even released an EP yet.
Nowadays, as I read stories every day of women all over the world who are subjected to a spectrum of injustices, I’ve started finding it less funny. I no longer see the theatre in it. I can no longer enjoy the music. If it’s all a big joke, then it’s no longer funny to me. And the authenticity of the Dragged Into Sunlight introduction made something click.
Sometimes, if I’m walking at night behind a woman, part of me wants to overtake her — so she can see me and that I am not a threat — but to overtake her I’d have to increase my pace, and that might cause her to panic. Am I overthinking this? I’m not sure I’m at liberty to say, because, except for that one time, I’ve never been a woman walking down a dark street at night, and probably never will be.
And what are the implications of extreme music becoming more accessible and more accepted? Notwithstanding the vast majority of people who like heavy music being of sound mind, liberal, accepting and non-aggressive, is this fictional treatment of women only perpetuating both conscious and subconscious misogynistic attitudes? Or will we reach a point where people start calling artists out for going too far, like, I don’t know… Robin Thicke?
I doubt it, because rock bottom has been achieved, and shock factor is a potent raison d’etre for a lot of these bands. Horrific content is justified as “the exploration of fears” rather than “the promotion of violence,” and I know that, but I don’t think that’s good enough. There’s an element of perverse exclusivity to it all as well: “if you want to be in our club, you have to leave certain mores at the door. If it offends you, then you are weak, not metal enough.’ No one wants to be that guy, or that girl.
Of course, every genre has its shadowy corners — and I know extreme music is called extreme for a reason — but surely its modus operandi is not to simply troll those who might be offended. Metal is by no means the preserve of men and I’m really interested to know how women who dedicate their tastes to the genre feel about having some of the most punishing lyrical content leveled directly at them.
I’ve read through a number of pieces by women and about women and the make-believe demises they meet in the colourful storybook of extreme metal, but the answer as to why it exists unquestioned isn’t clear. It is frequently articulated in the context of “it’s not just metal. Look at rap music, or video games like Grand Theft Auto,” or “listening to music of this sort doesn’t compromise your morals.”
Put it this way: If I were on the bus listening to a recent discovery and suddenly heard the lyrics “die you fucking [insert any homophobic/racist slur here] I would hit the stop button and wipe all memory of the offending band from my phone/computer/mind. I’m all too aware of the homophobia and racism that exists in not just metal but many genres of music. But fans, musicians and media are rightly confronting these more and more. Yet somehow, women, by virtue of the genitalia they are born with, are still considered worthy recipients of so much musical ire.
Put it another way: Look back at a human history of racial inequality, apartheid, slavery, and genocide, eras during which “a people or peoples” were persecuted. Now consider the everyday persecution women still face: from the gender pay gap to domestic abuse and sex trafficking. How would we react to a band name like Prostitute Disfigurement if we replace “Prostitute” with any racial or religious minority? Hopefully, we would never let it see the light of day. It might seem like an over-the-top example, but until I understand why it’s still OK to fictitiously brutalize one human being over another I’ll keep asking the question.
Unlike so much modern pop, one of a number of reasons why people love extreme music is because much of it can offer an intelligent viewpoint, wrapped up poetically yet delivered with utterly ferocious conviction. Many of these viewpoints challenge the status quo, religion, politics, abuse of power, war etc., all structures that more often than not merit our outspoken interrogation and protest, and gender inequality should be another theme we challenge.
So why the fuck are some bands still obsessed with raping and carving up women? And more to the point, why are we still putting up with it?
Harvey Wilks is a MetalSucks reader who submitted the above piece for us to publish. Follow him on Twitter at @harveywilks.