Death Becomes Her

Angela Gossow puts the death in Arch Enemy's metal

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I'll be the first to agree that we need more strong, talented, creative women in rock. I don't know who decided to hand Liz Phair over to the pop camp in exchange for Avril Lavigne, but when I find out, it's on; at even the best of times, rock 'n' roll can't afford to lose one of its leading female lights. They shoulda held out for, like, Avril and an album of Clash covers by Missy Elliott. And a six-pack of something imported. And a promise to keep Ashlee Simpson out of their yard.At the same time, however, it's not like rock is completely bereft of visible women. From empowered, outspoken mavericks like the ladies of Le Tigre and Sleater-Kinney to mainstream veteran Sheryl Crow and angsty youth-culture figure Amy Lee (a talented vocalist whose only real handicap is her membership in Evanescence), nearly every rock subdivision houses a notable double-X chromosome or three.

Except for death metal, that is.

The most extreme end of the hard-music spectrum has never been known as an equal-opportunity employer. Sure, Doro Pesch brought the power metal with Warlock in the '80s, and Sean Yseult held down the bottom end for White Zombie during the late '90s. But we're talking about death metal here, where men are men (or demons) and women are, well, somewhere else, somewhere the vocals don't sound like the Cookie Monster singing karaoke through a sound system with most of its speakers blown.

Or are they?

Though she's been fronting acclaimed Swedish act Arch Enemy for three years and two full-length releases, German-born vocalist Angela Gossow says concertgoers are still surprised to find a woman onstage making that evil racket.

"Surprisingly, yeah. It really depends on the package we're touring with," says the vocalist. "We got a lot of that [while on tour with] Iron Maiden, because it's a different crowd than we usually play to. There were lots of shocked people, mostly older ones."

Already a rising force in the underground scene, Arch Enemy made metal-mag headlines when founder (and former guitarist for legendary extreme-music pioneers Carcass) Michael Amott recruited the comparatively unknown Gossow. While women have undoubtedly played and sung in obscure local-level death metal acts since the style's late-'80s emergence, Arch Enemy was arguably the biggest name in its medium to put a female front and center.

It says a lot, however, that the vast majority of discussion wasn't about whether or not Gossow should hold such a position, but rather focused on what the new Arch Enemy would sound like. Surprisingly, there was little denigration of Gossow's gender, considering that she was entering a scene that, from the outside, seems overwhelm-ingly masculine. And the first Arch Enemy album to feature her, 2001's Wages of Sin, immediately became a critical success, further elevating the band's profile. Since then, the outfit has appeared annually on several mainstream music magazines' lists of breakthrough artists to watch — expectations only intensified with the release of last year's Anthems of Rebellion — and has engendered widespread notoriety for other fringe-metal outfits featuring women, such as Italy's more atmospheric Laguna Coil.

"It's become very tolerated, like incorporating metal with hardcore has," says Gossow. "There are lots of bands out there that have a female vocalist, Bloodshot Eye, Otep. I think people get used to seeing a woman's face in the middle of those sweaty, hairy guys."

Fans of less abrasive fare might initially be drawn to Arch Enemy by the group's reputation as a "melodic death metal band" — whatever the hell that is — and the subsequent assumption that it was Gossow bringing the melody. If so, they're in for a surprise: Gossow delivers a classic guttural, demonic howl that rivals those of the genre's most lionized throat-rippers.

It's in the instrumental department that Arch Enemy offers far more melody and traditional song structure than the majority of their contemporaries. Guitarists Michael and Christopher Amott deliver moody harmonic figures inspired by the likes of Judas Priest and Maiden; bassist Sharlee D'Angelo adds minor-key counterpoint as often as he drives the rhythm; and Daniel Erlandsson eschews death metal's usually incomprehensibly busy drumming in favor of a nuanced style that gives the songs room to breathe.

Had they gone with a more traditional, power-metal-informed vocal approach, Arch Enemy might not be a death metal band at all. But Gossow says the outfit is happy to straddle both worlds, evoking all of its influences and providing something singular in the process.

"We've found a formula that melds the different styles very well," she says. "When I listen to [Judas Priest's] Painkiller, Rob Halford could've put death vocals on there if he'd wanted to. Basically, Arch Enemy is death metal because of the vocals. But it makes it sound interesting and different than other bands, and I think that's what a lot of people like about it."

Of course, since she joined Arch Enemy, Gossow's sex has probably generated more inches of copy than the group's inimitable and increasingly popular take on extreme metal. She concedes that it can overshadow the music in the press, but points out that the vocalist is almost always the member that writers want to talk to, anyway.

"The media always focuses on the singer — that goes for every band, so I knew people would focus on me, regardless of the fact that I'm female. And obviously, this used to be a very macho scene … but I'm fine with it. I understand that people are surprised."

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