SONIC REDUCER How are we driving in terms of womanly representation in the Bay Area metal scene? The verdict: we're pretty bitchin', but we could do better.
Anyone who's gotten an eyeful of hoary ole hair-band imagery, courtesy of Headbanger's Balls of yore, is all-too-familiar with the form's sexism excused by such critics as Chuck Klosterman and Robert Walser in Fargo Rock City (Scribner, 2001) and Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music (Wesleyan, 1993), respectively, with claims that it's beside the point to even critique the genre and that the music was simply "shaped by patriarchy." Nonetheless, when I wondered where all the girl groups had gone, following the demise of Sleater-Kinney, Destiny's Child, and le Tigre (see "Band of Sisters, 07/18/06), I might have found solace in the fact that the Bay Area's headbanging underground is fairly bangin' for ladies: women can be found onstage in heavy bands ranging from Hammers of Misfortune, Ludicra, and Totimoshi to Bottom, Embers, and Laudanum.
The New Jerseyraised Leila Rauf is in a position to know as the guitarist-vocalist of the four-year-old Saros: female metal musicians are still "rare," she said, "having lived in other cities where that was the case. I think a lot of it has to do with the political climate in the Bay Area. Maybe there's more women just not participating in traditional gender roles and you find women doing lots of things that women normally don't do in more conservative parts of the country being in a metal band being one of them."
Her San Francisco group is just completing their new untitled album, which they're in the midst of mixing with producer Billy Anderson (High on Fire, the Melvins, Neurosis). Over the phone on her way to meet her Amber Asylum/Frozen in Amber bandmate Kris Force, Rauf described the recording as "still metal, but there's more going on a lot more singing, a lot more harmonic, and a lot more acoustic." It's part of the evolution she and cowriter-guitarist Ben Aguilar have undergone since their five-track release, Five Pointed Tongue (Hungry Eye, 2006). "We're just getting bored playing the same thing, loud all the time, technical all the time. We're trying to get more negative space into the songs."
Still, even an accomplished, intelligent figure such as Rauf who was working on a PhD in speech pathology at Purdue when she dropped out to pursue her muse has had to wash out the nasty taste of Neanderthal behavior, even in the relatively forward-thinking Bay metal scene. In a later e-mail she recalled multiple instances of violent passes at San Francisco metal shows, including an time when "a really big dude grabbed me and tried to stick his tongue in my mouth. Eww." All of which pales next to other moments of intense sexism, she added: "I have been denied band auditions before later finding out that it was due to my gender but being told to my face it was because they didn't think I had the chops. I even read an ad on Craigslist recently for a metal band looking for members that made it a point to exclude women. To believe this is happening in 2008 ... "
One is loathe to think that the local metal resurgence is linked to a kindred revival in gender stereotypes. Are they still so charged, now that the music and its imagery seems to have moved toward less-biased turf? While there are still bastions of all-boy metal exclusivity thrash, Rauf noted, is one of them, which parallels the general absence of women in chart-topping hard rock area players should be quietly (or loudly) proud of its estrogen-friendly underground. It will only make for more unique work and a new generation of girls who aren't afraid to kick out the jams.