Heavy metal in the 70’s and 80’s was a spectacle of sights and sounds. I was just a kid but experienced much of it via my older brother who lived and breathed this world of music, and shared some of it with me. It was alluring and scary at the same time, a Dark Wonderland to my young mind.
Over the years the metal scene changed, grew more serious and less fantastical.
By the 90’s, metal had grown ugly, very ugly. The vocals in particular took a dive into the toilet. Metal vocals devolved from singing, to screaming, to grunting, to growling. Death metal muppets took over as the norm. It no longer seemed to be about creating music or beauty at all, but more about trying to prove who is the most brutal dude. It was the worst sausage party ever. I figured metal wasn’t for me anymore and wrote it off.
Then something unexpected happened. On the other side of the Atlantic, a different strain of metal was taking form. Labeled doom metal, it was heavy but slow and evocative and poetic. While the vocals remained growled, it seemed an attempt at a return to aesthetics. I took notice but didn’t jump on board just yet.
Even more unexpectedly, a few of the doom bands began experimenting with female vocals. You would typically have a male growler trading lines with an undistorted female voice, for a contrasting effect called ‘beauty and the beast.’ Bands such as Theatre of Tragedy and Tristania became known for this style.
A little known doom band in Norway, called Third and the Mortal, made a record with a female lead only, and no growler, in 1993. The effect was quite lovely and different, and would inspire others to try out the same.
Meanwhile Dutch band The Gathering was struggling to find the right singer for the band. After two albums with male vocalists, they made a bold move and filled lead vocals with a wonderful new member named Anneke van Giersbergen. This would make for one of the most visible and successful examples of female vocals to date.
The Gathering is a special band to me, as they were first to introduce me to a sound I never imagined before. Their pioneering release Mandylion (1995) takes doom and gothic ingredients and stirs it up into something irresistible, full of joy and energy. I heard it and fell in love.
To be sure there had been female-fronted rock bands before, largely punk and glam types in the 70’s and 80’s. But the mid-90’s seems to be a point where something new was launched, a distinctively European Gothic Metal with female vocals that soar with the music.
Other female-fronted bands began to appear, such as Flowing Tears of Germany and Lacuna Coil of Italy. A few bands brought operatic vocals into a progressive or ‘symphonic’ metal style, including Therion of Sweden, Nightwish of Finland, and the now forgotten Dreams of Sanity of Austria.
Nightwish exploded in popularity, and by the 2000’s the trickle of female metal bands expanded to a flood.
A few years later a commercialized American version of this music would appear in the wildly successful Evanescence.
Today female-fronted metal bands are no longer an oddity, they’re part of the mainstream, particularly in Europe. There are so many of them I can no longer keep track. Many of the bands are Gothic or Romantic in nature, continuing the path set out by the early groups.
Some of the bands take on other parts of the metal spectrum such as thrash, death or sleaze metal. Now one can listen to a female death growler instead of a male death growler – although it can be hard to tell the difference.
Without tallying up the numbers, it seems like it’s growing ever closer to half of new metal bands featuring female vocals. What it all adds up to me is, beauty is back into metal, and it’s a music scene well worth my time. For discovering new bands I find it more rewarding than just about any other scene.
It’s even better than when I was a kid. I don’t know if ten year old me could’ve handled the seductive overload of today’s metal ladies.
I’ve put together a Youtube playlist of some of my favorites that to me represent Female European Gothic Metal. It starts with The Gathering from 1995 and ends with Beyond the Black from 2016.
Note these tracks are all fairly commercial examples of this music. The more underground acts don’t have good music videos for a playlist. Also I’m only including sung vocals, no growlers.
Which is the best of these bands? (The Gathering, Lacuna Coil, Nightwish, Within Temptation, Epica, Delain, Leaves Eyes, After Forever, Sirenia, Beyond the Black)
And what’s the best band I’ve missed here?