Whiskers in the Dark


Women are uniquely qualified to make angry music. The rage of a girl seeing all the baggage she’s going to have to lug around has no equal. But girls tend to internalize anger, because that’s what’s expected. Break bottles in the street, and Mom freaks out and thinks you’re weird. Funny, though—Dad understands.

You can’t break gender barriers if all your role models are of your sex. Kittie appeared on the radar screen of the almost exclusively male nu-metal mainstream in 2000 with their album Spit—which tied together influences like Metallica, Ministry, Tool, and Nirvana into a heavy, melodic sound that won over guys and girls alike at Ozzfest that year. After an EP and a second album, Oracle (2001), Kittie have just released Safe, a second EP whose main feature is an Oracle song remixed by Sascha of German industrial-dance unit KMFDM. The other tracks are recordings from live performances. The EP is clearly a publicity effort between albums—no songs are new, and the album mix of “Safe” was much darker and weirder than the version with Sascha’s drum tracks underneath. He makes it almost sound happy in some parts! But not danceable, unfortunately: He starts with a beat, then adds a more simplified version of the song’s original piano sample—the intricate line whose interactions with the vocal melody made the track so eerie. He also throws in some other stuff, like a cheery synth line over the chorus. But it still sounds like something he was contracted to do because someone felt there was a need to release an EP, and the EP needed a selling point.

The production on both albums, in contrast, is wonderful: The guitars are stark and mobile, and GGGarth overlaps Morgan Lander’s rants with her luxurious breath sounds. Spit is a rampage of D-tuned axes, dynamic single-kick drumming, and vocal variety. Morgan moves from sweet, lilting softness through moaning, growling, straightforward talk-singing, and full-force roaring. Kittie write brilliant melodies, and when they lay them over dirgelike, unforgiving instrumentation, the effect is beautiful and cruel. In “Charlotte,” they shift from speedmetal to anthem to hardcore yelp to ballad, then back again. “Paper Doll” lilts and flutters over a sinister, throbbing conga and muffled guitar, before exploding into desperate wails.

On Oracle, Kittie venture into black metal, with Morgan’s sister Mercedes pouring a double-kick roll liberally over the songs and Morgan coating them with a thick layer of Cookie Monster vocals. The overall effect is less penetrable than Spit, and a few songs tend run together like TV-static snow. Morgan is at her best when she moves around within all the different areas of her voice. In “In Winter,” her Exorcist grumbling comes in as a powerful counterpoint to the elegant melody that begins the song. The band throws in time changes to good effect, too; maybe they’ve been listening to Meshuggah, because they’ve been doing more math exercises—changing from waltz time to rock time, without overdoing it to the point of masturbation like the aforementioned Swedes do.

Kittie’s lyrics, especially on Spit, reveal the juvenile clumsiness and naïveté of a young woman: “Fuck you! You think you’re so funny!” And just like when Bikini Kill used to yell “Suck my left one!,” one wonders if Kittie know they’re kind of funny. Do their cartoon words betray a healthy chuckle, or are they taking themselves way too seriously? (A fun question with lots of bands—like hair metal and stuff. And Kiss! Does Gene Simmons know he’s funny? Terry Gross sure doesn’t!) As far as the gender issue goes, Kittie don’t like to talk about it, because they don’t want to end up in a “girl ghetto.” Their fan base is 50-50, and the whole reason this band breaks gender barriers, of course, is because they aren’t pigeonholed.

Last year, British magazine Terrorizer rated Kittie among the “least shaggable” women in heavy metal. Terrorizer‘s readers preferred women who don’t play instruments, but just sing for male bands—which might partly explain why there aren’t more Kitties in their pages. Many record companies and radio stations (even college ones) keep a strict limit on women rock artists, largely because of an antiquated notion of what’s sexy and marketable. Yet Kittie’s sex appeal surges forth like a typhoon. Young male fans at their feet don’t merely mosh; they get into testosterone-pumped fights.

It’s the opposite end of the spectrum from the Donnas; the Donnas make strictly blues-based rock music for middle-aged men, with a retro shtick to match. The Donnas are the “bad girls” men fantasize about; Kittie are the “weird girls” men don’t understand. Kittie’s “old school” influences lie in the realm of ’80s and ’90s metal and industrial. It’s no surprise, then, that both of their albums were produced by GGGarth, whose résumé includes Melvins, Tool, and Rage Against the Machine.

Anyway, it clearly makes sense for women to be making heavy metal music. So why aren’t more doing it? And the answer is, of course: They are. Drain S.T.H. played Ozzfest in 1997, three years before Kittie. There are stoner-metalers Bottom, Motörhead-like pulverizers Tang; every local music scene in the country has a Manhole (the best-known heavy girl band of my Houston days). There are hundreds more that most people have never heard of. (Where’s the femme KMFDM hiding, anyway?) Female metal bands just aren’t usually where graying industry suits want to throw their greenery. Which means women artists and their fans, like me, often end up feuding, and backbiting, and nitpicking over who’s more “real.” And you know how much the boys like catfights.

Kittie play L’Amour January 17.