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In Defense of Post-Feminist Politically Charged Heavy Metal Love Songs

August 17, 2009

Last week, on the same day that I dusted off my old copy of “He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper” for a listen, I got some of the most exciting music news I have heard in a while.  It appears that one of my favorite nineties rock bands, Skunk Anansie, has reunited after an almost-ten-year hiatus and plans to perform the golden troika of greatest hits album, tour, and album with new material.

For the uninitiated, Skunk Anansie is a British rock band that had a couple of minor hits in the U.S. in the mid-nineties.  The first of these was “Selling Jesus”, which was featured on the Strange Days film soundtrack and also appeared on their debut album Paranoid and Sunburnt.  The second was the surprising VH1 hit from 1996 “Hedonism (Just Because You Feel Good)”, off of their sophomore release Stoosh.

I picked up on SA from the heavy airplay the “Hedonism” video got on VH1 during the summer of 1996.  I was immediately drawn in by the beauty and delicacy of the song, along with the tremendous voice of lead singer Skin.  I can remember rushing to buy Stoosh, expecting to find more luscious ballads and maybe some mid-tempo rockers.  I should have been tipped off by the sight of the bald front-woman screaming into the camera on the front cover, but even with this my expectations didn’t change.  When I was confronted with the abrasive lead-off track “Milk Is My Sugar” and the in-your-face “Yes It’s F***ing Political”, I realized that I had severely underestimated this band.  If you’ve never heard Skunk Anansie and you’re still reading by this point, I suggest going to YouTube and listen to “Hedonism” and then listen to “Political.”  You’ll see that this is the rare band that bring it in any number of time signatures, styles and tempos.

Skin was a unique front-woman for a mid-nineties rock band.  She described their music as “clit-rock”, which seemed to describe a mixture of hard rock sound, hard-core feminist subject matter, and a disarming emotional vulnerability.  Skin was comfortable enough to play on her own sexuality in songs like “Milk” and “100 Ways to Be A Good Girl”, while at the same time writing blatantly political songs such as “Little Baby Swastikka” and “Intellectualize My Blackness”.  She could move from socio-political statement to ruminations on relationships with ease, the sweetness in her voice making you forget her abrasiveness in other, heavier numbers.  Musically, her band mates were no slouches either as two members of the band, Ace and Mark Richardson, began teaching at the Brighton Institute of Modern Music following SA’s break-up.

Skunk Anansie released their masterpiece in 1999, titled Post Orgasmic Chill. It is a study in contrasts, as big metal pieces crash up against moody pop songs.  The transitions between musical moods seem more deliberate here than on other SA albums, and the subject matter covers such weighty topics as incest, adultery, and sexual abuse.  But all the darkness is wrapped up in heavy but melodic guitar riffs, orchestral arrangements, and Skin’s superb vocal range.  It’s rare that a marriage of meanness and beauty can work on a rock record, but it’s just that juxtaposition that makes Skunk Anansie such a unique band.

I’m hoping that the almost ten years off hasn’t taken the edge off of them. The new single “Because of You” indicates that SA is still in rare form and one listen will show you why this is a special group of musicians.  A repeated guitar lick gives way to a heavy riff in the beginning of the song, but then Skin pulls off a wicked five-note chorus that will put goose-bumps on your arms.  This is a pretty good encapsulation of what makes SA a band worth knowing.  The greatest hits collection Smashes and Trashes is scheduled to drop on November 2, 2009 and the band will do a small 5-day tour in the U.K. to support the album.

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