Know Your Arch Enemy

by Beth Winegarner

Ever since Cordell Jackson became one of the first women to play an electric guitar, women musicians have set their sights on nearly every musical genre -- except death metal. Often seen as pure, unadulterated animus, death metal has attracted few women rockers. But it was only a matter of time, wasn't it?

Swedish death-metal band Arch Enemy -- a supergroup that includes former Carcass songwriter Michael Amott; his brother, Chris Amott, from Armageddon; bassist Sharlee D'Angelo, who also plays with Mercyful Fate and In Flames drummer Daniel Erlandsson -- recently decided the only vocalist worthy of its new material is Angela Gossow.

Singer Johan Liiva (Carnage), who had sung with the group since its 1996 debut "Black Earth," was ousted, and Gossow first entered the studio with Arch Enemy in the fall of 2000.

"When they finished writing the material for 'Wages of Sin,' they started to discuss the vocalist situation," Gossow says. "They got the idea their vocalist didn't fit the new material. In Sweden, everyone is a known musician. Everyone is in so many bands. They didn't want an ex-In Flames vocalist, or some vocalist from some other band. Chris came up with the idea to ask me. They thought it was kind of cool to have a woman. It totally changes the look of a band."

Gossow's vocals are virtually indistinguishable from those of male death-metal growlers. Her vocal timbre is only slightly higher, but her range is impressive, from deep bellows to shrieks that make Varg Vikernes sound, well, like a girl.

Born in Cologne, Germany, Gossow was the oldest of four children. While her parents were busy with work, she doted on her siblings. "I was the big mama right from the beginning," she laughs. Gossow was interested in sports, especially skateboarding. Although her parents didn't like rock music, the kids were encouraged to play instruments, and Gossow learned flute and guitar.

When she was 15, Gossow discovered heavy metal. "I was quite isolated, living outside town with a bad bus connection. I discovered a heavy metal radio station from Britain. I didn't know it was heavy metal; I just wrote some band names on my school bag and a guy asked me if I was into heavy metal. That was first time I noticed what I was listening to," she says.

Some of those names included Metallica, Testament, Anthrax, Slayer, Pestilence and Carcass. Gossow liked the music, but she discovered a side effect: her mother hated it. "I got more rebellious. She tried to take my LPs and tried to introduce me to some more normal circles. I got more and more into metal and I tried to connect to other metalheads," Gossow says. "Every kid starts fighting with their parents then, and they need some kind of topic. Mine was heavy metal."

She says heavy metal changed her life and helped her define her personality. While she worked on finishing school, she started playing in garage metal bands, although she didn't think it would lead to a career on stage.

"I started playing lead guitar, but I was a lousy guitar player," she laughs. In 1991 she joined a more well-known Cologne band that was looking for a vocalist. "I immediately put my guitar aside."

Gossow took to the death-metal growl from the beginning. "They played death metal, so I couldn't do normal vocals. Besides, I always felt that I couldn't sing. I thought I couldn't hold a tone. I felt much more safe screaming somehow. Plus, my parents really hated this, so it was kind of cool somehow."

The friction between Gossow and her mother led her to move out at age 17. She lived on her own and finished school at 19. Eventually, they patched things up. "Nowadays we are good friends again. She really likes what I'm doing. [Back then], she thought this was going to damage my psyche or my soul. She thought she had to save me from something."

Gossow discovered Arch Enemy when "Black Earth" was released. The album sent shockwaves through the European metal scene, recorded in nine days and produced by Frederik Nordstrom, who had produced Dimmu Borgir and At the Gates. "Stigmata" followed in 1998, and "Burning Bridges" was released in 1999.

At the time, Gossow was writing for a German heavy metal magazine, playing in a band on the weekends. She was assigned to interview Arch Enemy. "We had an interesting conversation. I told them I was involved in a metal band, and they thought it was funny, a woman doing death growls. They asked me to send a tape," Gossow recalls. She stayed in touch with the band, but was surprised one day when the phone rang.

"Michael phoned me and was like, 'It's Mike from Arch Enemy.' I was shocked and super nervous. He says, 'We listened to this tape again and we're looking for a new vocalist. Do you want to try out?' I thought, "I'm going to go out and fail totally.' I was chickenshit really." But she figured it was worth spending a week in Sweden, so she agreed.

"Although the rehearsal didn't go well, and Gossow was nervous the whole time she was in Sweden, she recorded one song with Arch Enemy. At the end of the session, the musicians looked around at each other and said, "That was great song, let's do the next one," Gossow says. She's been part of the group ever since.

The music for "Wages of Sin" had been completed, but Michael Amott had not written lyrics for four of the songs. Gossow co-wrote with Amott on "Enemy Within," "Ravenous," "The First Deadly Sin," and "Lament Of a Mortal Soul."

"'Enemy Within' is about the kind of depression where you sit at home and you're accusing yourself. I wrote it on a bad day. I am quite good at putting myself down. It's quite dangerous to get into that kind of spiral," Gossow says.

Her lyrics on "The First Deadly Sin" were inspired by Arch Enemy's longstanding tradition of writing songs about evil women, including "Diva Satanica." "'Sin' is about Eve tempting Adam. It's got quite senseless lyrics, but they're fun to sing. they sound good," Gossow says. "'Ravenous' was inspired by legends of Indian heroes who drank the blood of their enemies to take on their power.

"Lament" is another introspective piece. "I have a kid in South America that I donate money every month. People are so selfish, 24 hours a day -- we are concerned about ourselves all the time. When you look back, you think, "I haven't done anything for anybody else.' As soon as you have a kid, you know why you are living. There is a person that needs you. But I'm not really responsible for anybody. What am I for? What is my reason to live?"

Musically, "Wages of Sin" brings Arch Enemy back to its death metal roots. "Black Earth" was a traditional death metal album, but later releases were stuffed with catchy melodies and plenty of twin-guitar solos courtesy of the Amott brothers. "They didn't play so many solos this time. They didn't overpack the songs with artistic guitar sport. The songs are faster, the sound is much more aggressive. and the vocals are more aggressive," Gossow says.

"Sin" was released in Japan in 2001, well ahead of its April, 2002 worldwide release. Arch Enemy had fought for a simultaneous release, but legal issues with the band's record company, Century Media, delayed the album. "It was lawyers talking to lawyers. We were dead in Europe and America for one year," Gossow says, frustrated.

Many fans paid steep import prices to buy the Japanese version. "I think it's cool people are willing to pay the money when they could have downloaded it for free." The worldwide release of "Sin" includes bonus material to make up for the delay.

Ten years of guttural growling took their toll on Gossow's throat, however. "I haven't had any proper lessons, and I was smoking for some time. I didn't know what a warm-up was. But I think the worst thing I did was, I got a really bad throat infection, I didn't take any antibiotics, but I was still rehearsing. In the end I lost my voice," Gossow says. A doctor told her she'd developed nodules on her vocal chords. "He said, 'Either you stop now, or you may lose your voice.'"

She returned to Germany and worked with a number of vocal coaches who taught her everything from how to breathe and talk to how to exercise her throat each morning. "I learned totally different breathing techniques. I used to take tons of air into the top of my lungs, which puts pressure on your throat. And I learned speech from the beginning. Now I talk much more clear than I ever did, she says. "When I wake up, I don't start talking until I do some exercises. I do them between interviews. I know, every day how they are doing." Her nodules are gone.

Those exercises will allow Gossow to continue singing in metal bands as long as she likes -- which is a good thing, considering how much she loves the genre. "I think [metal is] very close to the human primitive roots somehow. You've risen up in society, everyone is all nice and social, there's an order. You're supposed to talk nice. Then people start committing murder," she says, adding that heavy metal is "like scream therapy. People have somehow to scream or make noise, create some kind of raw floating energy."

Also, "it's the most energetic music. I really like the double bass, when the floor is shaking, when you can feel it in your stomach. It's very physical. I like good food, I like sex and I like heavy metal," Gossow laughs.

She hopes, at some point, that fans will be able to look past the anomaly of a female death-metal singer. "Some people tell me they like the fact that a female is connected with brutal, aggressive music. And I'm an attractive female -- I'm a woman who looks like a woman, but my voice is not so female. I guess it's opened some new doors," Gossow says. "Acting on stage is going to be different. I will not behave like a man onstage. I think [fans] expect something different somehow, and they're going to get something different."