IT'S AMAZING THAT IN 2006, people are still sexist enough to call girls playing metal a "novelty act." Ludicra is a five-piece black metal band from the Bay Area that just happens to have a girl lead singer and guitarist/backup vocalist. This is not a gimmick or novelty or anything that makes them sound all that "feminine." It just is as it is. Singer Laurie Sue Shanaman has a great, husky, dry voice that sounds like it's been left out in the sun for 40 years. It's a bird-like rasp, in contrast to guitarist/singer Christy Cather's dark, funeral choir backups. Laurie hisses, spits, and growls, Christy comes in low and mournful in the mix, and it's a beautiful pairing, a very organic-sounding tag team. But the band is more than the sum of two (very interesting, confident) voices; drums beat unrelenting, while the bass and two guitars build these elaborate (but never ornate) metal epics.
Ludicra's new record, Fex Urbis Lex Orbis, out on the very non-black metal Alternative Tentacles label, is all long, slow-building, scorched-earth assaults. It's brutal, but never that heavy. Instead, it rolls forward like an advancing tank brigade, killing everything that moves. Unlike a lot of great black metal bands, there's nothing all that artsy about this. There aren't any witch-y folk breakdowns, noise asides, weird instruments, or psychedelic atmospherics. There also isn't any mystical vibe action, nods to pagan folklore, faux satanic campiness, or fantasy imagery. Instead, it's forward moving, no BS, and heavily reliant on the guitarists' dead-serious sensibilities. But that doesn't mean this is one dimensional or uncreative. The breakdowns are crisp and clean, going from full-on slaughter to delicate, classical-feeling guitar picking—and then back to mayhem before we realize what hit us. It borrows a lot from prog, with big, meaty changes, complicated (but unpretentious) song structure, and musicianship above everything else.
My current favorite track is the near 12-minute album closer, "Collapse," which starts off with jittering, technical riffing for a few seconds before the vocals come on sizzling like laser zaps. Laurie does whisper screams that pan out and spray all across the speakers, and the guitars just twitch away, building up to something big. It's a high-drama song—high drama at slow speeds, just sludging forward, doing the woolly mammoth death march to the elephant graveyard. The song races over a vast and burnt-out landscape of noise, speeding up and lurching into catchy, hum-able valleys, slowing back down, racing again, finding mid-tempo spots where Christy sings softly, then verging into a blur of speed thrash. At 11 minutes and 56 seconds, it's crazy how well the thing holds your interest. You don't feeling like you're listening to anybody wank, and you don't get anything that doesn't wholeheartedly deserve to be in the song. So, yeah, there are two girls in this band. They play better than most guys I know, and will undoubtedly stomp your ribcage in if you even mumble the word "novelty" around them. Beware, Portland.