The Greatness Beyond: How Chaos Rising Are Breaking Metal’s Boundaries

Formed in 2019, the "international all-female metal collective" Chaos Rising have been slowly building up an impressive catalogue of unique collaborative works. Keith Kahn-Harris meets some of the people behind the project and argues that the model it provides has the potential to overturn some of metal’s most enduring institutions

Behnaz Ghavidel, Iranian metal musician

Perhaps the most profound revolutions are the ones that begin accidentally, unintentionally, without anyone noticing them at the time. History is littered with self-consciously radical attempts to shake the world to its foundations, or moments that seemed at the time to have revolutionary significance, but that in the long term prove to be damp squibs. We should always be alert to the possibility that a new world could be born out of the casual remark, ‘What if we had a go at doing this?’

It is this mixture of self-effacing spontaneity and subversive potential that excites me about Chaos Rising, the self-defined "international all-female metal collective". A loose-knit collective of musicians, every month they release a new original song and video, performed by a shifting cast of players, covering a broad range of metal genres.

They’ve only been going since 2019 and while they have a presence on social media, YouTube, Bandcamp and streaming sites, they don’t have a website and the coverage they have received from the metal press has, so far, been modest. Yet Chaos Rising models a way of creating music that is revolutionary in its implications.

You might think that the fact that all the musicians are women is the source of the project’s radicalism. Yet while I first encountered them at a seminar at the University of Huddersfield on feminism and metal, Chaos Rising aren’t so much an activist group, as a way of creating a convivial space for women in what is still a male-dominated scene.

Chaos Rising’s co-founder, Stéphanie Nolf, is a veteran French metal guitarist, having released a number of albums with the thrash band Unsafe. It seems that the desire for novelty was as much a motivation for her to start the project as it was a response to sexism. As she told me: “I’ve been playing in metal bands for 27 years. When I created the project, I wanted to do something different from what I was already doing. So I tried to do this project with only women, because there are not a lot of women playing metal music.”

Argentinian drummer, Nicole Trinchero, who has played on two Chaos Rising releases, also didn’t turn to the project out of alienation from her native metal scene, although she is also aware that her experience isn’t common to all female musicians. In an email to me written in Spanish she “admitted” that, “the truth is that from the beginning I was treated with great respect, always giving me a place and trusting in my work. But I know that many other women did not have the same luck and it was much more difficult for them to find a place in the environment”.

As an international project, the members of Chaos Rising come from a range societies where the condition of women – both in metal and more broadly – varies considerably. At the seminar in Huddersfield, we heard from the Iranian vocalist Behnaz Ghavidel, who wrote and performed on the Chaos Rising track Limbo. In a country where the possibilities for being a metal musician – let alone a female metal musician – are severely constrained, Chaos Rising provides her with a unique chance at international collaboration.

The awareness that personal experiences of women in metal may vary is key to the project. Guitarist Catherine Fearns, a British novelist now living in Geneva, is one of the main contributors to and driving forces behind Chaos Rising. She downplays the activist component of the project since, “within our Chaos Rising conversations, we never really talk about feminism.” Indeed, as she recounts, “I’ve always personally had a really positive experience as a woman in metal. And in fact it’s become a community and a safe space for me where I can dress the same as men and feels genderless, I guess.”

At the same time, she acknowledges that “there are women in the project who have suffered from being a female musician. And I think we all agree that there is a huge problem with under-representation in metal. There aren’t many female guitarists, there aren’t many female drummers. So what Chaos Rising does is we fill those gaps, because we make sure that every role within metal music production is taken by a woman showing that we are there and we’re doing it.”

Catherine believes that “the narrative within metal in general is changing”. As she explains, “Now, if you read, for example, Metal Hammer magazine, you don’t see the term ‘female-fronted’ anymore. You don’t see female musicians being interviewed about the fact that they’re a woman in a band.”

All of which is positive of course, even if progress is uneven internationally. Yet the barriers to women’s participation in metal – and in other music scenes – don’t just lie in the discourse or in overt practices of discrimination. For Catherine Fearns, Chaos Rising offers a solution to a subtler form of marginalisation: “I took up the guitar five years ago, and discovered metal. And I also started writing about metal as well. At the beginning of last year, I was looking for a new musical project as I’d reached a level of guitar where I could be in a band. But it’s very difficult for me to be in a band because I have small children. So I was looking for a project that was flexible and compatible. And I liked the idea of an all-female band, not so much because I have suffered constraints as a woman, but because of the constraints I have as a mother.”

Catherine isn’t the only metal musician to have small children, but it’s interesting that she cites it as a barrier to participation as a mother. While I know of male metal musicians who have dropped out of touring and recording due to family responsibilities, it’s likely that metal mothers experience these responsibilities more intensely than metal fathers.

Imke von Heldon, Chaos Rising member from Germany

The same is true for Stéphanie Nolf. The constraints on her life as a musician are mainly due to her location rather than her gender as she lives in Limoges in Central France, which has a very limited metal scene. But when she sought to play with other women, the small size of her local scene meant that there was almost no one to choose from.

The Chaos Rising model of music-making is a simple one – at least in theory. Dispensing with bands, albums and labels, this leaderless collective creates music out of conversations between its free-floating membership. Members bring riffs, songs and lyrics to the group, and individual tracks are recorded separately, to be mixed together by Stéphanie. Every song they have recorded has a different line-up, with different levels of contribution.

What has excited me about this model isn’t just its potential to deepen the steady progress being made on making metal more inclusive, it’s the possibilities it offers to people who don’t fit into the standard ways of making music. My own ‘career’ as a not-particularly-skilled bassist, ended when long-term chronic illness made the prospect of rehearsing with a band too daunting a prospect. Even when I did play in bands, I never knew enough metalheads to have the chance of playing metal. So while, as a white male, I do benefit from a degree of privilege in metal scenes, my health and the idiosyncrasies of my social group have conspired against me. What Chaos Rising has taught me is that, if we could think about music-making in a broader way, we could lower the formidable barriers to entry.

Renee Cobcroft, Chaos Rising member from Australia. Photo courtesy of Chicks With Picks

Of course, in some respects, Chaos Rising is just the continuation of deeply-engrained practices of global communication in the metal underground, that extend to way back before the internet era. In the 1980s, with underground metal a minority pursuit almost everywhere, tape trading and letter writing knit together isolated musicians into a global scene.

Nor are Chaos Rising the first people to write and record songs online, or to collaborate internationally with musicians they have never met face-to-face. Plenty of bands now write and record remotely. In some underground music scenes, collaboration is almost the rule rather than the exception (think of Merzbow or Stephen O’Malley’s frenzied musical conviviality). During the pandemic there has been an explosion of YouTube-based performances, such as the Slay At Home Fest which has brought together prominent metal artists in a series of unusual collaborations. And the lively online play-through culture has been booming for years, now joined by acts as august as Metallica, whose acoustic version of ‘Blackened’ was a surprising lockdown highlight.

Yet despite internet-based collaboration being far from new, for the most part previous iterations of this practice do not challenge the social conventions of music-making. The individual artist or band remains the central node of music scenes, even when one node works with another node. The main form of recorded output remains the album, even when one-off tracks and lighthearted YouTube videos are released as a stopgap during a global pandemic or offer an amusing diversion from the Work. In lockdown, it was fun to watch Dragonforce remotely write and record an Alestorm song in ten minutes, but no one was under any illusions that this was anything other than the band marking time.

Chaos Rising challenges the concept of the artist, the work and even genre itself. Here’s how Catherine Fearns describes the genesis of the doom metal song ‘The Greatness Beyond’: “That started when one of our members, Laura Bethge-Meyer said, ‘Hey, why don’t we do a doom song?’ And I said, I’ll try. I had a riff that I had composed at 140 BPM that I was thinking of using for a death metal song. I slowed it down to 70 BPM, and we added another riff, and we added a melody. So we had the beginnings of a doom song. Then Laura said, You know, I play the clarinet. And so we added some clarinet. And then we had not one but two, great vocalists who work together on the lyrics, and on the backing. At the last minute, we had a new drummer who joined and she added the drums, and there was so many parts to the song and the way that it came together was was really, really cool. And it just started off with one riff”.

What strikes me about ‘The Greatness Beyond’ is that it sounds as accomplished and well-crafted as if it were the work of a band that had been playing together for years. Yet it is the result of a completely one-off collaboration and the contributors to it have no particular loyalty to doom metal as a genre.

This short-term lack of commitment to the group and genre is, for me, what makes the songs that Chaos Rising have produced so striking and enjoyable. ‘Hostile Eyes’, for example, may have an American Metalcore vibe (not my favourite genre for the most part) but its single-minded focus as a unique creation means that its creators pour everything they have into it. Freed from the tyranny of artistic and generic consistency, each collaboration takes on an immediacy whose coherence belies the disparate facts of its creation.

Of course, collaboration on this worldwide, disorganised scale is immensely challenging. For one thing, there is no one common language that everyone shares in their online chats. The loose-knit collective extends across Europe, North and South America, Russia, Iran and Australia, with all the scope for global togetherness and global incomprehension that that implies.

And inevitably the project requires a degree of centralisation. Stéphanie Nolf is pivotal here, but it isn’t easy. As she explains: “I just received a drum part today and now I am going to compose a song based on that drum line. So that’s a difficult exercise.” Mixing is even harder: “Everyone sends in their recordings and then we put it on a drive and I take all the parts and mix them. Everyone has to record to a click track. I use Cubase for the mix. All the guitars have to be DI’ed and the drums can be either acoustic or MIDI. We all agree on a demo track before I do the mix. It’s difficult for me because I am not a sound engineer! I’m learning for each new song how to do the mix.”

Britta Görtz, Chaos Rising member from Germany

Despite the chaos, and the pressure on Stéphanie to create some order out of it, the good will in the project seems to hold it together. As Nicole Trinchero told me, “The truth is that it is not difficult at all! The girls are very professional and the working method is very fluid. Yes, it is still a bit difficult for me to communicate in English, but I’m working on it. The best thing about this project apart from making music with excellent performers is to know each one of them, their fight, their dedication and their love for this, no matter where in the world they are.”

Even though the pandemic has normalised online collaboration, Chaos Rising still comes up against the fundamental constraints of the music industry when it comes to promotion, as Caroline explains: “It’s a singles model and that does constrain us in terms of getting reviews and getting promotion because there are very few magazines and sites that are interested in singles. So we have been thinking about releasing an album but there aren’t many multi-genre metal albums.”

Catherine also finds live performance barely conceivable at the moment, “It’s a logistical nightmare. I can imagine maybe some combination of us being in the same festival at the same time and doing something – but how would we rehearse? I don’t know. It would be amazing to have Chaos Rising Fest, right? But I don’t know how that would work. It’d be a festival of single songs! Or maybe we can do one with a selection of songs with only two drummers who can play all the songs.”

It’s not for me to tell Chaos Rising how they should develop in the future, but I have to admit that I’d rather not see them being assimilated too far into the album-tour cycle. Why, after all, do we have to have bands in the first place? Why do artists have to make albums? Why do concerts and festivals have to feature one artistic monad after another performing discreet slots? There is something incredibly exciting about a future in which the loose-knit collective becomes the main musical unit, combining and re-combining to create indelible sonic moments

It is unfair, of course, to impose revolutionary significance on one small collective of musicians who, at this stage, are still feeling their way forward. In any case, their radicalism actually reinforces one well-worn institution: the song. If you are going to be reactionary about anything in music though, let it be the song. There is something thrilling about a collective that exalts the song over the band, the genre, the album. I’ve always appreciated the one-hit wonders, the Eurovision entries, in which absolutely everything is poured into one singular moment in time. If nothing else, the focus on the song is a cure for musical boredom, and isn’t boredom the most reactionary force of all?

Chaos Rising can be contacted via their Facebook page and there are more videos at their YouTube channel

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