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The Women of ArA’Kus – Part 2


And now part 2 of my interview set with the women of ArA’Kus featuring keyboardist Rachel Brunson. If you didn’t read part 1, you can do so here. You can also check out the ArA’Kus’ website, and your favorite social media,  facebook, bandcamp, and youtube.

A little background (from previous post):

Seattle-based heavy metal band, ArA’Kus, weaves a musical tapestry of opera, fantasy, and theatrics into their live performances and musical craft. This web of darkness, epic storytelling, and fervent metal love was founded in 2001 with a little hope, and a big idea. Since then ArA’Kus has been plagued with a variety of line-up changes, yet, has still remained steadfast to producing a live show that combines the best aspects of music with a visually appealing experience. The band consists of 6 members and auxiliary performers including a twelve member chorus, marital artists, fire dancers, and an aerial acrobatic troupe.

Additionally, costumes are an important part of the show. Mixing early medieval influenced outfits, with fantasy art and leather from local vendors, ArA’Kus is a living, breathing LOTR with a metal soundtrack. That soundtrack includes throaty growls from the depths of the beast, ethereal chants via the chorus, hell-rasing guitar solos, and spoken interludes that transition the songs and give a back story to the lyrics. Their debut  work, “Aeterno Elementum” is a three-part concept album, which will be released in stages this year, along with a novelization of their music’s storylines.

If anyone knows how to spin the magic and madness, it’s Rachel Brunson, keyboardist, and lover of doing things differently from the crowd.

 

Jukebox Heroines (JH): Thanks for doing this interview! So, give Jukebox Heroines the scoop on who you are. 

Rachel Brunson (RB): I’m an artist, musician, and a full time student. I have a degree in photography/multimedia design from Notre Dame and am working on my second Bachelors at Evergreen in psychology. I (hopefully!) start grad school in a year for a Masters in Art Therapy. I grew up in Indiana and moved to Olympia 8 years ago. My main reason for moving was wanting to find a place to live that was more artistic and had a bigger music scene then where I’m from (which is pretty much non-existant!) Other then music, I love to read. I’m a total bibliophile and want to die with enough books to open a library. No kids, just 2 cats and a plethora of fish.

JH: How did you become part of Arakus?

RB: Looong story! Suffice to say, I dated a guy that used to be in the band and used to do their photography. Many years and convoluted stories later, I came on as a guest musician to fill in while they searched for a permanent keyboard player. I ended up loving it, and they were happy with my musical capabilities and asked me to stay on permanently.

JH: What draws you to metal music? It’s known as a rather masculine genre?

I’ve always loved music of all types. My first love was and always will be classical. I started listing to metal in the 80’s (I was a kid so I don’t really remember who introduced me to it.) I love that it is such an expansive genre. It seems as if you can meld anything with metal and it will work. It can be either obnoxiously loud and fast, or soft and melodic. It never fails to surprise me so it keeps me interested. I feel like a lot of other genres seem to strive to emulate each other, whilst metal seems to strive to be different regardless of corporate approval and radio playability.

JH: What are your female artist/musician influences?

RB: Not many to be honest, I’m mostly drawn to male fronted bands. I do have a thing for Tori Amos though.

JH: I totally do too!

JH: When did you begin playing the keys and what made you pick that instrument?

RB: I began playing piano 24 years ago (at 6). My parents bought me a piano at 7 as I was obsessed. I just love the sound and the versatility of it. I didn’t start playing keyboards until fall of 2008 for ArA’KuS. It was a hard battle for while the layout and conception is the same, the feel of the two are completely different.

JH: What kind of keyboard do you use? Any preferences or sounds you use?

RB: Why? I’m using a Casio CDP-100. It’s actually a digital piano. I’m finding that they are easier for me to play as opposed to non-weighted keys. I have the advantage of a computer interface and the feel of an acoustic piano. I’m using Mainstage with an m-audio midi adapter to run them. I actually like the sound of harpsichords but have yet to find an applicable use for them for ArA’KuS. Someday maybe…

JH: What do you want people to experience with your music/live show?

RB: I want them to stand in awe of our greatness! Kidding (sort of). I want them to enjoy it. I want people to come and be completely surprised by a metal band and leave wanting more. I want it to inspire them to be more creative and to not be afraid to do what seems crazy at first.

JH: How are you feeling about the big July 31st album premiere?

RB: Nervous, excited, nervous again. I haven’t performed on a stage in about 15 years (theater stage that is). It’s so different from bar shows! I’m excited to perform in a setting that I love though.

JH: If Arakus was a type of animal, it would be: ________________. Why?

RB: Duck billed platypus. A little strange and is nothing like it appears at first glance. Can be soft and fuzzy but with sharp teeth.

JH: Any advice for other lady-metalheads out there?

RB: Loads, but I can’t type all of it out here. I’ve been in this business as either a fan, photographer, promoter, booking agent, designer, and/or musician since I was 16. I’m not a feminist by any stretch of the imagination, but women have it hard in this business sometimes. There are a lot of people out there that have some pretty awful misconceived notions of female metal heads. So if you run into someone that thinks you are something that you’re not, do what you can to change their minds. There are so many talented women out there that are afraid to push the boundaries of a traditionally male ran subset of musical society. We all need to show them that we can be a force to be reckoned with.

JB: Come to the dark feminist side Rachel! 🙂 We need more female metal heads here.

Thank you so much to Rachel and Whitney for taking the time to speak their minds here at Jukebox Heroines. Be sure to stay tuned for more updates on ArA’Kus and special features from their show.

Speaking of, you can catch ArA’Kus at their premiere show July 31, 2010 7:00 pm at The Everett Historical Theater in Everett, Wa. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased online or by calling 425-258-6766.

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The Women of ArA’Kus – Part 1


This is part 1 of my interviews with the women of ArA’Kus. If you don’t know about ArA’Kus you can check out my previous post, their website, and other social media such as facebook, bandcamp, and youtube.

Seattle-based heavy metal band, ArA’Kus, weaves a musical tapestry of opera, fantasy, and theatrics into their live performances and musical craft. This web of darkness, epic storytelling, and fervent metal love was founded in 2001 with a little hope, and a big idea. Since then ArA’Kus has been plagued with a variety of line-up changes, yet, has still remained steadfast to producing a live show that combines the best aspects of music with a visually appealing experience. The band consists of 6 members and auxiliary performers including a twelve member chorus, marital artists, fire dancers, and an aerial acrobatic troupe.

Additionally, costumes are an important part of the show. Mixing early medieval influenced outfits, with fantasy art and leather from local vendors, ArA’Kus is a living, breathing LOTR with a metal soundtrack. That soundtrack includes throaty growls from the depths of the beast, ethereal chants via the chorus, hell-rasing guitar solos, and spoken interludes that transition the songs and give a back story to the lyrics. Their debut  work, “Aeterno Elementum” is a three-part concept album, which will be released in stages this year, along with a novelization of their music’s storylines. You can catch their debut July 31, 2010 at 7:00 pm at the Everett Historical Theater in Everett, Wa.  It is easy to get caught in a spider’s web of enchantment with the art-metal persona that is ArA’Kus.

Bringing that metal edge and class to the group is Whitney Burdge, Lead Soprano and all around rocker, who isn’t afraid to tell Jukebox Heroines all about their latest creation.

Jukebox Heroines (JH): Thanks for doing this interview! So, tell the fans a little about yourself.

Whitney Burdge (WB): I’m a strange (but cool) hybrid of girl who has been created from world travel, architecture and design, classical music, poetry, salsa dancing, fashion, etc. Most of my singing experience in the past has been with an accompanying symphony, but I’ve been lucky to fall into the recent opportunity of combining my classical skills with the world of metal and seeing what our love-child creates.

JH: How did you become part of Arakus?

WB: My first encounter with Ara’Kus was an unusual one. I was on a dating site. One of the guys in the band who was also on there noticed that I had classical singing experience listed in my profile. Since that was the sound they were going for with their lead female singer, he invited me to come out and audition for them. I checked out their music and liked what they were trying to create, not to mention their absolute professionalism. A few weeks later, I was in!

JH: What draws you to metal music? It’s known as a rather masculine genre?

WB: To me, everyone needs to listen to a different music style to match every mood. The range of human emotion is enormous, and metal just fits the bill for either those darker times where you’re feeling more intense, or simply need a strong beat to give you energy.

JH: What are your female artist/musician influences?

WB: My influences range from women like Haylie Williams of Paramore for her identifiability, opera singers for their vocal techniques, and some world singers such as Yasmin Levy, for the unique vocal nuances they exhibit which aren’t often seen in American music.

JH: When did you begin singing and what made you want to do it?

WB: I actually don’t recall what made me want to start singing. I know in 8th grade, I signed up for a class that would sing along to Broadway tunes or Disney songs, and it just felt like a talent that clicked.

JH: What kind of stage persona do you project? Why?

WB: The stage persona I want to project is one of confidence and also elegance. The music of Ara’Kus has a strong dichotomy in blending both edgy and lyrical sounds; as the lead female singer, I want to carry over that same contrast. I think it makes the music more accessible instead of intimating to first-timers to the genre.

JH: What do you want people to experience with your music/live show?

WB: I think I want people to enjoy the transitions of our show, with the highs and lows of intensity and the changing dynamic of the songs. Metal, in general, has a reputation for all sounding “the same”; our show, though, will have several interesting elements to help the audience experience the music more fully. I also want the audience to appreciate everyone’s musicianship. These are just a bunch of guys “jamming” in someone’s garage. Everyone takes their role seriously, and tries to master their part in the production.

JH: How are you feeling about the big July 31st album premiere?

WB: I’m very excited about our July 31 show. I haven’t seen anything like what we are doing before, so I’m looking forward to conveying something musically “new” to the audience. Of course, I’m also nervous! I’m still pretty new to performing in this kind of group, but look at each show as a chance to develop my overall confidence, and to just rock out and have fun!

JH: If Arakus was a type of animal, it would be: ________________. Why?

WB: If Ara’Kus was an animal, we’d be a Komodo dragon. We may look intimidating at first, but we’re actually quite cuddly.

JH: Any advice for other lady-metalheads out there?

WB: My advice is just for the ladies to be an active voice in metal. None of the men who have been in it awhile want it to stagnate or remain a male-heavy genre. If you have ideas to help it evolve, or wanna bring your own style to it, then do it!

Stay tuned for Part 2 for an interview with Rachel Brunson!

You Gotta Hear – ArA’Kus


Friends of the blog, ArA’Kus, Seattle’s best kept heavy metal secret is about to put on the show of a lifetime.

July 31st , 2010 – 7:00 p.m – “Aeterno Elementum” by ArA’Kus

Historic Everett Theater
2911 Colby Avenue
Everett, WA  98201
http://everetttheatre.org/

Tickets are $10. You can purchase them here or call: 425-258-6766.

A little taste of what you’ll get:

Aeterno Elementum tells a sweeping story of betrayal and tragedy that will leave viewers in shock. This chilling story will be told not only through the music, but also through performers of all types. Actors will bring to life the events of the tales, while martial artists and dancers of various sorts amaze the audience and create a sense of intense spectacle.

Despite the actors and the performers, the music is still center stage. The compositions feature complex, classically influenced progressions that will appeal to even non-fans of heavy metal and showcase several operatic vocalists as well as a full chorus and string section. Apart from the heavy metal fare, several more traditional classical pieces will be featured, including acapella performances from the Ara’Kus Chorus, orchestrated pieces featuring operatic soprano Whitney Burdge and tenor Jeremiah Johnson, classical guitar interludes by Randy Haines and other unexpected performances.

Jukebox Heroines will have an exclusive interview with Whitney Burdge (Lead Soprano) and Rachel Brunson (Keyboards) in just a bit! So stay tuned! Until then, check out their tunes and promo video for the show.

http://arakusband.com

Alejandro: Lady Gaga’s Epic Video Toward Salvation & Social Justice


Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” premiered this 06-08-2010 and as I type my mind is buzzing with what it means. I have analyzed other Gaga videos before, “Telephone,” and why she is a feminist, part 1 and part 2, and about having to justify her feminism.  This music video is just as complex, provocative, and beautifully executed as the previous ones. Granted, the only person who can really tell us what a video “means” is Gaga herself, but it’s always essential to look at how a video is received and what messages it sends compared/contrasted to what is intended. So, here are some of my thoughts on the visual imagery of “Alejandro” by Lady Gaga.

A general note on German Expressionism/ Film Noir

One immediately notices the dark, sharp cinematography, contrast in light, hints of red, and grim industrial feel to the video. This style has been popular in Film Noir and German Expressionist films.Vice, taboo topics, powerful women, cold calculation, cynical reality, dark human emotions, and simple yet demanding visuals are all prominent. You may get a hint of Nazi Germany in the military attire as well. This style heightens the grave nature of religion, power, and sexuality in this video. The genre in general is about substance, the depth of the topics discussed, while also presenting them in a manner that reflects those topics. “Telephone” and it’s pop culture critique reflected the visuals and the visuals reflected the critique. This is also true with “Alejandro.” The nature of oppression isn’t  a very peppy or happy topic. With that in mind, let’s examine some of the main themes presented in this music video. I am sure there are more than I am covering and I encourage your comments at the bottom!

Gay Community as Warriors

I’ll begin with what Gaga has said about the video. She noted that it is a celebration of her love of the gay community. This can be seen in a number of ways, via the buff and numble dancers in the video. The men are visually represented as strong, sexy, confident, and gender-bending. As the video’s first choreography begins, we are met with miliary imagery, a “gay army” if you will, symbolically reflecting on the determination, strength, and perseverance of the gay community. Also, on another level, you could see this as a slight reference to repealing the DODT. We assume these men are gay due to Gaga’s above statement, and showing them unabashed in military outfits marching makes the gay men (and lesbian women) who serve in reality visible, rather than invisible, worth respect and attention. This is one of the first steps in fighting oppression. First name it, second, if you will, take it out of the closet.

 

Also, the military, as well as, police force has historically and currently denies rights to those who are not hetero, and responsable for horrendous abuses (Stonewall, gender dress code laws, DODT, rape to cure lesbians, ect.) In this video, the power structure is turned on its head, where those who are in power are now those who are oppressed. And what more powerful institution than the military….and later in the video religion to challenge oppression in? Gaga does this by representing her fellow community members in a manner that is not seen in popular culture with seriousness and style. 

Gender Bending & Subverting the Male Gaze

So, we have the sexy gay militia, who also gender bends in the video. I have written about how previous videos have queered the narrative/images, and this video continues that motif.

 

The men not only wear fish net stockings, but also high heels, two things that are strongly associated with femininity, especially heterosexual femininity. This gender-bending does a few things. It challenges gender conformity, and hence sexual orientation conformity to hetero-partrarchal terms.

Further blurring the lines of acceptable sexual pleasure and sexual scripts is the mimicking of sexual intercourse with Gaga via the bed scenes. These are gay men, yet, Gaga has noted her own bisexuality, so what kind of sexual relations are going on? Much like her kiss with the prison inmate in “Telephone,” the assumed subtext to any visual narrative in our culture is heterosexual. Therefore if a woman, Gaga, kissed someone, it is assumed it will be a heterosexual man. Much like the subtext of any romance novel, condom ads, and Valentine’s Day cards are heterosexual (we fancy academics call this idea heteronormativity) Gaga challenges this by visually showing us gender bending gay men, entangled sexually with herself and the other men in bed. Basically this plays with ideas of power, and who’s “on top” so to speak. Normally, its heterosexual men. Here, it is unclear, and that uncertainty drives the status quo crazy. Power controls by having ridged “in and out” rules. The visuals presented break this dichotomy.

 

The light bondage here, also makes reference to a misunderstood and taboo sexual practice, but also to the symbolic “bondage” we are all faced with when it comes to what society tells us is acceptable desire, sexuality and gender performance. Along with the bondage, if we just look at simply the body placement and positions of the men, it is not normally positions that are considered powerful in a male hetero sense. Powerful positions are standing, “erect” if you will, alert and ready, while the men are writhing on bed, legs spread, and well, butts made noticeable. This is something we expect women to do doing on a bed for male pleasure. So here again, “correct” male behavior and positioning is challenged via the queering positioning and actions. Gaga’s own the role in the action balances between a top and bottom, perhaps the balancing act we all play in trying to make sexual relations equitable?

Also, the queering of the video also attempts to subvert the “male gaze” or “patriarchal gaze” of which most popular culture is seen and created through. This is where women are objectified body parts and merely advance the male protagonist’s aspirations and desires. The women have none of her own, and only serve to either prove male heterosexuality, or as an obstacle for which men must overcome to become “real men.” Feminists have pointed this gaze out in a variety of formats, and it can be something very hard to combat. You often must evoke the images of them to challenge them, and Gaga does this in ways that do not further degrade the women, and in this case, gay men in the video.

Gay men and feminized men have often served as “substitute women” when it comes to oppression being enacted upon them. In a culture where straight men are on top, gay men have stereotyped as effeminate, therefore not real men, therefore symbolic women.  In the male gaze, women are not only degraded, but anyone not conforming to prescribed sexual and gender codes.

So, Gaga reverses and subverts this gaze by giving us visuals of powerful sexuality, powerful gay men, and a lone female body that looks back at those watching. She is not being looked at. She is in control. Hence the goggles.

 

Her body is not objectified, but becomes a pallet where objectification is pointed out. The red tape covering her genitals and breasts for example. It serves more as a marker of where the attention is “supposed to be” on women, rather than actually making those areas sexier for the male gaze. It almost obscures it, and makes it not “sexy.” Exactly the point. A side note to that, the shape of the tape on her genitals is rather phallic, hence the challenging of that penis rumor. Or, in some ways, a sign of solidary with the gay male community.

 While there is queering of the narrative, there is also bits of androgyny being employed. Obviously some cross-dressed via the men in heels, and black faux-corsets, and Gaga in a black sleeveless suit, and priest-like robe. Short hair on women has been associated with a lack of femininity, even lesbianism. And Gaga’s flesh-toned bra and undies actually blends her feminines features rather than accentuates them. She becomes genderless/sexless. (The mop-tops on the men are effeminate as well, and also kind monkish.)

 

Finally, the gun-bra. Like the tape and fleshy lingerie, the gun bra has a few meanings. One, it draws attention to an area often objectified area of the female body, and exaggerates it in a way that is not traditionally sexy, if sexy at all. Boom. Subversion of the male gaze. But also, a bit of a tongue in cheek move that hints that breasts are somehow “weapons” and “dangerous.” Breasts are hyerpsexualized in our culture, and often seen as innocent/asexual in religious imagery.  The breast of Mary nourished Jesus for example. Breasts give life.  But also in the male gaze narrative, they can cause men’s downfall. The contrast and contradiction of women’s bodies parts, religion, and power are all wrapped up into a few seconds of dancing. It gives new meaning to the phrase Lethal Weapons!

 Gaga as Symbolic Military/Religious/Oppressor/Liberator

Gaga in the video plays a dual role. She is at once the oppressive authority figure, watching over the gay military, but also a religious figure dressed in a PVC nun habit (nuns are to be pure and chaste) and gothic Queen Elizabeth regalia (Queen Elizabeth I, also known as the Virgin Queen.) Power and authority, religion and morality. It is all there, and not by accident. The link and mixing of  military and religion is nothing new. Rulers who have been appointed by “god” and vise versa have quite a history. Gaga is making clear that intermixing at various points in the music video.

 

So, why the religion/ruler imagery? In the context of the homage to the gay community, it becomes clear. Gaga in her live shows and music videos allows herself to become the object of the evils she sees in society. She becomes a “monster” whither it fame, pop culture, or sexual oppression. In both religion and the military, there is sexual oppression. As the goddess-queen, she demands the loyalty if her militia, her flock, in return for love.  Yet as an authority figure, she is also oppressive. In the same ways that religion can be a liberating force in people’s lives, it can also be degrading. The christian visuals  represented are a critique on Catholicism, and all religions that contradict between loving your followers, and controlling them. That contrast is the tension in the music video.

 

How is this tension resolved? At one point Gaga swallows a rosary, perhaps Catholicism swallowing their pride over persecution of gays/lesbians? Choking on hypocrisy? Eating their faith? Gaga seems to resolve these tensions by sacrificing herself to the gay military in a sequence hat leaves her naked, symbolically implying that those in religious authority give up themselves to their people. The projector in the music video displays various scenes of destruction to which Gaga (the authority) is accountable for. Atonement is needed. Justice is due. In the end, de-robed, and dethroned, Gaga no longer hides behind the cloth.

 

  

Sacred Hearts, Death & Enlightenment

The funeral procession in the beginning doesn’t have much explanation until the ending. Likewise the Sacred Heart imagery is significant. Symbolic of love and devotion to Jesus, the heart in the video is frozen, mutilated, and bearing an “A.” “A” I am guessing for “Alejandro” but perhaps a little bit of “A” for adultery as in the Scarlet Letter. Either way, the meaning of this sequence at the beginning feels like a reference to the deaths of all of those in the gay community from hate crimes, abuse, AIDS,  and general death of identity due to having to conform to heterosexuality in order to survive. The Sacred Heart is something positive in Catholicism, yet seen here as frozen represents the fear, intolerance, and hatred that has come from that religion against those who are different. Where is the love and compassion in that heart for the gay/lesbian community. Alejandro is a symbolic martyr. His death mourned in the black and falling snow (or ash from the furnaces of those who were murdered for being different?)

 

The eulogy begins the film, and it seems a proclamation ends it. Behind Gaga, a cross, and radio gear as she asks her name not be spoken. But perhaps, since she (as authority figure) has been sacrificed to her followers, she is now enlightened and spreading the message to others. But if you look closely, Gaga is talking into a microphone in the same room where the Alejandro character is seen. Look closely for the similar table and chairs. The visuals come full circle.  It appears that Alejandro has died, but could it be NunGaga? If you look closely, the man on the bed with her has a golden gun. Does he kill himself or Gaga? It looks like blood is splattered right at the end, just before Gaga’s face morphs into light. So, has Gaga transformed into liberator, or is this her transformation into dictator? Is it a symbolic of the path of the military/religion/status quo? To what end are we traveling?

 

In the end, it is not her name, but the power in the name of authority that determines the worth of individuals. Individuals always have worth of course, but the power structures in our society only give it to certain groups. Gaga is challenging this authority and power in religion, the military, and in general for the gay community. Watch it again now, and decide for yourself. Alejandro: Gaga’s epic tale toward salvation and social justice.

 

Anything I missed? Let me know what you think.

My previous posts on Why Lady Gaga is a feminist.

  • Lady Gaga is a feminist! Why can’t people just accept it?
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