Contemporary metal has a difficult task to perform. It is fantastical, whimsical, and playful, while simultaneously asking its listeners to take it seriously and experience a range of intense emotions that are rarely explored directly though contemporary popular music. A tremendous amount of contemporary popular music either focuses on real-life situations and discourses of authenticity, or wallows in ironic detachment. In metal Satan, nuclear war, or werewolf transformations serve as evocative signifiers of power, despair, rage, and exaltation, subjects that tend not to crop-up in any meaningful way on your average Kanye West or John Mayer record. So what metal tries to do it not easy at all, and the results are sometimes brilliant and sometimes disastrous.
Otep’s new record Hydra falls somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. When vocalist Otep Shamaya really gets cooking, shrieking like a rabid wolverine tossed into a crowded Wal-Mart, her efforts can be quite impressive. Her techniques remind me of the estimable Julie Christmas, and I am not saying that just because they are both female harsh vocalists in a predominantly male-dominated genre. Both vocalists share a tendency to offer surreal sung/spoken parts set to sedate musical passages, followed by intense harsh vocal responses or recitations to the preceding, quieter passage with accompanying instrumental explosions. The primary difference between these two vocalists is that Julie Christmas’s lyrics sound like something Wallace Stevens wrote while he was up all night smoking crack, while Otep Shamaya’s lyrics sound more like typical gothy, teenage, bedroom poetry, written on an angsty school night to the light of a clove cigarette.
One keeps getting the feeling, particularly on tracks like “Quarantine” and “Voyeur”, that Otep are applying for a spot on the soundtrack to the next Human Centipede movie, and the results are mostly the same as that particular film series. And like The Human Centipede, Otep’s attempts to get a rise out of their audience feel somewhat hallow and unsatisfying. Art that is genuinely frightening and/or disturbing speaks to our anxieties, not just forcing us to look at them for a moment, but inviting us to share our anxieties with a particular artist or work of art. Films like Poltergeist, Blue Velvet, and Django Unchained do this beautifully. In the world of heavy metal, bands like EyeHateGod, Thergothon, and the above mentioned Julie Christmas expertly perform this difficult artistic task. Otep mostly come off sounding like they are trying too hard — a very common mistake in metal.
What makes Hydra a pretty forgettable album is the general lack of memorable riffs or musical dynamics. Otep seem to rely almost exclusively on Shamaya’s vocal charisma, and if you were to take her out of the picture there would be basically nothing to listen to. Harsh vocals are often the make-or-break factor for new initiates into the metal world; if they can learn to enjoy them, they might be converted, but if they just can’t get around the screaming, they will probably never gain a taste for extreme metal. But as most metalheads will tell you, vocals are only one part of the equation — compelling, meaty, stick-in-your-head riffs are probably more important. Hydra has its atmospheric moments, and Shamaya can bellow and wail with skill, but the rest of Otep kind of sound like they are phoning it in. Apparently Hydra will be Otep’s final record, and that might just be for the best. If Shamaya could get a more inspired backing band behind her, she might find some receptive fans at places like Waken and Bloodstock.