Georgia can be a hell of a state. The heat can be wilting nine months out of the year; the cultural geography runs from the unmanageable hypergridlock of Atlanta to the red-clay hinterlands of the southern part of the state, with not much in between. It’s the kind of suffocating environment out of which great rock music can be born, and in recent years Georgia’s seen a surprising number of metal bands, most of them tour mates and friends from way back, cross over from the underground to critical and commercial success.
The first was Atlanta’s Mastodon, whose last couple of albums have been musically dense and stuffed full of cosmology, mythology, folklore, and occult history. Last year Baroness crawled out of the swamps around Savannah with Blue Record, an ambitious suite of sludgy, artful rock that was equal parts Led Zeppelin III, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Gimme Back My Bullets,” Duane Allman, and Thin Lizzy. This year’s contender is likely to be Kylesa, also from Savannah, whose just-released fifth album, Spiral Shadow, seems poised to cross over with people who prefer Pavement to Pantera.
“It’s less metal and definitely more traditionally rock-based,” says bassist/vocalist Laura Pleasants, who wrote most of the album with singer/guitarist Phillip Cope and drummer Carl McGinley. A lot of reviewers have already noted the heavy influence of Built to Spill, and Pleasants acknowledges that the band took a different approach to writing Spiral Shadow. “I knew that I wanted to write more airy guitar parts, more psychedelic stuff, with more dynamics,” she says. “Phillip wanted to continue writing more stripped-down songs. And we both wanted to strengthen our vocals, and we both wanted to make a trippy headphone record.”
Pleasants moved to Savannah from North Carolina in the mid-1990s. A community of like-minded musicians, interested as much in art, punk, and progressive rock as metal, was coalescing into a recognizable scene around that same time, mostly under the direction of Cope. He and Pleasants started Kylesa in 2000 after his previous band, Damad, fell apart. Baroness formed not long after that, as did the rising trio Black Tusk and the noise terrorists Circle Takes the Square. That’s a lot of notable bands with shared sensibilities coming out of one small Southern city, and Pleasants says Savannah’s culture and climate contributes to the scene’s distinctive sound.
“Savannah’s very beautiful, but there’s something oppressive about it as well,” she says. “And I think that plays into the music that comes out of Savannah. The heat, the Bible belt, the conservative nature of the town, the racial issues, class issues here, the crime, all of those things play a part.”
Women in heavy bands are no longer exclusively novelties—check out Ludicra, Landmine Marathon, and the long-running Swedish band Arch Enemy—but you might not be able to tell that from looking at most metal magazines, which routinely run photo features of women rockers in various states of undress.
“In the ’80s, you had Lita Ford, and she was a great guitar player, but they had to really sex her up for her to get any recognition,” Pleasants says. “But they still do that today. I look at metal magazines, and I see all these chicks, and some of them are just really, really dressed up and really playing the part. I don’t know if it’s their decision or whose decision it is, but it’s not really for me. I would rather just play music and be myself. If I feel like being sexual, that’s my decision. But you know, they’re all trying to sell magazines, mainly to young men, so I get it. I get it from the advertising standpoint, but I think it’s kind of lame.”
On the other hand, Pleasants doesn’t want the fact that she is a woman completely ignored.
“I can’t help being a woman, and I am a woman, and there are certain traits about being a woman that are very different than being a man,” she says. “Obviously, vocally, it’s going to sound different. But I like that. I think it brings a different dynamic that’s not that common. So yeah, I think it does bring a different perspective, but in a positive way. I’ve had many, many younger girls and young women come up to me and say, ‘I think it’s great what you’re doing, you’re a big influence,’ stuff like that, and I think that’s important. I didn’t have a lot of role models when I was younger. I mean, there was Joan Jett and that was about it, and that was kind of before my time, anyway. So it’s cool.”