“We Start Wars” Power and Heart By Michael Aronovitz
We Start Wars, the all-female metal band featuring Nita Strauss (Alice Cooper, LA Kiss, Femme Fatale, and The Iron Maidens), just had their debut gig on May 25th at The Whisky A Go Go in West Hollywood, and congratulations are in order. They rock. Moreover, Strauss is one of the most exciting guitar players currently working the field, not only recording, performing, and appearing on soundtracks for popular video games, but also offering her intimate Ibanez guitar clinics with question and answer sessions as insightful as they are entertaining. In terms of the current project, it has been reported that she chose her band mates over the course of a year with meticulous care: Nicole Papastavrou – guitar, Alicia Vigil (Vigil of War) – bass, Shauna (Seana) Lisse – vocals, Katt Scarlett (Femme Fatale) – keys, and Lindsay Martin – drums. The band concept mirrors the name in its representation of feminine power, and Strauss has been quoted as saying (paraphrased here) that her project carries on the tradition of beauty and bravery immortalized by historical figures like Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, and Joan of England. I would argue, however, that Nita Strauss can be more closely compared with the great Joan of Arc, if we are to begin this conversation with historical allusions.
Joan of Arc claimed that she started connecting with divine powers, namely the Saints: Catherine, Margaret, Michael, and Gabriel, when she was thirteen years old. Nita Strauss began playing shows in LA at thirteen. When Joan of Arc was seventeen, she led the French army to victory over the English at Orleans, and many current rock historians claim that Strauss went national in 2003 in terms of touring, making her seventeen just like her predecessor. Ironically, Joan of Arc cut her hair to look like a man so she could convince Duke Charles of Lorraine that she was worthy of leading others to defeat the English, just as Nita Strauss begins her Pandemonium video, (January, 2017) with her hair up, wearing a guy’s muscle shirt and nondescript black pants. Of course, she lets that signature hair down, but Strauss has had to work long and hard to prove that her guitar playing surpasses the idea of gender, especially in a rigid business-model that does not excuse “bad days” or “dialing it in,” particularly for women.
Joan of Arc was, above all, a leader. She was said to have been the very fiercest of adversaries, working a paradigm of tactical aggression that left her opponents utterly vanquished. It is also common knowledge that within her own fold, Joan of Arc was one to negotiate with her counterparts and treat her subordinates as equals, creating a measure of loyalty that was immeasurable. That is the most literal parallel between this archetype and Nita Strauss, but more directly linked is the famous metaphor, part truth and part beloved folklore. When they burned Joan of Arc at the stake, her heart would not wither. They had to burn her three times to get all the organs in fact, but her heart could not be destroyed. Listen to We Start Wars, and it is crystal clear that Nita Strauss has created a vision without ego, utilizing through negotiation and teamwork the ultimate strengths of her surrounding players. And Nita’s heart? Listen to the guitar tracks in “The Animal Inside,” bookending the chorus starting at the two minute and thirty-two second mark. You want to talk about heart? That is what defines Nita Strauss.
The first thing that one notices when listening to the aforementioned first single put out by We Start Wars, is the use of the rhythm section. While overall, we might recognize the stylistic influence here of rock Gods like Marty Friedman, Shawn Lane, and Steve Vai, it is notable that Strauss does not begin her band’s first single with a solo. As mentioned, she already covered that part of the vision with the Pandemonium video, through which she plays like a beast (after letting her hair down) along with the amazing drumming of Josh Villalta, (with subtle pre-recorded background tracks on bass and guitar, and some keys-work by Katt Scarlett). With Pandemonium, she put out a competitive product showing her chops for the sake of showing her chops, making all of us think not only of masters like Vai, but Paul Gilbert’s “Technical Difficulties” studio video and Zakk Wylde’s epic jam over the Andy James track.
On the contrary, “The Animal Inside” starts with an accent on the drums, with Lindsay Martin’s “military glory” snare work, the guitars doubling the fanfare, and harmony vocals mirroring that like a war call. In other words, Nita introduces her art through a layering technique that involves the whole band, and like a great general, she shows off the artillery in levels, almost like a theme throughout the piece that would claim, “Did you hear that? Well, how about THIS?” No more is this exemplified so clearly as in the verse work, with all of the phrases starting with Martin working in fast, mixed meter snare accents on top of the awesome, ballsy riff, only to electrify us with a more standard 4/4 in the second half, making us head bang by reflex.
The chorus is catchy, and illuminates for us why Lisses vocals are so important to the overall appeal, but it is in the instrumental parts that we see the essence of this band, in the pith and the marrow. In tandem with the theme of doubling and layering, the first instrumental break features that hard riff, the one with the low bend and hearty swag, going in and out of the A and B speakers, Martin using a lot of snare, first continuous, then made razor sharp with those accents and stops. Personally, that begins the jewel of the song for me, the first tier in a stunning three-step segment that would dazzle us and simultaneously fulfill the overarching theme of climatic layering, and my only complaint is that the video is a still-shot with audio, and I would have liked to have seen Strauss interacting with her other guitar player, Nicole Papastavrou, before the intermediary chorus and Nita’s striking platform solo: tier-two in this intricate mosaic.
In terms of straight definition, here Strauss offers some signature runs in the first half of her solo with those heart-rending bends and squeals, landing notes you didn’t expect (but fucking love) and in the second half she goes thematic and melodic with a rising battle-call pattern that doesn’t climax with a speed technique. Of course it doesn’t. We are now at tier-three, and Strauss decides to win the battle and the war by bringing in her lead vocalist to sing harmony with the finishing notes, up at the highest part of her register, not only giving Lisse this moment of “wow,” but cleverly aligning the song’s resolution with its overall theme of team scaffolding.
But there’s more here. Nita Strauss possesses that which many in the entertainment business call the “X” factor, and to fully appreciate this, one cannot simply look at her through a lens of technical analysis. Some guitar players unleash fast licks. Others use the moment to hit the audience’s bio-rhythms, touch their past, affect their feelings. You have to be more than a musician to do this. You have to be a trend-setter, one whose heart is so pure it creates an emotional landscape we can feel in the pith, in the marrow, the fiber, the soul.
When I hear Nita Strauss play, I don’t solely hear a master technician, though no one would ever doubt that she has become one. When I hear Nita play, I don’t just hear shredding, though no one would ever question her ability to do so. When I listen to Nita Strauss, I hear the story of my own life and all the others around me, turned to poetry, and featuring all our hopes, dreams, misgivings, and victories. We Start Wars is an important project, not so much that the band celebrates “war” or “the good fight” (necessarily) or the historical allusions (though there are many). They are not even boasting about the power of female rockers in general (and trust me, they pack a punch). We Start Wars is about art and precision and layers and teamwork. We Start Wars is a band, a damned good one, and maybe this winds up being the perfect platform for Nita Strauss to open our hearts by showing us the strength of her own.
Michael Aronovitz is a horror author who has published three novels, two collections, more than thirty short stories, and a number of horror and metal reviews. His first novel “Alice Walks” will come out in E-book form through Cemetery Dance Publications this summer. His latest novel “Phantom Effect” can be seen on Amazon here: http://tinyurl.com/jcg59wo
Michael Aronovitz / Metalheads Forever Magazine