When online platforms provide a soapbox to just about anybody who wants one, the role of explicitly political art can feel a little confounding. This feels especially true when such platforms have a unique knack for either funneling political speech to increasingly niche echo chambers or otherwise watering down a message and making it more susceptible to mass co-option. Within this framework, one has to ask what material role the protest song plays today.
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Looking at the work of Alicia Cordisco, founder and frontwoman of the politically charged thrash metal band Transgressive, the answer seems clear. Metal historically has contained a fairly polarized political spectrum within its artists and audiences. This ranges from the left-wing politics that often characterize sub-genres like grindcore and crust to the far-right fascist politics plaguing many black metal scenes. Cordisco, a queer trans woman who was once what she describes as “an obnoxious thrash-til-death teenager,” acknowledges that “there’s obviously not a lot of queer and trans classic thrash” and that, for her, this is a problem.
Transgressive arose as a way to not only spread progressive politics and raise funds for various causes but to hold space within thrash metal. “With the messages in the music,” Cordisco explains, “a lot of this is coming from a very queer and a very transgender perspective, and there’s not a lot of metal out there like that. There is some, and there’s more day by day, but it’s really not something I feel is really represented in heavy metal, and it felt important to me to use my own voice to voice these words.”
For Cordisco, as for many transfeminine musicians, the prospect of giving voice to trans issues through music can pose a problem. While estrogen does not have any significant effects on the voice, testosterone causes vocal cords to thicken permanently. This means that beyond expensive and invasive surgeries that are not without risk, transfeminine people who undergo hormone therapy after their initial puberty cannot expect their vocal cords to change. While voice training helps many learn to speak and sing in ways that may present to others as more feminine, the process of voice feminization can be expensive and demanding. Because of this, many transfeminine people learn instead to find comfort in their voices through a mix of adjustment, self-acceptance, and radical defiance.
“It is very personal in that way,” Cordisco says. “I did have some trepidation at first like ‘Okay, my voice sounds very angry and very traditionally masculine. Is this something I should be worried about?’” But as she continued working, the concern dissipated. “The more I did it, the more I stopped caring. This is about liberation, and this is about empowerment. I’ve been doing thrash vocals for 18 years, and the whole point of my transitioning and the trans liberation movement is to say to hell with the gender binary and what we ascribe as feminine and masculine and to not be bound by these rules. Then it became very clear that this is what I’m gonna do and this is how I’m gonna do it and I’m gonna let myself feel good about it.”
She says certain friends helped her rediscover her voice and feel emboldened to utilize it as it is. One such artist is April Hutchins, who records as Anna Pest. “She’s a deathcore musician and vocalist,” Cordisco says. “I see a lot of parallels in what she does and what I do. Seeing vocalists like her do their thing and not be bound by rules or genre is really inspiring to me.” Cordisco also cites Violet Palmer, who makes music in various other raw black metal projects, most notably Wolven Daughter. “She’s another one doing things authentically as she’s known how to do them and as she’s developed her talents to do,” Cordisco says. “Seeing her work on her things with the attitude of, ‘This is feminine because I made it,’ is very inspiring. I try to take that energy with me when I work on projects like this.”
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It’s important to note, however, that Transgressive is not all talk. The band originated in 2021 when bills in Texas were passed that “greatly restricted reproductive rights.” For Cordisco, this was a concern that warranted an immediate response. She teamed up with Transgressive guitarist Joshua Payne and drum programmer/producer Brett Windnagle to produce the two-song EP Seize the Means of Reproduction, speaking on current events with a potent fury and a playful wit while moving funds to mutual aid and non-profit projects, including the National Network of Abortion Funds and Trans Lifeline.
Initially conceived as a one-off project, the EP went on to receive a greater response than Cordisco had expected, inspiring her to write more. Cordisco conceived of the band as mutual-aid focused and “something very explicitly queer and very explicitly transgender in its mission focus. And that’s when I got my girl Leona [Hayward] on bass.” At this point, each Transgressive song became fairly collaborative, beginning with an outline that Cordisco would write before handing the material off to each member for them to write their respective parts.
The group wrote and recorded their next EP and following single, 2022’s “Fetus Factory” and “Defenestrate the Magistrate” respectively, and continued directing all proceeds to mutual aid. The band’s first three self-released recordings raised over $2,000 for the National Network of Abortion funds, a figure that gave the band more than a little extra encouragement to produce their debut full-length Extreme Transgression.
“The hustle of selling records and getting on social media and dancing like a clown never sat right with me,” says Cordisco of her time in bands over the past decade. “The more I got into the music industry and signed contracts and saw behind closed doors, the more it made me sick and not like what I was doing. With this band, due to how it started and due to the nature of the lyrics, it felt important to me that the band walk its talk. For the art to ring true, I think the actions of the band have to as well.”
This sentiment is echoed in the lyrics of “We Protect Us,” a rallying cry for direct action and mutual aid. Its pre-chorus, delivered with a measured balance of fury, frustration, and intent, takes a stand with a list of defiant assertions: “God won’t protect us and/ Liberals infect us and/ Laws won’t protect us because/ There’s no justice.” Reflecting on the song’s theme of community action and connectivity, Cordisco considers technologies that help vulnerable people watch out for one another. “I know everyone hates Twitter,” she says. “But Twitter connects a lot of people in a mutual aid network. I have seen it literally save the lives of my friends. While we might not be able to get rid of the capitalist system, we can do our part to help each other survive it. One of us may not matter, but all of us together do.”
As a whole, Extreme Transgression offers a vicious survey of systemic injustices across the U.S. today, taking on police brutality, labor rights, radical queer history, nationalist mythos, and tenant’s rights. Cordisco cites thrash giants Suicidal Tendencies and Kreator as specific inspirations for imbuing the genre with antifascist politics. She describes hearing the Suicidal Tendencies lyric “the greatest weapon of the fascist is the tolerance of the pacifist” as “a real ‘shook me’ moment when I was a young kid” and cites Kreator lyrics that assert queer rights.
Both bands, she points out, get a subtle nod on Transgressive’s “Bury Me In Rainbow Flags”—a song about corporate rainbow-washing and the neoliberal tendency to make martyrs of queer lives—with the lines “Side by side/ You can’t bring me down.” Expanding that song’s theme of liberation, Cordisco explains, “what they really want is assimilation, and you can’t assimilate into a hostile system—a system built on slavery, genocide, and imperialism at the expense of the Global South—and be free. Liberation has to be for everyone.”
If the cover art and title of Extreme Transgression didn’t make its political leanings clear, sonically, it doesn’t take long to show its hand. The album begins with a recording of a crowd chanting the words “power to the people,” followed by a soundbite of someone Cordisco describes as “a particular bastard of a police chief” talking about being on patrol and meeting “the cutest little girl.” He recounts, “I said ‘Hi honey, how are you today,’ and she looked at me and said ‘Fuck you, pig.’”
“He’s trying to paint that as evidence for why we need policing and why the police have to crack down and how that’s the solution to racial tension, to basically be more brutal. Which is obviously horse shit,” explains Cordisco. “We thought it was a cool way to take that quote and show the little girl’s power in the situation rather than how he tried to spin the situation in his favor.”
Frequently throughout the album, Cordisco’s playful, witty lyrics are marked by what the band calls a “classic thrash tongue-in-cheek charm.” This humorous element proves helpful when, as Cordisco says, “you really identify the depth of the problem and how it looks on paper—that doesn’t always feel good. It doesn’t always feel inspiring.”
The song “Unheard Voices,” for instance, offers a sort of bait-and-switch with its chorus. By delivering a largely centrist platitude—“reach across the aisle”—loud and clear at the top of the chorus, Cordisco creates a surprising rhetorical diversion in the midst of an otherwise raging frenzy. For Cordisco, the song is about how such calls for pacifism and diplomatic relations towards political opponents often overlook and endanger people in vulnerable positions. “Our lives are not up for debate,” she says. “I’m not going to debate my existence with anyone.”
As for the future, Cordisco is looking ahead to making new music with Project: Roenwolf, her other project with Transgressive bassist Hayward. As the two have been developing new work together, she has noticed that some of the Transgressive spirit has come with her. “That band has always been political, but it’s mostly been sci-fi and fantasy oriented,” she says. “The new album is almost completely anti-capitalist, just because of how shitty the last three years have been. There’s songs about when they asked us to die for the stock market during COVID, trans empowerment, and how shitty labor laws are.” Sources of inspiration for Cordisco unfortunately seem to be endless.