What You Do to Me: Alexis Brown of Straight Line Stitch

I’m not as late to Straight Line Stitch as I thought. The group released its first album in 2001, long after I lamented being afraid to get into MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball for fear that I would lose even more of the Black card I didn’t know I was supposed to own. When I still thought Black girls shouldn’t like heavy metal or at least not admit to liking it…

Anyway, women in heavy metal looked like Lita Ford or Wendy O when I was a girl. Women like Alexis Brown were nonexistent. At least they were on MTV and later VH1. They sure as hell didn’t show up on BET even when BET showed videos by Living Colour and Hootie and the Blowfish. But blackness didn’t get any heavier than that on any of the major video outlets except perhaps ocassionally a video from Fishbone. (Bad Brains didn’t exist yet either for some reason.)

This is where I love and appreciate the Internet and social media because I’m sure I first heard of Straight Line Stitch from Tumblr about ten years after their debut album in 2001. Their album To Be Godlike was released five years later without the backing of a record label and contains the track that continues to be my favorite track of the band’s career.

In a way, “Bleeding Heart Theory” exemplifies everything Alexis Brown is to me. A voice starting out soft and pretty in its angst only to morph into the cry of a beast. Before Alexis, I don’t think I’d ever heard a Black woman who did death metal throat singing. (I know there are plenty out there, but I just never found them on any of the outlets available to me.) Definitely never knew a fellow Tennesseean Black girl was into heavy metal and performed it. Interestingly, Alexis wanted to be an R&B singer but didn’t think she could write for the genre.

Like many bands, Straight Line Stitch has had a number of personnel come and go. However, it appears that Alexis has always been the only female vocalist the group has ever had even though she didn’t join until 2003, meaning she was not featured on the group’s debut EP The Barker in 2001. The album does not seem to be that well received, so it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to assume that Alexis has much to do with the band’s success.

After all, I’m sure that in 2003 a Black woman fronting a heavy metal band was still very much seen as an anomaly. Skunk Anansie was not as popular in the U.S. as they should have been and Mother’s Finest were probably already more popular in Europe than they had ever been in the U.S. Also, both these groups are often categorized as hard rock, not heavy metal.

So finding Straight Line Stitch was a revelation for me. One cannot deny that Alexis is quite gorgeous. In fact, she’s the only Black woman featured as one of Revolver’s “Hottest Chicks” feature (possibly a dubious honor if that) as Laina Dawes documented in her book What Are You Doing Here? I don’t know if that publication still exists or if any other Black women have been included since Alexis appeared in 2009. I kinda don’t care.

But more importantly than Alexis’ good looks is her stage presence and vocals. In fact, a review on metal-archives.com does not take too kindly to the group’s first EP: “This EP opens with a nu-metal ripoff of the heavy-as-fuck riff from Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ combined with uninspired, downtuned chugging and a a soft variation of Jamey Jasta’s vocal styling – best known as ‘I! AM! ALWAYS! YELLING!’”

However, Alexis first appeared on the 2003 EP Jagermeister where my favorite track “Bleeding Heart Theory” appeared with three other tracks. “Inside Depravation” shows off Alexis’ softer side, ending the EP on a softer note than it began with “Bleeding Heart Theory,” which opened the EP by kicking in the door.

Straight Line Stitch followed this effort the next year with Everything Is Nothing by Itself. However, from the tracks I could find, it appears that Alexis was not the vocalist for this album. The tracks I found were not bad, so to speak, but they confirmed my suspicions of the group. Alexis Brown makes all the difference. I found this as well with another heavy metal group I like: Oceans of Slumber. Cammie Gilbert was not the group’s vocalist on its first album, but it did become stronger when she joined as the frontwoman.

I don’t know why Alexis didn’t contribute her vocals to this album. Perhaps they simply felt they weren’t good for each other before realizing she indeed was meant to be at the front of this band. Maybe there was a falling out and she wasn’t invited to be in the band for this effort. I’m sure a music journalist somewhere covered this story, but it’s not really that important to me. What is important is that by 2006, Alexis was back at the helm with the group’s next album.

And here’s where it feels Straight Line Stitch really found its groove and took off.

The To Be Godlike album included two tracks that appeared on the Jagermeister EP: “Bleeding Heart Theory” and “Never See the Day.” From the beginning, the album takes advantage of Alexis’ death metal vocals and finally hits a stride musically with heavy metal that sounds like it comes from a polished group.

Furthermore, while Alexis may have the ability to sing with that death metal rage, she doesn’t have to rely on it as her only vocal style. She is also quite comfortable and effective singing in her own voice no matter which way the music style turns. In fact, she says that people are surprised to hear her actual speaking voice with some even saying she sounds like a cartoon.

Apparently, the group figured out what worked for them with this outing. Because the next year, Straight Line Stitch released the EP The Word Made Flesh. Alexis alternates between her two vocal styles. The EP helped cement their style and what distinguished them from the rest of the heavy metal lot. Hell, this album distinguished the group from its former self seven years earlier.

While the title track stands on its own as a good track, other tracks also stood strong. In fact, “The Word Made Flesh,” “Adult Cinema” and “Black Veil” (another of my favorites) were all transferred to the group’s next effort, When Skies Wash Ashore. Interestingly, “Never See the Day” also opens the album. And just so you know you’re not tripping, “What You Do to Me” is a reworking of “Bleeding Heart Theory,” which went through a couple of reincarnations in its own name previously, and was released as a single with an accompanying video.

However, another stand out from this album is the acoustic offering “Yesterday’s Gone.” Alexis shows off her vocals on the stripped down offering, proving that she can carry herself just as well without the heavy electric guitar competing with her vocally. Unlike a lot of vocalists who reach their status just by being vocally “interesting,” Alexis is actually vocally talented.

All in all, When Skies Wash Ashore feels more varied than previous efforts, taking chances in defining heavy metal. This seemed to continue with the group’s 2011 effort The Fight of Our Lives. Where the previous effort had power ballads such as “Eucharist,” this latest offering came with “Ashes in the Wind.” While these two albums showcased a softer side to the group, the latter album was not without its harder edge of the group’s previous efforts. Both “One Reason” and “Conversion” got video releases as singles.

However, even as the group appeared in rare form, it would be another four years before they released another album. (Wikipedia lists a self-titled EP from 2014, but I can’t find it in the group’s discography.) Perhaps personnel changes and other factors contributed to the long hiatus. In any case, the group returned in 2015 with the EP Transparency. They released a video for the lead single “Human Bondage,” which features Alexis sporting long blonde hair.

Interestingly, throughout the group’s lifespan, Alexis’ physical appearance has meant as much to the group as her vocals. She often wore braids all the way down to her legs and whipped them around in heavy metal headbanger style during shows. Imagine being a Black girl seeing this and feeling that much more validated as a heavy metal fan.

Furthermore, Alexis shows that heavy metal performers and fans do not have to be just one thing. She talks about her love of Harlequin romances, Disney’s Goofy and old school horror films.

And some added trivia: she was born with an extra finger on each hand, but they were cut off after her birth. So yeah that’s kinda metal huh?

It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that Alexis Brown’s presence opened the door for other Black girls who love and perform metal. After all, we now have Cammie Gilbert and Kayla Philips fronting bands. Sofia Lilja fronts Swedish outfit Nubian Rose and Carla Harvey makes up one half of the vocalists for Butcher Babies with Heidi Shepherd. Fans may be encouraged to go look up other metal pioneers such as Militia Vox and Sophia Ramos and find that Black women have been making their mark in metal for quite some time. And others may also find women like Diamond Rowe of Tetrarch who plays lead guitar. In any case, Alexis is a testament to the fact that Black girls do indeed rock ̶ hard.