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When I meet the sisters on a recent Saturday afternoon at Casa Blanca Lounge on Van Buren Street where their two-piece band, Hellen, is playing at an all-day music festival I think they're cute, too. They're all smiles, laughter, and bubbly enthusiasm, and from their simple skirt-or-jeans and black button-down shirt ensembles, they could almost give off the impression that they're typical teens who listen to Top 40 and maybe hit a rave or two. But if you buy that, you've missed the real deal, which is that Hellen is one of the most fierce, musically unique death metal bands in Arizona.
When the sisters start setting up onstage at Casa Blanca a spacious, homey club with one room full of big-screen TVs for sports, and another with a stage for live music the 40 or so people in the bar (mostly musicians from the other bands on the bill and middle-aged regulars wandering in from the sports bar section) aren't paying much attention. Then Hellen starts doing a mic check. After a few soft-voiced "Check, check"s into the mic, 15-year-old Mindy sits down behind her drum kit and unleashes a ferocious, high-pitched scream that sounds as if she might leap from the stage and gnaw off somebody's face. "REEEOOOOOWWWRRR!"
Mindy's 18-year-old sister Desiree (guitar and co-lead vocals) follows that with a series of deep, demonic-sounding grunts. Now they've got everyone's attention.
The set starts with a crushingly heavy death metal/grindcore song called "Ding Dong," with Mindy screeching out the lead vocals while she hammers away at her drums, and Desiree whipping her blond hair from side to side, cranking out a loud, crushing riff. That song and a psychotic childhood lullaby called "Pony" are about as close to "typical" or traditional death metal as Hellen gets. By the fourth song, it's apparent that this duo incorporates a wide variety of styles into their sound.
After the opening onslaught, the sisters launch into "Nothing Becomes of Her," a more melodic metal song that features Desiree on lead vocals, singing in a more operatic style. Two songs later, they play a punk-metal fusion song called "Lick the Gravestone," where Mindy swaps her impressive repertoire of howls and growls for some stellar standard singing. The duo harmonizes even when they're screaming on a lot of songs, and amazingly, they sound really full and bottom-heavy for not having a bass player.
Before they got onstage, Desiree and Mindy wowed me with their musical knowledge. It was a meeting of music geeks by the backstage loading doors that included the sisters' father, Jeff Duponte, a probation officer whose roster includes "Rhinestone Cowboy" singer Glen Campbell. Duponte's been instrumental in shaping his daughters' musical tastes, which are incredibly diverse and lean toward a lot of really old-school and often obscure stuff.
For example, the sisters claim one of their biggest inspirations is Arthur Brown. They are the only people born after 1975 I've ever met who've even heard of Brown, an outrageous singer whose only hit was the No. 2 single "Fire" in 1968, and whose over-the-top stage shows heavily influenced Alice Cooper. I know of Arthur Brown because my father used to sing his songs around the house, and like myself, Desiree and Mindy are part of a generation weaned on our parents' music. Perhaps that's why the Duponte sisters don't fall into the current heavy metal trends of formulaic screaming, machine-gun rhythms, and ghoulish stage makeup they're iconoclasts, like the music they and their dad love.
"One of our first shows was Rick Derringer, when we were, like, 2," Desiree says. "We really love classic rock."
"Those are the greats, you know what I mean?" Mindy adds. "I almost wish I could have grown up in the '70s. You're not really seeing that many superpowers from this era. It's like everybody is just wanting a little piece of the pie at that moment, and nothing else."
Desiree's favorite guitarist is Jeff Beck, and Mindy's favorite drummers include John Bonham (Led Zeppelin), Terry Bozzio (Frank Zappa), and Dennis Chambers (Santana/Parliament-Funkadelic). So why did these two nice girls, these classic rock junkies, decide to play seriously heavy metal?
Well, they're fans, for starters. They love a number of contemporary metal bands, including Devil Driver, Lacuna Coil, Coal Chamber, Nightwish, and Static-X. But it's also about the primal feeling of metal for them.
"I love how crazy it is," Mindy says. "I have a really boisterous personality, and I just love the raw emotion of metal. And it's so powerful. Nothing else comes close to it. And I love the mosh pits and feeding off energy."
Though they love the chaos inherent in metal, there's a precision to what Hellen does as well, which stems from growing up in a family of musicians.
"We've been playing since we were kids, different instruments all the time," Mindy says. "I started drumming when I was 4."