Desiree and Mindy Duponte are teenaged sisters, attractive blond girls who each stand around five feet tall and have unusually tiny hands. When they tell people they're musicians, they usually get a reaction along the lines of, "Oh, you guys play in a band? That's so cute. "
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!"
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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."
Both girls played various instruments in their school bands. Mindy took classical piano lessons and also took up bass. Desiree played drums from a very early age before switching to guitar and bass. The two made music together in some form their whole lives before forming Hellen in 2004. Initially, they had a bass player, but quickly decided she wasn't needed.
"Our chemistry's a lot better as a duo," Desiree says.
"It's almost hard to feel open with other people just coming into the band," Mindy adds. "And it's also got to be intimidating going into a band with two sisters, knowing we're always going to side with each other."
Desiree and Mindy say there's no sibling rivalry, and even when they fight over "dumb things," it ends on a good note. Literally. "It's funny, because a lot of the time, the fights spawn into new songs," Desiree says. "That's how we get over a fight."
They admit trying to create a four-piece sound with two people is a challenge, but Hellen has ways of compensating. Unlike most metal skin-hitters, Mindy doesn't use a lot of blast beats in her rhythms, and she doesn't do double bass drumming. Instead, she's assembled a Ludwig drum kit similar to John Bonham's, with a big 22-inch bass drum and some extra cymbals. Her bass drum kicks are lead-footed enough to help hold up the low end without having an actual bass guitar, and her furious cymbal fills give Hellen's songs a crashing, snapping rhythm, rather than death metal's usual deep, thumping barrage beats. That she can keep such tumultuous time while singing lead vocals is no small feat.
As a guitar player, Desiree opts for a deep sound and a no-frills approach, playing solid, linear power chord progressions with no solos. That seems surprising for someone playing in a genre often characterized by noodling, finger-tapping, and tremolo tricks, but Hellen's songs are mostly vocal-driven, which is good, because this is where the sisters have the most range.
"Honestly, I am a big fan of opera. I sing a lot of opera, and it just gives me a strength and a power," Desiree says. "And that allows me to do a really heavy grunt, but I can also hit really high-pitched sounds that many people can't hit."
"And we like to do a mix of high singing and the low, metal stuff," Mindy adds. "We can both do the whole metal screaming deal. At first it was hard, it was really straining, but I've gotten used to it."
Desiree says they warm up before a lot of shows by practicing different vocal ranges. "It gets lame, if you're just doing screeching all the time," she says. "A lot of people will shut it out."
Some people may have a hard time even letting it in. The manly world of metal has only recently seen a handful of aggressive, female-fronted hard metal acts, and you can count the number of female singers who excel in the punishing death-grunt style on one hand (a finger each for Angela Gossow of Arch Enemy, Rachel Heyzer-Kloosterwaard of Occult and Sinister, and Otep Shamaya of Otep). The metal community is largely accepting of such diversity, but there are still many men who refuse to believe a woman could be more aggressive and in-your-face than a man.
"There is adversity," Mindy says. "We were at Cypress Lounge, and this guy at the bar was like, 'You have a microphone, and I can scream louder than you can.' I was like, 'Are you sure about that?' And we actually started warring on the mic."
"And she kicked his ass," Desiree says. "Apparently, she was clipping the vocal mics." (Meaning Mindy's scream was so loud that it exceeded the mic's power capacity and almost blew the speakers.)
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The sisters know they've got a lot more work to do before they fulfill their ambitions, none of which is unrealistic. Right now, their big goal is to get a gig at the Marquee Theatre in Tempe so their underage friends can attend the show. The duo has enough material for a full-length, and ultimately plans to record an album outside of their home studio (where they recorded the MP3s currently up on their MySpace page).
But unlike many new bands, Hellen isn't in a big rush to record, which can only help the quality of future releases. The sisters are adamant that they want to do many more shows in Arizona and surrounding states to solidify their songs before venturing into the studio. It's a simple plan, but a golden one if Hellen can get regional audiences hooked on their sweltering songs and high-energy live shows, their debut disc will be anticipated, but not hyped. And since the band is completely D.I.Y., the sisters are always thinking of new ways to promote themselves.
"We have ideas flowing constantly," Mindy says. "We even had an idea to stand outside on the corner of an intersection and just hold up a sign that says 'Hellen,' with Halloween masks on. We can't pay for a billboard. Maybe if we get our name out there, people will be like, 'What is this? It's not even Halloween.'"
Desiree laughs. "We come up with all kinds of weird stuff. We've always been outside-the-box people."