MachineGunFunksNotes on… The Great Kat

As a young child, Katherine Thomas studied piano and violin, and at the age of 15, received a full scholarship to study music (specifically violin) at the world-famous Julliard School in New York. There she was made concertmaster of the Julliard Pre-Collegiate Orchestra, and after graduating with honors, went on to perform violin solos at Carnegie Hall, as well as other venues in North America and Europe. Along the way, she picked up a guitar and give it a shot, and nowadays, she’s being called not only the world’s fastest female guitarist, but Guitar One recently named her as one of the top ten fastest guitarists ever.

The Great Kat is Thomas’ charismatic, tongue-in-cheek on-stage persona, which falls somewhere in-between a dominatrix and a cult leader, as she almost always dresses in tight black leather and rivets, and her antics have included referring to herself as a god and comparing herself to Beethoven. It’s presumably not meant to be taken offensively, though, considering her classical music background and certain appreciation thereof.

A lot of Kat’s music is created by putting recorded classical music scores into a sound program, where she then tweaks some elements as she sees fit, before layering it over her own speed guitar, playing alongside her band/orchestra. She is reportedly the only musician to do anything like this.

With album titles like Rossini’s Rape, Bloody Vivaldi, Beethoven on Speed, Wagner’s War (which I personally insist on pronouncing as “Vagner’s Var”), she probably won’t be drawing in the more prudent fans of classical music. However, open-minded fans of any genre (although more specifically the Yngwie Malmsteen crowd) would probably be interested in what she’s been doing for the past 20 years now…

Released in 2002, Wagner’s War is The Great Kat’s riposte to the then-very recent Sept. 11 attacks, and, according to Kat herself, was written out of “severe rage [and] HORROR out of TERRORIST ATTACK on THE WORLD TRADE CENTER AND CITY—NEW YORK CITY!” This could go either way, as I’ve never been a big fan of jingoism, but if anything, I’ll probably find it less irritating than Toby Keith. The CD (an EP clocking in at 11:06) is divided into three acts, a mimicry of an opera or classical performance, each respectively titled “WAR”, “REVENGE”, and “VICTORY” (yes, all caps).

The introductory track, a manipulation of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries—which kicks off the “WAR” act—at first sounds like it’s going to be some sort of noizecore thing (which would have made me instantly sick), but luckily it quickly picks up and is a good way to open up a war-themed album. In fact, just listening to it has motivated me to get up off of my ass, go find Osama bin Laden, and punch him in the face. Maybe this album should be standard issue for all military personnel being sent to Afghanistan. The song also makes me want to get up off of my ass and punch Fred Durst in the face. Not sure if that’s what she was going for, but as a listener I’m free to interpret it however I want.

After hearing the second track, “War” (which contains no classical elements), I understand why she’s kept these songs to about a minute-and-a-half apiece. This is basically 1:24 of raw shredding and shrieking vocals, something that most metal-heads would enjoy. While I wouldn’t say that the music is unpalatable to the uninitiated, it’s certainly a little hard to swallow, even to someone who’s been known to listen to Opeth and Anal Cunt in succession. However, whether or not the music is hard to swallow is not necessarily an issue, because one must consider that this woman is shredding so f*cking fast that most people’s arms would either fall off or just stop working. Maybe Kenny Williams should sign her to the White Sox bullpen.

Three more original compositions are sandwiched in the middle of the EP (two of which fall into the “REVENGE” act), and they are all chock full of the same raw, unabashed energy as the aforementioned “Raw”. One issue that the listener may encounter is that the melange of speed guitar, speed violin and speed drums, coupled with her often unintelligible vocals, may be the an audio fustercluck. However, there’s no denying the energy of it all, and chances are that if it’s irritating, one wouldn’t be too put out as the songs are so short that it would take more energy to skip to the next track than is justifiable.

The final, “VICTORY” act starts out with a manipulation of Liszt’s “Hungarian Symphony #2”, which I seriously cannot listen to without getting a smile on my face. I’m not sure if this track is intended to be as tongue-in-cheek as The Great Kat’s persona is, but it’s certainly working out for me as such. This is something that I could see being played during an animated Polka scene starring a bunch of dancing skeletons, done by Tim Burton. The violin and guitar really run together, though, and that takes away from it a bit. This is not as much the case in the final track—a version of Sarasate’s “Zapateado”—which I thoroughly enjoyed.

As far the DVD, Extreme Guitar Shred, goes, it’s a collection of videos featuring selected tracks, and although it is incredibly entertaining to watch her play the guitar and violin at a speed that makes it seem like she’s going to blow a gasket. “Torture Chamber” is a video that would have fit perfectly into early-’90s Headbanger’s Ball fare, juxtaposing images of Kat’s guitar play over scenes of medieval torture devices and agonized men with blood spraying all over the place. It’s aesthetically pleasing in an incredibly twisted sort of way, and combined with the similar but slightly lower budget “Dominatrix”, is the kind of the thing that makes Pat Robertson blame the music business for teen suicides and pregnancy. Fantastic.

“Castration” was enjoyable in a Troma Films kind of way, and for someone who collects the work of Mr. Kaufman, I liked it, even with the cheesy grain effect. The live snippet (filmed in Chicago; what appears to be the Metro) is entertaining and captures the raw energy of a live show, which I’d be very interested in seeing. I’m sure she’s a real blast.

On the other hand, I was actually looking forward to checking out the video “Zapateado”, which I liked on the EP, because I thought the imagery would add to the song. It all depends on what the viewer believes it adds to the songs, though, as the Jing-O-Meter hits uncharted territory. Kat’s shredding is incredible, it really is, but believe it or not, extreme jingoism can look way too corny, as it does in this video, which is a caricature and comes off much more as humorous than patriotic. She jumps around in a room with more American flags than a VFW hall, as images of the Constitution and Uncle Sam and phrases like “U.S.A.!” and “LIFE, LIBERTY AND PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS” get thrown over the screen every 10 seconds or so. It’s enough to make even Toby Keith and Sean Hannity want to vomit. While the effort is there, it comes off as a complete mess.

If you don’t find “Zapateado” even a little sickening, “War” should do the trick. Like the other videos, it featured fast-moving shots of Kat and her band, wearing military fatigues doing things like firing guns and hiding in bunkers as she shouts “KILL KILL KILL” (we even get a runner at the bottom reading the same, in case you missed it). Not particularly offensive, I guess, but the thing that I found to be disturbing was the intermingling of file footage from the Holocaust, showing dead emaciated corpses lying on ditches. This as Kat shouts “KILL KILL KILL”, and we cut to an image of the World Trade Center on fire and “9/11 – NEVER FORGET!” at the bottom, as if we are to believe that the Holocaust and 9/11 are related at all, aside from that they were two of the worst disasters in history. The Holocaust is no longer being used as a reason to attack “the enemy” (nor has it been ever since the Allies won that particular war). Moreover, it could be misconstrued as the images of dead Jews to rally around the military in outrage—in particular, an example of the piles of dead bodies that the U.S. military will create as an answer to 9/11. I’m sure that wasn’t the intent, but it was a bad choice of footage nonetheless. Sure, it’s an undeniable part of history, but it didn’t need to be there. Again, I’m not really sure how the two are linked aside from the aforementioned, and when I was finished being disturbed I was just really confused.

Other features include a photo galley, an FAQ list, and DVD credits. That’s meager pickins as far as bonus features go. Not exactly what I was looking for, as I was interested in an interview with the artist herself.

The DVD had some good moments, but was more or less a pass, unless you want to see just how terrible those last two videos were. With some higher-end production, Kat could put out a much better DVD, and I would suggest scrapping the images of the Holocaust and turn down the Jing-O-Meter a few dozen notches. I understand that the theme of patriotism is a passionate one for many people, but perhaps in a time when even the U.S. brass has admitted it’s screwed the pooch in Iraq, and the president looks like a doofus even to some of his original supporters, the jingoists might want to quiet down and just sneak out of the room quietly. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as proud to be an American as the next person is, but much like anything else, moderation is certainly a good thing.

The Great Kat – Wagner’s War
TPR Music (2002)
Rock / Metal

The Great Kat – Extreme Guitar Shred [DVD]
TPR Music (4/12/05)
Rock / Metal

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