Is It All Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing? A Discussion of Vocals in Metal
Are vocals necessary in heavy metal music? A recent thread in one of the toilet dwellers’ lairs led me to ponder this question. The thread was specifically asking for reasons why metalheads just can’t dig certain bands; the main complaint was almost unanimously leveled at vocals that detract from the overall quality of the music. However, I think it would be foolish to assert, as some other uninformed bloggers have, that vocals are completely irrelevant in heavy metal. I contend that vocals are extremely relevant for most bands and that the reason they can so easily ruin the music is because they are an integral component of a band’s sonic palette. In this opinion piece, I’m going to lay down three arguments to convince you that anyone who thinks metal vocalists are worthless is an imbecile.
1. Vocals act as the mechanism for delivering a message.
I know what you’re thinking. “W., most metal lyrics are total garbage.” Honestly, I agree with you, at least to a point. However, despite the often pointless violence espoused in metal lyrics, vocalists act as a focal point for emotional energy and enhance the emotional timbre a particular band is trying to convey. Therefore, vocalists are absolutely necessary for conveying a particular message. I’ll illustrate this point with two examples.
First, vocalists add emotional depth to a song even when the lyrics are childish gibberish or horror movie nonsense. Metal musicians are extremely good at creating rich sonic expressions of emotion, ranging from the brooding fear of a particularly icy riff to the unbound ferocity of a d-beat attack. However, good vocals, regardless of what is actually being said, can act as a resonance tool onto which human psyches can latch. We are all familiar with what an anguished scream sounds like; we need not hear any words to understand the language of pain. Extreme metal vocals are particularly good at emanating that emotional connection and touching us at our soul. As an illustration, I’d like to exhibit Into Eternity’s “Diagnosis Terminal.” I don’t actually dislike the lyrics for this song, but Stu Block’s various growls, shrieks, and plaintive cries perfectly capture the mindset of a cancer patient being told he only has a limited time left to live. Even if the lyrics were utter rubbish, I believe the sound of pain is transmitted (it probably helps that the album was conceived during a period of mourning over the deaths of friends lost to cancer). This is audible agony, and it would still be evident if the lyrics were removed, but the meaning would not be clear if the vocals themselves were absent.
Second, particularly good vocalists can use the poetry of words to add another dimension to the depth of a song. When the lyrics, vocal sounds, and music of a song are all in sync, it can be an overwhelming aural attack that strips away your safeguards and leaves you vulnerable. Although many maintstream metal vocalists have the poetic skills of a toddler, there a number of fantastic metal lyricists. J. R. Hayes seems like the obvious choice, but I’d like to present a different example. My evidence for this is Nux Vomica’s song “Choked at the Roots.” Read the lyrics below while jamming this track.
Seeds were planted long ago – mistrust
Our natural instincts choked at the roots
Love, sharing, compassion – we lost
Overgrown by fear, greed and envy
So while we learned to cultivate and sow
We also learned to fight and kill
And the blood began to flow
Unchecked desires for power and control
Became the dominant forces in our world
We know what’s right or wrong
Without having to stop and think
And we know when we’ve done wrong
If we listen to our instincts
Yet we tear apart what’s good
And dissect with prejudice
So many positive things
Distracted by the noise, we spend our time collecting toys
Instinct becomes skewed, atrophied from lack of use
The deadening of instinct creates creatures emotionally weak
We are spinning out of control
We’ve got our life support in a chokehold
Soon the time will come
That we face up to what we’ve done
Disconnected from our normal state
We let the tension turn to hate
Beaten down by all the stress
We can’t afford true happiness
Smart enough to see the truth
But out of touch with primal roots
Taught to see a certain way
And to ignore what we can’t see
Now the time has come
That we face up to what we’ve done
The final war that won’t be won
Will be waged without a gun
Without a gun
It won’t be god
It will be us
Now we see a world society
Dominated by poisoned thinking
The signs are all around us that most people don’t want this
But it’s accepted that’s the way things are
And no one is normal in this environment
And no one is healthy with this mental bombardment
And so we’re destroying ourselves
When the judgement comes
It won’t be god, it will be us
Reflected in a pool of oily blood
A murky, shadowy, fractured image
Of what we know
We could be
Although the paranoia and frustration are more than evident in the vocal delivery, the lyrics themselves draw attention and focus that angst towards those responsible, acting as a locus for the aggression of the music. The message serves the vocals which in turn serve the instruments; the three are interconnected, and the final product would be weaker if one was removed.
2. The vocals act as an anchor for the structure of the song.
Most music critics would agree that extreme metal musicians are typically highly skilled at their trade. However, I’m sure we’re all familiar with the overly technical bands (often on the death metal side) that underutilize their vocalists and end up producing albums that sound like auditory masturbation sessions. I’m not claiming that unconventional song structures are bad; Gojira and a host of other bands are able to write music that goes beyond the verse-chorus-verse template while retaining listener interest. I am saying that having a good vocalist can force the musicians to be more careful with how they craft a song in order to produce the maximal effectiveness. Again, I’ll provide two examples.
My first example is Jeff Loomis. Hear me out; I think he’s a fantastic guitarist, and I don’t dislike his music. However, I find that his pre-solo career is exceedingly more intriguing that his recent outputs. Compare Conquering Dystopia’s “Ashes of Lesser Men” to Nevermore’s “This Godless Endeavor.” There’s something missing, right? Without the focus provided by Warrell Dane’s apocalyptic wails, Loomis’s music is far more bloated and wanky than necessary. Are there good riffs in there? Absolutely, but I can’t help but think that the Conquering Dystopia album would have been much more memorable if the songs had been crafted to serve an actual purpose beyond showing how good the musicians involved are.
Another example of this is Scale the Summit. Again, I don’t dislike the music, and I can’t deny that the guys in the band are technically skilled. However, without a vocalist, all of their songs tend to blend together into a single blur. The relatively simple note progressions get lost in a haze of similarity without something to captivate the listener. This is a problem that plagues a number of the high-profile instrumental bands, and I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I can’t pick out one unique song on a number of instrumental albums. Much instrumental metal is sadly like a landscape painting without some unique feature to catch the eye; there’s technical proficiency, but no real distinction.
3. Vocals add diversity to a band’s sound.
This point is tied to the second argument, but I believe this topic is critical enough to warrant its own explanation. Vocals, when added to metal, are much like a spice. If you add just the right amount, they can bring out a whole range of flavors from an otherwise bland dish. Guttural growls are sort of like jalapeno juice added to chicken tacos; if the seasoning is good, the original dish can become even more brutal without being overbearing. However, if you haphazardly throw spices at a dish, you could end up with a salty mess. The key here is to use the vocals properly to magnify the strength of the song itself. Below are two last examples that demonstrate the proper use of vocals to add that extra x-factor to a band’s sound.
First, vocals can be used to incorporate a slightly different and unexpected, yet not unwelcome, element into a band’s sound. I’ll use the group Leprous to illustrate this point. Leprous are essentially Ihsahn’s backing band, and as such, the progressive group often veers into extreme and blackened territory. However, the impressive range of their vocalist Einar Solberg allows the band to both plumb the gritty avant-garde depths and to soar to near power-metal range. This group would already be a collection of superbly talented musicians, but the vocal diversity enables them to graft even more options onto their sonic Frankenstein’s monster. Listen to The Valley” and tell me that the vocals aren’t utterly enchanting.
The second way in which vocals can increase the uniqueness of a group is by allowing that band to stand out in a crowded subgenre. Deathgrind is a heavily saturated genre, and many of the bands sound very similar. However, back in 2012 Cattle Decapitation found a way to surpass their peers by allowing Travis Ryan to dabble in some unconventional deathgrind vocal techniques. The end result is the insurmountable Monolith of Inhumanity. Cattle Decapitation were already a great band, but by allowing Travis Ryan to incorporate even the slightest hint of melody into his already expansive range, the group gave themselves the necessary edge to climb to the top of the pile.
In conclusion, vocalists are not only an important, but for many bands, an essential component of heavy metal. Vocalists enable bands to emote far beyond the capabilities of instruments, provide focus to unwieldy song structures, and enhance the overall diversity of a band’s sonic signature. For these reasons, I decry anyone who claims vocalists are unnecessary in metal as a raving lunatic.
TLDR: If someone tells you vocalists are unnecessary in metal, ram your fist down that idiot’s throat and rip out his vocal chords. Then ask him if he thinks vocals are unnecessary.