Washington Think Tank: Point-Counterpoint
It’s been a while, citizens, but the vox populi must not be silenced. It is time yet again to lend me your ears, hearts, and minds that we may together dig deep into the blackened soul of this genre we love to identify the best examples of an excellent musical technique. Let us work together that we may extol that which should be praised.
Today’s Question: What’s the best example of vocal counterpoint in metal?
Musical counterpoint is the use of two or more voices within a song that although working together to create a harmonious polyphony contrast each other in rhythm and pitch. The technique is often deployed in metal between two guitars (see Krallice’s “Over Spirit” and the arching duel between Marston and Barr’s theatrics) or between the guitars, bass, and keys (as evidenced in Randall’s beloved Windir and their excellent sognametal).
However, counterpoint can at times be found within the unlikely confines of extreme metal vocal performances. When done properly, the binary nature of two competing growls or alternating screams and melodic lines can be used to tremendous effect. Most bands seem reluctant to use the technique, though, perhaps fearing the outright cheesiness of symphonic metal bands with two vocalists. There are noteworthy examples to be seen, however, so let’s examine two excellent contenders:
Exhibit A: Neurosis – “At the Well”
Although I’ve previously written about this song for the blog, it bears repeating due to the sheer mastery with which it was crafted. Of particular interest for this Think Tank though is the way that Kelley and von Till layer counterpoint vocals over top one another after repeated measures within the final minutes of the song. The final third or so of the track is dedicated to a cathartic refrain of “In a shadow world!” At around the 8:30 mark, though, a second refrain joins the song and adds “We hide in light” to form a hocket between the two voices. Both lines are mounted by a final lyric that closes the track in a truly beautiful and powerful climax.
The paths become clear, the road’s true
Oaths have been sworn.
The temporal spiral away,
Among the teeth of time.
Exhibit B: Cult of Luna and Julie Christmas – “Cygnus”
In this brand new example from the excellent new Mariner album by Cult of Luna and Julie Christmas, the band triumphantly concludes the ultimate track with a coiling, almost five-minute sequence wherein each repeated measure gains a new layer featuring a different piece, either instrumental or vocal. Skip ahead to the 10:00 mark to hear the beginning of this stunning closer. After Julie Christmas repeats the final refrain once, a second vocal track featuring her simply harmonizing joins the first track. After about two minutes, Christmas adds a third vocal melody line to the proceedings which ultimately gets accented by a fourth vocal track from Johannes Persson. Four vocal tracks, all singing at different rhythms to create a beautiful, overwhelming aural tapestry that acts as the defining point of the entire album. I’ll admit that I was initially reticent about this release, but this single track and its momentous final five minutes utterly enthralled me and won me over. Such is the power of the counterpoint.
You may have noticed that I provided two relatively recent albums. Perhaps there’s an example of vocal counterpoint in extreme metal that stands out to you as a shining achievement of artistry. Perhaps it pulls on your heartstrings in ways that few metal songs do. I want to hear it. Sound off in the comments below and let me know what voices I should be hearing.
Don’t know what the Washington Think Tank is? This is a periodic column where your former President poses a pressing question and allows the top minds at the Toilet ov Hell to investigate his query.