Tape Wyrm IV: Metal Vocals Tape Wyrm IV: Metal Vocals

The Breaking Point
This piece was started for my brother but can apply to everyone. I have found that many people’s adversity to heavy metal does not rest in its distorted instrumentation nor its sometimes dark lyrics. The breaking point with heavy metal usually comes through the type of vocals the listener is willing to tolerate. Distorted vocals are relatively new when compared to the history of music. Yelling in music can be traced back to blues but has become more common place after the introduction of punk rock and heavy metal. The voice is a versatile instrument able to explore an array of textures and tones. While consonance has been the preferred aim for the voice, there exists just as many dissonant destinations. Shrieking, growling and gurgling are all popular points in heavy metal’s descent into madness. While the performance level of these skills, compared to its cleaner counterpart, can certainly be debated (by other people with more knowledge of the subject), heavy metal’s vocals can add just as much dimension to the music as the instrumentation. This is, of course, true if one can get through an entire song let alone an album. Much like riding a horse, conditioning plays a large factor in the level of tolerance. After many years of listening to heavy metal, gurgling and shrieking seem more commonplace. This makes for interesting dinner parties when your guests recoil in horror to your choice of desert music. I am not here today to advocate the abandonment of all aesthetic tolerance rather to make you aware of a possible path for anyone willing to make the descent. The below list is arranged on what I believe to be a scale of accessibility starting with the most and ending with the least. My brother, who is a fan of heavy metal, cannot pull himself into the third level. Perhaps a bit of history and reasoning is all he needs to shed those last few layers before giving himself over to complete madness. Just like riding a horse, one maybe sore and bruised at first but eventually they can ride the flaming stallion into the dead of night.

No Vocals
Starting the scale of metal vocals is a style without metal vocals. Instrumental metal is a style of music which positions itself around, unsurprisingly, instrumental music. Whenever constructing a playlist for metal vocals inundation, I always begin with songs and albums that present the music without the addition of vocals. To appreciate the voice as an instrument one must also look as the instruments as not just a backing band for the voice. Instrumental metal songs should be able to rouse interest despite the absence of lyrics and choruses. The thesis of the song should be able to transcend linguistic borders and deliver any message without the use of words. While I have placed instrumental metal at the top, some people simply dislike instrumental music and thus would enjoy level 1 rather than 0. While this is certainly normal, the reliance on the voice as a premiere pillar of a song perhaps lies at the root of the aversion of distorted melodies.
Stormwitch – Excalibur
Metallica – Orion
Pelican – March Into The Sea
Falkenbach – Asaland

Level 1: Clean & Operatic
Heavy metal began with clean vocals as it grew out of psychedelic music. For the better part of 10 years, heavy metal’s vocals remained clean with only sparse instances of deviation. It was not until the early 80’s when the vocals became more gruff and began to display areas of dissonance. Speed metal and thrash metal took the voice and added layers of dirt on top. At around the same time, power metal and traditional doom sheltered the voice using its operatic capabilities for their own means. The operatic and clean sound certainly exists throughout all areas of metal but is sometimes ignored for its harsher cousins. Regardless, the delivery of words via clean and flawless voice is not uncommon rather it is one of many choices in heavy metal — something that is absent across the greater styles of music.
Blind Guardian- Voice In The Dark (power metal)
Iron Maiden – The Trooper (NWOBHM)
Candlemass – Bewitched (traditional doom)
Sleep – Dragonaut (stoner metal bridge)

Level 2: Yelling & Screaming
The yelling and screaming level makes up a large part of heavy metal as the amount used by band varies greatly. The yelling and screaming is usually what most people consider to be the definition of heavy metal. This is of course true because the large majority of mainstream metal bands yell and scream. It is difficult to sell a listener on high levels of vocal distortion when that person is unable to buy into yelling and screaming. Yelling and screaming can be seen as emotional punctuation onto their lyrics. This punctuation could be a period, comma, an exclamation mark or an entire paragraph bolded, underlined and typed in all caps. Yelling and screaming is usually thought of as the cries of adolescent music ripe with hormones and angst. While some of the songs do deal with emotional themes, yelling and screaming should not be thought of as performance rather than reaction. Yelling and screaming is the first step to vocal distortion to match chaotic instrumentation.

Electric Wizard – Funeraloplis (stoner metal bridge)
Baroness – Isak (sludge / misc)
Slayer – Angel Of Death (thrash metal)
Soilwork – Millionflame (melodic death bridge)

Level 3: Shrieks & Growls
The shriek and the growl are the results of extreme metal’s quest to distance themselves from traditional music. Extreme metal’s escalation of instrumentation and vocals led to a technique separate from previous styles. Both styles spun off from thrash and are now associated with black and death metal but can be traced back to Possessed’s 1985 release Seven Churches. The high banshee shriek is most commonly associated with black metal as the low guttural growl by death metal innovators. the shriek and growl are another common breaking point as the voice begins to loose all structure when delivering words. The lyrics become almost indistinguishable from each other. The shriek and the growl see the voice as an instrument as they merely become components to stand along side of riffs, basslines and drumbeats.

Death – Born Dead (old school death metal bridge)
Bathory – Blood Fire Death (black metal)
Emperor -Towards the Pantheon (black metal)
Suffocation – Liege of Inveracity (death metal bridge)

Level 4: Squeals, Croaks & Gurgles

Squeals, Croaks and Gurgles is less a new category as a region of the previous. In fact it is relegated to a few bands who felt the need to be goddam ridiculous. The desire to push past shrieking and growling appeared during the early 90s with Finnish technical death metal band Demilich and their 1993 record Nespithe. Demilich showcased complicated songs with a low resonating gurgle which was both inhuman as it was unsettling. It sounded like vomit. Literally. The desire to become more inhuman in the voice aligned with extreme metal’s desire for disfigurement. Brutal death metal and deathgrind would further bury the vocals to where the lyrics became camouflaged behind drumbeats and guitar riffs. The “pig squeal” is achieved through inward breathing and mimics the high pitched cry of a pig. Inward screaming has been traced back to Cryptopsy in the early 1990’s but has now become the flagship of deathcore. The lower levels of vocal distortion bypass all reasonable precautions when it comes to vocal preservation. At this point, I am unaware of any level deeper than the Squeal, Croak and Gurgle but I would not be surprised if there was one which existed with the aid of power tools. For now we can consider this the bottom — until another band comes along and challenges our definition of vocal normality.
Devourment – Devour the Dammed (death metal bridge)
Peste Noire – Dueil Angoisseus (black metal)
Mortician- Ghost House (deathgrind)
Annotations of an Autopsy – Gore Gore Gadget (deathcore)

2 Responses about “Tape Wyrm IV: Metal Vocals”

  • Shannon says:

    Hello, I found your article on the three levels of metal vocal stylings–nay, virtuosity–to be extremely lucid and timely. Thank you. Your helpful and accurate analysis, bolstered with citations of relevant examples, helped put my own thoughts on the subject into order. I too, look forward to the next evolutionary(or counter-evolutionary)step in the development of vocalized mayhem by those few consummate vocal craftsmen whom are willing and able to engage in such Stygian excess. Suffice it to say. I am interested in trading playlists and the like, as such anamolous metal entities warrant. If you have the time, etc. Toward the bottom of Level 3, may I submit some favorites and new discoveries of my own: FERMENTO, KATALEPSY, PSUEDOSTRATIFIED EPITHILEUM, and ABOMINABLE PUTRIDITY. Do have have any similar recommendations? Also do you know of any bands that sob and weep song lyrics such as BETHLEHEM? Thank you again,
    Shannon Townsend

  • Shannon says:

    Ooops I meant Level 4/5!