Friday, 24 August 2012

Stop photocopying me, photocopying me, me: Metal Vocals No Need?

Over at Metalsucks, Vince Neilstein wrote a deliberately provocative piece on the relative irrelevance of the contemporary metal vocalist. His argument is that in general “melodic” vocals are not “metal” enough and that industry standard growls (aka “cookie monster”) are largely interchangeable. 

To a degree, Neilstein has a point and it is one that resonates with one I have been making for a while. In a lot of contemporary/modern metal the melodic vocal blueprint still relies too heavily (for this writer’s taste) on the metalcore thus emo, punk and post-hardcore aesthetics that preceded it. An example of this can be seen on the new Periphery album where Linkin Park-esque approach to clean vocals rips the listener out what should be a tech fest orgy and crams her/him into a Top 40 purgatory of nostalgia. Melodic metal vocals have been done well for a long time from Dio to Devin and Dickinson to Dawnbringer.

Meanwhile, Neilstein is right to point out the obsolescence of the metal growl (though this is a point that has been made for a while) but does in my opinion go too far in dismissing them as an “any teenager with a mic can do them”. Just like melodic vocals, however, the approach to the cookie monster in the room is what determines their value. After all, love him or hate him, ex-Cannibal Corpse main man Chris Barnes had a distinctive and disturbing voice. The same can be said for Obituary’s John Tardy or Morbid Angel’s David Vincent.

Then we arrive at the middle ground, a space between cookie monster and crooner, more of a gruff singing or shouting that may include melodic elements to varying degrees. This is where Phillip Anselmo, Randy Blythe, Dez Fafara, Matt Pike and others weigh in. Here their voices are an obvious extension of personality and experience and are unmistakably those of men (and women) with vision, ideas and passion. These vocalists are the biggest oversight in Neilstein’s piece. The vocalist as a poet. Not hype-man, front-man or band leader, but poet. A person who has a way with words both in writing and in delivery.

In the present age of cut-paste-remix-remake, the endless copying has the effect of preserving certain aspects of contemporary phenomena but also curiously homogenizing them to the standards of the zeitgeist. Where in the past we might simply have unearthed the alternatives somewhere down the temporal track, we now live in an era of endlessly, exponentially bifurcating reproduction. In other words diversity and complexity gets compressed and dismissed into “meh”s and “tl;dr”s. The effect of this on vocals in metal is that of standardization of certain approaches which are reproduced and distributed at incredible speeds.

In other words, what cookie monster-isms and other vocal specificities might have meant in the past is obscured by their universal de-historicised, displaced existence in the present. Moments in time and place are reduced to “that’s just the way it is”. What I believe is that true innovation, originality and passion arises from the relationship between ourselves and our contexts. When we step out of the zeitgeist, when we dare to get meta on our own stylistic, personal and aesthetic meta-narratives we are able to exceed the limits of the known and create something new. In the meantime, though, it is wise for all of us, metal head and other to not become jaded and desensitized to possibility simply because our cognitive processing speed is outpaced by the cloud.

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