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.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Mike Scheidt – Stay Awake

Yob main man’s solo acoustic adventure walks the path of other doom, sludge contemporaries gone alone (Steve Von Till, Wino, etc) but takes a few more interesting detours. Where others embrace dark Americana or basically just soun like themselves unplugged, Scheidt brings the psyche through layers of harmony and keeps the multiple vocal approach of Yob to create light and shade. An excellent spiritual companion piece to Om’s latest Advaitic Songs.

Eagle Twin – The Feather that Tipped the Serpent’s Scale (Review)

Second long player from the Southern Lord signed, William Blake loving Salt Lake City stalwarts. Gorgeously down tuned (is Gentry still using baritone guitar?), mind crushing distortion, lyrical drumming and poetic, Cain and Abel inspired throat sung vocals. Complex, drone and doom, takes more than a few listens to get what is going on but is surprisingly accessible. Is it out on vinyl yet?

Friday, 17 August 2012

The Faceless - Autotheism (Review)

Metal, like most genres is fickle. Most bands, especially at the extreme ends of the musical spectrum (tech-death, grindcore) are lucky to have one good album and spend the rest of their careers reprising, retreading and recycling it. Sometimes a recycle or a rehash is perfectly sufficient (it is hard to deny the radness of Decrepit Birth's Diminishing... and Polarity... even if they are the same album)  and sometimes it is disappointing.

The Faceless stand out among their peers as one of the few who have innovated, stayed true to a core sound and pushed in unexpected directions (especially melody). When everyone went for brutality and the breakdown, they went for speed and rhythmic complexity. When everyone else caught up, The Faceless turned to melody.

Melody is one of the most contentious areas of metal. Bundled tightly into this complex musicological concept are issues key to its core: masculinity, sexuality and that word: brutality. I have on many occasions praised atonality but perhaps I need to clarify my position. By atonality I do not mean one or two notes played in the lower registers contrasted with a tritone some octaves above. That is far too played out, it is done and it is not really that metal.

I am not referring to the rhythmic grunts and shreiks of metals uglier genre forms. When I say atonal, I am evoking a deliberate approach to melody that foregrounds consciousness and purpose in relation to standard melodic rules. From twelve tone theory to modal superimposition, to the drones of Sunn0))) and early Earth and the deconstructive, expectation defying approach of cool jazz.

On Autotheism, The Faceless emerge from an intellectual tunnel and demonstrate a cognitive and physical grasp of these concepts far greater than my own mediocre understandings. Supremely melodic and underpinned with a vocal approach that dares to step out of the zeitgeist (sorry Periphery, I get what you are doing but it just doesn't ring my bell) it is listenable on multiple levels from the technical to just flat out enjoyment of songs. Though starkly different to other tech albums released this year (Spawn of Possession's Incurso and Gorod's Perfect Absolution) it is a shining example of what metal can achieve when it is conscious of purpose, knowledgeable of the present and performed with an ear to originality.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Purity of the Sabbath

Lost in the wheels of confusion
Running through furnace of tears
Eyes full of angered illusion
Hiding in everyday fears

- Black Sabbath, Wheels of Confusion, 1972

People, whether performers or spectators often get lost in music. Christians may indeed claim to be found in it. Musical loss, I feel, is equally to do with memory as it is with non-linguistic expression and cognition. Like the scent of wisteria among the early heat and buzz of bees at the start of northern summer - melodic, rhythmic and harmonic expressions transport us through time, mood and cognition – sometimes in ways we cannot expect.

Last night I played Black Sabbath’s Vol 4 for the first time in months. I felt my body move, my head nod and a certain almost religious departure from my day as I was transported to the alternate realities of Snowblind, Wheels of Confusion and Supernaut. Undoubtedly there is something holy about the Sabbath. I do not mean in a super-fan, hagiographic way but rather there is sentiment, ritual and tradition embedded in Sabbath that is evoked even in the present by today’s doom bands like Electric Wizard, Church of Misery, Ramesses, Ufomammut and Yob.

But what is doom? To ask is akin to beg the same of jazz or the blues. You are likely to get answers such as: “if you have to ask…” or with apologies to Fats Weller: “If you don’t know by now, don’t mess with it”. This is not to be neither needlessly opaque nor a descent into the vagueness of “meaning differently for each person”. The point is that even while doom has recognizable musicological elements and frequently utilizes a range of identifiable lyrical themes there also remain less readily definable aspects which can be generally grouped as being “felt”. 

Doom stands alone among its post blues rock peers. More introspective than rock and less flamboyant. More individual, more disillusioned and dismissive than punk of peer approval (the irony). From the outwardly visible long haired hesher to the black t-shirt in the garage on a Sunday afternoon and the unemployed Buddhist teacher: doom is practiced, performed yet never preached. A religion without sermons but instead with stories.