.Editorial - Harsh Vocals: Who Needs Them?
Metal Reviews

Release year: 0
Reviewed by Alex

This editorial has been inspired by some fan starting a discussion on one of my recent reviews, The Gallery by Dark Tranquillity. While being completely in accord with my praises about the musical side of the album, the fan said how gruff vocals turn him off. This got me thinking, of course. While not being the answer to all questions, this editorial will try to address some issues: why gruff vocals are viable, what they represent, are they art, etc.

I will be honest with you. I have started listening to metal in the early 80s. However, you could hardly find an album with not clean vocals in my collection until 5 years ago. Just like so many others I was not getting it. It is hard for me to say what was my turning point, but nowadays a good half of my 900 CD collection is not sung in a canonical way.

To those of you who immediately want the refund when they hear a growl coming out of your speakers. Guys, you are not alone. I have many friends who have the same trouble. Anything with a vocal not emulating Kiske, Dickinson or Halford is met with suspicion. Excellent metal albums with extreme vocals get overlooked, while a lot of cleanly sung mediocrity receives attention. To those of you, maybe this will make you see the light, just I like did a few years ago.

The paragraph above has the word “extreme” in it. If extreme metal appeals to you in any way, you simply must open your heart to harsh vocal styles. With its drumming inhumanely fast, riffs - pounding submission, leads – twisted displays of technicality, the vocals of the extreme metal styles would have to be extreme. Anything less simply would not fit. The message is anger, aggression, frustration, desperation, total hopelessness – would you expect this to be delivered in a nice sweet angelic manner? Just about any band in any of the extreme genres assumes an image. Death metal hatred of the world humanity created, black metal worship of Satan or other creepy evil things – I am not sure anybody would be convinced if this was delivered with high-pitched ah-ohs. Throaty growl or piercing shrieks – if you understand the darkness and fury of the music, you will desire harsh vocals. Melodicism of Gothenburg gets a reinforcing jolt of growls, and Floridian death metal style is so much more powerful with the grunts. The mayhemic maelstrom of black metal would be a total pretense without a banshee shriek. I vividly imagine Vikings dealing with their reality listening to Enslaved, Finntroll and Thyrfing, mostly because of melodies and those screamy gravely vocals. Gothic bands are that much more appealing to me when they go for a “Beauty and the Beast” contrasting approach. Tristania, Sirenia, The Sins of Thy Beloved and After Forever perfected this. Slow doom bands are the most convincing when ultra low guttural voice presents the lyrics. So, here is one of my points – with the image and the message extreme metal genres project, the usage of clean vocals would be nearly laughable.

Some, not so kind, and, dare I say, not so knowledgeable, say that the bands resort to harsh vocals, because it is so much more difficult to find a vocalist who can actually sing. Yeah, on some low quality, garage band level, it may be true. Still, quality musicians, like Chuck Schuldiner (RIP), recognize what belongs in Death and what belongs in Control Denied. Same can be said about Stefan Weinerhall of Mithotyn/Falconer. Some bands, I feel Children of Bodom belongs in this category, use dirty vocals, so they concentrate on the music (here comes the first wave of hate messages). With them, vocals are somewhat of an afterthought, as Alexi Laiho bark, I am sure, has made as many Children of Bodom haters as their excellent music made fans. The truth is, it is NOT EASY to sing extreme metal. I once read an interview with stunning Angela Gossow of Arch Enemy where she described the vocal exercises she had to do to keep her voice, throat, esophagus, etc. in shape. If you think it is easy – try it. I can guarantee you will rip your vocal chords and be suffering from laryngitis after 30 min of an average growl. Those guys (and girls) train themselves. Yeah, they are not opera singers to eat a yolk every 5 min, but they need stamina and skills.

Some bands start out harsh, and then mellow out (Paradise Lost, Katatonia). Some bands replace growly singers with clean ones, and turn their styles around (Sentenced, Amorphis). Some bands start combining both styles once they “mature” and want to reach new planes (Dark Tranquillity, Soilwork, In Flames). Some bands even issue separate albums to emphasize both sides of their personality (Opeth). Some do it well, some don’t. Some receive praises for being adventurous, some receive cries of sell-outs (but I would leave that for Marty to address).

Interestingly enough, a lot of these “transformations” are a one way street. I just named a ton of bands that started out in the harsh vocal department and now use clean vocals sparingly or fully. I can’t come up with a single example of doing it the opposite way. Food for thought.

As with everything, there are passable and excellent extreme metal vocalists. If you are testing the waters, you wouldn’t want to start with somebody way below par. Don’t repeat one of my friend’s mistake by picking up Battlelust and thinking this is all extreme metal has to offer. My personal favorites include Mikael Stanne (Dark Tranquillity), Johan Hegg (Amon Amarth), Angela Gossow (Arch Enemy), Tomas Lindberg (while in At The Gates), Matti Karki (Dismember), Johnny (Unleashed, as of late) in death metal, Garm (Ulver, Arcturus, or whichever name he is known under these days), Galder (Old Man’s Child), Abbath (Immortal), Jens Ryden (Naglfar), Vintersorg in black metal, Aaron Stainthorpe (My Dying Bride), Paul Kuhr (Novembers Doom) in doom metal. Then there are people who can sing in any voice and I would eat it up. Count Dan Swano in this category. By the same token some of the big names leave me unaffected: Ihsahn (Emperor), Quorthon (Bathory), L-G Petrov (Entombed), Dani Filth (Cradle of Filth, well he probably has as many haters, as he has admirers).

In the end – all I want to say is “to each his own”. I’ll add this though. Looking back, had I not opened my heart to harsh vocals, my life in metal would be incomplete. So many memorable moments would be missed. Open your ears, your brain and your heart! Embrace it all!

Killing Songs :
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