Guttural vocals are the only true vocal innovation in metal as other singing styles are derived from other genres. The growed vocal technique is a combination of multiple frequencies and is harmonically too rich to be treated in the same way as more tonal styles. Since they are different to all that came before them they must be analyzed differently. And as metal continues to be penetrated by the mainstream it is important to understand what should be expected from a vocalist and what each one brings to the table since as humans we are inclined to judge vocals first.
In the spirit of understanding the wide variety that the technique has to offer, take a look at some of the more interesting and/or well known vocalists that death metal has given us throughout the years: (more…)
For those who keep up with the finer things in life — whisky, pipes, cigars and fully automatic weapons — a new video details the “breath smoking” technique that, while seemingly lost to time, is how most experienced smokers enjoy their pipes.
To be a writer, if you are any good, is to be a blasphemer. Humanity is an entropy engine because each person decides on what view of the world makes them look the best, and so the constant weight pushing down on us is that of the herd, of a group of individuals united only by selfishness, come together into a mob for the purpose of asserting their right to be different and unique, constantly leading away from an understanding of the world around us and any meaning that can be found in it.
The leading representative of Swedish industry around the world, Ikea, sells furniture of styles from a dozen nations. It has a housewares section, a full-service cafeteria, a donut shop and a grocery store. You can pick up electric lights, tools, houseplants and home decor there.
But conspicuously absent are the most important items from Sweden in recent memory: Swedish death metal and black metal.
Death Fortress play a truly bellicose version of black metal but not in the Blasphemy war-metal style aped by pointless tribute acts. Deathless March of the Unyielding is minimalist in that it eschews all excessive instrumentation like all the best black metal. Guitars slash out streams of elegiac tremolo melodies or simply strummed chords (there are no leads or trippy guitar effects). The drums either play blasts or dominant marching rhythms. Vocals orate battle commands or agonizingly recount Pyrrhic victories. The overall theme of the music seems to be battles with no heroes and wars with no victors. It’s a deconstruction of Graveland‘s or Bathory‘s style that brought forth the glorious aspect of defeating and conquering: war is still the object in question but the subject isn’t life; it is sorrowful, lonely death.
The melodies are crafted with a tenuous balance between intense grimness and clouded dejection. This is music about warriors and war but not in the fantastical sense that black metal usually takes: no witchcraft or frozen forests are to be found here, only shredded tank tracks, bent artillery barrels, crushed bodies of hapless infantry infused in twisted heaps of smoldering slag, and blackened holes gouged into the earth itself. A useful comparison would be Sammath‘s mid-period output of Dodengang and Triumph in Hatred, though those albums reveal a deeply heartfelt motivation to illustrate the gruesome carnage of warfare without completely abandoning the near-romantically empathetic ties to the fallen fighter. Death Fortress take a more distant, aloof approach, neither glorifying nor condemning the act or outcome and treating the soldier as another soulless statistic. Both bands approach the horrific topic with a sternly wide-eyed, unflinching resolve, giving us the opportunity to witness visions far more stark and distressing than the cartoonish swords ‘n’ sorcery take on combat that black metal too often peddles.
Yet this album suffers from a major drawback: the musicians share the contemporary tendency to disappear up their own asses in wringing all emotive potential from a line of melody. There aren’t any comically awufil or idiotic chord progressions but some of them are inappropriate and others repeated for far too long. The songs have plenty of breathing room and the band never seem to be at a loss for direction or trying to cram in too many lyrics before their riffs overstay their welcome. At times, it’s too easy to become impatient while waiting for the band to introduce the next segment. No amount of drum fills or effects trickery would fix this; the fat needs to be trimmed and the compositions made more concise. A leaner, more refined Death Fortress could easily rise above the better-than-average position in which they sit now.
When receiving descriptions of new releases from labels, one can read all sort of outrageous and preposterous claims on par with “the beginning of a new era in metal”, “unprecedented innovation”, “I’m tougher than Vladimir Putin” or “We went to Afghanistan to bring democracy to the people”. It wasn’t all that surprising, then, to read the first introductory line and find that young Indonesian band Exhumation was being hailed as a classic. I rolled my eyes at this and proceeded to get my face punched.
Exhumation plays a violent proto-black metal in the vein of Sarcófago and an aftertaste of Blasphemy. I will stress that they play in the vein of those bands. But they escape the clone-curse and give the listener a familiar but altogether new and original experience. As underground metal styles death and black have moved well past the initial stages of formation and definition, most bands have turned to simple rehashing or attempts at innovation. Unfortunately innovation is often perceived superficially. We should talk about progress and not innovation, which is often confused with novelty. I would not hesitate to call this album true progress. Albeit a conservative, cautious progress in this particular style.
Opus Death, a silly title which made me seriously doubt the album at first, is Exhumation’s second album. Exhumation understand the language and are proficient users of the same, knowing how to formulate their own statements. Not only are they original in what they say, but they also learn from the classics by avoiding their errors and carefully expanding where there is potential to expand. Ideas and the riffs they span let the listener become familiar with them as is required in the black metal tradition, but they do not overstay their visit nor overstep their roles. Transition riffs are adequately unstable and work effectively with drum patterns to create the gasping effect so that the listener can breath before the music goes on, unrelenting.
Both highly chromatic, Slayeresque solos as well the simple, rough and tonal melodies make an appearance in the record without sounding disparate in any way. The balance of taste and style always carefully preserved. Much can be said of the placing of the solos which is always optimal and contributing to the emotional upheaval they cause within the emotional predictability of this kind of music.
Another feature of this album that should not be overlooked or underestimated is the use of piano and guitar interludes right at the middle and at the end of the album, respectively. It is hard not to draw a parallel with Blessed are the Sick, but I am willing to venture and say that as to their contribution to the album as a whole, they are much more powerful and relevant in Opus Death. Both beautiful in their minimalist rendition of the harmonic skeleton behind the ripping black metal of the band, they contrast the slaughtering slashes of the rest of the album and serve as inverted climaxes.
Trying to praise this as uncompromising is an insult to Exhumation. Rather, the mature and sensible compromises Exhumation incurs in are what account for the steady and sure steps of their music. It might be too soon to call it a classic, but it sure feels like one. Far from naive or wanting in any technical respect, Opus Death shows us that even though traditional and true underground metal may be difficult to carry on whilst being original, it is not impossible, but we need to look beyond juvenile feelings of rebellion to do so. Metal is not young anymore, act accordingly.
Every death metal listener has at some point heard some variation on the statement that death metal bands are untalented, and that instead of mellifluous singing, there’s some guy “just standing there screaming” (that’s from my Mom, about 25 years ago).
Despite three decades of these vocals, they remain vastly misunderstood. Leaving aside for a moment the question of their purpose and effect, there’s also the technical question of how they are produced. And how does this compare to regular “sing-a-long” vocals?
When heavy metal vocal coach Lane Taylor reached out to us here at Death Metal Underground, we asked him if he could resolve this issue. Is screaming singing? Is it a technique, with a right way and wrong way?
And most of all, what’s the right way? Here’s our interview with Lane.
You’re a vocal instructor for metal bands. How did you find this path in life?
Heavy music was my first true love. I was hooked the moment I brought home Metallica’s Black Album at the age of 10. As the years progressed and new styles of metal developed I decided to join a couple local bands to try my hand at composing the music I love. I enjoyed minor success in the local music scene and actually came pretty close to getting signed around 2007. As life would have it things didn’t work out with the band so I decided to get into teaching. There are a million guitar teachers out there so I decide to be different and study the art of screaming heavy metal vocal styles. I had already taken plenty of singing lessons at this point but could never find someone who taught screaming! For years I read every book and watched every instructional tutorial I could find on the subject and then later developed my own approach. The lesson feedback from my early students was great and so I decided to make a go of becoming a heavy metal vocal instructor!
Are death metal vocals a form of “singing”?
Technically no. When you sing you are singing musical notes in the keys of A,B,C,D,E,F or G. Musical notes fit together like a language to form musical scales. Screaming is a bit different in that you scream at a pitch instead of singing musical notes. When you scream it is done at a low, middle or high pitch.
Many people would say that metal vocals don’t offer much to the technicalist. Do you have some favorite examples that prove that talking point wrong?
Perhaps screaming is not that technical in a musical note sense but that is because it is a different beast! Metal music as a whole in my opinion is the most technical music there is! Many of today’s metal vocalists sing AND scream in their music which is very tough to do while still maintaining a clean powerful singing voice. Finding the right balance of singing and screaming when performing is technical in its self. Of course it is just my opinion but I believe Randy Blythe of Lamb of God is a pretty technical screamer. The man can do a lot with his voice! He has a lot of awesome vocal tones and really can mix it up with his screams.
Do you instruct people in death metal vocals? What methods do you teach?
Many of my students are into death metal bands like Cannibal Corpse and Bolt Thrower to name a couple. One of my first students even had a tattoo of the band Deicide – now that is a loyal fan! Since guttural low screams are a signature element in most death metal bands I will start the student out with a focus on the lows. After taking the student through several breathing and vocal warm up exercises we get into the meat of the screaming exercises which include “The Medicine Ball Toss”, “The Barbarian Hey!”, “Dog Barks and Growls” and “The Karate Voice Throw”. More information on these techniques is available at Scream Like A Rockstar!
Can you describe, in technical terms, how death metal vocals are produced?
In your throat you have the true vocal cords which are very thin pieces of tissue that allow you to speak and sing. These vocal cords block the escaping air that is pushed up from your diaphragm muscle and this creates a tension on the vocal cords. As the air pressure escapes through these cords they vibrate and produce speech or singing. There are thicker more durable pieces of tissue attached to the vocal cords and these are known as the false cords. These false cords are what a screamer relies on to produce a scream. When these cords come together with the right tension and air pressure it basically turns your throat and mouth into an echo chamber and your scream is produced. The false cords are very necessary in heavy metal vocals because they take much of the strain of the true vocal cords. Without the false cords the true vocal cords would be damaged very easily by screaming.
What are the benefits to a metal vocalist of receiving instruction? Are there ergonomic and health benefits as well as performative ones?
For the beginner screaming lessons are a must! If you are new to screaming and practicing with poor technique it is important to correct it so you don’t injure yourself. Just as it takes time to build muscle at the gym the same is true with building up strong vocal cords that can handle this type of extreme music. For a seasoned veteran screamer a good instructor can provide great ways to warm up which will help ward off vocal injuries and will also help to increase vocal stamina when performing. In my program I also provide vitamins and supplements you can take if you get sick on tour or need to bring down vocal inflammation.
How do people avail themselves of your services, and do you work remotely?
I am based out of the North Bay area here in California but for those who aren’t local I also have an instructional DVD at my website Scream Like A Rockstar. The DVD took 3 years to make and contains lots of goodies to help metal musicians reach their rock star dreams! At the website I also run a blog with some good free tips to help novice screamers. Thank you very much to the staff at Death Metal Underground for allowing me the opportunity for this interview!
In 1984, the unholy triad of underground metal were born: Bathory, Hellhammer and Slayer laid out a formula that, taken together, would create the basis for all of the extreme metal genres to follow.
With first album Bathory, mastermind Quorthon and an ever-shifting cast of musicians took the lead in creating fast and chaotic music that nonetheless exhibited structure and a sense of Wagnerian melodic evolution. In early Bathory, thrashing riffs gave rise to a sense of order, instead of a flat timeline of circular repetition like the (at that time) bad speed metal imitators.
Many point to Under the Sign of the Black Mark, but others of us point to The Return as a clear departure point. A cynic could have written off the first Bathory album as imitation of Slayer and Venom, although it’s not clear Quorthon had heard Venom at the time, but with the second, it was clear a new genre was born. Quorthon then spent the next dozen years trying to re-interpret that genre so that he could make sense of the vast lead he’d taken over others.
Where Under the Sign of the Black Mark showed a more structured approach to songwriting in a mid-tempo, organized style that used the aesthetics of The Return but aimed for more easily grasped songs, the fourth Bathory album used Quorthon’s improved musical abilities to expand the black metal vocabulary to include the genres before it. Blood Fire Death incorporated speed metal influences, and with them, imported heavy metal and NWOBHM motifs. However, it did so without losing the underground metal-ness of the record.
As a result, Blood Fire Death served as a bridge between the past and future of metal. Its fast and ripping songs combined the power of Slayer and the technical guitar virtuosity of bands like Metallica and Judas Priest with the style of songwriting exhibited on The Return, where songwriting was not just rotational verse-chorus material in which the end result was the same as the beginning, but a type of narrative where the major themes arose from seemingly disordered and chaotic lesser motifs.
In addition, Bathory’s finest hour on Blood Fire Death was its Wagnerian sense of drama. Every moment of the album breathes with a sense of epic purpose, from a slow organic arising to its febrile and aggressive warlike thrashing, to a gradual sort of data into epic tracks which combined acoustic guitar with a sense of purpose and meaning returning to a modern wasteland. Thematically, it developed riffs that echoed its concepts, which were a fusion of the mythological occultism of Slayer with the Nordicism of Wagner or Nietzsche. This created a worldview in which the Christian, modern and commercial were tied together as the needs of a mindless crowd, and a naturalistic, organic and Romantic side of life was brought forth as an alternative.
25 years later we mark the anniversary of this album in the current month, but its influence is hard to track since so many have absorbed its meaning and borrowed plentifully from it. Bathory’s finest hour perhaps occurred on Blood Fire Death, but this is in the context of a discography that is one of metal history’s nodal points in which must of the past is summarized and taken to the next level. For that reason, it’s essential to appreciate this album out of context before returning it to its place within the legend and pantheon of metal.