ARE METAL VOCALISTS IRRELEVANT? THE OCEAN’S ROBIN STAPS AND IKILLYA’S JASON LEKBERG RESPOND
My recent op-ed piece which claimed that metal vocalists have become irrelevant has generated quite a bit of discussion. Responses ran the gamut from backlash to support to everything in between, with plenty of dissection of some of the finer points and nuances both for and against.
The Ocean’s mastermind and guitarist Robin Staps and IKILLYA’s vocalist Jason Lekberg both took the time to send me substantial, well-reasoned responses, and since their stances on the issue are more or less contrary to one another I figured I’d run them together as point/counterpoint. Chime in with your thoughts below, as always.
The Ocean’s Robin Staps:
Hope all is well. I read your article on the irrelevance of metal vocalists and found it quite amusing and thought-provoking at the same time. I agree with most of your points, 90% of all metal vocalists out there are pathetic attention-whores who distract from the (lack of ) quality of the music. Apparently, there are exceptions, and I believe you were intentionally exaggerating… but that’s one of the things I appreciate about MetalSucks; as taking things to extremes is absolutely necessary to challenge the conservatism in metal culture.
It is also true that most non-musicians tend to focus on vocalists, as vocalists are most “accessible” and as they present an easy projection space for the average punter’s desires, ideals and stereotypes. Vocalists are easier to idolize than drummers, and — as absurd as this may seem with growls — they do conjure the individuals in the crowd in an emotional way and establish a deeper connection with them. I believe most people need that, or think they need it (habits are strong), and hence instrumental metal will always be a niche.
On the other hand, there are instrumental bands who have made it — not arena-style huge, but let’s say 1,500-3,000 big. Think Mogwai, Karma To Burn, Explosions in the Sky, Godspeed You Black Emperor! etc… all these bands fascinate their (fairly large) crowds with music that is merely instrumental. Whoever has had the chance to see a Mogwai show will remember the sight of their fans immersing, with closed eyes, into a vast sea of sound… it would be preposterous to claim that instrumental music cannot mesmerize people in the most intense and emotional way.
However, all these examples of instrumental bands are outside of the narrow realms of what is considered “metal”, and the question must be asked: why has no instrumental metal band really made it yet? Are we (metalheads) not ready for it? Will we ever be?
I have my doubts to be honest, as I believe that the metal scene is intrinsically and essentially conservative. The experimental fringes of the scene (represented by bands like Animals As Leaders or Cloudkicker / Ben Sharp, for example) do not represent the average fan’s state of mind and readiness to appreciate challenges.
I don’t agree that harsh vocals must be essentially boring and bound to flatline with regards to drowning in the stereotypes you mention, though. You are glossing over the fact that there are plenty of bands out there who employ vocals (both the melodic and the harsh type) but do not have a “vocalist” at the center of attention… think Mastodon, Crowbar, Neurosis, Family…. etc. Personally, all these bands would work for me if they were instrumental, but I do appreciate the vocals, and the fact that the person who sings does play a stringed instrument as well helps to disperse the cliche of the lead singer being (literally) in the spotlight while his bandmates must remain in the dark. And then there are bands that apply vocals very sparingly… think Keelhaul, Isis or earlier Baroness. That approach creates tension and comes with interesting surprise moments when the vocals do kick in all of a sudden (oftentimes a couple of minutes into the song), while the music does not depend on them to function or to carry meaning.
… on a personal note — and although I don’t think our vocalist Loic is of the generic, uninspiring type you are attacking in your article — coincidentally, our new album (which is due for an April/May 2013 release on Metal Blade) will be largely or entirely instrumental. The reasons are manifold, but there simply is no space on this album, both from a musical as well as from a conceptual point of view, for lyrics and vocals. Loic is going to continue to be our vocalist, but the time is now right for instrumental metal. We need more of this.
IKILLYA’s Jason Lekberg:
I’d like to start by restating what you already know. I’m a big fan of both you and your site. As you’ve said in the past, we don’t hang nearly as much as we should but I enjoy reading the site every day. Many times your op-ed pieces are insightful and they are always witty. Your recent piece on metal vocalists is definitely witty and well thought out, but unfortunately I feel it is not only incorrect in its assumptions but is doing significant damage to the public perception of metal vocalists. The one thing I will agree with is that most metal vocalists are generic, indistinguishable and do not invest in their craft the way some other musicians do. However, I feel the same way about most metal guitarists, bassists and drummers as well. Especially keyboard players.
The key point you are forgetting is that this is the case in every genre, at all times. 90% of the music created is derivative and repetitive. If that sound resonates with someone then it is valid to them, but from a technical standpoint it’s really all the same. Each sub-genre is this way. You have a band that innovates followed by a horde that are inspired by that innovation. This does not invalidate any of those bands. Most are still as honest as the original in their commitment to the songs they write. The fact that the end result is a rehash of the original is simply because true innovators are a rare breed.
All of that being said, I think that you may not understand the nuance of metal vocals as I happen to know you personally play guitar. The insinuation that it takes less time to learn to scream than to play in instrument is just simply false. Anyone can do any of the above immediately. It’s all about how well they do it. Anyone can scream for 30 seconds or even a few minutes, but how many of them understand how to control their voice so that their screams are consistent and they don’t blow their voice? And that’s just the beginning. Once you’ve gained control of your voice, then you can begin to mold it to make the sounds you want. Much like excellent guitar playing, the difference between ok and good is something not understood by everyone. Many people think that Disturbed are great musicians because they don’t know the difference between technical ability and a song they like. Or maybe they’re just emotionally manipulated by that song.
My point here is that there is a whole world of possibility in metal vocals. I think your opinion is partly a result of not understanding the art and partly the result of a lack of people pushing the boundaries. That in NO WAY means that metal vocalists should go away. I’ll get to what a vocalist brings to a band in a few, but let’s talk more about what there is to be done first. As you pointed out, there are many different types of screams. An opera singer can have up to an 8 octave range, and so should a great metal vocalist. The potential is there to be able to scream through many, if not all, of the different styles. In addition, within those styles an excellent metal vocalist should be able to enunciate and control melody within the scream.
I have spent a decent amount of time training with Melissa Cross who is the undisputed authority on metal vocals. She has spent years studying how the human body creates screams and how to teach people to do it without hurting themselves. The simple fact is that an amazing metal vocalist should be able to pitch the same notes in a scream as in a clean vocal. It’s really no different. The scream is just a different sound being created but can still be on key. Great metal vocalists can sing you a song, that you understand, while screaming. There are not many great metal vocalists, but there are some. I think you need to listen closer.
Now let’s talk about the role of a vocalist in a band. Aside from everything I’ve written above, a vocalist humanizes a band. For most people, the sound of the human voice is something they relate to. While guitars, bass and drums may move the listener, the vocalist adds a human connection. Many great musicians can display emotion through their instruments but a great vocalist can do that even without words. The message being delivered by the band is delivered through that vocalist, that frontman. I’m sure many musicians could enjoy just watching the mastery of other musicians, but most people prefer to have a focal point they can relate to. This is the role of the vocalist. You may be able to recognize the beauty of a member of the opposite sex but if you can not speak to them and hear them speak to you it makes it much harder to develop an understanding or deep relationship. The voice connects humans without physical contact.
The bottom line here is that just like other metal musicians, great vocalists are few and far between but that does not invalidate the art form nor does it mean it has reached its peak. I challenge all metal vocalists just like I challenge myself everyday: strengthen your vocal chords, stretch your range and don’t be satisfied with anything less than amazing vocal melodies full of emotion screamed like no one has ever heard.