Op-Ed: Metal Vocalists Have Become Irrelevant
Let’s face it: vocalists in metal bands in 2012 are pretty much irrelevant, relics of a bygone era.
I’m mostly talking about the interchangeable growlers that every modern metal band needs to have to be considered legit by today’s standards. Don’t get me wrong: I can appreciate a good growler. That vocal style has served metal quite well for the past 20 or so years. It seemed extreme, intense and novel… but the thrill’s worn off, and now it just seems tired and predictable.
I’m not advocating a return to “real” singing, either; in the era of Autotune, those who have no business singing do so with ease thanks to readily available and inexpensive studio chicanery, a phenomenon which has inadvertently cheapened the otherwise-impressive output of dudes who actually can sing.
So it’s time to move on. The next logical step for metal is to ditch vocalists altogether.
Growling/screaming vocalists in most modern metal bands are completely interchangeable. There’s a reason that vocalists in bands like The Faceless and Gorgoroth come and go so often without much ado; it simply doesn’t matter who the fuck is standing up there growling as long as someone is! The audible differences between growlers are detectable by only the most highly trained of ears… those of other vocalists, most likely.
Clean singing is no doubt a more impressive skill than growling, especially with those who do it well. But I’d assert that in this era of Autotune prevalence, the thrill of hearing someone with a real voice do impressive things with that voice — the Dios and Halfords and Mike Pattons — is dead anyway, because learning to be the “singer” is as easy as learning to scream. You don’t need to be able to hit the notes, someone in the studio will just make you sound awesome and evidently your fans won’t care that you sound like shit live. We place no value on the actual skill of singing, so why even kid ourselves that it matters?
Not that a tectonic shift back to clean singing is likely to happen anyway; clean vocals have become uncool. Emo. Pussy. Cheesy. Whiney. Whatever. I see some evidence that the tide may be starting to shift back in favor of actual talent behind the microphone (i.e. Vest Metal vocalists), but for the most part if your band’s vocalist actually sings you can forget about being accepted by the “true” metal crowd. And the “retro” brands of metal that utilize talented clean vocalists these days certainly aren’t pushing the genre forward, even if some of those bands are very good. We’re talking about what’s next here, not bringing back what came before. Art must move forward.
For metalheads, a group of fans who purport to like their chosen genre because it’s a step ahead of everything else, accepting at face value the general lack of skill held by today’s metal vocalists is hypocritical and ridiculous. So why do we even bother listening to vocalists?
Is it the lyrics? Puh-lease: without a lyric sheet no one can understand what the fuck most of these guys are growling on about anyway. And in a live setting, fuggadaboutit: it’s an indecipherable wall of noise unless you already know the words.
The thing is, I believe that most metal musicians actually do have some awareness of everything I’ve laid out so far, whether they consciously acknowledge it or not. Why, then, do metal bands still even bother carrying vocalists? Here are a few reason I can think of:
1) Habit. People are used to hearing music accompanied by the human voice and bands are used to arranging music for it. Old habits die hard, even if vocal chords in most metal bands these days are simply being used as just another instrument with its own sonic texture.
2) As a center of attention: Most non-musicians (aka most people) need something to latch onto. While many metal fans appreciate that the music they’re listening to is “heavy,” “brutal” or even “melodic,” or they think it has a “cool riff” or that “the drummer is sick,” most metal listeners are not musicians and therefore aren’t equipped to focus on the intricacies of the music itself. Metal is a demanding genre, and for the untrained ear it can ultimately be very difficult for people to understand (unless we’re talking about lowest common denominator stuff like Emmure). Everyone’s got a voice and everyone intrinsically understands how to listen to one, even if they can’t understand what it’s saying.
3) As a live hypeman: People need someone to watch, someone to gravitate their eyes towards in the live setting. Viewers of live performances need someone to hold their attention, to keep their minds occupied beyond just the music itself. But focusing squarely on the music is difficult business, and it’s intense. Modern metal frontmen are leaders, orchestra “conductors” and hypemen all in one, leading the band’s live attack even though most of them have fairly little to do with their band’s creative processes. The Red Chord frontman Guy Kozywyk seems to have an innate self-awareness of the vocalist-as-hypeman phenomenon, often mocking the audience for following his every move, while guys like Veil of Maya’s Brandon Butler have become a running joke for their hilarious “stage voice” (and I happen to enjoy VoM’s music).
4) Commercial appeal: Because of all three reasons above, you’ve got to have a vocalist for your metal band to really succeed. A select few vocal-less bands like Animals As Leaders have done well in recent years, but I believe they will ultimate run right into a glass ceiling when all the metal musicians in the world have been converted into fans. A band like Periphery will always have a greater “upside” — a sports term used to describe the eventual upper limit of a young, budding prospect — simply because they have a vocalist. Even more so if their vocalist uses clean vocals and happens to be good at it.
But metal is not, by nature, a commercial genre. Metal prides itself on being technical, forward-thinking and a step ahead of the rest of the music world, and with that in mind the idea of having vocalists at all is pretty arcane. Vocalists are going to want my nuts on a stick for the following statement, but here goes: the vocalist is the least talented musician in pretty much every modern metal band.
Yes, some skill goes into learning how to growl and refining that craft, which I can certainly appreciate, and the distinctions between death metal growls, black metal screeches, gutturals, brees, and so on and so forth are not lost on me. But learning any of those requires a fraction of the time and energy that goes into learning every other instrument. Pretty much any high school kid can pick up a mic, start growling, and get to be alright at it in a short amount of time. Not so for the other instruments in the standard metal arsenal, the players of which need to be much more proficient to hack it in even a bad metal band. Metal is intrinsically an instrument-driven genre. Removing vocalists from the equation entirely would necessarily draw the emphasis back where it belongs — on the music itself — without the distraction of a vocalist mucking things up.
I’ve heard countless metal industry execs and fans alike gripe that metal hasn’t really had a big “break out” band to surface in the past decade; even the biggest of the big in today’s scene — bands like Lamb of God and Killswitch Engage — are caught in limbo between being a little too big to play a 3,000-4,000 seat theater and way too small to play an arena. They certainly aren’t the arena bands of yore, and they never will be. This is not a problem endemic to the music industry as a whole: bands like The Killers, Kings of Leon, The Black Keys, and Muse, just to name a few, are rock bands that have broken out in the past decade and risen to the arena level. The problem lies in metal itself, and the problem in metal is that pretty much all the vocalists vomit forth indistinguishable walls of noise.
Yes, I know there are exceptions, as there are with any rule. I could never dream of going to a Lamb of God show without Randy Blythe or listening to a Soilwork album without Speed Strid, for example. I also have a fondness for a time when my friends and I bought new metal albums on cassette tapes; that doesn’t mean I don’t understand why cassette tapes went away. Things change. Art evolves.
If metal is going to continue to blaze new paths and be at the forefront of music progression — looking behind as everyone else follows in its slipstream — the vocalists have got to go. Not just the growlers; all of them. It’s quaint, it’s gotten boring, it’s outlived its relevancy, and it’s what’s best for metal as a form of art.