Friday, October 13, 2006

The Ultimate Sacrifice

Continuing my appreciation of modern metal, I think about a key difference between today's metal and Eighties metal: the singing. These days, it's common to find a band with a singer that can sing clearly, scream his guts out and make grunts like the Cookie Monster all in the same song. What's very uncommon these days is the high-pitched alto that was a key part of high profile bands (like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest) and lesser bands (like Grim Reaper) in the Eighties. There are plenty of bands today that still use this approach, but I'm not hearing that in bands like Mastodon, Killswitch Engage, All That Remains and As I Lay Dying. This is a part of the sense of relief I have with these bands.

From a hindsight perspective, I wonder why the mixing of opera-like vocals with riffin' guitars and pounding drums was so prevalent in the Eighties. Yes, heavy metal has plenty of ties to classical music, so maybe that's a key with the opera angle, but metal is (and will always be) a very masculine kind of sound. Hearing a very feminine voice on top of very masculine-sounding music sounds like an odd fit now, doesn't it? It does to me.

If you're a Ben Folds Five fan, you may have heard their live, spontaneous songs like "The Ultimate Sacrifice" (found on Naked Baby Photos). What's one of the funniest things about these songs? Folds' wail. This wail stays in an register that is so high that it doesn't even register on a regular musical scale. This vocal approach is what I'm talking about.

A few weeks ago, Captain Groovy took a listen to Killswitch Engage for the first time. He told me he heard a lot of Iron Maiden influence in their music and I agree. Though the spartan guitar riffs may sound similar, the vocals are almost night and day. Maiden's Bruce Dickinson has that banshee wail while Killswitch's Howard Jones has a much deeper grunt whenever he hits that high register. In a larger spectrum, you're seeing major generation differences here.

When Maiden was beginning in the late-'70s, metal was more or less a new thing that combined classical music with bluesy hard rock. With Killswitch forming in the late-'90s, metal had seen some tremendous highs and lows. There was plenty of buffoonery in the Eighties with hair metal, but there was also grindcore and speed metal. There was plenty of faux-angst in nu-metal in the Nineties, but there was also plenty of consistently strong stuff from bands like Sepultura, Tool and Pantera. Taking the good and the bad, somehow a number of these metal bands today are doing something that feels natural and less contrived. Sure, there are plenty of rockstar poseurs in vintage clothes and leather pants, but poseurs wear a lot of different coats and they're not just found in metal.

My point is, as I've said before about modern metal, there are a number of bands who are finally doing something right. They've paid attention to the bands before them and respect them, but they are showing more of their vulnerable (not ultra-vulnerable) side in the process. Dark imagery with castrated vocals sold teenagers in the Eighties on metal, but after a while, people realized that this was rather over-the-top goofy rather than over-the-top serious. Now that metal can successfully rock without a wall of total contrivance, this is the start of something good.


pimplomat said...

I believe I've told you this before, but if not, I'll say it here. I'd rather here the high voice of Iron Maiden over the gutteral voice of Killswitch any day.

The high road seems to offer more opportunity for vocal variety. The low, gutteral road sounds all the same to me.

Elona said...

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Eric Grubbs said...

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captain groovy said...

high voices started with Plant,Gilliam,Osbourne.Priest came along & took the dual guitar/high vocal thing to another level.When Maiden started they were more punk metal with lower register vocals.New singer came along & brought the sword & scorcery Priest thing with him.The whole guttural vocal thing is angrier.New metal = more influenced by Metallica.Old metal = more influenced by Zeppelin.It's all pretty silly.Not that i mind.Hey i've been totally jamming on the new Manowar ep.Somehow the grunting nu-metal has more street cred than the Tolkienish guys.I prefer the fantasy.