There is a civil war in the world of heavy music. On one side of the division line, we have the old guard of classic, traditionalist metalheads who pine for the good ol’ days of Judas Priest, Dio, and Iron Maiden. These bands had real singers. The abilities of vocal giants like Bruce Dickinson, Rob Halford, and Ronnie James Dio was and is undeniably world-class. On the other side, we have a generation of young people who have consumed a steady diet of extreme music for their entire music listening lives. They have come of age in a musical world where abrasively harsh, screamed vocals are normal and sometimes considered more legitimately metal; they don’t have time for “pussy sh-t”.
The above paragraph is frankly an oversimplification. The truth is much more nebulous in reality because we all don’t fall under preferential archetypes. I grew up as a kid listening to Michael Jackson and Prince. Pop is easy on the ears: soothing and melodic. This is the reason many of the gateway bands in rock and metal are also it’s most pop-oriented and easy to listen to. My initiation into metal and it’s subsequent extremity was gradual. The first extreme vocal I heard was probably Pantera’s “Walk” featured on a mixtape a buddy made. The paleolithic grunt was almost funny to my brother and I (we discovered metal together, so it was a more shared experience than singular). We weren’t ready for it. The same could be said for when we picked up Machine Head’s Burn My Eyes (1994). By today’s standards, these bands aren’t on the extreme end of things. But at the time, it was just too heavy for our ears, which were still fixated on Megadeth and Guns N Roses. But we kept Burn My Eyes, and dug in deep after 6 months or so as I became more acclimated with this more harsh sound.
Once my palette evolved to enjoy this style, I fell head first into the rabbit hole, consuming brutally heavy music in the mid-late ’90s. Sepultura lead to Kreator which lead to Suffocation, Oppressor, Cryptopsy, Vader, Bethlehem, Defleshed, etc. With one foot in the death metal world, I was also a full time hardcore kid fascinated with bands like Deadguy, All Out War, Converge, For The Love Of, Disembodied, Buried Alive, Zao, Coalesce, Candiria, and Irate. None of the aforementioned bands featured clean singing (at the time); it was yells, barks, shouts, growls, shrieks, and guttural purging. Even I had a small, but significant period of time where only extreme music spoke to me, and I temporarily ignored my adolescent love of Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, and bands of the same ilk. All heavy, all the time.
To say that I only listened to bands with extreme vocals is an exaggeration, but I definitely had a period where I leaned in that direction, so I can empathize with those fans who are opposed to it. I was young, angry, and bull-headed at one point as well.
How We Got Here
One thing that is paramount to highlight is that heavy metal, by way of hard rock and rock n roll, has had a long history of gritty vocal styles. Grit and distortion applied to a melodic vocal is really the grandfather of screaming.
You had Little Richard all the way back in the ’50s with a gritty vocal delivery.
The Beatles were influenced by many of the black American rhythm & blues artists in the 1960’s.
Vocal styles became even more gritty in the ’70s with AC/DC, and then ramped up by Motörhead.
The rise of punk rock and hardcore punk in the late ’70s seemed to have a tandem, congealing effect with respect to gritty melodic singing, because bands like Black Flag began disregarding vocal melody altogether. Musicianship was eschewed for message and attitude. I believe that hardcore punk’s volatile approach combined with hard rock’s steady ascension to become heavier and heavier with each generation, lead to amelodic vocal screaming sprouting itself into existence.
In the 1980’s, Motorhead paved the way for Metallica. Venom paved the way for Slayer. Accept opened the door for Overkill. The ’80s is the era that birthed extreme metal, consisting of thrash metal, death metal, grindcore, black metal, doom, etc.
Evolved into this:
Extreme music and extreme vocals were here to stay by the late ’80s. I was not part of the metal scene at the time, so I don’t know how older fans related to the turning of the tide. I imagine it was shocking and considered unmusical to older fans, but I’m sure those who thirsted for pushing the frontiers of where this music could go were very excited.
Singing & Screaming Integration
The 1990’s is where my autobiography converges with the story. The interesting thing about the ’90s is that it really was the era that spawned the hybrid vocalist: that is a singer who could both sing cleanly and scream with brutal effectiveness. This is now very common, if not superfluous in modern metal. It’s probably no coincidence that the 2 bands I mentioned as exposing me to extreme vocals, (Pantera and Machine Head) were also bands that had singers who could both scream and sing. Phil Anselmo’s transmogrification as a vocalist is stunning to the point of disbelief.
On Pantera’s 1988 album Power Metal, Anselmo’s approach was along the lines of classic heavy metal vocalists, Rob Halford and Sebastian Bach.
By the time Pantera released Far Beyond Driven in 1994, almost all clean singing had been stripped from his vocal style, although Anselmo’s ability to scream in key would possibly be the most influential vocal sound in mainstream metal for the following 10 years.
In spite of taking his vocals in the extreme direction on Far Beyond Driven, it was the previous album, Vulgar Display of Power (1992) single, “This Love”, that provided a formula that would be most influential. The song features a completely clean and emotively sung verse that explodes into a crushing screamed chorus. This was later copied: only in reverse. The common trope in today’s metal world is to scream on the verse, and sing on the chorus (but I am getting ahead of myself).
I don’t really know who was the first band to divide the singing and screaming within a song where the parts were so distinctly orchestrated, but “This Love” is probably one of the first times it was so obvious and segmented by the arrangement. Pantera did this on one song, but several bands began to make singing and screaming within the same song their identity. I already mentioned Machine Head, but here are few notable and influential examples:
You can’t talk about this modus operandi without mentioning Fear Factory. In fact, their injecting of clean vocals into extreme metal pre-dates Vulgar Display Of Power by 1 year with their pre-Roadrunner Records recording, Concrete (1991), so I may have answered my questions about the origins of the style (Please include any earlier examples in the comments. I would really like to know.) But as far as the public at large, their impact was felt on Soul Of A New Machine (1992) and Demanufacture (1995).
Cynic’s 1993 album, Focus, was groundbreaking for the death and and progressive metal worlds. Their vocal influence is still felt significantly in current bands like The Faceless.
Morbid Angel made giant waves with “God Of Emptiness”, and the controversial, Peter Steele-esque baritone, clean-sung outro. Released in 1993, Covenant, is the biggest selling death metal album in US Soundscan history. That video still gives me the creeps, but what a great song.
Overcast is most well known for containing band members who would later take over the world as part of the New Wave of American Metal: Vocalist, Brian Fair, with Shadows Fall and bassist, Mike D’Antonio with Killswitch Engage. Debut album, Expectation Dilution (1994), is one of the most important albums in metalcore history. Brian Fair was a vocal pioneer to say the least.
Within the world of metalcore, hardcore, and post-hardcore, you have to mention Vision Of Disorder and vocalist, Tim Williams, as being an innovator in handling both singing and screaming, and doing both extremely well. “Choke” is from the 1995 Still EP.
It’s important not to leave out Europe, as there were several bands out of Scandinavia like Amorphis on Tales From The Thousand Lakes (1994) and Opeth on Orchid (1995), who were both experimenting with a blend of growled death metal vocals and airy melodic singing to suit the dynamic nature of their music.
One record with hybrid vocals that came out a bit later is Cave In’s 1998 album, Until Your Heart Stops. It had a stronger impact on the metalcore movement as a whole (which is an entirely other topic), rather than directly from a vocal standpoint, because the band dropped almost all heavy elements after the album’s release.
The Tipping Point
As the ’90s forged on, this hybrid vocal methodology became more and more common and pervasive throughout heavy music. There were a few musical moments that shined brighter than everything else to cast monumental shadows of influence.
First in 1999, Slipknot released their self-titled debut. Never in my life, have a seen a band get so voraciously popular, so fast. Their rise was to the top of the metal ladder was unprecedented, and the biggest radio hit from that album is “Wait And Bleed”. Although there was a radio edit of the song that toned down the screaming on the verses, the album version had a distinct separation between harsh vocals on the verse and clean, melodic vocals on the chorus.
Later the same year, a hardcore band from Florida named Poison The Well released an album called Opposite Of December. They weren’t the first band in the hardcore scene to combine singing and screaming, but the totality of their presentation, the appealing image of the band, and the timely nature of the album’s release lead to perhaps the most important powder keg of post-hardcore and what today would be referred to as “scene” music. The song “Nerdy” is the most prominent example of the style they propagated. Without this band and album, there’s no Atreyu, no Avenged Sevenfold, no Of Mice And Men.
The 3rd and most significant event was the release of Killswitch Engage’s 2nd LP and Roadrunner Records debut, Alive Or Just Breathing in 2003. The band had toyed the blend of melodic and harsh vocals on their debut, but it wasn’t until this album that the structure and formula (for lack of a better word) had been so clearly defined. It’s important to note that the it wasn’t just that is was singing and screaming; it was a particular type of scream tone with the riffing style and groove underneath, and the distinct soulful, dramatic singing in the choruses with the big, lush chords underneath. All of these elements are present in virtually every Killswitch song from Alive Or Just Breathing to their 2013 release, Disarm The Descent.
In my opinion, the confluence of these 3 events created what has been referred to as “good cop-bad cop” vocals. In the current heavy music scene, whether we are talking about mainstream metal bands like Five Finger Death Punch, Swedish melo-death like Soilwork, prog stalwarts like Periphery, scene kings like Asking Alexandria, NWOAM veterans like All That Remains, and countless others have utilized this format. From up top, Slipknot made this abrasive vocal style palatable to the rock radio crowd and masses, Poison The Well’s impact elevated hardcore out of the underground and into Hot Topic, engaging the middle class youth, and Killswitch Engage put the cherry on top. Much like my recent article on CreativeLive.com talking about the uninintentional negative impacts of Pantera’s production methods, Killswitch Engage unintentionally offered an easy-to-read template on how to make successful, commercial metalcore.
Where We Are Now
Currently, the sing-scream, good cop-bad cop formula is common to the point of predictable banality. I can’t talk too much sh-t, as my ex-band, God Forbid, got in on the action as well, but we did take steps to be creative, make it interesting, and less formulaic to varying degrees of success. Being in the eye of the metalcore storm as it came of age, I always thought certain tired tropes would kill the genre: cheesy breakdowns, crabcoring, and now the see-sawing vocals. But it hasn’t killed the genre yet; it just seems to only be growing. The style swapping between poppy and heavy are becoming increasingly divisive within one song. A band will go from sounding like Emmure to The Backstreet Boys in the span of 30 seconds. I personally don’t see the connection from a songwriting standpoint, but as an artist, I support any bold risk taking. More often than not, this approach comes off as gimmick cherry picking. “People like brutal breakdowns and catchy choruses. Let’s give them the most extreme version of both”. It’s crowd-pleasing, but the shelf life is debatable.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gravitated more and more to melodic vocals in heavy music. I find most of my favorite newer (last 5 years) bands are Volbeat, Twelve Foot Ninja, Ghost, and Karnivool. Mostly, I’m sure it’s due to evolving tastes and losing some of that youthful hostility, but I think it’s also partially due to feeling that screamed vocals have become presented with much less character. There were always copycats and soundalikes, but people usually found their voice. I think you have many of these popular metalcore, deathcore, tech death, and scene bands where you could swap out the singer, and most people wouldn’t even notice except that there is a different pretty boy on stage. When I hear someone scream, I want it to be because there is a reason to. There has to be an emotion tied to act. I think that’s part of the reason only a handful of bands with primarily extreme vocals rise to great success. The vocalists have a distinct sound and personality, and there is a lyrical slant that speaks to who they are. People connect with those sentiments. I would include bands like Lamb Of God, Behemoth, and Meshuggah in this category of screamers excelling, breaking glass ceilings, and crossing over into new demographics.
Perhaps this piece speaks more to the metalcore or mainstream metal crowds, but plenty of “true” metal bands mix it up, evolve with the times, and paint with the many colors available to them. Bands like Dimmu Borgir, Ne Obliviscaris, Emperor, Mercenary, Dark Tranquility and Into Eternity have utilized this hybrid style. It appears to be here to stay. Whether you are a traditionalist who only connects with the Bruce Dickinson’s of the world, or a brootal chap who only wants to hear Chris Barnes’ gruff, or a young kid on the scene who needs both sugar and cream in his or her coffee, I find it fascinating how much this world of heavy music has changed in only 40 years, and I am very interested to see where it will go from here.