Extreme metal does not need melodically keen vocal patterns because it deals with irregular and dissonant intervals between notes. In keeping with this musical theme, then, vocalists suitably distort their delivery to sound more in concert with the songs. An unfortunate casualty of this arrangement is vocal individuality; if you except the more notable among death metal and black metal vocalists, a vast portion of this field is relegated to a mere percussive accompaniment. Cases have frequently been made for vocals to be done away with entirely in extreme metal; though this would undoubtedly introduce drastic changes in the manner in which songs are composed and arranged, it could also perhaps guide the genre along newer, more ambitious roads. A tantalizing proposition in this general direction has already been made by The Chasm and Into Oblivion on their album Farseeing The Paranormal Abysm and Creation Of A Monolith, respectively.
But the vocalist’s role in traditional heavy metal is sacred and pivotal. It frequently achieves a distinct role of its own, even acting occasionally as a conductor whose lead all other parts follow. The talented extreme metal vocalist can, at most, express himself through weighted enunciation and variations in timbre; the heavy metal singer, on the other hand, can do all of these, obviously, but in addition also has the advantage of contributing musically and poetically. In this sense, he is every bit as important as the guitar, complementing that instrument’s phrasing nuances with his own knowledge of meter and rhythm.
Consider the case of Indian band Kryptos, who play a melodic, somewhat middling, brand of harsh heavy metal with abrasive vocals. On their most recent album, Burn Up The Night, Kryptos have ditched the progressive undertones of their first three records, in favour of a far more streamlined sound reminiscent of 80s arena metal/hard rock. The wider repercussions of such an about-turn are best saved for a later post, but the more relevant point here is that though Kryptos‘ musical style has become elementary and sing-along, the vocals have retained their rough exterior; they are easily decipherable and try to follow the big power-chord progressions in the manner of more traditional vocal stylings, but they don’t add any melodic inflection of their own to the songs. In other words, they are not employed to their optimal musical potential, given the accessible paradigm in which Kryptos now work.
As an offset, below are five heavy metal songs which the singers elevate to rarefied heights with their virtuosity and musical nous:
Sortilege – Bourreau (from the s/t EP)
Christian Augustin, singing in French, injected copious quantities of emotion at strategic points on ‘Bourreau‘ to close the band’s classic debut EP. Redolent of VHS tapes and hairy mops windmilling, ‘Bourreau‘ is a stone-cold heavy metal classic in its own right, sure to fire chills up the spine of any genre romantic, but Augustin took it upon himself to compete with the guitars in a sort of jugalbandi (a face-off between singers in oriental classical music), moodily humming during the main premise riff and the song’s denouement. At 1:40, however, he follows a slight lead phrase/extension/lick in the manner of a mezzo-soprano or a raga vocalisation, rarely if ever heard in genre annals. These are small moments, and words don’t do them justice, but ‘Bourreau‘ remains a special, fiercely burning ember in heavy metal history.
Atlantean Kodex – Heresiarch (from The White Goddess)
Combining influences from Uriah Heep, Iron Maiden, Bathory, and Solstice, Atlantean Kodex created a vast masterpiece of epic heavy metal in The White Goddess. ‘Heresiarch‘ is divided in two halves, each played in a different key. Markus Becker’s voice, rich and high in classic heavy metal fashion, sings ever-more relevant lyrics couched in mystique with conviction, dramatic flair, and an agonizing eye to detail. As an example, the chorus here is split into four syllables, He-Re-Si-ArCh, each syllable increasing in register, but note how the second syllable Re is only half a step above the opening sound He. The half-tone serves to add pensive weight to the overall refrain; pronounce this syllable Re a whole tone or more above He, and see how the entire dynamic and mood changes for the lighter. It is this quasi-fanatical craftwork that elevates Atlantean Kodex above virtually every other heavy metal band extant today.
Scald – Night Sky (from Will Of Gods Is Great Power)
‘Night Sky‘ and indeed all of Will Of Gods Is Great Power reminds me of Emperor‘s In The Nightside Eclipse. It has the same nightly, wintertime splendor of the black metal epic, going to prove how all true metal connects on a level beyond simple playing tropes. The late Maxim Andrianov’s voice is perhaps the most un-classical on this list; it resembles more than anything the drawling tenor of someone spending the night in the drunk tank, but I don’t mean that as a facetious description. Andrianov is content to remain within the general contours of the massive doom chord progressions on ‘Night Sky‘, but within these pockets is present great tragedy and perhaps, also, an augur of Andrianov’s premature death.
Pharaoh – Endlessly (from The Longest Night)
Chuck Schuldiner had not yet fully distilled his vision of heavy metal when Control Denied‘s The Fragile Art Of Existence was released. Tim Aymar’s unique voice made its potential felt even then, but its rough contours collided with the transitional music found on the album. American heavy metal band Pharaoh, however, is Aymar’s true home, much like how John Bush will always belong with Armored Saint. Pharaoh‘s music is melodic and instrumentally dexterous, a veritable web of consonant guitar lines, and demands just the kind of unorthodox singing that Aymar excels in. The lyrics on ‘Endlessly‘ are intense and personal, but Aymar’s gruff yet always passionate voice renders them in a non-maudlin manner. Like the Atlantean Kodex song, Aymar imbues his words with an immaculate sense of accent and rhythm; note how he allows a stanza to linger for one more line beyond its expected end (‘The way you’ve betrayed me is unspeakable/Although it comes as no surprise/And if you found a way, the perfect way, to finish me/And free my tortured soul/What reason would it hold?’), creating a distinct feeling of suspended animation in the listener. The final choral refrain is lifted an octave higher at appropriate points of emphasis, creating a rousing and cathartic coda to this fantastic song.
Borrowed Time – Pygmalion (from Borrowed Time)
The most playful song on the list, ‘Pygmalion‘ hearkens back to the bouncy effervescence of early Iron Maiden. There is a very real lilt to these lines sung by J. Priest which never fails to put a smile on my face, but beneath their cherubic nature lies an obvious knowledge of poetic meters. Priest makes his words bleed into each other to create delayed strong syllables. The result is peculiar in that otherwise self-sufficient verses end up depending on future postulations, making for a kind of magical, pixie poem. Beyond technicalities, however, ‘Pygmalion‘ is just plain fun to unprepossessedly sing along with, whether in the shower, before the mirror, or on your motorcycle.