Virtually every death metal band from the first wave had its share of infectious vocal lines. From Deicide to Dismember, death metal fans grew up memorizing and screaming morbid lyrics in much the same way their baby boomer parents may once have creamed their pants to The Beatles. Now, there is a school of thought that considers vocals and lyrics in death metal as somewhat superfluous to the actual music; while one can certainly enjoy death metal on instrumental terms alone, vocals when done right can be a useful percussive instrument, and when combined with evocative lyrics can enhance the band’s themes, perhaps just as much as the music itself.
This is not intended to be the usual “metal is dead, woe is us” screed; for all our frustration with hipster, manic-depressive attention whores co-opting our music, death metal continues to be in relatively rude health. But more to the point, just how many memorable vocal lines have we heard in death metal these last fifteen years? Forget being compelled to learn all of ‘Immortal Rites‘ by heart, can those reared on today’s death metal even think of something as succinct yet so legendary as a ‘Confront me!‘ or an ‘I’ll find peace when I’m God!‘ For all the tributes, both sincere and trendy, to old school death metal, it is curious that this one aspect seems to have flown entirely under the radar of new death metal musicians.
Perhaps vocalists aren’t considering themselves singers and lyricists anymore. Older bands came from a milieu that much closer to more traditional rock n roll where the singer’s participation in those twin roles was as important as the underlying instrumental arrangements. However, with the advent of Suffocation‘s syncopation-driven grinding and Incantation‘s chromatically-intense death metal, both styles that have since come to dominate the genre, vocal space that was once exclusively reserved came to be at a premium. Vocals slipped obscurely into the background as a mere coloring drone, and lyrics, not required to conform to set vocal niches anymore, became far more stream-of-consciousness, at times tediously abstruse. Neither development was favorable to presenting songs in the erstwhile “macabre parable” format. In some ways, severing that last association with accessibility was an inevitable progression for a music that takes pride in being extreme, but also lost in the process was a certain individuality and a once-vital tool for connecting with the listener.