If you need a quick guide to any genre terms I use here, or just want to know a little more about metal, especially extreme metal, check out my “Quick ‘n’ Dirty Introduction To Metal“.
At some point, almost everyone I know who doesn’t like metal as much as I do turns to me while we’re listening to my favourite songs, and says something along the lines of “This just sounds like noise to me.”
Sometimes they say it as we hurtle down the motorway at almost fifty-five miles an hour, at other times when we’re just partying it up with a couple of smoothies and some tinny laptop speakers. They almost invariably add a self-deprecating shrug or moue, and a comment along the lines of “Oh God, I can’t believe I sound so old/like my parents/like a philistine incapable of appreciating true art even when it’s right in front of my face.”
And it’s bullshit.
Of course it’s bullshit, evidently it’s bullshit. How could anyone possibly dismiss an entire genre of music with a simple “It’s just noise”?
Probably because it’s actually pretty true.
Not completely true, and never the whole truth, but noise is a big part of metal’s heart, and a big part of its appeal. For some bands, being described as just noise could be the greatest compliment they’ve ever been paid.
I’m not talking about what we might call ‘melodic metal’, metal which tends to have harmonious and even quite beautiful, usually epic guitar lines — gothic metal, power metal, alternative metal, melodic death metal to an extent, symphonic black metal, all that malarkey. That’s evidently as valid an art-form as any other, and each piece has to be judged on its own individual merits.
I’m talking about the metal where, to the uninitiated, it sounds as though the guitar fades into the drums which fade into the vocals which fade into the bass which you can barely hear anyway because the guitars are so damn loud and everyone is screaming in about three different ways.
There’s a few main types of metal that get dismissed as ‘just noise’, and here are the reasons why yes they bloody are and noise is awesome.
Part 1. Metal With Harsh Vocals
Screaming and shouted vocals are probably two of the biggest barriers people face to getting into metal in a big way. They’re found in all extreme metal, from doom to thrash to certain progressive metal bands, and although they go in and out of fashion, it really looks as though they’re here to stay.
Harsh vocals can sound ridiculous. Sometimes bands, especially bands who cram a lot of lyrics into three or four-minute songs (metalcore and deathcore bands often do this) can sound like they’re just doing it for the sake of it — to be shocking, or confrontational. They are often accused of not being able to sing.
Last things first, singing is much easier than screaming or bellowing at full volume without accidentally tearing out your lungs and propelling them across the crowd like a pair of sloppy red bagpipes. And some bands certainly do use harsh vocals to give themselves an edge they would otherwise lack. There are, though, three different examples I think of when people complain about harsh vocals that, in my mind, explain the phenomenon.
Amesoeurs – Heurt
This is one of the borderline metal songs which I recommend most frequently to people who are not usually interested in metal. Many of the most prominent elements of metal — the raucous guitars, unrelenting drumming, and harsh vocals — are present and correct, but there is a softness and accessibility to the song which is extremely rare.
It is the scream, though, the harsh vocals at around the 2:30 mark, which really gives emotional substance and depth to the song. What people sometimes miss about other metal tracks is the light and shade that is present in Heurt; but really there is nothing much to differentiate the intensity of Celtic Frost and Emperor from the intensity of those brief few seconds.
The only difference is that the passion of more extreme bands is generally sustained over the entire course of the song, and for most listeners this is draining, confusing and alienating, when you listen to it as most newcomers to metal do — not amid the heat, noise and sweat of a live gig, where every sense is heightened to its fullest, but at home, in comfort. In this context, it can be hard to understand how they can sustain such fury, or pain, or hatred over the course of an entire song. Songs like Heurt can give you part of the answer.
White Zombie – Black Sunshine
Like most kids, I first heard Black Sunshine on Guitar Hero. For me, it was the first song that bridged the mental gap between spoken word and the screams and shouts I was just starting to hear in other metal songs at the time (mostly Gojira and Opeth).
Spoken word has had a long and illustrious career in mainstream music, but it seems as though making the move from spoken to shouted is too large a leap for most people to contemplate. Black Sunshine encouraged me to question why this was.
Meshuggah – Bleed
This was the final piece in the puzzle for me. Hearing Meshuggah finally allowed me to hear harsh vocals, not as an obstructive thing that got in the way of the music, but as an integral part of the percussion of metal. The noise is necessary in this particular kind of metal, because it functions not as melody but as a marker for the beat, as percussion.
All of these metal tracks have aided me in my understanding of why I like harsh vocals, and why they work in some songs (and don’t in others), but they didn’t trigger my affection for them. I already liked harsh vocals the first time I heard them, on a visceral level. It seemed to suit what I was feeling at the time, and it seemed to suit the music that accompanied them.
So if you don’t like harsh vocals, I didn’t write this post to convince you that they’re somehow objectively good, and it’s not going to suddenly change your mind on the whole topic. I just wrote it to explain why I, and many other metal fans, enjoy these vocals. We’re not just doing it to piss you guys off, or to be special little flowers.
We like ’em because we like ’em, and we’ve all got our own valid reasons for that.
And we like ’em on because they’re not music. They’re just noise.
Part 2 coming next week. Oh yes, I can see you are on the edge of your seats already.