Developing Death Metal Vocals – Part 1

As a child growing up in a typical Asian household, I began taking piano lessons when I was five. In fact, I still have my keyboard from kindergarten! I played piano for a couple of years during elementary school and then I moved on to clarinet in 6th grade and middle school. Later in college I began experimenting with guitar and violin. I could never stick to one instrument and I never became an expert in one either. I just always found music and music theory interesting.

During college, if I wasn’t painting or drawing, then I was reading about art or going to local music and art shows. I even worked in an art gallery for a time. In college, I remember taking an elective class on music theory and we explored classical music with our professor playing the piano and testing our ears on the different parts and structures of a piece. It’s no surprise that as of late, it feels like I’m coming round full circle.

With my current research on women in metal and all the various paths that its opened up for me, I find myself wanting to develop my musical side again. This time around, I’ve been curious about singing. In particular, I’m fascinated with the techniques used to develop metal vocals and growling sounds. Now that I know it’s entirely possibly for women to achieve male-sounding death vocals, I’ve become curious if its something I could learn. Like I mentioned in previous posts, my initial exposure to women who employed harsher vocals was Crisis. Karyn Crisis’ voice was unique in its ability to alternate from extremely harsh and tonal to melodic and feminine, a technique that’s still not too common.

I’ve since become a fan of other extreme female vocalists like the women from Mortals, Derketa, 13, Abnormality and Jucifer–just to name a few. All of this inspiration has, of course, had it’s effect on me, and I’ve found myself writing a lot of non-academic stuff in the form of lyrics for potential songs.

My husband has been pretty supportive and has been helping me research singing technique–(yes-we are geeks). We’re possibly thinking of starting a husband/wife duo with him on bass and me on..well, I’m not sure yet. I want to get the vocal thing started but would love to take up drums, cause then, of course, we could be a drum and bass duo. But I digress…

Back to vocal training……

Why is exploring this important?
In the course of my interviews with women, the pattern of appropriating male-coded behavior such as singing with extreme metal stylings became apparent. As anthropology lecturer Estelle Murphy writes,

“…the female growler plays with the listener’s gendered aural comprehension of the voice; her voice is gendered as masculine. Thus, through the appropriation of the masculine voice, the female growler manipulates and exposes a system of masculine filtration, whereby the listener is mislead by the performer’s mask or ‘audio drag’. However, such performances of female masculinity (Halberstam, 2010) raise questions about performative intention and of the masculinity performed by male death-growl vocalists.”(Murphy 2014)

What better way to explore this subversion than to try it out myself?

Blogger Geordi Linsey writes a little about her journey in experimenting with developing metal vocals as well. I found her insights and self-explorations both interesting and helpful. As you can imagine, embarking on such a journey leaves lots of room for introspection!

The Plan:
I decided my first task in this exploration would be to simply find songs I want to sing. This might appear to be easy, but in actuality, it’s not. First off, I’m working from the knowledge that as a grade-schooler during choir, my teachers frequently referred to my singing range as a “contralto” or “alto“. Now skip to almost 20 years later and I’m not sure if my vocal range has changed. I’m actually not sure how one gauges what kind of voice they have if they’re not versed in deciphering such things. Luckily, there is the internet!!! No really…it’s a great starting point. For example, I found the post, “What’s My Voice Type?” from the website Choirly quite informative.

I hadn’t realized that many women get categorized as contralto/altos but are actually mezzo-sopranos. A reason being that many instructors don’t want to spend the time in actually training what they believe sounds off-tune. Instead they end up directing these off-tune mezzo-sopranos to sing as altos where their off-tunefulness blends more easily.

Having realized I most likely fit the category of a mezzo-soprano helped me in figuring out what kind of song I was going to test. As much as I would love to sing Crisis’s Different Ways of Decay (see below), I don’t think I’m skilled enough to pull off the way she alternates her voice throughout each measure.

Additionally, I’ve been more curious about techniques employing guttural death growls and inhalations. An example of one of my favorite singing styles with regard to pitch and timbre is the way John Tardy from Obituary sings, “Slowly We Rot” (see below). There’s a point in the song that Tardy is producing a slow inhalation that comes out like a deep growl. Moreover, I’ve come to like the raspy and deep vocal style he and many early death vocalists employed in the 80’s, like Chuck Schuldiner, Kam Lee or David Vincent.

Interestingly, your actual singing voice doesn’t necessarily impact the style of death vocals you choose. One example of this is Angela Gossow , ex-frontwoman for Arch Enemy. Apparently her vocal range is mezzo-soprano.

Another song I would love to emulate, and which might be a little easier for me, would be “Norge” (see below) by Thorr’s Hammer. It’s got a strong intro by Runhild Gammelsaeter. She opens the song with chant-like verses followed by a deep, almost inhuman growl. I love it!!!

In terms of musical sound, it would be nice if the hubby and I could cultivate a mixture of elements from bands like Godflesh,  Amebix, Mrykur, King Woman, or Fear of God. All in all, this is all a boiler plate, so if you all have some insights, feel free to comment below.

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About Me: Depth & Transgression

JoanI realized, the “About Me” section in this blog is a bit wanting and I thought that even though I’ve been relaying all the sordid details of my research, I haven’t really let my audience know about me (although one can argue that you’d get a feeling about who I am if you’ve been reading my posts!)

But anyway, here’s some details about me and where I’ve been going both academically and professionally. First off, this blog was started back in 2011 as a way for me to get my bearings with writing in academia as well as a way to force me to just, well, WRITE!

I’ve always been a fan of all types of music, especially 80’s New Wave, Classic Punk, and, as you can tell–Extreme Metal. By Extreme metal, I am mostly talking about Death, Doom, Sludge and some Grind.

My first life was spent as an Art lover and student. I went to SUNY Albany for my Bachelors in Studio Art (Drawing) and Art History (Medieval Art and Architecture). Having experienced first hand working in a Visual Arts Library, I thought to myself, wouldn’t becoming an Art Librarian be cool???And I wouldn’t have to be a starving artist to boot! So about a year after I graduated college, I went to Pratt for my Library degree in Library/Information Science with a Certificate in Archives (which is gathering dust by the way).

In the midst of my Pratt life, I ended up, very luckily, working at The Thomas J. Watson Library in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I worked there for about 6 years as an Art Librarian, enjoying the highs and lows that accompany art reference, cataloging and inter-library loaning! This was a great way to merge my love of art with reading and organization.

However, somewhere down the line, I ended up thinking about getting a second masters degree. I remember talking to some mid-level librarians who told me that in order to work in a college library, having a second masters for specialization was helpful. So that’s what I did. I decided to go to Hunter’s CUNY program in Anthropology with the beginning intention to write about Anthropology and the Pacific. Having found out that most schools in the NY didn’t really have faculty focused in that area-unless you’re going for the PHD, I was outta luck. So I started thinking about what else was fascinating about humans and culture.  And then I had an enlightening conversation with my husband. He brought up Karyn Crisis from Crisis and her influence as seminal person in the death metal scene in early 90’s NYC metal. It got us to thinking about women in Heavy Metal Music. And it most certainly led me to researching what, if any, academic literature was written in Anthropology about women and their experience in these often “hyper-masculine” and “misogynistically” described musical genres. We talked about Dawn Crosby from Fear of God/Detente, as well as women who were musicians  not vocally fronting in bands, like Jo Bench. I wondered what led them to participate in this sub-culture of extreme metal and I wondered if they felt marginalized or empowered by the scene.

Side cutFor me, around 2007, my reasons on listening to Death Metal became apparent. For one, my ears had slowly become trained to actually listening to the genre as form as oppose to just hearing loud noise. And two, no other music for me could correlate to the passing event that I had just overcome, that of my mother’s death. Down-tuned guitars, heavy bass-lines, and blast beats all lent itself nicely to both the angst and grieving I was undergoing. Finding women as vocalists and musicians in the scene served as a way to connect. This became very poetic for me and it’s what I believe happens to people when they connect to a particular style of music. It was a transgressive experience.

But where has this left me? It’s left me at a point where I am still learning from many of the women I have surveyed and interviewed during my research. I am finding, that like me, they are empowered by the music and their acceptance. Although bad experiences exist in any sub-culture, emerging patterns of tolerance have also been relayed to me. I am finding that in NYC, diversity and gender are ever the forefront in cultural concerns. What that may mean for women in the EMM scene can have a variety of meanings. For one, if feminism, especially that of the third wave feminism can be applied to EMM, then the make-up I am seeing, which is fairly diverse when compared to EMM scenes outside of NY, aligns itself well with the third wave.. There is a predominantly Hispanic population of women involved in the the local EMM scene and it does indeed encompass, “many colors, ethnicities, nationalities, religions and cultural backgrounds”.

In the near future, my professional plans are to finish up this thesis and disseminate it. After that, I plan on going back to my first love of art and perhaps dabbling in creating music. All of this research has cemented to me that there isn’t many female artists lyrically writing about what it is to be a women, if they even get to write the songs!

For example, what would it be like to hear something like Cannibal Corpse’s “Stripped, Raped and Strangled” from the point of view of the victim? Or maybe lyrics that relay the pain, terror, and joy when birthing a child? How about lyrics about being a female serial killer or the pain felt when having a miscarriage, etc? These are all reasonably within the motifs of Death Metal but align themselves with a feminist agenda. It’s something I have yet to hear with maybe Brooklyn’s Castrator being an exception.