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.

Jucifer

jucifer2Over at NPR, I saw an interesting article titled, Gazelle Amber Valentine: ‘Gender Is Not A Genre’. It’s an interview with Ms. Valentine from the band Jucifer; a band made up of married couple Gazelle Amber Valentine on vocals and Edgar Livingood on  drums. They’re considered a sludge metal band though from what I keep hearing about their live performances, they are anything but sludgy, and in fact, have been known to have intensely emotional performances.

I bring up this NPR interview because the author Kim Kelly (an awesome metal writer by the way) asks some important questions regarding gender. I found Gazelle’s answers to them to be quite interesting especially if we look at them through a Third Wave Feminist lens. Since my thesis aims to examine how both female fans and female musicians look at gender, I was curious to see what Gazelle had to say. Below are some interesting excerpts from the interview:

Q: To detour for a moment and revisit your own roots: How did you first become interested in and aware of feminism, and womankind’s fight for equality? How has living your life as a musician and metalhead affected your identity as a woman?

My identity as a woman was always secondary to my identity as ME, if that makes sense. Being a musician and metalhead might not have even happened if not for that. I’ve had to reject a lot of socialized bullshit to openly be what I am: a woman who is, and is at ease with, simultaneously embracing traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine things. I don’t find they conflict, but society says they do. People have told me both literally and figuratively that “girls can’t” do just about everything. Fortunately I never believed them and will do it anyway. The truth, of course, is that gender doesn’t have anything to do with a person’s capabilities. If anything, my life in metal has cemented everything I already guessed about the world. You know; the highest compliment I can get after a show is, “I thought you were a dude until I got close.”

And:

Q: Metal’s “woman problem” that has been mentioned all over the media and in barroom conversations from here to Timbuktu. It’s a question we’ve been asking for years, but: why? Why is it still an issue that a woman is interested in metal, especially extreme metal? What are men – and some other women – afraid of?

Society trains us from a very early age to be male or female, so as long as people believe metal is “dude stuff,” women who enter the metal world will create some discomfort. It’s really sad, because there are lots of guys who’d probably be stoked to hang with a woman who appreciates their music … except that somehow it threatens their sense of self. Everybody’s trained into this adversarial relationship that benefits absolutely nobody — we’re set up to argue and complain about each other, and in too many cases have lifelong relationships with someone we resent.

Obviously that’s a generalized, cisheteronormative analysis. But that’s the axis of metal’s tradition of women problems. Metal is considered a male toy, women are considered toys for males. When your toy steals your toy it’s a mindfuck. As far as intragender hating, the main thing I notice about women within metal is actually something men do to one another too: judging others on style choices or which bands they like. It’s fuckin’ dumb, y’all. What’s the point of seeking outlaw, non-mainstream stuff just to turn around and police it?!

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