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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Gallhammer and Heavy Metal Singing

Gallhammer2If I haven’t officially mentioned it before, I’ll do it now. I’ve been pretty interested in this band called Gallhammer. I’ve featured a picture of them in the post before this one about Heavy Metal – Women and Perception.

They are a three piece all-female metal band from Japan, though I’ve just read that they are now a duo of just bass and drums. Described as sludgy blackened doom with a bit of crust from their Wikipedia page, I’ve found their overall sound appealing in a muculent doomy kind of way.  In other words, I really like their sound.

The duo consists of bassist-vocalist Vivian Slaughter and drummer Risa Reaper though they were formally a trio with guitarist Mika Penetrator. They got their start in the early 2000’s and after playing a couple of shows and releasing a couple of demos, they were signed onto Peaceville Records by none other than on the recommendation of Darkthrone.

As noted from their Wiki page they were highly influenced by bands like Napalm Death, Carcass, Morbid Angel, and Joy Division — all bands I love and have all seen except for Joy Division (RIP Ian Curtis).

I got my hands on their second studio album released in 2007 entitled Ill Innocence. Favorite songs from the album are At The Onset of the Age of Despair, Blind My Eyes, and Delirious Dreamer, though almost all the songs on the album do not disappoint.

Of particular note was the song Blind My Eyes – I found the exchange between Vivian’s death vocals and Mika’s almost prepubescent girlish squeals to be a provocative call and response type of interchange. It’s no secret that I would love to be able to sing like this. Though it’s not done with Gallhammer, I haven’t seen many female vocalists who can cleanly transition from dry death vocals to regular vocals. It’s probably due to the complexities involved with reaching such a range. Another interesting tidbit is that Vivian Slaughter is married to Maniac from Mayhem, who also guest sings on a later album.

Which brings me to mention another talent – Melissa Cross.  If you haven’t heard of her before, you should definitely look her up. She’s a voice teacher living in NYC and is responsible for some of the best screamers in Heavy Metal. She’s released a DVD guide called The Zen of Screaming: Vocal Instruction for a New Breed and has recently expanded upon it with The Zen of Screaming 2. Featured artists include Shadows Fall, God Forbid, Lamb of God, Randy Blythe, All That Remains, Angela Gossow, and H2O. Check out Cross’s clip from YouTube with Angela Gossow’s lesson and interview.

It’s quite fascinating to see the ways in which singers train their voice and it was especially interesting to see how both Cross and Gossow comment on how fans misconstrue male vocalists and their ability to “pull through” and not lose their voice. Cross laughed and said she’s seen many a male vocalist loose their voice and even shred their throats from singing improperly.

All in all – a very informative DVD for those interested in learning how to sing metal vocals with variety and little chance of shedding one’s throat.