The release of “One More Time”, a track from Dream Theater frontman James LaBrie‘s upcoming solo album, Static Impulse, has sparked a heated debate among his fans. Listeners were shocked when the first vocals they heard on the track were not LaBrie’s distinctive tenor but rather the heavy screams of the album’s drummer/scream vocalist, Peter Wildoer. Some fans were incensed by the use of heavy vocals featuring another vocalist on what is supposed to be a LaBrie solo album. Others loved how LaBrie was keeping pace with the current vocal trends. A third group grudgingly tolerated the screams, but loved the rest of the song.
This controversy represents a microcosm of a feud among metal fans – do clean vocals still work in current heavy metal?
An extremely brief history of metal vocals
LaBrie’s voice resembles that of popular 1980s metal singers such as Rob Halford (Judas Priest), Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden), Geoff Tate (Queensrÿche), and Sebastian Bach (Skid Row). These singers have tenor, operatic-style voices capable of shooting into the stratosphere. When most people think of the 1980s metal scene, these are the voices which come to mind.
Many fans may not realize that heavy vocals (a.k.a. death growls or cookie monster vocals) have been around in an underground form since the mid-80s. Kam Lee of Massacre and Thomas Gabriel Fischer (a.k.a. Tom G Warrior) of Celtic Frost are credited by many as the originators of death grunts. Mark “Barney” Greenway of grindcore band Napalm Death, has been credited as one of the first full-blown death growl singers.
By the late 80s, the mainstream metal scene had become a bloated parody of itself. The grunge movement knocked metal off of the map in the early 90s. When metal reemerged in latter half of the 90s, the high-octane voices of the 80s had been replaced by singers who rapped (Limp Bizkit‘s Fred Durst), shouted (Slipknot‘s Corey Taylor), and growled (Mudvayne‘s Chad Gray ).
Most recently-formed metal bands feature heavy vocals in several different ways. Some bands have a heavy vocalist, and that’s it. Others have a vocalist who can sing both heavy and clean vocals. Still others have a clean vocalist and one or more heavy vocalists. You won’t find many new mainstream metal bands with a Rob Halford type of voice.
The dilemma: clean vs. heavy vocals
In this day and age, metal fans have a plethora of bands and genres to choose from. Older artists like Judas Priest, Motley Crüe, and Ozzy Osbourne have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. We have a plethora of new artists like Trivium, Killswitch Engage, and Lacuna Coil. But some older metal fans like me are in a predicament because so many of the newer bands feature heavy vocals. Either we remain permanently stuck in the past with our old record collections, or we figure out a way to learn to appreciate growling vocals.
I have found heavy vocalists whose voices I actually enjoy. I prefer the higher-pitched screaming over growling, and it’s helpful when the singer enunciates so that I can understand the lyrics. I also prefer when the singer alternates between heavy and clean vocals. Two great examples are Pat Lachman (ex-Damageplan) and Chris Clancy (Mutiny Within). Growling can also be effective when used to express a certain emotion or to back up clean vocals. For example, in Ayreon’s The Human Equation, Mikael Åkerfeldt epitomizes the character of pain with his heavy vocals. The band Epica features Simone Simons on clean female vocals and Mark Jansen on grunts and screams. The use of a clean female voice and grunting male voice is an example of the beauty and the beast aesthetic commonly used in gothic metal.
Are clean vocals outdated?
Many young metalheads feel that a high-singing male vocalist just isn’t hard-core enough. I’ve read disparaging comments about the masculinity of singers such as Bruce Dickinson and James LaBrie all over the Internet. As a rabid Dream Theater fan, I’ve seen countless arguments on various forums as to whether or not LaBrie still belongs in the band. Some fans feel his voice doesn’t adequately express heavier sentiments, and a few people have said that his voice turns them away from the band.
Given the variety of metal we have today, I think that there is plenty of room for both clean and heavy vocalists. Different types of metal require different types of vocalists. Rob Halford’s voice is perfect for Judas Priest, but it wouldn’t match with Cannibal Corpse. By the same token, Jamey Jasta of Hatebreed would fit terribly with Iron Maiden. One of the best things about metal is its individualism. Unlike pop music, there’s no need to be trendy. Therefore, what’s the point in trashing the old-school vocalists? Their voices are undeniably powerful.
As for James LaBrie’s new song, the solo screaming parts will take some getting used to. Many fans have said that if the rest of the album has heavy vocals on it, they won’t buy it. I’m going to buy the album, because I love every solo and side project that LaBrie has put out. It’s a case of trusting one of my favorite artists to lead me in a new direction and learn different things.
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- James LaBrie, ‘One More Time’ — Song Premiere (noisecreep.com)
- DREAM THEATER’s JAMES LABRIE Unveils His New Static Impulse Solo Release; Announces Players, Release Info (bravewords.com)