(Andy Synn has been thinking… and here’s what he’s been thinking about…)
Recently I was chatting with some friends after a show on the topic of clean singing in metal – its history, its use, its place, and its purpose… the how, the when, and the why of it…. and it got me thinking. Thinking hard enough to put together this little piece of persuasive ponderment anyway.
Of course clean singing has been a part of the metal landscape since the genre’s very inception, and despite this site’s (tongue-in-cheek) name we definitely understand and respect it for its importance and its contribution over the years. Heck, I can honestly say that I LOVE a lot of cleanly sung metal, from the majestic melancholy of Primordial and the devastating bombast of Nevermore, through the gritty gallows-humour of Sentenced and the shameless extravagance of Devin Townsend… and that’s not even counting the umpteen bands who intermingle clean/harsh vocals with aplomb!
But when we’re talking about the more extreme styles of metal that we tend to cover here at NCS, clean singing can often be a contentious issue. And I can understand why, as it’s possible to get it very, very wrong when it comes to clean singing.
“Ex Nihilo” – sculpture by Frederick Elliott Hart
After all it’s easy – shamefully so, really – to add a mass-appeal, poppy edge to your music (whether good or bad) through the medium of clean singing. And, as effective as that can be, it can also be a slippery slope. Once you start to pander in this fashion (whether consciously or not), you’re often in danger of becoming locked into the exact same structures, the exact same styles, the exact same limited range of melodies, as every other band around you. After all, there’s a formula for this sort of mass-appeal sound, and it’s very easy to fall into it if you’re not careful.
But I’d rather put that to one side for the minute, and assume that what we’re talking about here is not the sort of bands willing to engage in this sort of calculated cash-grab while claiming it’s a legitimate “creative” move (you know who they are, they know who they are, let’s go into that another time), but rather the sort of bands who legitimately aim to use clean singing as a way of expanding their musical palette and exploring their artistic range.
Because even going into it with the best intentions doesn’t shield you from the myriad pitfalls that can befall a band attempting to incorporate clean singing into a more “extreme” style of metal. Over the years I’ve seen (and heard) a lot of bands succumb to the lure of clean singing without considering the various issues — some blatant, some much more subtle — which come with it, and without fully considering the cost/benefit trade-off.
Having a vocalist who can sing – and I mean really sing – is of course, pretty important. Whether your band has a frontman capable of doing both clean and harsh vocals (your garden variety Akerfeldt, Kuhr, Ikonen, Hunt, etc) or makes use of a gifted backing vocalist (see: Burst, Enslaved, Insomnium, Krakow, etc), being able to actually hit the right notes is obviously a vital piece of the puzzle.
But, while that’s certainly necessary, it’s not necessarily sufficient. In fact there’s a bunch of other questions I feel like bands should be asking themselves first. For example…
Sure, your singer can definitely hold a tune… but does he have an actual ear for a good and memorable melody?
Can he write actual hooks?
Does he know where to place them, when to use them, and (just as importantly) when not to?
Does his voice actually suit your music?
And even if it does… does the use of clean singing actually add anything to the song?
And, perhaps most importantly, does the song really need, or even want, clean singing?
I’ve had more than a few of these problems myself. At a recent Twilight’s Embrace practice we were working on a brace of new songs, all at different stages of completeness, and after a run-through of one particular track I realised that what I was doing simply wasn’t working. Oh, the melody I was using was solid enough. It was in the right key, it fit in place, and even worked in isolation. But it didn’t add anything to the track. It was just… there. Solidly and unremarkably there.
Similarly with Beyond Grace we’ve discussed adding clean singing. I can sing. Our guitarist Tim can sing. And it might be nice to introduce his voice in particular as a melodic counterpoint (similar to how Extol do things). But, ultimately, we came to the conclusion that the songs we have, the sound we currently have, doesn’t need clean vocals. There are certainly places where clean vocals could go, certainly, but right now they just don’t realty fit the sort of mood and theme we’re trying to portray,
Now I’m not setting myself up as some sort of paragon of knowledge about this, or asserting that my way is the “right” way – please don’t think that – but it’s just that I’ve seen it happen to a number of bands where the singers, as talented as they may be, simply haven’t been able to see that their clean vocals aren’t really adding anything to the music
It’s not that they’re bad, and aren’t necessarily detrimental to the song as a whole, but they don’t do what I feel clean vocals are supposed to do in this sort of context – they don’t push the song or add anything particularly vital to the experience. At best they’re simply a good exercise for the singers in question to show off their abilities, regardless of whether what they’re doing fits with the song and what impact they might be having, for good or for ill.
Perhaps the most importance consideration to bear in mind about clean singing is that its use can, for better or for worse, totally change the character of a song. And not just when the actual singing is going on. It will change how people look at the song as a whole.
That word – character – is the key. That’s what I feel is the first thing you need to consider when you bring in clean vocals. And considering the character of your songs, both with and without clean vocals, leads to a lot of questions.
Do the vocals truly represent the character of the band, the character of the album, the character of the song itself?
Will you be using them as a major part of the song, or just an intriguing aside? Will they be purposefully used as a yin/yang balance against the harsh vocals, or are they being employed to complement them directly (both are possible… and not mutually exclusive either…)?
Are they designed to build on the mood that’s already established, or offer an alternative approach and take the song in a new direction? And are we just talking big, iconic melodic choruses (not a bad thing by any means, but one that doesn’t always work out how you might want it to), or are these vocals going to be woven in throughout the length and breadth of the track?
You see what I mean? Lots of questions. And I’d be willing to bet that a good chunk of them are valid and worth considering if you’re considering using clean vocals in an extreme metal context.
Of course there’s a chance I’m overthinking things here… but if you know me at all (at least through my writing) you know that I like to think about this sort of stuff, its possibilities and its implications, even if it’s never actively put into practice.
So maybe not all these issues will ever become a conscious concern for bands. Maybe you’ll only ever notice them after the fact – and even then, I think that we tend to focus mainly on the bands who get it right in the first place – but even if that’s the case, isn’t it interesting to think about the why and the how of clean singing… the how/why it works, and the how/why of when it doesn’t?
To finish with I’ll leave you with this track by Arch Enemy, a band I felt actually used clean vocals in just the right way, and in just the right amount, on their most recent album.
Despite the fact that new frontwoman Alissa White-Gluz has a potent clean singing voice (albeit one that’s never really done much for me personally), the band purposefully avoided heading down the predictable path of utilising a beauty/beast combo of vocals in every track, only bringing them in during should-have-been-final-track “Avalanche”, in a manner designed to complement, and not dominate, the song’s chorus.
And while this may not be the most “extreme” track I could have chosen, I think it serves as a great example of when less is more, and how clean vocals can be used – sparingly, in this case — to accentuate, rather than alter, the character of a track.
Clean singing is like anything else, be it breakdowns, djent, solos, pig squeals, tempo changes — it works if it’s done well. There’s never a specific formula for how to use it well, you just have to have an ear and a taste for how to implement it, and obviously the listeners disagree with each other and with the artist whether it’s done tastefully or not. I do think the name “No Clean Singing” warrants a certain maturity since it carries an air of distancing itself from the pop-influenced metal side of things, a lot of which really isn’t very good (cough Periphery cough.)
On the other hand I am an apologist for almost everything in metal and vaguely metal related music and will argue that much like clean singing, there is a place for well-done djent and if you disagree, you should listen to Inmazes (2015) by VOLA. But at the same time, there’s a lot of shovelware djent that sucks.
The issue of character in clean singing won’t resolve anything, because what one person will consider “character” another person may just consider bad. Take early Woods of Ypres, for example, around Woods III — David Gold, I would argue, is an amazing vocalist and his clean singing is perfection, but Woods III has a lot of off-tune singing that others would argue is bad clean singing. I don’t think anyone is really arguing that by the time you get to Woods V.
Anyway, clean singing would be like anything else — don’t switch to a reggae breakdown if the song doesn’t call for it, don’t rip a solo if the song doesn’t call for it… but nobody is ever going to really agree on what a song calls for where.
EVERY SONG MUST RIP A SOLO!!!!!
No, seriously, I do agree with you.
My favorite example of a band that employs clean singing is Black Crown Initiate. They mix fairly brutal technical death metal with clean choruses that make their tunes accessible and catchy, yet their melodies are interesting and rarely predictable.
Oh yes, they were very much another candidate I thought of using as my “example” song.
I agree with all the points made here in the article. But I can’t stand the clean singing mixed in with the new BCI. It worked on the first ep kinda. But, for my tastes, how it often pops up on the new one doesn’t add anything emotionally to the moments they are inserted into. Personal tastes I suppose.
Thank you for acknowledging that Grutle, from Enslaved, does not do the clean vocals. I don’t know why this bugs me, but I keep seeing on websites where he is credited as the only vocalist when it’s simply not true. To the point, though, I love some clean singing, but only if tasteful, and that is obviously subjective. I feel Enslaved, Sylosis, Vesania, and Revocation’s new albums are perfect examples of it being done very well, all to varying degrees.
Definitely. Larsen deserves way more credit than he gets – he’s honestly a huge reason why I love newer Enslaved so much. Speaking of which, I can’t fucking wait to catch them tonight in Chicago 😀
I’m trying not to hate you for getting to see them when I’m missing them due to work. It’s requiring a lot of effort.
I got lucky with scheduling – if this was a day later, I’d have to pass on this, since I’m in the middle of finals week, with my only sit-down final on Thursday.
I don’t mind clean singing, but I’m really a stickler for time and place. If a band has always employed it, I usually just try and feel if I like the way they’re done. They really have to add something to the music. For example I really liked the clean vocals in Opeth because they were used in soft, melodic parts. I don’t mind it in some trad Doom bands because its sort of the schtick. But when bands just start using clean vocals, or worse use them in place of what they once did, I almost always hate it. Mastodon for example; I know a lot of people like their new sound and that’s fine, but I am not a fan. It completely changed the feel of their music for me. Bands can do whatever they want cause its their freedom of expression, but I usually stop listening when a band goes in favor of clean vocals. It just really has to be done right for some reason.
I think a lot of clean singing turns people off due to the association with trendy bands. For me, it’s a package deal. If the rest of the music rules, I don’t mind cleans at all.
RE: Black Crown Initiate. The music just didn’t jive with me unfortunately, but that dude can really sing!!! I thought that was the best part of their music, although the drummer is crazy as well.
RE:Arch Enemy… same thing here. The best part of the song was the predictable chorus. Her harsh vocals seem to suffer from over-pronunciation and a grating tone (not in a good way). The rest of the song is a “neo-classical” guitar exercise with window dressing. Btw, i thought the whole “melody over chugging open note ” thing was supposed to be a hallmark of metalcore/deathcore…
Clean singing is fine, but the singer needs to be able to actually sing. For example, Soilwork has it nailed. Speed’s not the best singer I’ve heard in my entire life by any means, but he’s still capable of clean vocals and seems to have gotten noticeably better over the years. Let’s contrast that with a similar band, In Flames. Anders absolutely cannot sing cleanly. At all. Not even close. I saw them live a few years back when they were on tour with Lamb of God, and any clean vocals you hear on the albums are pure studio trickery. He didn’t even try to pull most of the stuff off live, he just sort of droned a little bit or skipped the parts entirely.
The only band I’ve ever been able to forgive for having weak clean vocals is My Dying Bride. Aaron seems to have managed his lack of ability well enough, and there are really only a handful of times that I’ve listened to them over the years and cringed, and that was mostly on the first couple albums where he really embraced clean singing.
I certainly agree that that clean singing should be used only when it adds something – a good voice thrown in for the hell of it doesn’t really do anything. On the other hand, the same can apply for the other side of the coin – if a band has a strong clean voice as an asset and a tool they can employ, you have to hope they’ll put it to some good use, and not merely pretend it isn’t there. It’d be a damn shame if Alan Averill only sparingly sung, given how goddamn powerful his singing voice is. While the example of newer Alice in Chains isn’t a perfect comparison, as it deals with two different clean voices, I still hope as they go on that they’ll get more comfrtable with Duvall’s voice – on the two reunion albums, Cantrell has featured much more strongly than he did in the Staley days. That made some sense on the first reunion album, since the wound of Staley’s passing was still fresh, but when you get down to it Duvall has a hell of a voice, and one that the band shouldn’t be afraid to use.
When the singer wants to sing clean on feral music I think it’s necessary to use the voice sparingly and in a precise moment of the song in my personal opinion, good examples to me are bands like “Enslaved” with “Opeth” and Black Crown Initiate” and “Sylosis” too, but even if a good clean voice fits perfectly with the heaviness of sound this not means the songs could be uglier without clean singing, just the opinion of mine, a matter of timing, I guess, but honestly the singer must feel if is right or wrong and be able to create the good moment, here’s some of the tunes that I’m thinking about:
BLACK CROWN INITIATE: The Great Mistake
THE FACELESS: Ten Billion Years
i’m just not into clean vocals like used to be years ago. i’m always disappointed when i’m listening to a track by a new band, or new-to-me band, and i’m really into it and loving what i’m hearing. and then the chorus arrives and i get blasted by harmonizing clean vocals. and too often lately the clean vocals are indistinguishable between bands. i don’t know if that’s because of how they’re being recorded or if that particular sound that i find so irritating is just the “it” sound right now. but i wish it would stop popping up in the middle of songs that i’m enjoying, lol 🙂
I have ahd the same issue. Obviously I spend as much time as I can checking out new bands, and so many times I’m sat there (usually with friends) listening to a song and thinking “Hey, this is pretty good, lots of potential here, I wonder… DAMMMIT!!” as suddenly they jump (often rather jarringly) to a vapid, “we’re all in this together!”, whiny-voiced chorus section that seems transplanted from an entirely different song/band.
It’s definitely the “it” sound, and has been for a long time. I suppose the roots of it go back to early-KsE time (though they weren’t the first band to do it, obviously, just potentially the most prominent at the right/wrong time), but I place most of the blame on bands like A Day To Remember and their ilk, who try to beef up their teen-scene sound with “metal” parts, influencing a host of other bands to start throwing in unnecessary breakdowns to seem “heavy”, or to throw in unnecessary boy-band choruses so as to seem non-threatening.
It’s the equivalent of mainstream hip-hop artists who spend the verse rapping over some heavy beats about how hard, how tough, how dangerous they are… and then have one of their R&B friends come in for the chorus going “but i’m sensitive really / girl / I just need a good woman / and i’ll treat you right” before going back to “i’m a bad man, don’t mess with me, look at all my stuff and guns and guns-stuffed-with-things”.
It’s a rough and generic formula designed to tick boxes, and I am really not a fan of it, as bands in Rock/Metal tend to do it because it helps them sell tshirts to teens, tweens, and everything in between.
“boy-band choruses” is a perfect description of how they sound, lol 🙂
that type of vocal approach may be a hit teenage girls who are on the fence when it comes to extreme metal, but i’m a 44 year old Cannibal Corpse fan and when the band lures me in with a heavy verse and then blindsides me with a poppy chorus, it’s a little frustrating 🙂
I don’t mind a bit of a poppy melody or chorus here and there if it’s appropriate (I love “Confusion Bay” by Raunchy, so that’s all my extreme metal cred out the window straight away) and as long as it sounds natural and actually adds something to the song… rather than just being designed to tick boxes that target certain demographics!
what about an essay on “unclean singing”;
its roots in classic music, opera, ritual, mantra,..
it must have started somewhere in the darkest (and perhaps the oldest) of centuries, places;
and it must have had a very special audience; a ruling elite, enemy on battlefield,…etc.
I’ve actually got a “Five of my Favourite” column half-written about “unclean” singers. Though in this case I’m referring to vocalists with a more “dirty” clean vocal delivery, rather than specifically harsh vocals.
Speaking of unclean singers, I actually really liked what Erik from Watain did on the title track from their latest. I’d imagine they’ll wind up going full Reinkaos on the next album but I’m hoping for more of that style of vocals from him. He’s surprisingly good at it.
Fascinating perspective! For better or worse I began my journey as a metal neophyte very much into nu-metal in high school. Metalcore was just becoming a “thing” then. Djent and its offspring seem to be the allure of the day now. But in metalcore’s heyday clean vocals were utilized well. Killswitch Engage self-titled album (the first one, that is) is a great example of that. I always enjoyed Zao’s scant use of clean vocals. They don’t use them very often, but because of that the cleans really stand out when you hear them.
I didn’t think I dug power metal. While Islander still hates it by and large, I’ve grown to appreciate some (though not all) of it. As a metal fan and consumer, it depends on my mood. If I want a catchy cleanly-sung chorus, I know where to find it. There are bands that deliver that consistently for me. On the other hand, if I’ve a taste for something more “unclean” I know where to find that as well. I am not a musician, so my analysis of this matter does not have the insider perspective that yours does. But as a fan, I don’t want to close my mind to an artist’s musical experimentation. I don’t want to put a band in a box and state that if they don’t meet my expectations for their sound, then I won’t continue to buy their music. I don’t want someone dismissing my writing for those reasons, so I try to respect musical progress and innovation. Which, sometimes, involves the use of clean singing.
I find the author’s views on the topic interesting, especially in the sense how clean singing is mostly treated as an alternative to harsh vocals in metal in the article. The fact of the matter is, though, that using vocals purely as a rhythm instrument is a relatively recent development in music, it is essentially modern. There’s a wealth of clean-sung metal that “had to” eschew the poppy sell-out aesthetic by way of composition alone because growling simply hadn’t been invented, so if anything, growling is an alternative to singing, not the other way around.
My real point, though, is that there’s a world of finer differences in hard rock music than say the one between “x band growls or is basically death metal with (some) clean vocals” and “x band has a singer”. My band, in case someone’s interested of what I’m on about in practice and not just in theory:
“Prince” by Andrzej Masianis is actually a plagiarism of Gustave Dore’s “Satan in Eden” illustration for John Milton’s Paradise Lost.