Musings on music, old, new, popular and obscure. Post punk, metal, hip-hop, funk, and rock in general. A music fan with a desire to lose boundaries on what should and should not be listened to writes about experience in music from a listener's perspective, hopefully unhindered by prior expectation.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

I Need the Noises of Destruction When There's Nothing New (Or: I Like It When Voices Grate)

Vocals in a band can be something of a peculiarity. I listen to a number of artists that at least primarily lack them, and enjoy many of those artists on into the "upper echelons" of my taste in music. My affections for Goblin, Aphex Twin, Mogwai alone are enough that when they come up with some people it's with the acknowledgment that their appreciation stems from my own and the sharing of it. But instrumental music isn't always for everyone--heck, all three of those artists have used vocals in one way or another¹.

But vocals are more likely to be a splitting point for people, it seems. Sure, the 80s are maligned in general for their drum sound a lot of the time, it having become so dominant that The Church had their third album, Seance, rendered with gated reverb drums basically without their knowledge, let alone their consent. That, however, tends to be more association and generalized preference, and it hasn't had a major effect on things like popularity of songs overall. In a sense that might confuse the issue, it's similar to the usage of heavily auto-tuned vocals in the modern era, which tends to bug a lot of the same crowd that hates gated reverb. No judgment here, incidentally--but there is truly plenty of crossover there.

Unusual, especially off-key, non-melodic, grating, unusually pitched, or strangely toned or timbred voices can rapidly put people off an entire body of work. Some will even forego an artist's work until someone covers it, simply because the original author's voice is inexpert, amateurish, or just plain weird. Respect is occasionally given to these artists by folks who can't stand their voices, because it has nothing to do with the song itself.

To ease us into something that will eventually start annoying the hell out of some readers, let's start with the voice of one Tom Waits:

Now, originally, Tom crooned pretty well, on albums like his debut, 1973's Closing Time (though someone I knew with perfect pitch once asked if it was a live album, as he hit some bad notes I can't readily detect with my clumsy ear), on up until about 1980's Heartattack and Vine, where he started to slide into the vocal style for which he would become known after signing to Island Records for albums like Rain Dogs. These are his more widely recognized albums (indeed, I often surprise people who have vague notions of him by playing something off of Closing Time, like his original version of "Ol' 55", which The Eagles covered the next year for On the Border) and the vocals he is definitively identified with.

One of the most famous artists associated with this mentality is Bob Dylan. Sure, there are endless parodies of his voice (a personal favourite is Andy Partridge's, which appears on demo collection Fuzzy Warbles, Vol. 1 via studio tomfoolery while attempting to record "That Wave." He also does a couple of knocks at The Smiths and The Cure--way, way too well). Sure, a guest was once able to identify a song as Dylan's despite not recognizing it on Nevermind the Buzzcocks (a British music panel quiz/comedy show I love) once Phil Jupitus emphasized "nasal" to the nth degree. And yes, he's recognized quite widely for his song-writing skill, but they are plenty of people who cannot stand to listen to him sing his own songs. I'm not one of those people, but I have no exceptional love for his voice, so I shan't include any here (though if I've set the itch to hear some upon you, go with "Ballad of a Thin Man" for me).

They are, to encapsulate the entire idea of this writing, "an acquired taste" for many people. There's some frustration to this for me, that mostly stems from my feelings of the emotional immediacy and "accuracy"i of an original artist recording their own song, but I understand the sentiment (or aural abrasion) that leads to the stance anyway. Tom's is, to some extent, affected for singing, as he sounds only a bit gravelly when he speaks to this day, and nowhere near as deep as on the chorus to "Hoist That Rag," which is lifted from 2004's Real Gone.

Some other singers merely have voices I'd identify as having a certain "character" to them, like the Okie accent and country grit that bleeds into anything Leon Russell has ever recorded. Leon, too, has often had his songs achieve greater fame in the hands of other artists, especially the first track on his 1970 self-titled debut, "A Song for You." It became a signature song for Donny Hathaway (eventually sampled, I've just discovered, by Bizzy Bone, who I've always liked, as popular gangsta rap goes, but nevermind that) and has been recorded, um, a lot. Me? I continue to like Leon's version best, even though his voice is not as good as Donny's, for instance.

For some reason, I love that stupid shirt, and the top hat he often wore with it. Plus his hair was awesome in those days. Just a great look in general.

Ryan Bingham is a modern "alternative country" singer, who has been described as sounding "like Steve Earle's dad" despite his relative youth. If you don't know Steve Earle, it basically means it sounds like he's been smoking for his entire life, while possibly gargling with rocks and sand.

As implied previously, I may be inefficient at judging voices, but I am pretty sure he's on-key despite the gravel. Could be wrong.

Dr. John does a little of each, with a dry voice that carries his "Nawlins" accent out without impediment. There's a lovely sort of "spice" to it--a word that may come to mind only because New Orleans is associated with cajun cooking, but it still feels right--and yet it's not what anyone is likely to call a "good" (in the technical sense) voice. Though, damn, the man can play piano, and he sure as hell brings a delicious flavour to the constantly covered New Orleans traditional "Iko-Iko" with it.

If you don't know and have not guessed from this video, Dr. John was the inspiration for the Muppets' Dr. Teeth. No foolin'.

There is plenty to be said about the way a lot of vocalists choose to sing or vocalize, but this is something a little more than that--to my ears, anyway. I won't get into Mark E. Smith of The Fall, even though he has a very...interesting approach to it, but that's because his preference is to rant half-unintelligibly and not publish his lyrics so you have to listen carefully and decipher them yourself. But it's too completely a choice, and one that deliberately shies away from singing, often becoming deliberately monotone and occasionally resembling an outright spoken word rant. Someone else singing one of his songs would seem more like a defiance of purpose than a trade of "character" for technique, and I doubt it's often that just his voice puts people off The Fall.

I mean voices that can drive people off--something I know personally. There are definitely artists with whom this has been problem enough to keep me away for a very long time. That very notion is exactly what propels me to write this: if an artist, or a genre, or a song, or an album seems to have some kind of value hiding in it--to me--then I will not be dissuaded completely by this idea, if at all possible. I've been distinctly rewarded by this approach over time, and sometimes I wish others who turn off at a voice would do the same--so I'm going to look toward that end here. It may fall on deaf ears, of course, but I encourage anyone to try not to just hop off something too quickly--or perhaps to revisit it if underlying elements sound interesting.

You might find, one day, that those elements make sense with that voice, somehow, and end up with a new favourite band. I did.

I was going to use "A Favor House Atlantic," but my best friend, despite being the one who made me suck it up and listen to this band, does not like that song. Figured I'd do her that favour, even though there's no way in hell she'd read this, considering she's in the "nope, don't like his/her voice, the end," camp quite firmly.

Claudio's voice is one of those ones that leaves a lot of people pulling the, "Wait, that's a guy?" card. It's most often compared to Rush's Geddy Lee. Which occasionally leads to the obnoxious habit some people seem to have of trying to give their favourite band credibility with pretentious circles by making obtuse or bizarre comparisons. My father decided to check into Coheed and Cambria because he read a lot of teenage boys calling them similar to Pink Floyd. Yes, they're often considered prog rock, but they bear basically no resemblance to Pink Floyd, dear sirs, and they have their own credibility, you don't need to defend it from pretentious twits. At least the Geddy comparison is more to prepare you for the sound ("high-pitched guy").

 Speaking of high-pitched vocal styles from men, here's another that took a while for me--strangely, long after I happily listened to death and black metal:

Hell, for a while I'd stick to the first two Iron Maiden albums, where all vocals were performed by their first vocalist, Paul DiAnno, as Bruce Dickinson was yet to join the band. I still have a lot of affection for songs like Murders in the Rue Morgue. Eventually I came to appreciate the ridiculous gallop of songs like "Aces High," "Two Minutes to Midnight" and "The Trooper," and at some point Bruce's voice just...made sense.

Now, I was happily listening to death and black metal at that point, but I didn't happily wander into the realms of extreme metal without concern. Half the people I interact these days (whether they know it or not--online folks, at least) I do so via some indirect result of listening to metal. Most people I interact with can't really separate the idea from me anymore, I think, even as I spend periods of time gravitating instead toward other genres and styles.

It very much as not always this way. Sure, I listened to a lot of popular rough stuff as a teenager (in those days, "nu metal" was all the rage with those of us who defiantly refused mainstream rap, a still-common approach to music, I find). But even the weird and gruff voices all those guys (and, very rarely, gals) used were nothing compared to what was found in the murkier realms of actual death and black metal.

My first death metal band was a classic one--Morbid Angel. On recommendation, I checked out their second album, Blessed Are the Sick (you can tell it's the second because it starts with "B" and that's alphabetically the second letter--seriously). I really liked the intro, and the start of "Fall from Grace"...but then David Vincent started in with his voice....

I remember distinctly, periodically thinking, "Maybe now..." and getting through that intro and the first couple of bars from "Fall from Grace" and consistently going "Uh, nope," and switching back to something else, because it just would not "click." Now, of course, I listen to bands like Immolation, Suffocation (about whom I cannot resist an entertaining footnote²) , Decapitated. I'm not trying to show off gory names, mind, and oddly two of them don't deal much in gore, actually, these are just indicative examples of far more inhuman vocals than Vincent's ever were.

Now, I've done a lot of ear-torturing already for many people, but now we're going to hit one that grates on a lot of people I know, yet I find ridiculously catchy and enjoyable. I already like enough stuff no one else likes, so I beg your understanding and belief when I say I seriously love this band and its offshoot. Now, let's preface this with some words from reviewers big and small to describe the voices of Johnny Whitney and Jordan Blilie: "One screams and yelps in a very high register, the other is not so high, but still great at screaming," (that is from a 4/5 star review of Crimes from AllMusicGuide, mind you) while random posters have laid out descriptions like "the one that sounds like a child being tortured?" and worse, in true internet fashion.

You have been warned. But give it a go, anyway, hmm?

I sincerely love this song. No kidding. Even Johnny Whitney's--the blonde's--vocals.

And just to rush this on and get it out of the way, The Blood Brothers broke up one album past this one, having released five albums. Johnny Whitney and guitarist Cody Votolato formed Jaguar Love, which lost drummer Jay Clark (from the then late Pretty Girls Make Graves, who had formed from the remains of The Murder City Devils) before their second album, Hologram Jams in 2010--which is like some kind of insane synth/electro pop with Johnny singing over it. Yeah, I love them, too.

Now, I realize you are all probably pleading for me to stop, but there's one last band to mention. I tried this band a number of times, but they often just gave me a headache. My old roommate, John, liked them, and knew them through his interests in punk and grunge (I seem to recall Kurt Cobain was a big fan, as he was of the Meat Puppets and the Melvins, if memory continues to serve). A few tracks on their album Album - Generic Flipper went beyond Will Shatter and Bruce Loose's off-key, lazy vocals. "Life Is Cheap" added a mirrored, pitch-shifted chipmunk "harmony" to Loose's voice, creating an absolutely unholy abomination that I could not tolerate, ever. Until, well, recently. Maybe it's because the Blood Brothers gave me no pause when I first looked into them in 2009, and I now had so many weird voices under my belt. I don't know. But, lest I be alone here, here's that song, from that sludgy, floppy, loose, noisy, classic album. Even if you've chickened out (tongue-in-cheek, no judgment!), let me know about vocalists you've learned to love despite first impressions--and, for those who can't resist, some you maybe still can't tolerate.

Back to Post ¹Mogwai have used vocals pretty regularly from the beginning, whether using guests like Gruff Rhys from Super Furry Animals ("Dial: Revenge" on 2001's Rock Action), Arab Strab's Aidan Moffat ("R U Still In 2 It" on 1998's Young Team), or 13th Floor Elevator's troubled Roky Erickson ("Devil Rides" on 2008's Batcat EP) or having Stuart Braithwaite ("Tuner," "Cody," and most early vocal tracks not featuring guests) or Barry Burns (usually filtered through a vocoder, starting around 2003's Happy Songs for Happy People).

Richard D. James (aka The Aphex Twin, aka Caustic Window, aka Polygon Window, aka AFX, aka "Rich," aka...) has used them intermittently, often sampled, for songs like "Milkman" and "Come to Daddy," though he has been far more prone to "found" samples.

Goblin broke their convention (imbued by the volume of work they did for soundtracks no doubt) on 1978's Il Fantastico Viaggio del 'Bagarozzo' Mark and 1982's ultra-rare and very unusual Volo. That these were two-thirds of their non-soundtrack output (barring a truly sparse smattering of 7"s) is an indicator of how much that work dominated their oeuvre. Sure, "Witch," for instance, technically has vocals, but not in a way that lets them be much more than a sound.

Back to Post ²Suffocation were employed by the History Channel to record an amusing advert about the Dark Ages. Extra excitement was added by the presence of what I am almost positive is Phil Gordon, aka Flash Hercules from Richard Elfman's cult favourite flick Forbidden Zone--a celluloid capture of the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, who would shortly thereafter pare back their name, band-size and stage show to become Oingo Boingo--though they kept Richard's brother as the primary songwriter and vocalist (though I don't think he played the devil again after Forbidden Zone): Danny Elfman. Yes, that Danny Elfman.

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