This post originates from a recent discussion I had with my dad about the use of harsh vocals in heavy metal. He brought up the point that death metal “growls” limit the economic prospects of metal bands who would otherwise be popular if they introduced clean singing (or as most people call it, singing). It is common for bands to mix and change vocal styles, but shifting sounds completely is relatively rare although not unheard of. For example, the critically acclaimed post-metal band Deafheaven employed this strategy by switching to clean vocals on their most recent release. Why do so many metal bands continue to use guttural vocals even if it limits their commercial appeal?
One reason why bands continue to use extreme vocal distortion is that fans actually like it. I am one of those individuals who prefers a deep false cord scream over a harmonious high note, although I appreciate both in different contexts. Harsh vocals make metal music aggressive and powerful but also create interesting contrast with the instrumentals. In pop music, vocals are the focus of a song. In heavy metal, harsh vocals behave more like a percussive instrument, helping showcase the melodic and technical guitar work that is fundamental to the genre.
With that said, I recognize that harsh vocals are an acquired taste that reflect the subjectivity of music preference. There is no doubt that this vocal style is less accessible to the wider population and contributes to reduced entrepreneurial opportunities in the industry overall. However, vocals in heavy metal serve an important purpose in cultivating niche markets where it is often easier for bands to differentiate themselves in an oversaturated music scene.
There are many metal subgenres, each with their own audience, and vocals provide the most identifiable way to characterize them. While operatic vocals are synonymous with symphonic metal, high-pitched shrieks are associated with black metal and distorted shouting features prominently in hardcore music. From pig squeals to fry screams, there is something for everyone. A unique vocal style allows bands to stand out from the crowd and creates an opportunity to seize the top spot in a smaller segment of the market. Would you rather be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond? Most metal bands choose the latter.
Learning to find beauty in vocals that many find completely dissonant is like working through a difficult math problem to understand something most people never will. As much as I dislike this elitist attitude, it is a central part of metal culture. Harsh vocals are a tool that keeps metal exclusive and exclusivity has its own marketable appeal, especially for those who are marginalized and cast aside as outsiders. Importantly, harsh vocals insulate a community from those who are not ready to listen with the depth and commitment that metal requires. This helps metal listeners retain ownership of a genre that is authentic and inspiring to those who feel powerless. This will sustain the genre for years to come, regardless of popularity.
To hear sick vocals you didn’t know the human body could produce, check out Lorna Shore.