Someone very dear to me once asked me why I listen to music with screamed vocals. That question was loaded to say the least. It encompassed within it myriad other questions and accusations, whether they were real or the product of my own neurosis. I was prepared to launch into a full on lecture of the intricacies and misconceptions inherent in the popular dismissal of screamed vocals when a friend of mine stepped in, and settled the matter with two simple questions:
“You’re a human being right? And as a human being don’t you ever just want to scream?”
She then proceeded to scream in my other friends face. This was welcomed with a smile and a shrug that conveyed perfectly - well when you put it that way….
This might seem an oversimplification of the matter, and frankly once someone has decided they despise any screamed music it will be difficult to sway them towards recognition of its unique emotive powers. Screaming, perhaps more than any other facet of contemporary music, is a decidedly polarizing sound. It can clear a room as fast as it can fill one, probably faster. As such, I won’t bother trying to persuade naysayers or call into question the reasoning behind their aversion to the sound, but rather I will attempt to argue the validity of the technique. To me, my friend’s barroom explanation is the perfect microcosm for the existence of what to so many seems an ugly, even offensive form of musical expression and yet is to others worthy of praise and the name of true art.
Maynard James Keenan, frontman of various groups including Tool - whose impact on me during my adolescence and the years since cannot be overstated - once said in an interview that his music is not hateful. His music is angry, and “anger is a much more constructive emotion than hate.” Perhaps this understanding of the emotion so often linked to screaming is where people diverge on the matter. Some would hear this and think that anger is poisonous and is only, as Yoda once said, a stop along the road towards hate. But consider the idea of someone who suppresses feelings of anger, that shuts them out and refuses to let them have their moment in the driver’s seat. What happens to those feelings then? What will grow from them if they are simply left to simmer, shut outside and scratching ever more desperately at the back door of the mind? If you face that shadow element that exists within you whether you acknowledge its presence or not, you might find the words for that level, and in naming that beast come to know it better, and in turn, yourself.
I admit that when I was younger and I heard a scream on a track I would promptly shake my head and turn up my nose just as fast as you like. As that has changed I can tell you that nothing has been lost along the way. I have only gained, grown more full, more fully aware of myself and of the range of appeal that I can honestly subscribe to. It happened gradually, but I can point to various instances where I began to warm to screaming. The first album I ever bought was Toxicity by System Of A Down. This was an extremely popular album at the time and I can remember listening to it all the way through for the first time, on a Walkman, unable for the life of me to tell one track from the next. Yet even then something about the small bursts of screamed vocals, predominantly guttural and wordless at moments of musical climax, upped the emotional ante. It wasn’t until I found myself inexplicably enthralled by a group called Isis when I was sixteen that I wholly conceded my prior anti-screaming principles. I am confident that until that point I had simply not been presented with the screamed vocals that, as I learned was more than true, could unearth great waves within me and leave me breathless in the arms of a graceful immensity. Isis’s aptly titled album Oceanic remains one of the most heart-wrenching, impossibly beautiful and excitingly transcendent albums I have ever had the pleasure of submerging myself in. It was as a doorway, one of many, that at first seemed foreboding, the room beyond dark and unknowable, yet one I cannot abide not having passed through.
Perhaps the most critical misunderstanding held about fans of loud rock and screamed vocals is that old cliché, if you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all. This could not be further from the truth. The crushing cinderblock roars of Botch and the ensemble neanderthalic yells of Crash Of Rhinos could not be more disparate, and the spectrum that they exist upon has yet to see its limits met. Consider, for arguments sake, the operatic vocal style. This is a school of technique that has been taught and upheld across centuries to accomplish one ideal sound. If you listen carefully, the variations between the greatest voices to ever sing Puccini or Verdi are slim at best. That is because there is a right way, an ideal to be upheld and revered – and art, I believe, should never be so fixedly enslaved to custom. Screaming, on the other hand, has been showcased in music at every register, every pitch, every dynamic, and with a range of emotion driving each breath that would stagger the most sensitive among us. I’m well aware of the hyperbole inherent in this comparison, but I would urge anyone questioning why opera and loud rock should be mentioned in the same breath to listen to Alban Berg’s 1922 opera, Wozzeck, which includes a particularly blood curdling scream, written with purpose by the composer in a scene of fear and death. Perhaps Berg knew that a note, however high and beautifully sustained, would fall short of the emotion that such a moment demands be expressed. He was far from the last.
The scream, like all roads of rock and roll likely leads back to the blues. Great bluesmen like Howlin’ Wolf popularized a brand of vocalization that was not concerned with beauty, but rather preoccupied with the message, with the feeling behind the words and notes, to the point where all ideals of technique and etiquette were thrown out the window, and thankfully so. The effect of this is an experience far more visceral and captivating than if the notes were executed with precision. It is a well-known fact that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were both great exponents of a good scream. Listen to “Twist And Shout” again and consider why it’s so effective. Is it because of the instructional dance pointers, calling for listeners to “shake it up, baby?” Or is it that telling wail that goes beyond the words and puts you there, on the floor, face to face with a beauty and a possibility that is suddenly in your reach.
I could remind you of Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Genesis, and especially The Who - all bands that have extensively utilized screaming in their music, and do not call to mind leather clad, be-spiked visages of a cliché metal band. They are your formative idols, your towering figures of musical creativity, and they all, at one point or another, felt the need to scream at you. And you’ve loved it all the way. You need love, sometimes you want to set the night on fire, you are looking for someone, and you will not get fooled again.
But the argument can be made that these bands merely utilized the scream as someone might bring out a good scotch– only on those particular occasions that call for it. It is often true that when the screams are constant the meaning becomes obscured. A band like Botch, whose vocalist Dave Verellen stands among my most respected front men, uses the scream almost exclusively. But the meaning of those roars, and the words that grant them life are no less important. In the song “C. Thomas Howell As ‘The Soul Man’” from their seminal, groundbreaking album We Are The Romans, this very discrepancy is addressed.
The worst music I’ve ever heard
Honesty that touches a nerve
The words fall onto the floor
Drive home with no lessons learned
Soon the content outweighs the form
With time, the sounds get boring
For you and me, this posture is self-serving
Perhaps the songs of trailblazers of the genesis of modern rock were attempting to say something, but then the question becomes - what is lost in the act of specificity? If sound is, as Maynard James Keenan names it, “a higher language than words,” then placing precedence on the sound – in this case a desperate, aimlessly pleading scream - is perhaps worth more to a listener whose unique dilemmas and personal frustrations are not necessarily that of the lyricist. Instead there is a primal bridge that is erected between the two by which a deeper, less specific and therefore more pervasive connection might be made.
Since the invasion of mop top wails began eliciting kindred screams from the mouths of crowding fangirls the scream has been all but ubiquitous in rock music. Listing the subgenres which utilize screamed vocals is like listing the organisms that make up a thriving ecosystem. Hardcore, Black Metal, Emo, Doom, Sludge, Math-core, Speed, Prog, Industrial, Punk, Post-rock… the list seems without end. Even Rap has seen a decided upswing in the use of screaming recently. Revisit your latest Kanye West and you’ll hear that same signature yelp from “Black Skinhead” currently being used in movie trailers and car commercials alike.
Does this mean the conception of screaming is changing? Maybe, thanks in part to the rise of Lo-fi and Indie outfits to the mainstream surface contributing to an acceptance of an emotionality that decades earlier would have been considered best kept behind closed doors. Still, a scream can destroy something before it is fully formed, and that is the real poison – old held aversions obscuring the new.
This year a group called Deafheaven released their sophomore album, Sunbather. The album has been received with impressively ubiquitous acclaim, which is no small feat considering that the band operates under the admitted banner of Black Metal. With those two small words I just lost most of you didn’t I? But what you’ve lost is greater – the chance to experience what may very well be the innovation you’ve been pining for, the possibility of a modern classic. The strange thing about the album, for all its blast beats and high-pitched screaming from front man George Clark, who looks more like a J. Crew model than a metal vocalist of any stripe, is that the word that might first be used to describe it is beautiful. There is a lush and positively charged color to this album, which brings to mind the sonic sensibilities of My Bloody Valentine and their shoegazing contemporaries as much as it does the corpse-painted dirges of bands like Mayhem. What sadly might prevent this album from spreading as widely as it has the potential to has nothing to do with what is on the album, but rather how the LP will be perceived. If the questions that plague either mindset are ‘is it too metal?’ or ‘not metal enough?’ then we all might miss something that has the capacity to do away with such questions and be allowed to breathe as a new breed. The worst crime we can commit towards art is naming something before it can be known.
I have great confidence that all of this might easily be perceived as the ramblings of a person of niche tastes, whose view is skewed by fashion and enslaved to trends that will fade with age and experience. And I could just as easily stamp my foot and yell at the top of my lungs that this is something lasting, something significant, and the depths of emotion that I am able to explore as a consequence will never dim and become cob-webbed with neglect. But that is something I know, and something I need no longer lend my breath. Just as much as Paul Simon’s softest whisper, or the wavering moans of Peter Gabriel will shed light on something already within me, I know I will sometimes, likely often, need to look on those darker places whose halls are more grand and expansive than I’ll ever know. Still, I am determined to continue exploring - and if you are brave enough to turn your gaze inward, to look a part of yourself in the eye that has grown cold while left outside of your concern and dismissed by an imposed sense of decency, you might see yourself better. You might scream, and in screaming turn something dark to light.