Many years ago, I first heard a particularly ineffective cover of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs", by the Providence death-metal band Vital Remains. Revisiting it now, it seems to me that while the musicians could use a lesson in groove, they sound fine—hitting their marks, executing as needed. The vocals, on the other hand, still present a serious problem. As in Vital Remains's original material, the frontman opts for a distorted growl—not even close to the most guttural and unintelligible register heard in death metal, but still a refutation of the idea that "notes" are a vocalist's concern. So what the cover does is willfully rob this classic song of half its melodic juice; all the beauty and the wonder of Ozzy's vocal melody, it's simply absent.
Now, I listen to a lot of death metal. I enjoy the style immensely, even—and, lately, especially—in its most primitive and conventional forms (Obituary and Immolation, to name two). Sometimes, what people often refer to as the Cookie Monster vocal style works fine for me. Some of my favorite metal records—Morbid Angel's Covenant, for instance—wouldn't work with any other approach. But sometimes you hear something that reminds you that, "Oh, yeah—singing matters."
I had a transcendent experience hearing Pallbearer live last night at Saint Vitus. They're one of the bands I'm talking about. Their singer, Brett Campbell, is all about pinched, pained, soaring melody, in the vein of early Ozzy. To hear his bright, clear voice leaping out across the vast, doomy expanse he and his band lay down is downright startling, like witnessing a splendidly colored bird flying across a grey, postapocalyptic sky.
I'm realizing now that the Vital Remains comparison might be a faulty one, simply because in Pallbearer's chosen subgenre—I'd call it traditional doom metal, i.e., the kind that makes no effort to disguise its Sabbath worship—so-called clean vocals are pretty common. It's in death and black metal that the growls and shrieks hold sway. But this whole notion occurred to me last night because I've been taking my metal all on one plate lately. Saint Vitus is about a seven minute walk from my apartment, and over the past year, I've seen a bunch of metal shows there, in many different styles: NYC caveman-death veterans Mortician, Richmond grind-thrash fantasists Deceased, riff-forward Washington-state black-metalists Inquisition. Seeing Pallbearer last night, I realized that I'd become numb to the idea that a vocalist is, in fact, allowed to use his or her voice to contribute to the song of the music, to make any kind of melodic statement.
You start to forget about the Dio Effect of metal, that sort of "Weary monarch alone in his chambers, lamenting the sorry state of his kingdom and maybe his life" pathos that can be the province of metal, if metal so chooses. (Sabbath's "Falling Off the Edge of the World"—with, yes, Ronnie James Dio at the mic—has been my go-to gold standard of late.) Often, modern metal chooses the opposite: total subhuman bludgeon. "We are not men at all; we are monsters, even demons."
But the two new metal records that have spoken to me the most this year—aside from Loincloth's vocal-less masterpiece—are Christian Mistress's Possession (go here and scroll down a bit) and Pallbearer's Sorrow and Extinction, both of which thrive on unadulterated Dio-ness, that certain quality of metal that makes you want to bend your elbow and curl your fingers into the time-honored invisible-orange gesture, clenching into a fist for emphasis. It's not too surprising that I'd be seeking out the Dio Effect in new metal, given that Sabbath—especially the Dio records Mob Rules, Dehumanizer and (under the Heaven and Hell moniker) The Devil You Know but also, more recently, the almighty Paranoid—has occupied a huge swath of my listening during the same time period.
What the Dio approach, i.e., the decision to have the vocals go out on a limb melodically, to really present musical information the ear can use and respond to, beyond mere assaultive static, allows for is the possibility of multiplication, the chance for the music and the voice to fuse into some irreducible, alchemical third medium. With the Cookie Monster approach, or any vocal style that negates melody, it's like band vs. listener, wherein everyone onstage is coming directly at you. With the Dio approach, though, you get this marvelous inter-band conflict; the inherent struggle of metal is contained within the music, so that it takes the form of a joust or some other kind of stylized (or maybe even not so) struggle.
That struggle played out on the Saint Vitus stage last night. Pallbearer conjured its gargantuan riffs as a unit, collectively summoned them forth from Middle Earth, or Vulcan's forge, or wherever it is that the slow-moving magma of great, Sabbath-derived blues metal spews from. And as these riffs raged and rolled, washed outward from the stage in monster waves, there was Brett Campbell, stepping to the mic like a man on the mount, daring to cry forth in the face of God's deafening roar.
I felt compelled to throw up the invisible-oranges with almost alarming regularity. The music crashed around me with Greek-tragic gravity. It just felt so unbelievably weighty, and I found myself thinking that this is the essence of this music, this is what has been missing in so many of the extreme-metal performances I've witnessed recently, this element of human struggle, when the voice is not disguised with layers of Halloween-y play-acting, the aural equivalent of the face paint that turns black metal into evil Kabuki. But, God forbid, to hear the heart bared on the battlefield, to hear the sorrow within the slaughter. It was almost too much.
Even when Campbell wasn't singing, the Dio Effect was present, because the key is that you know there's a voice out there in that wilderness. It isn't merely the wilds of riff-land, where guitars and drums construct these impossibly tall, forbidding trees, clustering together in a lightless forest. What you realize when you see a band like Pallbearer is that that effect is more or less exactly half of what great metal is capable of. The other half comes when you know there's a human, preferably a solitary, wretched one, lost within that wildnerness. One who may have lost possessions, loved ones, even faith, but one who hasn't lost the ability to cry out, to lament, to emote. To sing.
Pallbearer didn't say much to the audience other than "Thank you," but the band exuded pure graciousness. After each song, fists would raise in the crowd, and the band members would hoist their beers and nod as if to say, "We know. We're here with you. We feel it too." What it is, is this metal phenomenon that makes you feel like you're tapping into something old and elemental, participating in an ancient ritual. You don't know how or why this combination of 1) volume, 2) darkness, 3) human perspective in the face of a cold, unforgiving universe (gaze at the album cover at the top of this post as you ponder that notion), yields a feeling of cleansing grace, of having been touched by something huge and terrifying yet also unspeakably beautiful. All you know is that the band feels it, and when a show is really right, the whole crowd feels it too, and gives back. Maybe they're just hoisting beers; maybe dudes are grabbing fellow dudes and throwing horn signs with their hands; maybe they're headbanging, convulsing in time with the stone giant's every earth-shaking step. Maybe, as I did last night, they're closing their eyes, bending backward, facing the ceiling, getting outside the room, the city, the world. At that point, you're not just listening; you're communing.
That's what great metal does, and the Dio Effect makes it all possible.