As a metal fan who was a child in the 80s and grew up in the 90s, growling was not a huge thing for me. I saw it creeping in to metal as far back as I can remember and I dismissed as either ‘that really dangerous stuff from Europe’ or silly. I liked my metal to be heavy, to be fast, to be aggressive, but I also liked to be able to sing it too, preferably without sounding like I was choking on a Wizard’s Hat will being jabbed with a cactus. And so, I rarely branched out into the more growl and scream-based sub genres of metal – Death, Black, the various ‘cores’, until it reached the point where almost every band was taking on some form of vocal exorcism.
I think this has something to do with Metal’s need to always be on the fringes – to never be accepted by the mainstream. When Metal first started, it was the subject matter and the volume and the associated ‘negative emotions’ which put the scene at odds with your every day consumer of music. Music was supposed to be light, frothy, ‘enjoyable’, not dark, fast, angry, shouty. As time moved on the subject matter became more extreme as certain bands were becoming incredibly successful, to the chagrin of the genres initial followers. The musicianship became more elaborate, the songs became more complex, longer, more vicious, and various new waves became Public Enemy number 1 as parents and record companies didn’t know what to make of it all. As with all movements, they eventually become a product – the kids love it, buy it, and parade around with the same hair and clothes as everyone else – and soon the next thing comes along to push the genre further away from the mainstream. To me, growling was one of the next steps in doing that. What’s the first thing most people notice when the hear a song? Hint – it’s not the music – it’s the singer. If you don’t like the singer, you tend to discount everything else. So the metal gods decided to sing in a way that couldn’t really be considered human, with growls and shrieks from the very pits of their stomachs in an anti-melodic assault which doesn’t sound pleasant to anyone.
Nowadays, I don’t care about growling in any major way. I don’t know enough about the form to comment further, but I know enough and have heard enough to know which singers I like and who is better at it. Some bands absolutely suit this approach and would be lost without it. Most new bands seem to latch onto it because ‘it’s the done thing’ and because they mistakenly think it makes them sound more metal. In most cases, it makes them sound like prats while in the grand scheme of things they are sacrificing what makes their voice unique just to sound like everyone else. Which to me, is the very antithesis of Metal. People have been growling now for forty years or so. It’s been done – it’s tame – lets find the next thing.
Opeth was one of the first bands to really fully utilize growling in a meaningful way for me. It truly felt like an extension of and an integral part of the music. Mikael’s vocals have always been among the best in the game, but every since the turn of the Century Opeth had been on a transitory journey, gradually moving towards a cleaner approach. Albums which merged clean and harsh vocals were acclaimed and their sound became more Progressive. By the time Ghost Reveries rolled around, long term fans were used to the approach and new followers were joining in roves thanks to the exceptional reviews and live performances. In the time since, the band has all but abandoned their growling, harshest roots and now sound increasingly like a lost Blues Prog band from the 1970s. This has had those long-term fans up in arms – with every forthcoming release an argument between the ‘will Mikael be growling again’ camp, and those in the ‘Opeth have always been experimental let them do what they want’ camp. Honestly, I’m somewhere in the middle – only because the band and their singer have always done both so well. I would like a little more aggression to counter the seemingly endless charge towards becoming the next Deep Purple, but as long as they’re still writing and recording, I’m good.
To me, Ghost Reveries is their pinnacle, and Ghost Of Perdition is their finest moment. It’s monumental, it’s everything I want in a metal song. Brutal, beautiful, epic, with moments to scare your parents and others to make them say ‘oh that’s nice, what is that’ before the next transition comes along to take me down some other dark path. It’s a shade over 10 minutes long, but not a second is wasted. Opeth have always been fond of playing a riff or an idea a few times too many in what seems like they are padding out the running time, but in Ghost Of Perdition, every sperm (note) is sacred. The opening seconds, before the noise even comes in, are pure horror show. Then the guitars crash in and takes five years off your life. Mikael is on blistering form – his growls sounding effortlessly demonic, his clean vocals smoother than Sinatra’s shaved nutsack.
It does that Opeth trick of sounding ‘wrong’ – not quite in tune, like a child’s toy programmed with a lullaby whose frayed wires have made the tinkling melody slower and just a shade off where it’s supposed to be. The clean moments are absolutely gorgeous, the harmonies swirling and uncovering a depth of aural vision, the soloing employing a lazy virtuoso style, the drums sounding like they’ve been shoved off a towering castle parapet and are crunching against jagged rocks as they head towards a torturous demise. Structurally, it’s all over the place – shooting off in fifty different directions, but never once does it sound like the band don’t know where they’re going or what they’re doing, and in true Opeth style we end not far from where we began, both colder, wiser, rejuvenated, and exhausted. It’s exploding with ideas and is a showcase for a group of musicians at the height of their considerable powers – everyone else should bow down, or at the very least consider themselves put on warning. It’s right up there with the best of the best, and transcends Metal to become one of the all time greats.
Let us know in the comments what you think of Ghost Of Perdition and Opeth!