Heavy Rock On Trial: Why Is That Man Screaming So Much?

a judges gavel judge court

I’m putting heavy rock on trial! Have your say!

Whatever Happened To My Rock n Roll Part 7

  • Twenty five years on from the peak of heavy rock’s commercial popularity in 1988, this series asks why heavy rockers no longer dominate the charts and seeks to highlight the crimes that Heavy Rock is accused of, and give you the cases for and against.
  • At the end of each debate, you will have the ability to vote either “guilty” or “not guilty”, according to the evidence. And because this is a democratic process, you may also introduce your own evidence, in the comments section at the foot of the page to sway the jury.
  • By the end of the process we should perhaps have a clearer view of what went wrong with those eighties rock bands, and the pitfalls new bands might do well to avoid…

The Accusation: Heavy rock vocalists scream, wail and shout too much.

The Prosecution:

Exhibit A: Geddy Lee

Any time I have been to the USA there has come a time when the only station I can find on the car radio is either a) country b) western or c) classic rock. On goes c) and before too long my wife, having reluctantly hummed along to “Don’t Fear The Reaper” and “Jump” throws me a look and asks politely if there isn’t another station we can tune into? I say “politely”. actually what happens is she visibly winces with the sort of look you might find on a Christian in the Colosseum who, having neatly side-stepped a tiger and leapt over a leopard, finds themselves face to face with an especially ravenous lion. Each time she does this, it is always the same song playing on the radio. The song is “Tom Sawyer” by Rush. The reason my wife gives me each time is “His voice just goes right through my head”…

Just to test the theory I have sometimes dropped a different song by Rush into a playlist of other music. As if by magic, when the Rush song plays (and in the nicest possible way she doesn’t know her Rush from her Judas Priest) my wife immediately complains of a headache or similar ailment and presses the skip button, whilst muttering something about the sound of nails on a chalkboard or a knife scraping crockery. And this, remember, is merely mid-period Rush. I can only imagine the reaction if I played anything earlier than “Farewell To Kings”…

Geddy Lee summons his voice with the power of a helium tornado. I like Geddy’s voice, but as far as my wife is concerned he should be like a Victorian child: seen but not heard.

Exhibit B: Dio (and Judas Priest et al)

Ronnie James Dio (RIP) is widely acknowledged as one of the finest heavy rock singers ever and had a unique style.

However, many years ago I was listening to a Dio album on headphones when my (seven year old) cousin asked to listen. I gave him the headphones. He listened, looked confused and asked in all innocence, “Why is the man shouting?”

Out of the mouths of babes…

Exhibit C: Limp Bizkit

*In pathetic whiny irritating beyond belief voice*: “I know why you want to hate me.

*In fake stroppy teenage getting very angry voice* “Because hate is all the world has ever seen lately”.

There has been a peculiar trend over the last couple of decades for metal bands especially to tear their vocal chords to shreds and over-emote their anger and frustration with the world. Are they really that angry, all the time? Or is it an act?

I don’t want to sound like my grandmother (“Why can’t they just sing nicely?” she would ask whilst dipping her custard cream into a milky cup of tea) but there are several examples here to show that heavy rock vocals, if you take a step back for a minute, are pretty peculiar. Imagine singing an older sort of song – say, “Roll Out The Barrel” – in the style of Fred Durst, (“The Barrel of Haaaaate!”) or “Doing The Lambeth Walk” in the style of Ronnie James Dio (it would have to be “Rainbow in the Lambeth Walk” of course). It just doesn’t work.

So why do these heavy rock songs need to be sung in such a peculiar way? Could it be that they don’t? Is this wailing something that was started by Robert Plant and Ian Gillan which carried on without anyone checking to see if it was still okay? Is it an affectation that rock singers put on because that’s how they think they should sing? Is it coincidence that all these bands have very similar styles of vocals? Isn’t that just a little odd?

Could it be that rock might be a little more popular if the singing was simply…….better?

For the defence:

There is a reason why rock vocalists often sing in that style. The evolution of heavy rock includes taking on the influence of – of all things – Opera. Not only in the donning of tights…

black sabbath sabotage

Or the wearing of tutus…

Ozzy Osbourne wearing a tutu

…..or codpieces….

Blackie Lawless Flaming codpiece

….but also in the style of vocals. The operatic style of vocals may not be to everyone’s taste, but there’s nothing inherently unpleasant about it. It tends to suit the more dramatic types of metal and its better known proponents, Rob Halford of Judas Priest, Geoff Tate of Queensryche and Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden are very talented singers and have forged successful careers out of their respective styles. Truly, and in my opinion only perhaps, you have not lived until you have heard Rob Halford screaming down the microphone two yards in front of you.

Rob Halford Live Judas Priest Hammersmith close up 1989

But then if you think that style of heavy rock singing is bad, let’s look at the alternatives…

Exhibit D: Mariah Carey. Oh dear. All that over-singing. The melisma, over-emoting the life of every song it touches. I have a picture in my mind of Maria singing to herself at home whilst doing a spot of dusting perhaps, or having her nails done, and then looking round at her house plants wondering why they all have instantly withered and died. And then getting one of her fifteen servants to get more plants in. I apologise – that might be terribly unfair. She probably only has fourteen servants.

Just to make the point, I placed my body on the line in the name of research and strapped myself to a heart-monitoring machine to test the effect of Mariah Carey’s singing on the human body (Do not do this at home). Using the song “Emotions” I took notes as the song played. The results are here:

Mariah Carey analysis of Emotions

Leaving Mariah’s plant-killing talents aside for a moment, it is also a huge over-simplification to suggest all heavy rock vocalists have a similar style. Here’s ten heavy rock vocalists who avoid such operatic athleticism and have their own identity:

  1. Ozzy Osbourne – Ozzy has always had a unique sound all of his own – and it’s not one anyone has tried to copy.
  2. Josh Homme (QOTSA) – a laid back style entirely free from histrionics. More of an indie-rock style.
  3. Phil Mogg (UFO) – Despite being named after a witch’s cat, Mogg combined a pleasant voice with his unique brand of microphone-stand twiddling.
  4. Paul Di’anno (Iron Maiden vocalist on first two albums). The band brought in “the” Bruce Dickinson as they wanted more range from their singer. Oh yes, and less drunken behaviour, in an early case of a rock n roll band chucking out a band member for being too naughty.
  5. Bon Scott (first AC/DC singer) Scott’s likeable style was laid back when needed but also had Daltrey-like power when required, and always with a sense of humour.
  6. Steven Tyler (Aerosmith) Tyler’s voice has plenty of range, but, in the early days certainly, was never more than the song required.
  7. Chris Robinson (Black Crowes) Nice soulful vocals.
  8. The shared vocals of Blue Öyster Cult. (Eric Bloom, Buck Dharma, Joe and Albert Bouchard) I always like a band where the vocals are shared. Other examples where this might work are Dusty Hill with Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and Mariah Carey with a jet engine (to drown her out).
  9. Mike Patton (Faith No More) Another unique style of vocals combining power and a soulful tone.
  10. Chris Goss (Masters of Reality) Ethereal and haunting are just two of the qualities that Goss’s vocals have been accused of.

But the final point I would like to make is this:

Exhibit E: Rage Against The Machine – “Killing In The Name Of…”, Metallica – “Damage Inc.”, Slayer – “Reign In Blood”.

I’m glad some of those metal guys scream and shout. In some cases that’s kind of the point. I don’t want them to bleat wearily like injured sheep sitting on the side of a desolate hill on a foggy winter’s morning. If there’s something that heavy rock can do well, it’s expressing frustration and providing a kind of cathartic feeling for the listener. Music is great at expressing emotion. Love, pain, loss, happiness and, yes, anger.

Metal is an honest expression of that anger, and if there’s a more thrilling example of it that on that Rage Against The Machine track, or in Slayer or Metallica I have yet to hear it. You certainly won’t get that from listening to Mariah Carey, except perhaps from the listener, as they pick up the CD player and hurl it with the most righteous and furious anger in the direction of the nearest bin…

  • It’s Time To Vote!
  • Do heavy rock singers all sing like cats being strangled? Should they tone down the operatics? Is it just a little bit shouty? Is this why more people don’t warm to the genre? Or is it the very essence of rock n roll and something to be treasured and celebrated?
  • Vote GUILTY if you think there’s too much shouting and screaming.
  • Vote NOT GUILTY if you think there’s nothing wrong with the way heavy rockers sing.
  • SWAY the jury by sharing your views below!

Record #253: Mariah Carey – Open Arms Rush – By-Tor And The Snow Dog


18 responses to “Heavy Rock On Trial: Why Is That Man Screaming So Much?”

  1. Marcel H. Avatar
    Marcel H.

    “1.Ozzy Osbourne – Ozzy has always had a unique sound all of his own – and it’s not one anyone has tried to copy.” Not true 😉 Listen to Count Raven and Lord Vicar and Nefra and Serpentarius and you’ll have vocalists there that try to sound like Ozzy 🙂


    1. Every Record Tells A Story Avatar

      Ah, you’ve got me there. I’m a bit behind on my Count Ravens and Serpentariuses…
      I’ll check them out though – thanks!


      1. Marcel H. Avatar
        Marcel H.

        You’re totally right about sHeavy, I somehow forgot all about them. Even though I immensely enjoy them.


    2. mikeladano Avatar

      I only have 3 Sheavy albums, but I’d like the rest. Ironically they are hard to find in Canada.


      1. Marcel H. Avatar
        Marcel H.

        They’re hard to find here as well. WHich is a shame since I don’t a single one as Original. Only as home taped and home burned stuff.


      2. mikeladano Avatar

        Shame that so many good bands remain so hard to find, all over the world 😦


  2. waynelaw Avatar

    Nothing like a great scream to wring the emotion out of a great song. And we all know the vocal attributes of a certain Canadian bass player are an acquired taste that some of us are not able to fully appreciate. I side with your better half in this debate and wish you better luck with the car radio on your next trip over!


    1. Every Record Tells A Story Avatar

      Thank you! My wife will be pleased to learn she is not on her own on this one…


  3. 80smetalman Avatar

    My very most memorable mind blowing vocal experience was when I saw Deep Purple live in 1985. Ian Gillan’s performance on “A Child in Time” still gives me goosebumps to this day. Sure it was screaming but it was done with such melody that it lies beyond description.


    1. Every Record Tells A Story Avatar

      I agree – I saw them a year or two later at the NEC and Wembley and there’s something about Gillan’s delivery of that song that gets me every time.


  4. John S Avatar

    Metal has a sense of the absurd and the overblown voices are part of that. It’s part of the fun. But don’t be too harsh on Mariah. She really does have an amazing voice. Well, I think so, anyway. Maybe she should team up with Metallica (she’s done some good things with a few of the rappers). And after all, Motorhead made a song with the Nolan Sisters!


    1. Every Record Tells A Story Avatar

      It’s a matter of taste I guess. No doubt she can sing – but I just can’t get to grips with her style at all. * shivers *
      Nothing wrong with the Nolan Sisters!


  5. purplemary54 Avatar

    It fits the genre.


  6. mikeladano Avatar

    I didn’t know Blackie Lawless had a codpiece that shot sparks.


    1. 80smetalman Avatar

      Oh yes and he had an accident with it on one occasion.


      1. Every Record Tells A Story Avatar

        Did it fire the wrong way? That would have been funny to see. Not for him obviously….


    2. Every Record Tells A Story Avatar

      I think he had one with a chainsaw also. I think he had the sparks one at Donington in ’87


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