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Ask a real musician: opera singer dissects top 5 metal singers (invisibleoranges.com)
186 points by hernan7 on Aug 23, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 70 comments

I teach music for a living (theory/voice), and I have to say, I feel like this validates a lot of my techniques when working with students.

Virtually all of my students want to sing pop/rock/etc. music when they first come in. My usual approach is to agree to work primarily in the genre of their choice, but to have some "classical" training as well. I largely due this in order to promote healthy singing, whatever the genre, so that no matter what kind of music they want to sing, they are at least not harming their voices.

Notice that almost all of Friedlander's comments focus on the relaxation of the vocal mechanism ("Like the first singer, he performs with perfect legato, clear diction, and a consistent, organic vibrancy. He arranges his resonance space to create a shallow snarl without setting up any resistance for his breath", etc). I've found that, above all, some classical training seems to reinforce this, allowing students to create resonance rather than merely screaming, to avoid straining at the edge of their ranges, and to approach all genres with a strong grasp of basic music skills. Of course, all of this also improves their basic technique immensely-- pitch, diction, and aural skills are usually highly improved as well.

Hi guys - I run the site, and indeed HN caused a temporary meltdown (thanks for the link!) As of 9pm EST Aug. 23, it's back up, so feel free to visit, comment, etc. Again, thanks for the flattering mention!

Will the sound files be back? I'm getting a 'file not found'.

Yes, I just tested them (9:20AM EST 8/24) and they work fine. What's probably happening is that the site is shutting down processes (including audio streaming) as it gets overloaded (wow, there are lots of you guys!). But the site is also resetting itself in response to overloading, so if the site or any of its processes are down, just wait a few minutes to see if they're back online. Thanks for the link and the interesting discussion here! Due to popular demand, there will be a sequel at some point featuring other metal singers, including possibly ones mentioned here.

If you liked Rob Halford, then Geoff Tate from Queensryche should be a real treat. Anything from Operation Mindcrime would be worth a listen.

Yeah, I wish Geoff Tate had been one of the singers reviewed in that article. It would have been interesting to see what she had to say about him. Tate has - from this layperson's perspective - an amazing voice.

"Suite Sister Mary" still gives me goosebumps when I listen to it.

Great stuff. I can't get over her reaction to Black Sabbath's 1970 song "War Pigs"...

Initial reaction: “Fourth guy is just bad throaty singing… Made my throat tight to listen to him. How long did his career last?”

haha, yeah. It was the only song I could even stand to listen to.

Page seems dead; here's the Google cache: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:http%3A...

This was interesting. I wonder how much she was reaching to find something positive to say, because I would have though that, but for Dickinson, they all are rough. But then, I don't have any formal training or expertise myself.

I'd like to hear a real expert's comments on modern metal virtuosos, like Warrell Dane or Roy Khan. Anybody with real knowledge care to venture an opinion?

I was a bit scared about what she'd consider the "top 5", but that's actually pretty okay, although I wonder how King Diamond got in there. Not the one known for his singing, and I don't think he's in the best-selling or longest-running band. But it was a different style, and one that at least contains a bit more than sheer endurance (c.f. most growlers).

I was surprised at the high marks Dickenson got. Not that I don't hold him in high esteem personally, but he's the only one where I know of a direct connection to opera singing. It must've been a Freddy Mercury tribute, where he sang Bohemian Rhapsody with Montserrat Cabbalé. And as opposed to her previous duet with Freddy ("Barcelona"), those voices didn't mesh at all.

Really nice article, I always thought that trained opera singers tend to look down upon those doing less "serious" work. Just shows you that there's more than one way to skin a cat, which is why this actually fits nicely into HN.

I was a bit scared about what she'd consider the "top 5"

She didn't rate them as "top 5". She got sent 5 unlabeled samples by the OP and was asked to assess their quality.

Well, I couldn't know that before I clicked. The headline here just said "top 5".

Can anyone please let me know their reasons for downvoting this comment?

Lately I've seen a lot of what appears to be mindless pile-on downvoting of perfectly on-topic, polite, informative comments. It is making me wonder if there's some bot behaviour going on, or if something in the site's comment system is broken.

The people who downvoted are expressing disapproval of a failure to closely read the article. He says he was scare d to see who she chose to critique before clicking, but we infer from his discussion that he did in fact click and read. Therefore, the fact that he was ignorant of how the singers to be rated were selected implies skimming.

It was a way of saying:RTFA

I didn't vote on the comment, but I can imagine it was downvoted for slightly rude tone "Well, I couldn't know that" and claiming not to read the article but only "the headline".

Thanks for the answer.

I must have read it in a different light then; to me it looked like a complaint about a misleading submission headline.

Thank you, that was what I actually meant. When I saw the headline here regarding the "top 5", I didn't know if my inner fanboy could handle e.g. having the singer of Slipknot amongst that set. I thought that my initial comment was evidence enough that I did RTFA.

And I actually inserted the "Well" to make it sound less harsh, but apparently that made it look a bit arrogant to a few people. The nuances of written language…

This is really great. I just had to fill my Spotify queue with Iron Maiden and try to sing along. Singing is one of those skills I really regret not having, but I sing anyway.

The site seems to be overloaded though, a HN induced meltdown?

interesting article, would love to see more like this! for example, i'd be curious to hear her take on phil anselmo.

I don't know much about Heavy Metal, but this gave me a strong urge to buy a couple of these albums :)

Wonder what she'd say about Falconer.

Seconded. On the other extreme, I wonder what she'd say about Manowar.

Jack Black should be in the conversation somewhere. The dude doesn't even need a microphone.

Hm, yeah in music there aren't any rules, putting a 'real' musician to give her opinion should be considered a just for fun thing.

Yes and anyone can write poetry too.

There are always 'rules' to any real discipline. If you aren't skilled in something then of course we say 'he is a natural'. But if you go up to talk to a 'natural' you always find that they worked at it an incredible amount.

Fun read either way though. Her comments on Ozzie were the most surprising to me.

That's the thing, anyone can create poetry. But only a group of people of the same taste will appreciate it. There aren't any rules, if you suck at singing, your cd will probably be dead in sales, but that doesn't make it "not music". I've seen there's people for everything in the world, and when people start saying he is not singing right it's usually about the context. If you're gonna sing opera of course you need to sing opera-like, but in general you should be able to experiment in any sense. That's how new styles are born.

If you suck at singing, you'll wreck your throat and need surgery to fix it. That's a large part of what vocal coaching is for. In that sense, there's definitely a "wrong way" to do it.

Empirically that doesn't seem to be true for many areas of rock--- there are singers singing "wrong" with no surgery for 30+ years. Note that she incorrectly predicted that Ozzy Osbourne would have a short career based on the way he was singing, when in fact he had an exceptionally long and successful one.

From an artistic perspective, in some areas an operatic-style voice is just inappropriate. Operatic vocals on a punk band might be an interesting novelty, for example, but it's not usually what you want; you usually want something more like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xGjk1Y_j8QE

(From that perspective, metal was a fairly good choice for this interview, because operatic vocals are often appropriate in metal.)

You're right in that there are clearly people who have been successful this way, but it's a self-selecting group. We don't hear about the ones who are too hard on their larynxes and have to give up early.

There's clearly a safety margin in what vocal coaches teach, and I think it's safe to say that Ozzy must be over the margin, but the right side of critical.

A classical case of survivor bias.

Among singers who have damaged themselves singing incorrectly are Freddie Mercury, one of the best rock singers who ever lived. Over time, he lost his range and stamina, and had to schedule tours in such a way that he had ample time to recover in between performances, otherwise he would lose his voice (this happened once).

I haven't heard him in a recent live performance, but reportedly Robert Plant has also ruined his voice. One person said that he "sounds like Winnie-the-Pooh".

Ozzy's a bit of an exception though, isn't he? He's literally being studied for his ability to survive quantities of drugs that kill most people.

You have to be really careful when extrapolating like that. For example, you could train as hard as Michael Phelps but you'll never swim like him; you weren't born with his flipper-like feet and extraordinarily long arms. What will probably happen is that you'll just burn out.

The people at the top of any field you will find combine hard work with genetic predisposition. They can be an inspiration sure, but imitating them is unlikely to yield the same results.

I think if you look at what she said about Ozzy there is a bit of truth in it. He may not have had a short career but at the end of his career you couldn't understand him at all. Moreover, in that show he did a few years back he is almost completely incomprehensible. Maybe it's from drugs? Maybe alcohol? Maybe he did it on purpose? It always sounded to me like he had a cat in his throat.

I'm going to come back to this because I think it's an interesting point. Without "rules," how do you identify an example as belonging to a set? Rules for inclusion and/or exclusion must exist for the set to be defined. "I know it when I see it" is only really acceptable if you're a supreme court judge :-)

Specifically, we're talking not just about "music" here - which has an absurdly broad definition - but "metal," which falls under the category of western vocal-led performance. There are rules to this, and while breaking them might leave you with something that is ostensibly "music," it may well not leave you with "metal," "singing," a "song," or a "performance."

I feel that technique and skill are secondary to passion though with the arts. Music or poetry, I don't want to subject myself to it if it lacks passion. Passionate musicians and poets just happen to frequently also have the technique and skill down as well, but that's not always the case. Some of the more interesting artists are often the ones that break the "rules" of their discipline.

Alexander Pope disagreed:

"True ease of writing comes through art, not chance,

As he moves best who learns the steps of dance,

'Tis not enough no harshness cause offence,

The sound must seem an echo of the sense"

Learn the rules, then maybe break them.

Another famous example is Picasso. Sometimes considered the greatest painter to have ever lived, he was incredibly inventive and broke basically every "rule" in the book. However, if you look at his really early pieces -- he was a fantastic classical painter. He didn't start by breaking the rules, he started by mastering them.

The same can be said for many professions, certainly my own (programming) you should learn the basics and best practices before you can know when it is okay to break them. And like singing or painting it can come down to personal preference whether the rule breaking works or not.

Did I just equate my work to Picasso? . . . I think I did!

I don't think you need to master the rules before you can break them, you certainly need to be aware of the rules though! How else would you even know you are breaking them?

You don't need to be aware of the rules. You might not even care whether or not you're breaking them.

By "The Rules" I think we mean an accumulation of techniques and practices developed and refined by many people over time because they have proved useful. If one has any interest at all in the ones art one will surely be aware of its history and of what others have done. How else does one become interested in the first place? In this respect some awareness of this heritage seems to me to be unavoidable.

It doesn't necessarily have to go back centuries, though. If you're doing rock, you might be intimately familiar with the past 50 years of rock, punk, metal, post-punk, grunge, etc., without having a clue about opera.

I have always been fond of this description:

"Picasso didn't start with painting women with three eyes and square breasts. He knew how to paint a cow."

The things I write are always more interesting when I follow a simple structure (sometimes one I've used for a long time, sometimes one made for the occasion). The "creative" brain dump stuff is always wandering, unclear, and a couple thousand words longer.

Creativity always happens when I'm editing what filled the structure. The basic rules I lay down in advance make sure I get to that point.

And to bring this back to visual arts, it's rare to find a good artist who doesn't study references and do thumbnails.

You look at someone like Ozzy, compared to the others there. I say this as a Sabbath and Ozzy fan, he's got a rubbish voice. There's something there that makes him interesting -- his persona, songwriting and the other guys in the band carry his performance. It's not "breaking the rules" as such in terms of his vocals -- he simply can't sing. It's more like successful marketing.

Songwriting carries a band a long way. Ozzy is still coming out with well written, catchy metal songs, which is rarer today than it was 20 years ago.

One of my favorite bands is Maiden, mainly for the fact that their songs have the ability to capture the energy of their lyrics. Which is exactly what Ozzy has when singing Iron Man, Crazy Train, Bark at the Moon and even with his modern stuff.

Of modern bands I'm hard pressed to find bands that adequately capture the energy of their lyrics just right. I really only have Coheed and Cambria who can nail so many different musical styles with the right energy for their lyrics.

With no technique or skill, your passion means nothing. Passion is the content, and technique and skill is the delivery vector.

As for breaking the "rules", the theory goes you have to master the rules to break them. Expressed in a more technical way, once you know the rules, you know when and were it's ok to break them, and you can also adhere to most of the rules while only breaking one or two.

In music in particular, I often don't find this to be true, at least for my personal tastes. A good proportion of my favorite musicians are "outsiders" who went directly into doing unconventional things--- Roky Erikson, most punk bands, most grunge bands, etc. There are a handful of folks with formal music training (Bad Brains had jazz training, although it's only recently that's counted as "classical" training), but they're fairly uncommon.

I couldn't agree more - here's my take on technique vs. passion: http://www.claudiafriedlander.com/the-liberated-voice/2010/0... Thanks for all the comments on the IO post!

In arts like anything else, to paraphrase Edison, genius is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. In fact the difference between a really great artistic genius and simple talent probably is the ability (physical and else) to work extremely long hours without too much strain.

She's a voice teacher. I'm sure you can find, say, some opera connoisseur who hates all other music as a principle, but she's talking about how these singers are using their "instruments", not about what kind of music they're performing.

(the choice of vocalists was a bit pedestrian, though :-)

It probably wouldn't be as interesting to as many people if it was vocalists that only true metalheads had heard of.

I see one guy who had a reality TV show and four people I have never heard of. Pop culture, you foil me again...

Feel no shame about this. The period between 1980 and 1990 is unique in history in that no matter what form of music you identified with, you should be embarrassed about it today.

As a be-mulletted youth I owned every Iron Maiden, Dio, Judas Priest and Black Sabath album, and would happily play them for you at 140 watts per channel through the obnoxiously distorted subwoofer in the back of my Trans Am. (Seriously. T-tops, screaming eagle and all. It was bitchin').

Today, you'll find a nice black hole in my music collection from that decade. You'll find that same mysterious gap in the collection of the kid who had the Pet Shop Boys haircut back in '85. It was just a bad time for music and there were no easy choices. We did what we could, but now we need to move on.

You kids today don't know how easy you have it.

The period from 1980-1992 (or so) was a golden age for heavy-metal / hard-rock. So much incredible music was made during that period that it boggles the mind. And almost all of it stands the test of time incredibly well.

Of course great metal was made in the 1990's as well, it just went mostly unnoticed by most people, as metal retreated back to an underground status (where it probably belongs). "Extreme" metal in particular had a great run during the 90's. From the Florida Death Metal scene of the early 90's through some of the great power metal bands of the era, to the Norwegian Black Metal stuff... lots of great music came out. But gawd, the pop music of the 90's... how utterly rubbish.

Funny that. I share your assessment, but many songs from that decade are still with me. "Rebel yell", "Twist in my sobriety", "Rent". Not trendy subculture stuff to identify with, but the timeless guilty-pleasure kind of stuff you enjoy alone. Modern music is just... not the same, somehow. Not as classic sounding.

I don't know the names of the people in most bands I listen to, but have you honestly never heard of Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, and Judas Priest? I'll give you that Mercyful Fate is a little obscure. (I suppose I should also ask how old you are, given that you label Ozzy as "a guy with a reality TV show".)

I was familiar with the names of the bands but not with their music. IO sent me MP3s with no identifying information. I had no idea who I was listening to. I'm old enough to have listened to Ozzy when "War Pigs" was released…I just never happened to. Who knows what different direction my life would have taken if I had! http://www.claudiafriedlander.com/the-liberated-voice/2010/0...

If you had said "Heavy metal band, comic book superhero, or TV show" for those three bands I think I might have gotten Iron Maiden right, but if this were Who Wants To Be A Millionaire I'd be asking the audience anyhow.

Why do people feel compelled to brag about how ignorant they are? Ignorance is never something to be proud of, no matter what the subject.

4chan memes, goatse, tubgirl etc. seem actually valueless. I personally see almost no value in theology once philosophy started talking about the same things without reference to God. Great swathes of the critical humanities are circle jerks of interest only to people in the same very small niche, which nobody outside academia cares about.

Your time can be better spent than learning about these things. They might be interesting but they're no more worthwhile than Cougar Town or How I Met Your Mother

The point is not that you must strive to be an expert on everything. You don't have to know everything (or even very much) about theology or How I Met Your Mother, but you should have heard of them and perhaps even have a vauge notion of their central themes. In this day and age you can gain a superficial knowledge of just about anything in less than 10 minutes on wikipedia and with the ubiquity of the internet knowledges can easily be JITed in as and when you need it.

Hell it's even perfectly OK as such to be completely ignorant of a field. Just leave when a conversation on that topic strikes up or sit quietly in the corner and try to learn something. I'm just perplexed by people who feel the need proudly proclaim "I know nothing about TV/books/computers/sports/music etc." as if it was some sort of achievement to be proud of.

I think your examples, while possibly somewhat contrived, fall quite flat.

I personally would be proud of the fact that I completely ignored anything related to "How I Met Your Mother" to delve deeper into the field of mathemetics, for example. I don't know why ignorance on a subject is so unforgiveable in your opinion.

That said, I quite enjoy HIMYM, but I certainly wouldn't fault anyone else for not having seen it.

It's not the ignorance in and of itself. Nobody is judging patio11 based on his (lack of) knowledge of metal singers. It's (1) the proud announcement of ignorance and (2) posting it in a message as if it contributes to the discussion. If all you can add to a conversation is "Is this something I'd have to own a TV to know about?", do us all a favor and don't click the reply button. There's no requirement that you post in every thread, and an article on A/B testing will come down the pike in just a few minutes.

Ignorance is not unforgivable, flaunting it as a badge of honor is.

If you can name all the stars of Jersey Shore and talk about the latest episode, that's something you should be incredibly embarrassed about.

* Pop culture, you foil me again...*

Because Dio and Iron Maiden were top of the pop charts?

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