Ask a real musician: 5 classic male metal singers

Photo by Kristin Hoebermann

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If you’re a singer, you should be following Claudia Friedlander’s blog. The classically-trained, New York-based voice teacher provides sage advice not only for singers for all types, but also for musicians and people in general.

Although at least one of her students sings metal, Friedlander knows virtually nothing about it. I wondered what she would think of some of metal’s most classic male singers – the foundation of the artform. It’s rare to find someone who isn’t familiar with any of these singers. Her perspective would be a fresh one, free of cultural baggage. I sent her five completely unidentified songs. Her comments are below. I have also included initial reactions she sent me immediately upon hearing the singers.

— C.L.

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A CLASSICAL SINGER ANALYZES 5 CLASSIC MALE METAL SINGERS

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1. Bruce Dickinson

Iron Maiden – “The Number of the Beast” (1982)

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Initial reaction: “The first two guys are so impeccable that they’re each in their own way presenting a manifesto on how to sing well, irrespective of musical genre”.

I have nothing but admiration for this singer. Listen how he starts off with a soft growl, then moves seamlessly into a well-supported, sustained high full-voice sound that then evolves into an effortless long scream! His diction is easily intelligible, regardless of the range he’s singing in or the effect he’s going for. He achieves an intensely rhythmic delivery of the lyrics without losing legato and musical momentum, something a lot of classical singers struggle with, especially when interpreting the many staccato and accent markings that crowd scores by Bellini, Donizetti, etc.

A couple of observations for my classical readers:

There is a visceral dramatic intensity driving this singing. Many rock and metal singers are tenors who sustain much higher, much longer than operatic tenors are ever required to. It’s not just the microphone that makes this possible. These guys are singing their guts out with incredible commitment. Intention is a very powerful thing.

Notice the rasp that occasionally colors his sound. This is an effect that is totally distinct from strain – his entire larynx and throat needs to be completely loose and free to respond this way. In some of the following examples, you’ll hear singers deliberately making their voice more shallow, shrill, nasal or “harsh”. If they know what they’re doing, they can set up all of these effects without creating resistance and strain. You can tell the difference in much the same way you would listen to a classical singer – free singing is like a massage, while entangled singing makes you sympathetically tighten up your own throat.

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2. Ronnie James Dio

Black Sabbath – “Falling Off the Edge of the World” (1981)

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This is another very fine singer. His voice is so naturally resonant – he reminds me of Freddie Mercury. 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. You can tell how healthy his delivery is from the way he moves in and out of brief moments of harmony with the other tracks with impeccable intonation.

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3. King Diamond

Mercyful Fate – “Gypsy” (1984)

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Initial reaction: “There is some unfortunate studio magic here that made me think there was more than one singer, because they edited out the evidence of him shifting from full-voice singing to that crazy high countertenor thing he does (I assume he did this live all the time); how he moves from one to the other is what makes him amazing, and I want to hear the gears shifting”.

Here is some impressively artful singing. He begins in full-voice tenor fraught with sobbing verismo-like ornaments and then wails in an ultra-high, very focused countertenor, alternating these two approaches throughout the song, at times even within the same phrase. But not only do I not understand a single word he’s saying, I don’t even know what the overall message or emotion of the song is supposed to be! It is true of classical singing as well as for any other style: there is no need to sacrifice communication for the sake of stunning effects like this. All I hear is virtuosity. At first it’s cool, then it gets boring, and you shouldn’t feel bored listening to metal.

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4. Ozzy Osbourne

Black Sabbath – “War Pigs” (1970)

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

This is a singer with decent diction and good musical instincts but no command of vocal technique. He is massively over-adducting his vocal folds while driving enough air through them to get them to speak, but his throat is so tight that there is no flow or resonance. His rhythmic punctuation of the lyrics is very distracting, in contrast with Singer #1 who delivered his text with rhythmic accents that served, rather than detracted from the flow of music and poetry. It hurt my throat so much to listen to him that I was tempted to ask Cosmo how long his career lasted before he either washed out or needed surgery. The entire range of his singing is contained within a single octave – with the exception of the moment when he yells “Oh Lord!” a little higher, in my opinion the only quasi-free vocal sound on the entire track.

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5. Rob Halford

Judas Priest – “Dreamer Deceiver” (1976)

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Initial reaction: “Last guy is super talented and the only one I really wish I could get my hands on. He demonstrates several mad skills, but they aren’t well-integrated. It doesn’t matter so much because he is so committed, expressive, and musical, but I could have helped him do it easier and better”.

This singer has a fabulous range of vocal colors and effects to choose from. His diction is easy to understand, and his phrasing is lovely throughout. He begins with such a high, gorgeous, resonant messa di voce that I was surprised to hear how low his actual full singing voice sits once he moved into it. Clearly he had been singing with a somewhat elevated larynx when he started out so high, and later in the song when he moves into a more shrill, high sneer or a scream you can tell his larynx is in a much higher position once again. The high singing and screaming is still relatively free, but I feel that it would be even more impactful if he would master a vocal technique that would enable him to better integrate all of these different things he does so well, primarily with the goal of incorporating the depth and resonance of his natural low sound into the high stuff. He is the only one of the five who I truly wish would visit my studio some time.

— Claudia Friedlander

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