Extreme Metal Vocals: Musical Expression, Technique, and Cultural Meaning

Lead Research Organisation: University of Huddersfield
Department Name: School of Arts and Humanities


"At last! A book about heavy metal as music." This opening exclamation in Sheila Whiteley's preface to Andrew Cope's history of Black Sabbath (Cope 2010) laments a long-standing practice in popular music studies of under-emphasizing musical details. Despite this practice, musical details are necessary to understand popular music and society. They impact the circulation of meaning within systems of genre, the infrastructure of the music industry, and the aesthetic values of fans. As Whiteley's statement makes clear, metal scholarship has focused primarily on sociological issues raised by the music's transgressive ethos, lyrics, and subculture. Indeed, the often explicitly violent or Satanic themes of extreme metal (i.e. death metal and black metal) appear to invite this emphasis. But to seem powerful and convincing to fans, extreme metal must communicate transgression musically. How this is done has, for the most part, gone unexplored.

The project remedies this gap with four articles that synthesize linguistic, acoustical, historical, and musicological studies of vocal techniques. The first will be a reception study of verbal descriptions of extreme metal vocals, taken from magazines and online reviews. From this chart of semantic relationships, the second article will use spectrograms to demonstrate patterns between the descriptors and musical aspects of extreme metal vocals that correlate to different time periods and genres. The third article applies these acoustical findings to study the rhetorical qualities of climactic song sections. Finally, the fourth article's kinetic approach uses motion-capture footage of vocalists to see how their movements communicate tension, anticipation, and climax without requiring participants to verbally articulate that information or consciously reflect on their actions. Ultimately, the project will offer unique insights into extreme metal's appeal and contribute to debates about musical meaning and its relationship to identity.


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