Sep 11, 2012

The Case for Instrumental Music

When someone is a fan of metal, particularly truly "heavy" metal there is one sticking point that can make or break an otherwise inspirational band.  Typically speaking, the "singers" suck.  I mean, they really suck. The ones that actually have something to add to the music are fine, and sometimes even great, but the other ninety percent detract from what bands are trying to accomplish. Pop music doesn't exist without vocalists. The entire message of pop music and every bit of its appeal relies on oral communication. It's rare that the music itself matters much beyond providing a bed for the vocals to lay on, but metal can be aggressive, mean and heavy as hell without a singer at all.  I find that the music is often meaner than the vocalist, so for me the impact is lost when the singer can't match the intensity of the band. Bless their little hearts, a singer's over inflated sense of self worth ( made obvious by the fact that they think the stage is meant for them in the first place ) and the notion that their message of crippling insecurities or feelings of inadequacy is unique enough that everyone simply must hear what they have to say mean that they are driven to a spotlight. Metal is for "outsiders" and I am no exception to that rule, whereas the microphone is for narcissists.  I get to hide my own insecurities behind my over sized drum set.  Whenever I have something to "say" I use riffs or beats.  There is a lot of room for interpretation, and people can attach whatever train of thought they might want to what I do.  That free association is one of the things I love most about music, but lyrics often take that liberty away from a listener.

In Confessor, I always found that no matter how much attention to detail we put into the music it became a real chore to hear it in its full context once Scott put his vocals down. That isn't a knock on Scott at all, it's just illustrative of how language is the way that we are accustomed to receiving information.  Everything else takes a back seat, even if it's at a subconscious level. The singer takes the role of defining what we are supposed to be thinking about, and I would rather have the freedom to ascribe whatever random thoughts I may have to the music I listen to.  Ambient singers can absolutely enhance a band's aesthetic but they are few and far between, especially in a type of music that thrives on deliberate aggression.  I have been able to embrace the reflexive "need" for nearly all bands to have a vocal identity.  A singer really does humanize music and make it relatable for most, but not everyone needs that connection to identify with music.  With very few exceptions I prefer the dreamy, whimsical nature of music without the restrictive blinders that come with a singer's presence.  However, in the heavier forms of music that I tend to like most, a good instrumental band is a very rare thing indeed.  

Instrumental music does not require your full attention.  It makes for a wonderful background static to keep at bay the deafening roar of silence that makes me so restless at times.  You can drift in and out of instrumental music, especially if it is the dreamier variety that adds color to your day, slowly seeping into your thoughts without demanding that you scrutinize every note. Classical, jazz, dream pop, electronica... so many different vibes work wonderfully without vocals, but heavy music has not spent so much energy tapping into the endless possibilities of instrumental music.  Loincloth knew from the beginning that we could do whatever we wanted without having to use the vocally driven, heavy music template.  That template is the limiting factor that having a singer foists upon creative efforts.  Verse, chorus, some screaming... everyone uses the same framework.  When it's really bad a band will have interesting parts that go away when the vocals come in so that the singer doesn't have to compete with the band for space.  Weak.  Very, very weak.  There is also the fact that most heavy bands use aggressive singers, so the vibe is much more uniform from one band to the next, and it's hard to sing about things other than conflict if you're trying to show the world how tough you are. Life has a lot of things to celebrate, and I don't need to be yelled at all the time.

There is another thing about heavy music that limits what most bands go for whenever you find one that opts for an instrumental approach.  As a genre made up of self described social misfits, there seems to be a need to prove that their life's pursuit has made them just as talented as anyone in more widely accepted types of music.  Metal wants people to see that it has virtuosos around every corner.  It as a way of puffing its chest and proclaiming that our overlooked, picked on nerds can stand with your precious, pampered nobility on any stage and give them a run for their money.  It's bravado, and it comes out in the form of overly schooled scales and more disciplined than visionary riffs that are impressive feats of technological achievement, but are often flat and not very compelling.  I wouldn't blame anyone for leveling that same criticism at Loincloth, but we really aren't interested in showing what we are capable of as musicians as much as what metal is capable of as an art form. We wanted to celebrate heaviness and rhythmic confusion, not shine the spotlight on our individual progress as musicians.  It was music that inspired us, not a mirror.

I find instrumental music to be far more emotive than most vocal oriented music.  The ability to attach whatever train of thought I have at the moment to the music means that it is a more personal journey for me.  A singer is defining his or her own personal journey, and that can be a wonderful thing as well, particularly if they happen to nail some thought you may have had before or if they expand upon one of the questions about life that we all have. For the most part, there simply aren't many singers I want to listen to for forty five minutes. Their bag of tricks is usually limited to the two or three things their egos tell them are all they need to be the greatest front man the world has ever seen.  Think about this; we tend to lip sync vocal parts, but we head bang to everything else.  We reflexively repeat the language, but we are physically moved by the music.  Without vocals dripping off of every sheet of music you can feel what that inspiring music is all about.  You can hear the interplay between drum and bass, or the overlapping notes that guitarists use and the music begins to tell its own story. That vague story, and the flexibility of an association that suits your own state of mind instead of funneling you into a narrow path defined by a vocal narrative that may be miles away from where your head is, makes it possible for me to see metal's limitless creative horizon.


  1. Nice article, you certainly have a way with words, and I am really enjoying the new Loincloth, and didn't realize why I liked it so much, until you described it so vividly. Thanks! -Mike

  2. I'm a little late here with a response, but thanks! At first I thought I'd leave comments to other people, but it just feels wrong sometimes. I'm glad you're digging the Loincloth, and if this post makes you think about music, especially instrumental music in a different way... even better! I've listened to a lot of instrumental music over the last ten or more years and I find that it suits my moods more. There aren't many heavy instrumental bands that I like much but I'm sure with time, there will be some that aren't so stoner rock oriented.