Apr 18, 2015

Throwing Singers a Bone

Here at The Poundry we have spent a fair amount of time and energy being critical of the way vocalists affect music.  Not all music is interesting enough to carry its own weight without a singer guiding you through the journey.  Actually, most of what pop culture cranks out is intentionally vapid and pointless and requires a 'face' to make it stand out from everything else in the cesspool of unimaginative offerings.  That's just marketing for money.  Music written with big paychecks in mind will always find fans.  I don't have a problem with get rich quick schemes, generally speaking, if there are ways to avoid them.  Until government forces us to listen to the bands that can afford to buy lobbyists there is still a way out for people who want the real thing. As a music and art snob myself, I only wish that more emphasis was put on people finding out how creative they really could be were they not so attracted to dollar signs.  Music is a business though, so it will never be totally pure.  And let's be honest... it's not as if everyone can be follow their vision to a pot of gold.  I can't walk out of my front door and expect food to fall into my mouth simply because I play in two bands that a handful of people find curious.  But hey, if any of you want to find a perch in the trees outside our lovely home and try to toss a meal at me I am not too proud to gobble it up!  For what it's worth I'm vegetarian and prefer Mexican and Indian food.  When huevos rancheros and samosas start falling from the sky the moment I step out of the house I'll know I've finally made it in life.

There are a few singers I really like.  By design, a vocalist is the focal point of a band. There are some exceptions, and metal has more of those exceptions than most genres, but for the most part the singer defines a bands' vibe more so than the music the band create.  We all connect at a subconscious level to the narrative that accompanies the music we listen to whether we listen as active fans or passively while we kill time.  Words are how we communicate.  My list represents singers who have been able to create unique listening experiences for me. For the most part they seem like they could be really hot and cold, people.  Perhaps a bit self indulgent, but that's the nature of the beast.  Singers wear their emotions, or their psychological defense mechanisms on their sleeves, and that can get old really fast.  Everyone knows that drummers are the coolest members of any band ( except for the jerks ) and I have to remember not to project my own coolosity onto other people just because I wish they could lead productive, creative, cool lives. Fortunately one does not have to like a person to appreciate his or her artistic endeavors, so let's cut all of the princesses out there some slack, both female and male ( of course, males  can be princesses too! ) and review some singers who would be allowed to live on my planet.  

I tend to like singers who really go for whatever it is they are trying to create.  They may be too much of this or too much of that, but they tend to be extreme.  Sometimes though, I like whatever it is that they do so much that I would love almost anything they did based on some basic element in their voice.  This list is in no particular order whatsoever, and I am well aware of the fact that your impression of me may slip just a little bit after reading this post.  Just wait until I write about the singers I would kick off the side of the boat were they trying to climb aboard to safety in the coming Zombie Apocalypse.  My inner jerk can be brutal, and there are two icons of metal/hard rock who I would make examples of just to make sure no one became too complacent.  Everyone must kiss the ring.  There are no exceptions.

Paul McCartney, The Beatles

It is surprising to many that The Beatles are my favorite band.  From the age of six on I have loved their music, or at least the music they wrote once Bob Dylan turned them on to the wacky weed.  Who knew pot and musicians could ever get along?  The Beatles benefited greatly from having all four of their members sing from time to time, but it has always been Paul McCartney's vocals that have spoken to me.  He is the King of Melodies and is responsible for more memorable vocals than almost anyone I can think of.  When you consider that The Beatles were only releasing albums for eight years, and that it wasn't until the second half of their recording career that they really became something more than a "boy band" it is astonishing how much music they cranked out that is just as unique now as it was then.  

One thing that is a deal breaker for me with singers is that they absolutely must sound as though they enjoy singing.  I want to feel as though they think of the world and their own path in it as a lyrical journey... like they can't stop the music in their heads.  They don't have to be amazing singers for me to like them, they just have to sound passionate about what they do.  Paul McCartney sounds as though he was born to sing, and his sense of melody comes as naturally to him as breathing does to you or me.  He was always in control of his voice, yet he managed to sound completely spontaneous and honest.  His voice is long gone now, but his vocals are critical in explaining why The Beatles mean so much to me as a musician, and as a fan of music in general.  In fact, I doubt very seriously that I would have been a musician had there not been a band for me to love the way I loved The Beatles at such an early age. The Beatles represent a fearless pursuit of the endless possibilities in music. They did whatever they wanted, and did whatever it took to get them where they wanted to go with every song, and that has a lot to do with why I try to push myself when I am writing my own parts within our music.  

Bon Scott, AC/DC

You know, I still remember the very first time I ever heard AC/DC.  It was at my best friend's birthday party when I was in the 5th grade.  There was something about the band that seemed nearly taboo at the time.  They were harder and dirtier than anything my parents listened to, but not altogether foreign because my parents did listen to a lot of the heavier bands that classic rock had to offer.  Still, AC/DC piqued my curiosity at a relatively young age.  It's really been in the last few years that I have come to appreciate Bon Scott as much as I now do.  'Back in Black' is the second best selling album of all time, and it absolutely should go down as AC/DC's greatest, but it is not my favorite album of theirs.  It isn't even my second favorite.  I can't seem to make up my mind between 'Highway to Hell' and 'Let There Be Rock', but the grit that the band had with Bon Scott was so dirty that to this day I hold them up as the purest rock band in history. 

AC/DC always seemed dangerous to me.  Or at least they did, before Brian Johnson came into the picture.  While he may have brought his "A" game into the scene with a stellar performance on 'Back in Black', he quickly became a caricature of himself, sounding more like an eighty year old woman with emphysema than a rock star.  Bon Scott sounded like he would take your innocence and leave you with a black eye and a burning sensation that comes back every six to eight months.  You almost felt like washing his filth off of you after listening to one of their albums.  That my friends, is art in its highest form!  Bon Scott sounded like syphilis.  The kicker though, as if being the voice of one of the most popular sexually transmitted diseases on earth wasn't enough, was the fact that one of America's most notorious serial murderers, plucky Richard Ramirez, wanted to name himself after my favorite AC/DC song, 'Night Prowler'.  Who knows what may have turned young Richard on to the band?  Perhaps it was the fact that Bon Scott sounded completely crazed as he belted out "... and you don't feel that steel / 'til it's hangin' out yo' back!", or perhaps he was titillated by lyrics about stalking and killing in the same way most people would be.  Either way, inspiration comes in many forms, and Richard Ramirez and I must have something in common because we both love the Voice of STD's... Bon, Pass the Penicillin Please, Scott.

Elizabeth Fraser, Cocteau Twins

Those of you who know of Cocteau Twins may be shifting your heads from one side to the other in confusion right now just as dogs do when they have a hard time figuring out what is going on.  But to be sure there are some people who know exactly why I love Elizabeth Fraser's voice and like me, they count her among their all time favorite singers.  I can tell you that Monica is not one of those people.  In fact, she insists that I must turn in my "Man Card" because of my love of this proto-dream pop band from the 80's-90's.  There is a part of me that appreciates New Wave music, though I never was a die hard fan of the genre. There were bands here and there that I didn't mind, but there is no other band who captured my imagination the same way Cocteau Twins' singer did.  I despise most of the bands they get lumped in with as most are completely pretentious, collegiate crap.  With Elizabeth Fraser lighting the way though, I can let go of things and enjoy the ride they provide as much, if not more than any other band.  The vibe that they created was one that I surrendered myself to and I just let her voice wash over me.  Yeah, I know it sounds borderline creepy, but that shows how much her vocals impacted me.

Elizabeth Fraser was a much more powerful singer than most, but she also had a sense for lighter, lovely vocals as well and she used her voice like an instrument more than as a means to narrate a story.  She sang in such a way that made it nearly impossible to decipher her lyrics which no doubt added to her mystique.  It's the kind of thing that some might find infuriating, but I never had a problem with it myself.  Later in their career she backed off of the loud, impassioned outbursts that peppered their earlier recordings.  That combined with the kind of slicker recordings that a bigger budget allows for might turn some of you off to anything they did after 1986, but I stuck with them through the very early 90's. I happened to hear them at the right point in my life but more important than that, I heard their records in the right order for me to give them a fair shake.  If I had heard their later releases first I doubt I would have given their older albums a chance.  Those early recordings had the kind of electronic drums that no one could ever mistake as being authentic, but the crude recordings worked at the time, and I still enjoy them as much as I did when I first dove into them.  Her vocals weren't the only thing that made their music interesting to me.  Their guitarist was one of those guys who created all kinds of slowly undulating textures by distorting individual notes throughout many of their songs, and they had a darker, more ambient aesthetic because of that.  I have always been drawn towards the darker side of music and art, despite having so much appreciation for a band like The Beatles.

I think of Elizabeth Fraser as being an extreme singer because she was really putting everything she had into creating her own musical world.  The juxtaposition of sounding at times to be close to losing control of her own voice, and of her own brand of multi-layered, hypnotic beauty is just as moving to me now as it ever was.  Whenever I decide to listen to Cocteau Twins they are the only thing I want to hear for a couple of weeks.  That's how unique of an experience their music is to me.  I fully recognize that what I love so much about them could just as easily turn people off.  Monica will never get what I like about them, which is fine of course.  You may despise them, too.  Or you might stumble upon something unlike anything you've ever heard.

Gary Numan

Yep, that Gary Numan.  The guy whose song about cars flooded the radio for one summer way back in 1980 just happens to have an incredibly unique voice and presence.  I remember when "Cars" came out.  That was right as I was developing my own individual musical tastes and it happened as the era of disco came to a close.  I grew up loving not just The Beatles, but many of the bands from the late 60's and early 70's that my parents listened to.  Disco was ubiquitous in the late 70's, and though I did like some of it at the time ( I find it more fun and refreshing now, actually ) Gary Numan was like a punk rock infused sci-fi counterpoint to all of the hip gyrations and tight polyester pants on the disco floor and at the skating rink. There is a dark, somber quality to my favorite songs of his that I relate to, and in his own way his music was actually pretty heavy.  I think of Gary Numan as being a lot like Ozzy Osbourne.  Before you cock your head from side to side like a dog yet again, hear me out. Ozzy Osbourne was not by any metric the kind of singer who would have stood out in the high school choral group as a potential star.  What made him so special was that his own personality created  a vocal presence that was unique to him.  He had a more obvious dark streak than did Gary Numan, in no small part because of how controversial and powerful Black Sabbath's music was.  Ozzy Osbourne's voice cracked and he didn't always hit the notes just right, but all of his imperfections were part of what made him absolutely 'perfect' for Black Sabbath.  There are many similarities between his style and Gary Numan's, and they both seemed to be drawn towards a familiar darkness that I began to see as very comforting when I was coming out of my own shell, musically.

Like many of the bands I truly love, whenever I listen to Gary Numan there is nothing else that I want to hear for weeks later.  Unlike Cocteau Twins, Monica enjoys Gary Numan as much as I do.  In fact, when we were courting one another so many years ago I made one of those infamous "mix tapes" of Gary Numan for her, so we have a history with his music that makes it a little more special than just a nostalgia kick.  It must be said that Gary Numan has plenty of turds floating in his techno-punk punchbowl, but when you get someone else to pull them out for you the punch is pretty damned satisfying.  He had a disco thread that is sometimes more obvious than others, and his vocal style was extreme enough that it didn't always work out, but I do think there is a connection that many metal heads could have with his music that they would not be embarrassed to talk about.  I think that there is a certain 'cool factor' that Gary Numan enjoys now, too.  He's just unique and obscure enough to create a certain level of curiosity in people.  Everyone knows "Cars", but they don't know much else about him unless someone has specifically turned them on to his music.

That brings us to the point of this post.  I am trying to point out some great singers that not every metallion may have given a second thought.  Sure, they would know Bon Scott, but if you have grown up on Korn you should know what a real life serial killer was inspired by.  So from the Unofficial Voice of Syphilis to the most enigmatically beautiful vocalist I know of; from the Undisputed King of Melody to the Depressive Robot Lord of New Wave Disco, I offer this list of tracks to check out.  If you don't love them don't feel bad... you just didn't listen to them properly.  

Paul McCartney, Melody Master 

Getting Better - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Fixing a Hole - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Mother Nature's Son - The White Album
Blackbird - The White Album
Eleanor Rigby - Revolver
We Can Work It Out - single

Bon Scott, Serial Killer's Muse

Can I Sit Next to You Girl - High Voltage
Walk All Over You - Highway to Hell
Night Prowler - Highway to Hell
Beating Around the Bush - Highway to Hell
Go Down - Let there Be Rock
Problem Child - Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap / Let there Be Rock

Elizabeth Fraser, Heaven's Tour Guide

From the Flagstones - The Pink Opaque
Pepper Tree - The Pink Opaque
She Will Destroy You - The Moon and the Melodies with Harold Budd
Feet-Like Fins - Victorialand
The Itchy Glowbo Blow - Blue Bell Knoll
Road River and Rail - Heaven or Las Vegas

Gary Numan, Dark Techno-Punk Prophet

Stormtrooper in Drag - Paul Gardiner with Gary Numan
M.E. - Pleasure Principal
Films - Pleasure Principal
Are Friends Electric - Telekon
I Dream of Wires - Telekon

There are dozens of singers I could have written about, but these four had a bit more to do with why I fell in love with their bands.  I should mention that Jimi Hendrix had the sexiest voice in rock, hands down.  Then there's Chris Cornell ( I'll take his vocals on 'Superunknown' and 'Down on the Upside' and you can keep all of his obnoxious wailing from their earlier releases! ) and Jeff Buckley, Thom Yorke, Mike Patton, Ronnie James Dio... I could go on and on, but I want this post up today.  So singers, you are loved here at The Poundry. Your fragile egos, temper tantrums and unparalleled need for attention can be ignored for the greater cause of musical exploration as long as you don't suck.  Obviously, none of you really think that you suck or you wouldn't insist on being the face of the band. Despite your bloated impressions of yourselves, we like you anyway... sometimes.  Don't push it.


  1. What a well-written, fun read, Steve! I totally agree with your list at the end--Cornell, Buckley, Patton, Dio--and can't resist adding a couple: Devin Townsend (solo and Strapping Young Lad), Dax Riggs (solo, Deadboy & the Elephantmen, Agents of Oblivion, and Acid Bath), and Tim Smith (from the band Midlake's album 'The Courage of Others'). Many people overlook Hendrix's vocals because of his playing, but he was indeed a great singer...e.g. 'Drifting' and '1983'. Also, check out the cover version of Gary Numan's song 'Metal' by the band Thought Industry (they also had three really good drummers, especially on their 'Mods Carve the Pigs' album, which reminds me somewhat of your drumming style in places).

  2. ...also meant to mention that the Replicants (members of Tool and Failure) did a good cover of Gary Numan's 'Are Friends Electric' on their self-titled album.

  3. Hey, Tim! I'm so glad that the first comments re: singers who don't suck were positive and not something along the lines of "You are probably the dumbest person on the planet!" I'm still on a Numan kick right now and I have to say his music is WAY heavier than you'd think given the era and the genre. His vocals had a lot to do with that, but sometimes keyboards fill up a room like nothing else. I've heard two covers of 'Down in the Park' before, too. One was by Marilyn Manson but I can't recall who did the other one. I'll whip out the beginning to 'Metal' at practice every now and then. When I do, Cary is usually just a second away with the bass line. Just for the record, 'Stormtrooper in Drag' has my favorite Numan vocals. My mom bought 'Pleasure Principle' when it came out and I loved it right away! Glad you dig it, too!