Black metal is one of metal’s most mysterious and plentiful subgenres. It finds new ways to reinvent itself every few years and seems to be sprouting out of every country nowadays. Though the genre seems ubiquitous today, it didn’t start out that way. A handful of bands in the early 80’s started all the tropes that metalheads are so fond of today. While the genre’s Satanic imagery, punk and thrash influence, or ethereal nature can’t be solely credited to a single artist, one aspect can: the vocals. Black metal’s classic screeches were the invention of one Satanic Satanic teenager in 1984.
Before Bathory’s debut album, “harsh” vocals were well-established in rock music. Early rock-and-roll had raspy and shouted vocals even in its bluesy inception and as the music changed throughout the 70s and 80s distorted voices were taken to new extremes and creative experiments. Hard rock had vocalists like Bon Scott and Robert Plant gave their voices extra bite and grit just like the guitarists of their respective bands did through tube amps and distortion pedals. Punk was founded on doing things the wrong way so, naturally, shouted vocals were always a part of the mix. Important early metal releases like Motorhead and Venom’s debut albums were simply the next logical step in this progression. The vocalists had to match the music. Bathory’s Quorthon, though, made a radical departure from this progression. His unique vocal style wasn’t close to anything happening at the time. It was something totally new.
You can listen to early examples of Sodom, Hellhammer, Mantas, and Tormentor from around this same era. Clearly, Quorthon didn’t invent sounding like a goddamn demon. However, listen closer and notice how close to the classic Norwegian vocal style he is even back in 1984, a full decade before the second-wave black metal boom. While it’s hard to tell exactly what he’s doing due to the kvlt-ass recording quality, I can make an educated guess with my background in vocal music education. Quorthon seems to doing the same thing we do when we cough. Specifically, he’s closing off access to his vocal folds and shifts the point of vibration away from where it usually happens in natural singing.
When we sing, usually our vocal folds cause the vibration and thus the pitch. Of course, more things vibrate than just the vocal folds but we need not dive into that much detail right now. What most metal and rock singers are doing around this era is simply using too much air and directing that air to other parts of the throat and mouth. By overblowing, the sound becomes distorted and sounds like shouting or screaming. Quorthon, however, is sealing his entire mouth off by closing his epiglottis (what we do right before we cough) and the muscles in the upper esophagus before his gives air to it. Thus, a prolonged cough/choking sound. Now, instead of the vocal folds being the main vibration, the squished up tightened mash of flesh in the back of his throat becomes what vibrates. Unlike traditional singing, with this style, pitch is difficult to maintain and sustain and vibrato is near-impossible.
To be clear, this vocal style is not healthy for the vocal folds. It’s not only very inefficient in terms of airflow but it also causes lots of unnecessary tension. This may be one reason why Quorthon didn’t like to perform and why he slowly moved away from this vocal style. The next two Bathory albums would feature a practically identical vocal style though the music would get more and more melodic. “Enter the Eternal Fire” was the canary in the coalmine for the original proto-black metal style of Bathory. With those epic choirs in the background, you can hear the Viking metal coming…
In this haunting introduction, Quorthon actually sings! And he actually sounds pretty damn good here at least! Doubling his voice in octaves does a fantastic job of giving the music an ancient feeling. You can feel Quorthon is baring his soul a bit more than usual in these opening minutes. Then the riff kicks in, and we get a few signature screams. Notice though, these screams are placed more forward than usual. He can sustain them longer and they don’t sound so froggy. His throat isn’t mashed-up here. Thus, we get a half-screamed/half-sung style. There is an outline of a melody there, though not every note is exactly clear. The guitar doubling the melody helps to bring this out. Because this style has the ability to add pitch and clears up some of his diction, the listener feels more of the emotion of the song. He sounds like a warrior on the battlefield, not a freaky-ass demon. This emotional freedom must have been a nice change for Quorthon because his next album, the album that changed it all, featured an even cleaner vocal style.
Now, we hear Quorthon really letting go of the shrieks. While Hammerheart isn’t totally devoid of any harsh vocals, much of the album is truly sung. And the funny thing is, he’s really actually quite bad. From a technical perspective, this guy cannot sing. He wanders around the pitch. He doesn’t have a wide range. But for the purpose of this music, it is absolutely perfect. There are singers like Devin Townsend or Rob Halford who have amazing control of their instruments but this is the complete opposite of that.
Sometimes we take for granted all the subgenres metal has today but it’s important to remember that before Hammerheart, metal didn’t have all the amazing Viking and Folk metal of today. He was actually really breaking ground with this style. And so much of the success of this album and why this style caught on to become a huge phenomenon is in the vocals. There’s honesty here. His performance is sloppy and his voice is out of tune in many places, but he sounds authentic and real. He’s selling it. The production is clunky and the riffs are simple but Quorthon is committed and steadfast. We get all of this from his voice . He makes us believe it.
Quorthon was a real innovator. Every second-wave Norwegian black metal vocalist owes their style of screaming to him. Then, even after he single-handedly invented a new vocal style, he pioneered a whole new genre while completely changing his voice. He took chances and never gave into commercialism. Even when his music was goofy as hell, he followed his heart. We really owe the spirit of black metal to this dude. It’s a shame to see him gone. There’s so many maverick one-man shows making goofy-ass metal on cassette tapes because of him. Thanks Ace.