Voices of the Void: Chuck Schuldiner

Last week’s vocalist was Quorthon, the father of black metal vocals. Appropriately, this week we are focusing on the father of death metal, Chuck Schuldiner. While Chuck’s most valuable contributions to the death metal genre were probably his compositions and abilities on the guitar, his vocals are still quite something. Chuck is different than Quorthon in that he didn’t single-handedly invent the death metal vocal style. Other vocalists like Jeff Becerra, Mille Petrozza, and Tom G. Warrior had huge parts in creating this sound too. However, Chuck had a few key elements to his vocal delivery that were especially remarkable. Let’s start at the very beginning.

It’s gruff. It’s guttural. It’s brutal. Chuck’s performance on Scream Bloody Gore was properly sloppy and maniacal. Like I talked about last week, Chuck is overblowing his vocal folds to achieve this scream-like sound. On a deeper level, though, Chuck is manipulating his vowels and his diction to achieve the most horrifying, blood-curdling scream he can here. Let me elaborate. First, a look at the text:

Drink from the goblet, the goblet of gore
Taste the zombie’s drug, now you want more
Drifting from the living, joining with the dead
Zombie dwelling maggots, now infest your head

Now, maybe hardcore fans know these words by heart but there’s absolutely no way you got every single word the first time you heard this track. That’s because the words don’t matter in death metal. We want to hear the screams, not the text. In classical singing, opera singers and coaches use something called IPA, or the International Phonetic Alphabet, to turn text into universally understood sounds. Singers learn what each symbol means and how it sounds and then they can basically sing anything in anything language, at least phonetically. This makes their diction clean and precise. In IPA, the above passage would look something like this.

drɪŋk frɒm ðə ˈgɒblɪt, ðə ˈgɒblɪt ɒv gɔː
teɪst ðə ˈzɒmbiz drʌg, naʊ juː wɒnt mɔː
ˈdrɪftɪŋ frɒm ðə ˈlɪvɪŋ, ˈʤɔɪnɪŋ wɪð ðə dɛd
ˈzɒmbi ˈdwɛlɪŋ ˈmægəts, naʊ ɪnˈfɛst jɔː hɛd

Chuck, however, is not singing purely like a classical singer is. Because you can sustain vowel sounds like AHHHHHH and OOOOOOOOO and make them “screamy”, he focuses on those and basically ignores the consonants. What he really sounds like is something like:

DrEEEE fruh thuh GUH thu GUHblu of gOOORRRRRRRRRRR
TAYst thu zawb DRUH, NOW yu wah MORRRRRRRRR

This sort of diction modification not only maximizes his “scream potential” but it also gives a nice jaunty rhythm to the text. Death metal singers do this still to this day. Internet trolls and fans refer to it as SQUEEEEEing or some other appropriate onomatopoeia. This is where the cliché of not understanding death metal singers is born. They find a vowel they like and just ride it the whole album. Chuck’s diction, however, did get much better.

In a rare twist of fate, or perhaps in a deal with Satan, Chuck’s voice actually got higher as he got older. This is very rare especially for someone putting so much stress on their voice all the time. On “Overactive Imagination”, Chuck wrote some pretty spectacular lyrics and we can hear them much clearer. He’s focusing much more on the consonants and he’s making the endings of words especially clear. In fact, you might even hear a little James Hetfield in his delivery:

It’s an overrrrrrrRAH actiiiiiiiiiiiVAH imaginatiooooNAH
That enslaves your empty shelLAH

This technique is called a “shadow vowel” and is often used in classical singing to a more subtle degree to signify the ending of a word. This extra “uh” sound added to the end of each word or syllable is called a “schwa”. Instead of using this technique subtly and tastefully, Chuck just uses to give his lyrics a little extra stink and anger.

He used the shadow vowel even more on further releases. On “Symbolic”, you can hear him do it on almost every line. His voice, while still firmly harsh, is much higher than it was in the classic, Scream Bloody Gore days, further bringing it to the front of the texture away from the downtuned guitars, bass, and double kicks. His vocal writing is also getting better. Before, in “Overactive Imagination”, Chuck didn’t have a good grasp on how to set the text to music. In other words, he was just writing words that he thought were good and shoving them into the song however he could. The emPHAsis was on the wrong syllABle.

Your existence IIIIIIISS
a script, Life for YOUUUUUUUU
is a perforMANCE,
Play OUT
the leading ROOOOOOOOLE.

It doesn’t flow. In “Symbolic”, though:

I don’t mean to dwell
But I can’t help myself
When I feel the vibe
And taste a memory
Of a time in life
When years seemed to stand still

Everything flows (with a few exceptions) like speech. Chuck continued to learn how to set text better and better though his settings do always have a few words in weird places. Listening to his performance on The Sound of Perseverance, you can hear how badly he wanted to write for a clean vocalist. At this point, Chuck wanted to start a new project totally separate from death metal but he was locked in contractually to keep writing for Death. All over Symbolic, you can hear his voice outlining melodies and since his voice was getting gradually higher anyway, it wasn’t a stretch for him to do this:

Honestly, this is one of the best vocal performances I’ve heard in metal or any other genre. It’s one of the few times where I think a cover is not only a better performance than the original but actually realizes the the vibe and spirit of the original composition better than the original artist. Chuck somehow intuitively understands vibrato and utilizes the perfect balance between his harsh and clean vocals all without ever having experience with using them both. Though Chuck is a brilliant guitarist and excellent composer, his vocals have laid a blueprint for how death metal should be sung. He’s also took some serious artistic strides with his vocal performances and always found new ways to make things better. We lost a great one with him.