Welcome back to Beyond the Veil! In today’s rather short installment, we’re actually going to shift gears a tad and traverse grounds that have otherwise remained unexplored in this column. So far, we’ve mostly focused on guitar related concepts, particularly within the realm of prog metal and tech death, but this time around we’re going to talk about a concept that pertains more to vocals — namely, a technique called melisma.
Sure, that’s a pretty sounding word and all, but what does it actually mean? Now, singing usually involves certain notes mapped to different syllables within a word. When one sings out “Happy Birthday”, for instance, the first two syllables (“hap-py”) are the same note repeated once, while the first syllable in “birth-day” is clearly somewhat higher. The note changes are fairly easy to recognize as one goes through it each syllable of text corresponds to a single note throughout. Should one listen closely for any deviance from this concept, it turns out that this is the case for most vocal parts as well, in metal or otherwise. (Abstract vocalizing doesn’t count here! Notice how I said syllable of text.)
In melismatic singing, on the other hand, a single syllable of text is stretched out such that the singer’s voice spans several notes before moving on to the next. This can be done to almost hypnotic effect across quite a bit of time, as is the case in several different kinds of religious chants throughout history, but most modern music tends to keep melisma usage rather short and sweet if it’s there at all.
Now I could feasibly start on the examples in today’s article right away, but this is probably going to be the only chance I will ever have to link a Mariah Carey song in a Heavy Blog article, and so I will do just that.
From 1:05 onwards, almost every other line ends with an instance of melisma, with the technique springing up over and over through the rest of the song. And apparently that paid off — indeed, “Vision of Love” is frequently claimed to have been the song that made melisma fashionable in popular music.
Before we spring into examples that have a little less to do with 90s pop, I should make clear once more the difference between melisma and abstract vocalizing. Vocalizing is much more frequently used than melisma in most modern music of all kinds that involves sung vocals, and just involves a series of notes sung out in sequence that don’t actually match any kind of lyrics or text. This is often done in the context of backing vocals, but can also form the basis for vocal solos.
Melisma, on the other hand, refers solely to several notes occurring within a single syllable, and so abstract singing, whether lead or backing, does not count as that. (At least as far as I know — I’m not a singer, nor some treasure trove of vocal music theory, so if there’s something I got wrong in this article, please do let me know!)
Today’s brief excursion begins with England’s TesseracT, who are also known as the one band that seems unanimously agreed upon to have significantly broadened the horizons of the otherwise oft-derided ‘djent’ sound. Indeed, they’ve made quite the name for themselves in just over half a decade, and remain one of the absolute biggest names in that corner of progressive metal.
Last year’s Polaris was an absolute stunner of a record more often than not, although the general consensus was that it fell a slightly short of the mark considering the game-changers its two predecessors were. Even then, it’s also notable for marking the return of original singer Dan Tompkins, who remains one of the most engaging frontmen in modern progressive metal and with a killer range to boot. This here is closer “Seven Names”:
Tompkins generally seems to like showcasing his stellar range through vocalization (“Phoenix”, “Messenger” from the same album) rather than melismas, but the brief verse at 0:50 is peppered with brief uses of the technique. Here, the melismas mostly remain a means of making the vocal line more interesting, rather than a centrepiece of the verse themselves.
Protest the Hero
On the other end of the progressive metal scale we have Protest the Hero, whose rapid-fire guitar heroics are a far cry from Tesseract’s downtempo low end riffs and copious amounts of ambient texturing. But Protest’s vocalist, the inimitable Rody Walker, has a similarly impressive vocal presence, and uses melismas somewhat more frequently than Tompkins to demonstrate it.
In “C’est La Vie”, a darkly ironic take on suicide, the barn-burner of a first verse seems to briefly implode at 0:42 before an extended melismatic moment from Walker over an intense breakdown. Walker’s vocals only get more intense as the song goes on, briefly incorporating melismas as they go along, and showing off his impressive range rather well in the process.
That being said, one of Walker’s absolute finest melismatic moments (and one I am utterly frustrated I can’t include) is arguably on “Harbinger“, from the band’s rather… interesting latest EP Pacific Myth. The EP is currently only accessible to those who have paid subscriptions to the band on Bandcamp, which makes it impossible to link here. However, if you’re one of the ~8650 people who have purchased a subscription — if not, I would recommend going for it — the vocal part can be found right around 1:21.
Today’s piece is rounded out with Atlanta experimental/alternative rock group O’Brother, whose latest album Endless Light has easily become a top contender for one of the albums of the year so far in the Heavy Blog camp. Endless Light is quite diverse and hard to pin down, combining an ethereal aesthetic with riffs straight out of Russian Circles‘ playbook right alongside falsetto-driven alt-rock moments that are almost evocative of Muse at times. Vocalist Tanner Merritt’s delivery is notable for incorporating melismas so seamlessly one may not even notice they’re there at first — here is “Complicated End Times”:
Full disclosure: this is my favourite song off the new album by a mile, and every single thing about it — the haunting intro riff, the quiet pre-chorus suddenly exploding into a larger-than-life version of itself, the massive sludge riff that closes out the song — is absolutely perfect. But we’re here to talk about melismas, and their seamless incorporation, and the song does a fine job of those too: as soon as the first verse begins around 0:43, Merritt kicks it off with a melismatic delivery on the word “you” that ends up forming a repeating bit across the verse. Rather than being there to just make things interesting, as was the case in “Seven Names”, or to show off Merritt’s vocal abilities, the melisma is used here to make a very recognizable repeating pattern that adds an extra layer of cohesion to the verse.
And that about concludes today’s brief piece. Of course, my own limited music taste means I could not even begin to scratch the surface of melisma in any kinds of rock/metal (and it can also be a little hard to spot, in all honesty, unless one is expressly looking for it). Are there any instances of it you know of that I should put in my ears? Let me know!
Otherwise, until next time!