Welcome to Voices of the Void, a new column on Heavy Blog is Heavy! On this segment, I will be diving into the vocal profiles of metal and rock’s most skilled voice performers. The world of heavy music has a wide range of vocal styles and talent from hard rock wailers to the screams and growls of extreme metal. Because of the instrumental proficiency and compositional complexity of the genre, vocals can be an overlooked aspect of a band’s sound. The aim of this series is to draw attention to what a particular vocalist adds to the bands they sing in and show their development over the span of their career. In honor of Iced Earth’s most recent (and almost decent) album, Incorruptible, we will focusing on their current frontman, Stu Block.
I chose Stu for the first segment because his voice is the perfectly demonstrates the quintessential personality split of metal: clean vs. screams. He does both so well and usually vocalists have one they do better. His cleans are easily comparable to the greats like Halford and Tate and his growls hold nothing back either. His first musical appearance was in the Canadian proggy-melodeath outfit, Into Eternity.
“Timeless Winter” is the perfect introduction to Stu with it’s brutal verses and the never ending top to his voice on the chorus. Stu can tap into his falsetto unlike most male singers can. Falsetto, also referred to “head voice”, is a “false voice” or a break in vocal range that allows singers to access higher notes at the expense of the power and color of the lower “chest voice”. This break in the voice is much more noticeable in male singers than in female singers. Artists like the Bee Gees and Michael Jackson access this “head voice” frequently usually resulting in a less “manly” tone. Metal singers like Rob Halford and King Diamond use this part of their voice often but modify it even more to give it intensity and “ping” thus the thrill and excitement associated with these performers. Stu is totally of this “falsetto camp”. Whereas some clean metal singers extend their chest voice to very top of the staff, Stu and singers like him embrace the break and focus on making their head voice sound intense. Listen to the chorus again with this in mind. On the words, “My heart decayed and deadened, By this ravenous winter”, Stu is using his chest voice. When the next phrase begins you can hear the break into falsetto on, “Forsee the end is frozen, Begins this timeless winter.” Stu’s top note is a Bb5, a note many operatic sopranos reach in their most thrilling arias (same highest note). For further listening, the vocal lesson below provides a unique look into his vocals totally isolated AND live. You can hear the studio doesn’t add much but a bit of polish to his instrument. Take some time to explore Stu’s membership with Into Eternity. It’s great music and represents Stu’s true north before he joined Iced Earth.
When Stu took over in Iced Earth, his voice took on a significant change. His two main predecessors gave him huge shadows to live in and it’s interesting to see how he reacted to this. Between the two main singers before him, Tim Owens and Matt Barlow, Tim is the more vocally similar as he too relies heavily on his noticeable break between chest and head voice. For example, the middle section of “Something Wicked Pt. 1”, you can hear the exact note Owens switches into head voice on. This is very similar to the “Timeless Winter” example from earlier. Both singers climb right up to their break. Matt Barlow also has this distinct break into falsetto but his chest voice is lower than Stu or Tim. Usually, one’s speaking voice is a good indicator of voice type. Listen to all three talk in interviews. Stu is a tenor, the highest natural male voice. Tim is probably a baritone or low tenor, somewhere in the middle. Matt is a bass-baritone.
All three singers have learned to extend their voice far past its natural placement but Matt having the naturally lowest voice means that Matt has to overcome A LOT more nature to get those crystal clear high notes than Tim or Stu does. It also means he has access to lower notes and a richer tone all around. Additionally, Matt also employs what I like to call “gravel” in his chest voice. His voice is raspier on purpose. Think James Hetfield or Chuck Billy.
This is Matt’s signature sound. While Tim also has a chest voice with more “gravel” than most (from mimicking Rob Halford for all those years), he doesn’t have that rich, chocolate tone that Matt has. This is all important because although Stu possesses an instrument more naturally closer to Tim’s, Stu started to mimic Matt when he joined Iced Earth. Listen to “Boiling Point” and hear how much gravel he adds to his voice.
Now, it is important to remember: most metal singers uses gravel and rasp in their voice. Dio, Halford, Bruce, even clean, pure voiced angels like Geoff Tate and Michael Kiske add it in some days. However, go back to Into Eternity and notice how clean and ungraveled Stu’s chest voice usually is and then compare it to Iced Earth. He’s trying to be Matt Barlow. Here he is singing a Barlow tune:
Now here he is on the new album imitating that classic, rich baritone sound that Matt has. Notice how his natural tenor voice can’t quite achieve the same effect. Stu pushes his voice to the back of his throat and it just doesn’t come out right.
While Stu has jump-started Iced Earth with his on-stage energy and youthful look, he might be holding himself back (or being told to hold himself back by producers or bandmates) to fit the box of Iced Earth. I love Iced Earth and I think Stu was the best choice to replace Matt and Tim but I sincerely hope we see him grow out of this game of imitation.
I hope you enjoyed this new segment! Feel free to suggest a singer you’d like to see a breakdown of and I’ll see you all next time!