Gothic Metal and the Western Imagination of Having a Voice
We hear it so often: “people’s voice,” “someone voices out about something.” What if we don’t really have a voice of self, but many voices of split-selves?
Voice has always been crucial in the Western conceptualizations of the human subject. To have a voice means that one assumes the status of the human subject of substance, identities, consciousness, and reflexivity. To have a voice is to become the Master, heard and obeyed, as the classic ad “His Master’s Voice” captures:
“His Master’s Voice.” Wikipedia
The Western imagination of having a voice, intriguingly, has a dramatic twist in gothic metal. Surprising as this suggestion sounds, gothic metal, characterized by combining metal heaviness, gothic atmosphere, and manipulating singing (or not really singing, depending on how you define it) voices, undermines the Western imagination of having a voice.
Let’s try one gothic metal song by the Dutch gothic/symphonic/progressive metal band After Forever (1995-2009): “Beyond Me” (Prison of Desire, 2000) that plays with one trademark of gothic metal, the vocal lineup of beauty and the beast that features a clean, often operatic female vocal and an unclean, usually male death vocal.
The theme of “Beyond Me” is an omnipresent haunting in which the narrator “I” is alone, feels it is “followed everywhere” and hears “so much voices.” Such an omnipresent haunting is achieved precisely by the three distinct but quite common voices in gothic metal, their variations, and the ways they interact with each other and music.
Let’s sum up the three basic and quite common types of voices.
- Female operatic vocal: the operatic voice, trademark of beauty and the beast pattern, is heavy in terms of its vocal quality. This type of voice is dubbed as the metal “diva.”
- Female clean vocal: the light vocal quality of the clean vocal, also often found in gothic metal, is generally termed “natural” and “angelic.”
- Male death vocal: the guttural male death vocal, generally dubbed the “beast,” subsumes the not human category. In the beauty and beast pattern, the heavy death vocal functions to highlight the pleasantness of the heavy operatic voice or the light clean voice.
Given the beauty and the beast vocal pattern and figures of the evil male protagonist menacing the innocent maiden in gothic literature, the omnipresent haunting in “Beyond Me” can be easily interpreted as the beauty threatened by the beast, aptly captured by this illustration.
Michele Kelly. “Music…” Pinterest
Yet, the vocal lineup of a heavy operatic voice and a light clean voice is not really common in gothic metal, and the three types of voices are further variated. Perhaps, the source of the omnipresent haunting is a bit more complicated?
Let’s sum up the variations of the three types of voices.
- Ad libbed operatic voice: the operatic voice and ad libbed operatic voice pose a vocal contrast. This contrast is most notable when the ad libbed operatic voice deviates from the musical pattern of the operatic voice, shifting from a higher note to a lower one during the lines, “Leave me alone, wherever you came from / Hearing so much voices, no one's talking.” The contrast between the two kinds of voices can be temporarily interpreted as haunting versus improvising and empowering.
- Twisted clean voice: the unpleasant, twisted singing by the female clean vocal poses a vocal contrast. This type of singing is generally described as “witchy.” The omnipresent haunting can be, again, easily interpreted as threatened by the witch. Yet, since both types of voices and their variations all sing as the subject “I” who desires to be “alone,” the source of the haunting does not seem to be the witch.
- Frantic death-black vocal: the quite rhythmic and emphatic death voice and the growled-screamed death-black voice pose one more vocal contrast. Notably, the two female vocals are tied to melodies, and the rhythmic death vocal is tied to riffs, the frantic death vocal is tied to notes and accompanied by the choirs chanting at semitones. The frantic voice, in other words, lose language and music altogether—it has a voice that is incomprehensible; it has notes that are not organized as something musical.
Given the last lines of the frantic voice that literally slow down and reach “comprehension,” the omnipresent haunting of “Beyond Me” turns out to be a self-haunting or sets of selves-haunting in madness. The “so much voices” “everywhere” heard by the subject “I” is analogous to the many kinds of voices as many “inner voices” of “insanity” of the subject “I”, captured by this image on self-talking.
Monitor your Inner Voice (source)
Wait, this is a bit far-fetched! Let’s sum up, again, some vocal, musical, and thematic intersections.
- Prior to the witchy “breathing” female vocal at 01:08, the song is played by folk guitar in melody; the distorted guitar, trademark of metal music, is nowhere to be heard. The vocally distorted witchy voice introduces distorted riffs by metal instruments. It is only after the voice of the “I” is distorted that distorted sounds appear.
- “Beyond Me” is a metal ballad in which the frantic voice replaces guitar virtuosity. The highly distorted frantic voice can thus be understood as a vocal virtuosity whose effect is exactly the opposite of empowerment and liberation by guitar virtuosity.
- Although the ad libbed operatic voice following the slowed down “comprehension” appears to exorcise the self/selves-haunting, such an exorcising is quite fleeting. The vocal lineup of the ad libbed operatic and clean voices returns to the pattern of shifting from a higher note to a lower one. This vocal lineup still singing as the subject “I” and repeating the lines “Leave me alone, wherever you came from / Hearing so much voices, no one’s talking” does not appear to be rid of haunting at all.
- The ending of “Beyond Me” is atypical of metal music with a fading away sound effect where the choirs of many voices linger. The subject “I” will never be left alone.
To recap the above observations and the omnipresent self/selves-haunting:
- The subject “I” is beyond itself, as the song title “Beyond Me” suggests. The subject “I” has no control over itself and its voice. In fact, the many voices of the subject “I” do not even appear to know each other; they all speak, sing, and cry, without striking up a conversation at all. The source of the omnipresent haunting is, then, self-splitting and voice-splitting.
The human subject “I” of substance, identities, consciousness, and reflexivity thus has a perverse twist or distortion in “Beyond Me.” The subject “I” does not have one voice, but many inner voices that “breathe,” “whisper,” and “cry.” Perhaps, this is exactly why the poor dog is blown away into pieces when listening to the split voices of the split, mad Master in metal music:
© Kai-wen Chiu and Leiden Arts in Society Blog, 2017. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kai-wen Chiu and Leiden Arts in Society Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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