[Nota bene, my review is not based on the 2013 remastered version of this album, which takes a very different approach to tone.]
My cousin, Patrick Brennan (as opposed to Patrick Shay, Patrick Mahr, or Patrick Bachmann…I have a lot of cousins named Patrick), is a metal aficionado, and he and I agree on a great deal. I developed a lot of my musical interests from mix tapes that he made me in the 80s. One of the things that he does not care for (as many people don’t) is the style of singing used in extreme metal, which often ranges from a growl to a shriek. To him it is “boo boo”. For me, it is awesome, even if it took some getting used to.
To achieve the sound, you need to close your larynx so that your Adam’s apple is high in your throat and then push air through the constriction as forcibly as possible. Extreme metal style singing requires athleticism, making heavy use of muscles in your throat and abdomen. It is like Mongolian throat singing, in that it makes use of multiple resonators: the nasal passages, the mouth, the throat, and the chest. In both, the point is to produce a sound that is inhuman.
Beyond brutality, extreme metal singing is also harmonically rich, in a way that not many people recognize. The most talented extreme metal vocalist is Randy Blythe, singer for Lamb of God**. If you read the physics lab I linked to just above, you understand why. Otherwise, let me explain.
Voices and instruments do not produce pure pitches (like, one that can be modeled by first degree wave function). This is because voices and instruments make us of multiple and complex resonators. Each resonator produces an array of notes, or harmonics, because it is not shaped to resonate perfectly. When a person sings, the most prominent note is the one with the greatest amplitude…or the loudest. This is the fundamental and what we would recognize as the actual note one is singing. But there are many other notes co-propagating with the fundamental. Often with a very clean tone, these other notes are harmonics of that fundamental—wave shapes that periodically meet with the fundamental wave shape. The more harmonics a tone includes, the richer the sound. The French mathematician, Jean Fourier developed a means of representing any complex wave, like from a human voice, as a series of component first-degree sine and cosine functions. Today, Fourier transforms make digital music possible, but have tons of other applications.
Anyway, the point is that one can measure harmonic richness scientifically, and therefore my hypothesis that Randy Blythe is the best is a matter that can be demonstrated empirically. Not only is his growl as harmonically rich as any I’ve heard, but his control is phenomenal. At times he slides from a low growl to a high wail, not just by changing the tension in his larynx, but by shifting air from one resonator to the next. It is incredible. On top of that, his band, Lamb of God, are amazing shredders, and the Rolling Stone would be negligent at excluding them from this list.
By complete coincidence, today, May 7 2020, marks the 17th anniversary of the release of ‘As the Palaces Burn’. LoG have never produced a bad album, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this one . I love the contrast between the harmonic chaos of Randy Blythe and the to-the-nanosecond precision of the rest of the band. When this band recorded the album, they wanted to highlight that precision. They wanted each strike of the kick and snare to be utterly distinct, and so they choose heavily gated tones—meaning simply that notes decay very quickly after being struck. LoG feature two guitarists, Mark Morton and Willie Adler, who play in unison so well that they could at times be mistaken for a single guitarist. They collectively have some of the twitchiest wrists in the business, with riffs so quick and tightly intertwined that some of this sounds like technical death metal. Anyway, it’s a formula that works, if the goal is head banging.
Not to say that there aren’t some great bells and whistles to accent the formula. LoG are masters of rhythm subversion. They repeat a riff enough times that the listener finds the groove of it *head banging*. Then they stutter it a half or a quarter beat, which is disorienting, and transgressive (listen to the the penultimate riff on “Boot Scraper” for the stutter). “Defense of our Good Name“ features another subversion of rhythmic expectations, but Blythe lays the vocals down so right, that if your aren’t trying to count along, you may not notice how the beat was turned around. My favorite track is “Vigil”, which features some of the heaviest riffing on the album. Normally the guitar lines on this album are played on one string at a time. This allows for speed but makes for a thin, or harmonically poor, sound. The guitars open up on the slower intro, for some Iommi-worthy chugging. Ultimately, this gives way to jackhammer riffage so badass, you’ll punch yourself in the face in public, and you won’t need to tell yo mama why.
Despite my endorsement, this is not the LoG album that I would have chosen for this list. ‘As the Palaces Burn’ is the band’s third album (including an album that they made under their first name, Burn the Priest). By 2003, LoG’s technical prowess had coalesced into a raging gut-kicking machine but LoG hadn’t yet discovered all the tools they would use on later albums. Maybe because the band worked hard to deliver a sound that was rhythmically tight, these songs are also harmonically tight, in a way that gets to be monotonous. When Morton and Adler stray from each other on this album, it is only by small intervals (a flatted fifth at most), and they don’t leave that happy pocket except on “Vigil”, or to solo. They also aren’t making use of melodies far outside of the penumbra of Slayer’s weird little chromatic series. That’s a great shadow to be in, but this group would go on to record more complex albums, with more varied chordwork, melodies, and harmonies. They did so without sacrificing speed or precision on Sacrament and Resolution. The remastered 2013 release of ‘As the Palaces Burn’ features the sound that they eventually assumed; more bassy and thumpy, with more natural decay, and it made the album sound better.