You Are NOT Going to Hollywood!
Those of us who love progressive rock generally have a high appreciation for artistic music. We like our music to be complex and atmospheric. The musicians aren’t limited to three chords, and the time signatures are not 4/4 throughout the whole composition. We think of ourselves as a higher class of listener — people who appreciate things about music that others simply cannot understand. So why, then, do we lower our standards when it comes to vocals?
If you’re anything like me, then you have experienced countless progressive rock masterpieces that suddenly become garbage once the vocalist opens their mouth to sing. On many occasions, I’ve had a smile wiped completely off of my face because of the travesty of barf-worthy vocals that have popped up in the middle of some amazing musicianship. And the experience is made worse the longer the delay in introducing the vocals. I have found myself shaking my head, thinking why on earth didn’t they take the same care in selecting a vocalist as they did with the instrumentalists?
I’ve often thought of the vocals as yet another instrument. One of the best examples of this is Elisabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins. There are many songs where she doesn’t sing real words, but rather made-up words which fit the melody. She uses phrasing, pace and tempo with her voice to do some wonderful things over the atmosphere created by the instruments.
Progressive rock, too often, becomes lazy in this area. I believe that the idea might be that because the lyrics often come from the realm of fantasy, it’s fine to have a quirky vocalist. But, just because someone sings about goblins should not give them license to sound like one!
Just because someone sings about goblins should not give them license to sound like one! Click To Tweet
Peter Gabriel could certainly be accused of using a rather fanciful voice back in the 1970s when he fronted Genesis. But Gabriel could sing, and his eccentric voice fit the music. Genesis was also blessed when, after their primary vocalist left, they had a quality singer playing drums who was able to come in and do a more than adequate job. There are other classic bands who also had unusual vocalists, but their voices fit the music. If we’re honest, Jon Anderson truly has a whimsical, unusual voice, but his voice sounds amazing with the music of Yes backing him (and, for that matter, Vangelis).
Geddy Lee challenged me in the early days of Rush. To this day, I have a hard time listening to those recordings. Once he adjusted his pitch downward a bit on the album Moving Pictures, I was able to handle it, and came to love the band. But for far too many prog bands, it seems like they get a group of great musicians together and just pick one of them to sing, rather than getting someone who can make as great a contribution to the vocals as the instruments do in laying the foundation of the song.
My wife and I often joke that many of the singers in classic rock bands probably would never have made it to Hollywood on American Idol. I believe that many more progressive rock bands might get a listen by a wider audience if they just gave the vocals a little more care. Just saying . . . dawg.