It’s baffling, isn’t it? Aren’t screams supposed to be unpleasant by nature? So how can people voluntarily listen to them, even enjoy them? How can you understand the words? Isn’t it just noise? Can that really count as music?
Well, reader, if you’re prepared to be open-minded about screaming, I’m prepared to explain the appeal of it. (At least, the appeal of some of it, to me.)
The “some of it” caveat is important because ‘screaming’ is diverse across genres and between vocalists. In fact, it’s better to speak of a broad family of harsh vocal styles (with 'regular' singing styles forming the family of clean vocal styles.) Think of the huge differences in clean vocal styles between, say, country, reggae and pop and that should alert you to the diversity that can also exist in harsh vocal styles.
Some harsh vocal styles are not even best described as screaming. They might be better thought of as shouting or growling. But even within screaming, delivery can vary as can the range of emotions, meanings and moods conveyed. Most people connect screaming with anger, but even if we limit the expressive capacities of screaming to those emotions expressed by it outside of music, we ought to acknowledge its power to convey sadness, anguish or aggression (think of the cries athletes release when they score points.) But the expressive powers of harsh vocal styles need not be limited to these primarily negative emotions. Screaming can also be playful; vocalists can use it to create a sense of fun, intentionally over-egging the melodrama of the style.
Nor does screaming only occur in heavy metal. Heavy genres descended from punk also make use of it, such as hardcore/post-hardcore. Although I listen to a lot of music with harsh vocals, I almost never listen to metal. In fact, screaming can occur in music that is not heavy at all. Have a listen to The Dear Hunter’s “The Bitter Suite…” below. One half of the song is driven by slow, melodious piano, the latter half by a mock broad-way musical sing-along. The vocals are entirely clean except for a short outbreak of screaming around 02:40 in the line, “where’s her heart?” (repeated just once).
The outburst enters the song to pack an additional emotional punch as the dynamics shift to release the ascending tension. And that, for me, is the primary draw of screaming. If you like your music to be emotionally expressive, there is a chance you can grow to appreciate screaming. When done tastefully, it adds emotional intensity to the song. Screaming, after all, is a highly expressive act. Of course, you might need a taste for the theatrical to appreciate it. There is an unapologetic “heart-on-sleeve” quality to it. (Not that you need to be outwardly flamboyant, just have a penchant for drama in your inner life.)
But even if you have the right disposition, it’s usually an acquired taste. I certainly didn’t like harsh vocals at first. And most of my now favourite bands are not bands I immediately clicked with. I doubt many people can sit through their first scream-intensive song and find it pleasant. The taste develops through “gateway bands”. Suppose you liked The Dear Hunter song above, despite not really liking the small screamed portions. Well, you might still listen to the song, even the whole album, just for the bits you like. Eventually, the harsher vocals might cease grating on you. Eventually, you might start to appreciate them. And from there, you can go on to appreciate vocals that are even harsher, or songs that are even more reliant on them.
It’s hard to have an instant taste for qualities that are outside the normal range of our experiences. Consider the way you develop a taste for alcoholic drinks. You don’t start off drinking the most bitter or strongest tasting stuff. You start with “beginner-friendly” stuff – stuff that’s sweeter and less alcoholic. Even with those softer drinks, you might not like the taste of the alcohol at first. But you persevere trusting that you will eventually appreciate what other people appreciate in the taste.
Thrice’s “Hurricane” is another beginner-friendly song to try. It showcases the fact that, really, there is a spectrum between clean and harsh vocal styles. Plenty of vocalists who would never dream of full-on screaming nonetheless experiment with tension in their voice. They might intentionally allow their voice to strain and break in places to emphasise emotional weight in the delivery. Thrice’s vocalist, Dustin Kensrue has a bluesy grit to his voice that he sometimes lets loose into screaming, but in this song is more restrained. Still, you hear hints of its potential. Listen out for the strain on his voice in the “our faith feels like a fistful of sand” line in the second chorus, and the way his voice drops to a deeper, harsher and more menacing tone as the third chorus transitions to the outro.
I can’t speak for everyone who likes harsher vocal styles. I don’t even like them all myself. They are too varied and aim at too many different aesthetic values to all be appreciated by one person with limited time and limited sensibilities. But it’s not madness to like them. Hopefully this post has given you some insight into why.