Are High-Pitched Screams Over Riff Drops a Dated Technique?

It’s been a while since we put a songwriting tool under the microscope here at Gear Gods (see “Introducing a Riff with an Ugh” from this past May), so we thought we’d dig a bit deeper into another classic technique – throwing a high-pitched scream over the top of a blast beat/breakdown riff drop on the downbeat. Special thanks to memer Tom Coffee for help with research and ideas.

My question is, is this technique dated? It seems as though from the mid-90s to the mid-2000s, there was a time when interesting bands were doing something normally associated with traditional metal. So let’s take a look!

The grand-daddy of them all is, of course, “Angel of Death,” the opening track of Slayer’s iconic third album Reign in Blood.

You obviously can’t talk about high-octave vocal lines and riffs without mentioning King Diamond, another early proprietor of these juicy breakdowns. Mercyful Fate had a hand in crafting the DNA of this technique as early as 1983’s Melissa. See the fingerprints of the technique in the song “Evil” off that record:

I know you’re thinking like “only Iron Maidencore/shit trad metal bands who actually like Slayer do this shit” but you’d be wrong. It’s actually used to quite powerful effect by “Mythological Occult Metal” bands like Absu on the track from 2001’s Tara below.

A pretty funny side note about Absu is that the drummer wears that boy band headset thing that I’m starting to see more and more metal drummers wear. I’m not even knocking the style, like Dale Crover pulls it off too, I just wasn’t aware that they had wireless headsets in the middle ages.

Another example is one of my personal favorites, the climax of “When Good Dogs Do Bad Things” on Mike Patton’s collaboration with The Dillinger Escape Plan from 2002, Irony is a Dead Scene. I’ve time stamped it but definitely peep this whole song, it’s absolutely insane. The screams make better sense in the context of the buildup after the free-floating electronic section.

It’s tough to hear the melody in these vocal parts, but they’re all over this EP. It’s tough to tell whether they purposefully recorded Patton’s parts clipping (a technique Dillinger uses frequently for stylistic effect, from what I understand) or whether distortion was added after the fact, but the effect is pretty powerful either way.

Moving on. Cult and warmetal bands have been applying this technique plentifully and often over the last few decades. In fact, there are so many examples of this technique that it’s almost like black tar heroin or Gold Bond to these bands.

It should be noted that cult bands are usually not as interested in innovation, as someone like Mike Patton is, as they are with capturing a particular style or sound.  Take just a few examples below, from bands with hilarious names like Anal Vomit, Goat Semen, and Force of Darkness.

I also tend to associate this technique with classic-era black metal, and I feel like there are probably thousands of examples to draw from. Since Darkthrone are my favorite band of the genre, Sheik and I chose “Canadian Metal” off one of their more recent albums, 2007’s FOAD to draw your attention to. There’s one major scream towards the end of the song, as well as a nice little squeal at the beginning:

Dissection also rock this technique with Rob Halford/Bruce Dickinson-esque vibrato:

On the more “normal metal” end of the spectrum, Judas Priest’s first comeback album Painkiller is basically an exercise in writing a mainstream metal record entirely around the concept of high-pitched screams over blast beats.

These blast beats on this record are obviously less blastbeaty/brutal than some of the examples above, but what they lack in tempo is more than made up for in the vocal talent of Rob Halford, including his register, enunciation, and intensity.

Continuing on this trend, Iced Earth are probably one of the first bands to make an entire career out of this hilarious technique. They’re a less interesting band than Priest obviously, but I know they have their fans.

A band I really enjoyed from the modern era/the last decade or so, 3 Inches of Blood, also made a career out of Painkiller-style riff drops – but I also think they were ahead of the game, as it now seems like every year a trad-metal or record collectorcore band that does this as its primary pump-up stylistic move becomes really popular (see Enforcer, Ghost, Tribulation, etc).

3 Inches’ music holds up above all those bands, for me. Their third album Fire Up the Blades was probably their commercial peak, but it’s also a pretty underrated album in terms of “real music” critics – the songs are great, riffs are fresh, production perfect, and the dueling vocals of Cam Pipes and Jamie Hooper at their most slicing.

I actually think Enforcer is a pretty sick band, but they’ve sort of come full circle in taking the Araya scream back to its roots in 70’s hard rock/British New Wave style music – they’re not exactly pushing the envelope of this technique or the genre in general, but they still rip.

What do you guys think? Where are we at with this vocal technique? Did I miss your favorite cult band? Are there any bands using high-pitched screams to curious new effects?

Written by

Max is managing editor of Gear Gods.