Heavy Metal Vocalists: My Top 5 Best of All-Time
What makes a great Heavy Metal vocalist?
To begin, I think a little defining needs to happen before we get into the list. There are many metal vocalists out there, but what really makes one stand out more than the other? What is that "it" factor that separates one from the other? To me, a vocalist needs to have a good combination of technical skills and emotional skills.
Technical Skills of a Great Vocalist
I believe a great vocalist needs to have a certain technical skill set:
- Range (How many octaves can the person sing in? )
- Power (Can the vocalist really deliver?)
- Pitch (Can the vocalist sing in-key?)
- Inflection (variation in one's voice)
- Flexibility (Can the vocalist sing a variety of songs from more ballad-type, lower-range to booming, screaming lyrics?)
These are just some of the things a vocalist needs to have. Not everyone has some or all of these skills. And not every perfectly technical singer is a great vocalist.
A Mini-Rant Regarding the Use of Auto-Tune
I think a great vocalist is one that doesn't rely on Auto-Tune. Auto-Tune removes all the imperfections in a person's voice and in my opinion, makes the person sound more like a robot. While some might say that removing imperfections improves the way a person sounds, I think it does the opposite. I think imperfections really make a person's voice stand out. You loose something in the sound as well as the emotional component when Auto-Tune is used. This is my biggest gripe about modern popular music today; the artistry is gone in favor of cheaply produced pop acts who cannot sing without the use of Auto-Tune. Hell, anyone can become a singer with the use of Auto-Tune. I think the practice really cheapens the music industry as a whole and teaches kids that they don't need to work as hard because there is something out there that can do the work for them. It's ludicrous in my opinion and a slap in the face to those who have worked very hard to hone their skills and try to 'make it' in this business.
Emotional Skill Set of a Great Vocalist
In conjunction with having the technical ability, a great vocalist needs to have, what I like to call, the emotional component:
- Emotional Conviction (Does the singer believe in or able to 'sell' what they are singing about?)
- Showmanship/Charisma (Is the singer a good stage performer?)
- Distinguishing voice (Does the singer have a distinct voice? If you heard a song on the radio, could you pinpoint who is singing it?)
- Engaged (Is the singer actively engaging the audience?)
- Confidence (Does the singer come off naturally confident in a non-egotistical manner?)
These skills set vocalists apart from each other regardless of technical ability. Not everyone that sings 'in tune' is necessarily a great vocalist. No two singers singing the exact same song will sound exactly the same because the interpretation will vary.
It was really hard to narrow my list down to just 5 people within the Heavy Metal genre. There are many out there (some seasoned veterans and some newcomers) who I think are really great at their craft. My personal criteria included those who have a great operatic range. People who can hit certain notes that give you goosebumps! I also took into account lyrics, subject matter and clear annunciation of the lyrics. I really like to be able to tell what a person is saying than have to constantly look up the lyrics because the singer is a mush-mouth.
So, without further adieu and in no particular order....
Rob Halford-Judas Priest
Rob Halford is still going strong after 40 years of being in this business and he sounds better than ever. He has a wide vocal range and can hit both high-pitched notes and notes on the lower range with ease. I have recently seen Judas Priest in concert and walked away very impressed. I had not seen them before and wasn't really sure what to expect, but Mr. Halford killed it. Especially on songs like, Halls of Valhalla, off their most recent album, Redeemer of Souls (2014). I admit, I wasn't a die hard fan but liked them enough over the years. Seeing them live was a transformative experience and I'm very much anticipating their next album. I think the band itself sounds tighter than ever. Halford's voice is still booming and screaming all the while controlled and the addition of Richie Faulkner on guitar (after K.K. Downing retired) has really infused this band with new life. They have been on tour now for almost a year in support of Redeemer of Souls and new dates keep getting added. If they come to a city near you, I highly recommend going to see them. You won't be disappointed.
Bruce Dickinson-Iron Maiden
Another veteran with a career spanning over 35 years, is Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden. He has a very operatic vocal style which many vocalists that came after him site as an inspiration.
My introduction to Iron Maiden came sometime around 1983 or 1894; my family and I were attending a party at someone's house who had cable (we didn't get cable until about 1985. Back then, cable was a luxury instead of the norm which it is now). MTV entertained me that night with a live broadcast of an Iron Maiden concert. I remember saying to my then 10 year old self "wow these guys are heavy!" I marveled at Bruce Dickinson's vocal ability and his energy.
His masterful singing plus energetic concert performances makes him a great vocalist. Age has not slowed him down, as he is often seen zipping around the stage. He has been quoted as saying he takes pride in connecting to the audience and even goes so far to make eye contact with audience members. Great examples of his vocal range can be hear on classic hits such as Run to the Hills off the album The Number of the Beast (1982), Aces High off the album Powerslave (1984) and Wasted Years off the album Somewhere in Time (1986).
Geoff Tate is another singer with an operatic style. His vocals are clean, technical and powerful. He has a great range which is evident on a number of songs. I think some of his best work is on the albums Empire (1990) and Operation: Mindcrime (1988), which spawned some great mainstream hits. While I personally prefer more up-tempo songs, you have to give him respect on such songs like the award nominated, Silent Lucidity, which showcases his lower range perfectly.
Ronnie James Dio
Ronnie James Dio's career spanned over 50 years and he has been in numerous successful and well-known bands; Rainbow, Black Sabbath and Dio. His vocal style is powerful, rich and somewhat gritter than some of the other singers I've listed here. Perhaps some of his best and most recognizable works are off the Dio album Holy Diver (1983), with the songs Rainbow In The Dark and the self-titled Holy Diver. He never took singing lessons (most on this list never had any formal training) but he did listen to a lot of opera as a child and it is very evident in his vocal style. Sadly, he passed away in 2010 from stomach cancer so the world will never know what else he may have accomplished in his already long career.
I had to think long and hard about the last addition to this list. I was going back and forth in my mind with a list of contenders, but what really sold me on Michael Sweet was his vocal range. He is one of those singers who make hitting high notes seem effortless. He has a very clean voice and great range. This is really evident on songs like To Hell with the Devil, off the album of the same name, which was really Stryper's breakout album. It spawned hits like Free, Calling on You and their mega popular rock ballad, Honestly.
In 2011, Stryper came out with a cover songs album called, The Covering. On this album, they covered the Iron Maiden song, The Trooper. While Michael Sweet is no Bruce Dickinson (whom he sites as one of his major influences along with Rob Halford ) he really holds his own in this cover version. It is not an easy song to cover; their styles are very different regardless of their vocal range, thus proving the point made earlier that you can have two people sing the exact same song with differing results. Listen for yourself and see what you think.
Stryper covering Iron Maiden's The Trooper
It was hard to narrow down my list because there are so many more great metal singers out there. Some of the others I considered for this article were:
- David Coverdale
- Don Dokken
- Sebastian Bach
Oh, and I haven't forgotten about the women! I'm working on coming up with a women-centered article in the near future, so stay tuned!
Who Do You Think Deserves to Be the Greatest Metal Vocalists of All-Time?
Reply in the comments below!
© 2015 Lisa Roppolo