For roughly a decade, Eric Smialek has been studying screams.
No, his work doesn’t involve anything ghoulish – or illegal.
Rather, the former Douglas College Basic Musicianship diploma student and death metal aficionado is applying linguistic techniques to reveal the intricacies behind the at-times controversial music genre.
“A lot of people who aren’t familiar with the music are surprised by its complexities. Extreme metal
music involves some aggressive thematic material that overshadows its complex aspects. When you’re dealing with subjects like death, violence and Satanism, the focus is drawn to those things,” Smialek said. “I think that’s why sociologists and people in child development were the first researchers to pay attention to this music. It took a while for scholars who worked in music departments to pay attention.”
Smialek’s interest in music first piqued during his time at the College as a general studies student searching for his niche. After taking a music elective, he decided to enroll in the Basic Musicianship program, before switching to the University Transfer program in preparation for a bachelor’s degree.
His focus on death metal vocals started after transferring to UBC in 2004 to enroll in the Bachelor of Arts program with a major in Music. There, he delved into the acoustics of extreme metal vocals for a research project in his Physics of Music class.
Since then, Smialek has obtained his PhD in Musicology at McGill University this past February. He has published on metal music and has given presentations around the world, including in Slovenia, Italy, and the U.K.
“I’m thinking about the kind of specialized screaming sounds you hear in death metal and black metal from the perspective of the musician. My goal is to find out what makes the sounds seem powerful and convincing to people who are invested in them – namely, those who write the music or listen to it as fans,” he said.
Part of Smialek’s research involved recording himself doing death metal vocals, and with the help of a spectrogram – a tool that creates a visualization of the sound being made – he discovered that the change in screams hinged on their vowels.
“That’s when I came up with an argument I haven’t heard anyone else in the world make – the acoustics of vowel formants play a huge role in making this style of voice,” he said. “Vocalists will often sacrifice the intelligibility of their lyrics for the musical expressive aspects of these vowel changes. You can’t understand what they’re saying but it sounds really heavy and really deep,” he said.
He noted physiology also plays a key role in extreme metal, as many of the singers are imitating large beasts through simple tricks, such as rounding their lips to make their vocal tract longer and larger.
“This is how those musicians imitate those sounds that reflect the music content – demons, monsters, gods – it’s a way of training your body to impersonate really impressive abstract ideas,” he said.
When he’s not speaking at conferences about the nuances of death metal, Smialek is teaching classes at McGill on a part-time basis, including an intro to Jazz class this winter. He has also taught classes on popular music, classical-music appreciation, and critical thinking about music.
Many of the classes Smialek teaches are designed for students with no prior training to music, which brings him back to his time at Douglas, when he first discovered he wanted to forge a career in music.
“I feel like I really learned to learn to read music at Douglas College. It was a fertile ground for creativity,” he said. “Douglas College is an especially supportive environment where students have many low-stakes opportunities to learn through mistakes. The sense of community among peers and mentors is remarkably strong. The result is a very motivating place where music making and a general feeling of exploration happens everyday.”