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Heavy With Heart: Six Years of Metal Vocals

Editor’s note: While on our instagram account, we noticed one follower had two words in his bio that made piqued our interest: “metal vocalist“. We reached out to Spencer Whitworth, and asked him to break down his technique, for the betterment of the altFound community. Not only did he do that, he recounted more than half a decade of the trials, tribulations, and hopefullness that comes with small town band life. This piece exemplifies finding alternatives for ones self. ~j

contributor ::: spencer whitworth

Virgil Thomson that once said,

“I’ve never known a musician who regretted being one.”

For me, this has undoubtedly been the case in life. I’m only in my twenties, but I’ve been a musician since I was about fourteen years old. I remember fondly the days when I first picked up a bass and tried to learn to play, spending the next few years playing along to my old man’s Guns N’ Roses CDs and trying to improve. By the time I’d gotten into high school, I was determined to find other like-minded kids to jam with. I didn’t think at any point that I would change my style or my instrument of choice. Looking back on in now, I can’t help but laugh.

It wouldn’t be until my senior year that I broke through and finally made progress in my goal. I met a few guys from the school down the road from mine and we managed to get together and jam a few times. Their style wasn’t what I would have considered my norm, but I was just excited to play together as a unit. Our vocalist at the time had a very low and growling delivery, which while I initially was indifferent towards, quickly grew on me. After a few crap-quality demo recordings, my first “band” hit the skids and called it a day. Fortunately enough, another opportunity reared its head soon after.

I met a kid in two of my classes who was big into metal music and told me he played guitar. He always talked about wanting to jam with people and maybe one day start something up. I was skeptical at the claim initially, because it’s an easy thing to say and another thing entirely to act on. However, as we got to know each other it became clear to me that this guy meant what he said down to the letter. His name was Kevin, and he would become the person to pull me out of my comfort zone and put me on the path of being a vocalist.

Dade City, FL. popultation under 8,000

One day while in our drawing class, Kevin brought up playing music again and we started to talk about the bands we liked and the musicians we looked up to from a technical standpoint. Eventually he popped the question, “dude, would you wanna jam sometime?” Something in my gut told me he was serious and wanted to commit to really putting something together, so I told him that sounded good, underplaying my enthusiasm. It started out just him and I, guitar and bass, putting together rough instrumentals and hanging out afterwards. We talked more and more about finding others to bring in and play music with, but there was something of a problem: Vocals. The town we lived in was barely considered a dot on the map, and while there were kids we knew who played instruments, we didn’t know anybody who did any form of vocal work.

During one weekend jamming in Kevin’s garage, he brought up one of my last band’s songs that I’d shown him. In that particular song,

I’d screamed in the background while playing, and Kevin approached me with a proposition, “What if you did vocals?

It would be easier for us to find another person that plays bass and I thought you sounded pretty good.” I hadn’t ever really considered it, and was unsure if I was cut out for screaming vocals. Kevin wouldn’t take no for an answer, and insisted that I should at the very least give it a try. The worst case in his eyes was that it wouldn’t work out and I’d just go back to bass and what I knew best.

I walked over to the mic stand, gripped the microphone with both hands and leaned in, and Kevin started to play. I cleared my throat at first, and then started with something of a groaning sound. I slowly lifted the tone and let the vibration in my voice build, ramping up the groan into a hoarse shout. Liking what I had heard so far, I pushed the vibration even further and expelled even more effort, turning the shout into a scream and even more until it was a high-pitched screech.

I stepped away from the mic and looked to Kevin, and his face told me everything I needed to know.

Fast forward to mid-2011, we’d found three more awesome guys to jam with. It wasn’t long after we threw our caps up at our high school graduation that we started to get together every day and start writing songs. After we put together a few songs, we all got together and agreed to take the next step.

It only took us a few days to agree on a name: Nightmare Fiction.

From there on out, we were practicing together in Kevin’s garage at every opportunity we had, and opportunities were abundant for a bunch of kids fresh out of high school. There were days where I rendered my throat raw and my voice nearly non-existent from pushing more and more, and the guys bought their best in every rehearsal. After several more months of practice, writing, and building chemistry, we were ready to show people what we’d accomplished.

A mutual friend of ours named Cameron was also in a band (at the time named Below The Depths), and was having a breast cancer benefit show on his property. We told him that Nightmare Fiction had been a unit for a good while but hadn’t played a show yet, but we believed we were ready. After a little back-and-forth, we were added to the lineup, and our first live performance was locked in. The night before we played the show, we moved our equipment over to a vacant house that our drummer’s family was selling for an all-day practice without having to worry about cops knocking on the door about noise violation. All of the guys eventually passed out, but I stayed up the entire night with countless thoughts running through my head. Would people like us? Would we make any huge mistakes? Would we have presence on-stage? Before I knew it, the sun had peeked through the windows of the house, and it was time for us to head to Cameron’s show.

A few dozen people turned out to the show, and we all crowded around the rickety stage to watch the bands play. One by one, the bands came on and each brought their own energy and sound to the table, a little mosh pit even opened up, and things were going exceptionally well. As the afternoon started to close out, two bands were left: Nightmare Fiction, and then Below The Depths. It was our turn, and for a moment I was a little stunned with nervousness. All the thoughts I’d had that morning came flooding back, but I looked to my band and took in a deep breath before we took the stage.

To this day, we still can’t believe how well we played together in that moment. Mental miscues and technical issues were non-existent, and I put energy I didn’t know I had into every line and movement. Every song we played got a warm reception from the crowd, and as we stepped off the stage together we were approached by bands and strangers alike and were given compliments. We held our heads high as Below The Depths took the stage for the final performance of the night.

It didn’t take me long to realize that there were several familiar faces to me when they finally assembled. At vocalist, a big guy named Cole, who I’d been friends with in middle school and hadn’t seen in years. On rhythm guitar was Zach, one of my oldest friends dating back to second grade. Behind the drums was another good friend, a giant named Josh. Cameron and his brother Chance played bass and lead guitar respectively as well, and together they put together a melodic yet heavy set that drew a great reaction from the crowd and the bands alike.

I met up with the guys in Below The Depths after they’d finished playing and the show was coming to a close, just letting them know that I was amazed that so many friends I’d known had all ended up in one band together and sounded really solid. This would eventually net us another show with them at The Pegasus Lounge in Tampa, where we rode our momentum on into the end of the year, eventually ending up at The Orpheum in Ybor City. However, things were about to take a turn for the worse.

Personal issues started to creep up between a couple guys in the band, there were some disagreements and passive aggressive remarks thrown around. I won’t name names or throw blame on anybody, but I will say that because of these and some differences on how to proceed with our music, there were a few lineup changes as we proceeded to the show at The Orpheum. The Nightmare Fiction that played The Orpheum had two different members, but we were still committed to putting an entertaining show. We went onstage and gave our best once again, unaware that it would be the last time we would play together. Soon after, the personal and musical issues had us at an impasse. We were young and all had hotter tempers and an idea of what the band was going to be going forward. When the rotating door of members finally slowed, I knew that things were stagnating and the momentum we had was gone.

In an effort to get our name back out to people, and to continue to playing shows as a vocalist, I talked to the guys in Below The Depths and offered to do guest vocals with them at a show at The Neptune Lounge in Tarpon Springs. We were well-received at the show, but name dropping Nightmare Fiction wasn’t enough to get them back on track. After more frustrated time spent, Kevin and I realized that our band was at an end.

I spent a little time at a loss of what to do next, before another opportunity came knocking.

My friends in Below The Depths had gotten in touch with me asking if I wanted to come to their practices sometimes. Of course I was just excited at the chance to be around a band again (I also really enjoyed their heavier sound and melodic segments), so I took them up on it almost immediately. At the practices, the guys had me do vocals here and there just to see how I worked in a dynamic with Cole. After a few passes, the guys offered me a spot as a second vocalist alongside Cole, which I accepted in a heartbeat.

We spent a little time continuing on as Below The Depths (a name the guys had admittedly only used as a placeholder) before we decided to take the next logical step for ourselves. We wanted to release an EP, but first we needed a name that was a little more original. As we spent time debating what to change our name to, we met our producer: Jose Antonio Casalan III, vocalist of And One For All (and the current vocalist of the band Phobias, whose new single “Trespasser” can be heard here). We started recording our songs as soon as we were able, but the first time I went to record vocals I hit an unexpected wall. I sounded atrocious, the method of screaming I’d gotten so used to didn’t hold up in recording. We were moving towards a new style, and I wasn’t able to fit my vocals to it. Jose was patient and understanding, and Cole caught on quick, but I still lagged behind and wasn’t able to follow the example.

The difference turned out to be that I had been doing what was considered “fry vocals” previously, which from a technical aspect is throatier than other forms of screaming. Not only that, but I was using them incorrectly and had been for a long time. All those times I lost my voice or banged my throat up before? They were a result of incorrect technique.

What we were attempting to go for vocally at the time was the “false chord” vocal method, which is a more defined and concentrated scream that is more discernible when it comes to understanding the lyrics of a song. In its essence, it’s a scream closer to one you would use in a heated argument, and it requires more control than frying your vocals in your throat. After a good amount of time of struggling, the guys in the band agreed that they needed to continue to record the EP, and that I couldn’t take part of it the way I was doing vocals. I agreed with them completely, and stepped away from the band for a number of months. In that time I started college and picked up a job, but I also didn’t give up on practicing. I remembered what Jose taught us about false chord and did my best every day to apply it, usually in car rides on my way to classes or work. I finally realized the issue in my technique.

When it comes to vocals of any sort, singing or otherwise, expelling air and the work of your diaphragm is paramount. When it comes to false chord in particular, it’s the key to projecting the voice instead of keeping it constrained in the throat. I started to inhale deeply, tighten my core, and really push the voice itself out. The results and the difference were almost like night and day, and I truly learned what it meant to be technically sound. Trouble was, I was out of a band, or at least I thought I was.

Below The Depths had a show booked at the The Pegasus Lounge (Cameron’s birthday, oddly enough) and Cole had gotten terribly sick. Cole insisted he could still do the show, but the guys were concerned for his health, so they got in touch with me. Initially, the plan was for me to jump on the mic for maybe one song just in case. Reality had other plans entirely when the show kicked off; Cole threw his voice out early in the set. I stepped up on stage with the guys of Below The Depths once again, and we finished out the rest of the songs in the set strong. I must have impressed, because I was back with the band soon after, and Jose had thought of a name that we were in love with: Prevailer.

With our new name, we hit up a professional photographer and started booking shows at Transitions Art Gallery (previously part of Skatepark of Tampa) to get our new name out and convey our image and message. We were Prevailer, our name symbolized hope. Our lyrics were about overcoming the hardest parts of life and we delivered them with melodic guitar work and hard-hitting breakdowns. My chemistry with Cole continued to improve live, and we fed off of each other’s vocal range and showmanship. All the while we kept recording with Jose, until the day all of our hard work finally paid off.

Our EP “20/20” dropped in May of 2013, and all of the work we had put forward playing at Transitions and (again) The Orpheum in several shows (and battle of the bands) finally paid off. We set up our own EP release show in Insomniac’s Bar in New Port Richie (originally booked at 100 Proof South but ownership cancelled on us), and got in touch with a guy named Mark Wolf who agreed to shoot a music video for us at the show. Of all the live performances, that show was the greatest I’ve ever played. It’s the standard by which I measure future shows going forward.

A few days later, we dropped our music video for “20/20”, the namesake song of our EP. Our fans had grown from the early days, and a lot of new people were listening as well. At one point I was even pointed out at a gas station as “one of the vocalists from Prevailer”, which was absolutely mind-blowing to hear. I remember thinking to myself “this is it, the sky is the limit.”

Unfortunately, life always happens when you least expect it, and it happened to Prevailer just the same. Zach and Chance had children on the way, Cameron was leaving town for college, and Josh was shipping out for the Marine Corps. We eventually realized as great as things had been going, other commitments started to form and become incredibly important. I wished it weren’t the case, but we would have to let everyone know that we were going to have to go our separate ways.

We booked a farewell show at The Goat House, a tiny venue in an Odessa strip mall, and made our peace with how things had panned out. At our final show, we swapped our usual intro with a cover of Ace Hood’s “Bugatti”, a little something unique for those that had come out to see us one last time, and threw our t-shirts out to people at will. We got a warm farewell from a lot of people who had come to see us before. One of our openers, a young girl who played solo acoustic songs, even begged me for us not to split up because she had just heard us for the first time. It tugged the heart strings a bit, but I told her it was just something we had to do, which was also a bitter pill to swallow for me personally.

Since the dissolution of Prevailer, I’ve continued to practice my vocal technique and have tried to branch out to as many other styles as possible. I’ve spent time jamming with old bandmates and new people on occasion, always willing to write and lend my voice to those that ask. While I’ve spent the last few years at a university and committing to other obligations, I never gave up on my practice routine and I do my best to make time for anybody who wants to try to make something work. This is the sixth year I’ve been a vocalist, and opportunity has started knocking at my door again.

I’m going to make the most of this; it’s time to get back to work.


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