Vocal Bias

Vocal Bias

~Austin R Ryan

Messy music arguments occur every day, both sides fighting to a standstill, because you cannot control the way you hear things. The metric for music bliss adjusts individually. I acknowledge this subjectivity and I try to adapt to it. I could not adapt when my sisters and I sat down to make a playlist for our graduation party.  Within five minutes of examining our respective draft picks, we got to criticizing. It was that classic music argument between the pretentiously hip musical enthusiasts and the wearyingly poppy radio heads. It was the big iTunes library versus the small, the niche versus the popular, practically closer to a stereotype of a musical argument than an actual one. The argument became nuanced once I brought in my instrumentals. I started to make a heated a defense of instrumentals as party music which quickly escalated to acclaiming instrumentals as a whole.

The argument reminded me that music was subjective but that some biases endure more than others. The vocal bias rose to a sharp prevalence, and suddenly I felt the effect of it flood into my eyes and ears. That high from feeling discredited overwhelmed me and I would lash out at the thought of anyone only listening to music with lyrics. I would recklessly feed my assumptions off of a bias I felt pervasive enough to shoot through every pore. I assumed my metal head friend did not enjoy Russian Circle’s “Enter” because it was an instrumental. I could not reconcile that the heavy guitar, the immense sound of the drums, the mesh of metal elements played out to perfection within that track did not resonate with my friend. I ignored that Russian Circles did not resemble black or heavy metal in the drumming style or even in the heavy chord progressions just to flatter my own fury. After all, I hated that bias so much that I had to love the act of hating it. That hate became a crucial part of me and how I formed my opinions. If I took that away from myself I would discredit my own opinions.



Essentially, I started thinking that the institution of listening poised itself against one of my favorite elements of music: the instruments. Everyone sung along to songs, but no one remembered the drum beats or the way that bass pulsed quietly in the back. Rappers with good rhymes could lace their lyrics over a beat that stayed in the exact same spot for five minutes and have a horde of people chant their lyrics religiously while great instrumental groups like “If These Trees Could Talk” hardly got any attention. This vocal bias seemed unjust, it seemed systematic, and it seemed oppressive. Like any teenager I got the feeling that my surroundings oppressed me and I gave into thinking like a prick. Occasionally I acted like one too.

I won’t deny the presence of a vocal bias. Such a thing does exist. I have seen an unfortunate number of people ignore good jazz and post-rock because of the absence of vocals, but for the most part the vocal bias does not dominate someone’s music taste so extensively. I think the radio demonstrates that vocals tend to garner the most attention in listeners, though everyone listens to more than just the singer. Most songs that land on the radio seem to do so because of a short, sharp and upbeat nature upheld by sunny pop vocalists.

The song selection in radio is not problematic, but it can isolate folks like me. I am heavily oriented towards instruments, and I usually do not pay attention to what a singer says until the third listen. The lyrics do not worm their way into my memory until the fifth listen. I can respect acts that rely on their singers, like Passion Pit, and I can love bands that use singing to come together, like Portugal. The Man, but artists like Regina Spektor or Erykah Badu often fail to hold my attention because of the lack of the layered and dynamic instrumentation that melts my ear drums. The reverse may subvert instrumental acts, or even plenty of progressive rock bands that clearly do not center their acts on their feverishly high pitched singers that tend to squawk out blind and ideological sentiments. Even though most people can acknowledge that music operates in subjectivity and bias, sometimes the structure of listening provides divides too wide to bridge. The vocal bias, whether toward or against, might be the largest dichotomy I’ve ever encountered, or at least the easiest one to identify.

Like any bias for something as subjective as music, you cannot absolutely counter it. I often try to stretch my music net as wide as possible, because it sucks to hate a song. I feel loads better when I do not feel the need to scorn a song on the radio, coming from a stranger’s computer, or being shown to me by a friend. Having a bias large enough to rule out a genre usually forces a person to either leave social circles or change tastes. Back in high school arguments over rap and rock could divide a class in half, but maturing I found that myself and others got to accept popular rap or rock out of certain social necessity because trying to commandeer a friend’s radio usually did not go over well. After driving for thirty minutes, listening to a friend’s music, the best strategy was to find something you liked in the music. The cross became too much to bear otherwise. I found it takes longer to mature away from vocal bias, whether you focus or ignore lyrics. Still, the process needs to be indulged. Nowadays, with more bands creating more abstract sounds, the simple vocal and instrumental formulas fade and shit. Where in one time everyone knew similar bands and similar hits, now a discussion can devolve into name drops and recommendations. We see fewer and fewer people tune in to the radio, so now where music once formed easy social links it becomes a gauge for adaptability. I may always hate Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown and most country music on the whole but I can and do try to find the best in vocal centric sounds so I can at least tolerate them. A vocal bias provides an easily visible divider, but it no longer suffices to ignore the divider as you might before. Now it makes more sense, with Jazz and other instrumental heavy genres resurfacing, to seek the best in what you might think to be the worst.

New Music’s Cheap!

New Music’s Cheap!

            Technology’s made music pretty accessible these days. These days few factors limit the temptation to torrent and download. However, if you are looking for free or cheap music through a legal venue, then rest assured that some artists will at least encourage your legality. Recently I found two wonderful artists practically giving away their music. Perhaps they just want to get their music out there for the sake of it, perhaps it just makes more sense to rely on live profits and use free music to generate profits. Either way, nowadays more people are making music than ever and plenty of them release it for next to, or actually, no price. Anyhow, if you take a look you’ll find plenty of cheap music out there, but here’s just a quick surface glance at two artists you may want to check out.


1. Mystery Skulls – EP

Right when the first song of the EP, “Amazing” hits, you know largely what you’ll get. This band might not set the world on fire, define genres to come or cause some grander revolution. These tracks are simple and easy but they do not pull back. The Bass thumps out a rhythm and the rest of the music falls into a tremendous groove. The EP really takes off on the second track, “Money”. The synthetic beat ramps up gradually from a guitar riff paired with a single undulating ‘unce’ into a falsetto groove matched with vocals echoing from on high. Just before the chorus hits, the music sinks low briefly before expanding into a larger sound. The track climaxes to an almost absurd and over-stylized synth pop glory before it plummets into a calm valley filled with whispering voices and a tamed bass beat. It shoots back out at towards the end and easily creates the most dynamic and ridiculously over-stylized song on the album.




Mystery Skulls so embodies and hypes this sensation of synth pop that I almost want to throw it out, but something about the boldness of all that style makes it almost hypnotizing. The following tracks “You” and “Beautiful” do not measure up to “Money” but they emphasize some of the variability Mystery Skulls has in them. All off the songs on the EP follow a similar style and structure, but the addition of piano in “Beautiful” certainly mixes things up. When everything concludes on “Brainsick” I had to admit there was no way this music did not seem worth the asking price of 1 dollar. Sometimes it gets repetitive, and bit into its own pomp, but you could do worse with a dollar. It sure beats four gumballs or giving that waiter an adequate tip. What’s more, you can follow this up and coming Dallas band via their tumblr. They post up demos and new tracks pretty often.




2. The Isosceles Triangle – The Isosceles Triangle

If all those anime theme songs, irritating vocaloid programs and saturated J-Pop hits have made you lose faith in Japan, then here’s a band that ought to restore it. The Isosceles Triangle fits their name quite well. They are a progressive rock, instrumental trio coming out of Tokyo with notable instrumental talent pulled together by incredibly clean composition and a strong creative force. The first track, “4 parts of 1” demonstrates their capacity to create an interesting beat that rotates through different speeds and sounds while maintaining continuity. They create seamlessly fluid music that does not overstress any instrument, something particularly rare for bands with talented instrumentalists. Their song “Spy Theme” ushers in a heavy bass line that holds down the rhythm with the drums so the guitar can create an eerie and intriguing solo that really does illicit a sense of excitement and  mystery that belongs in any spy theme.




The cool composition brings in a jazzy feel that smooths out the whole track and brings the idea together. Instrumental acts often fail to put a sense of tone behind their music, something vocals can usually provide with more ease. Too often instrumental groups create a wash of heavy hitting sounds that, while it still might please the listener, often fails to hit an emotional chord or an interesting theme. All of The Isosceles Triangle’s tracks resonate really well, to the point where the titles of each track seem to make a lot of sense, despite having no words to explain them. “If I think Of…” layers on so much slow bass and plodding drums that when the guitar comes in with a layer of smoky solos, it all feels intensely nostalgic and sentimental, as though something from important from the past really was coming to mind again. The Isosceles Triangle turns out to be an excessively generous shape, too, charing you exactly zero dollars for its album. Naturally, the band probably wants you to pay a bit more, and they sure deserve at least five dollars for such an exceptional album, but as it stands, you can get it for free!



These are just two bands providing great offers to their listeners. In the modern era, with low overhead and so much competition not only with other musicians but with illegal downloading, music’s a buyer’s market. Go out there this Christmas break and find some good deals, it is a lot easier than you think!


By Austin R Ryan