Over time, music fans have been conditioned to expect less and less from the vocalists in our favorite bands. Instead of focusing on vocal ability, fun hooks, distracting synths and catchy samples are delivered to amuse us. Auto-Tune, which we found abhorrent 10 years ago, is now accepted as the way things are done. It’s the rare vocalist today who stands apart from the pre-fabricated mush we’re used to hearing. Viewers clamor to their singing competition reality TV shows like “The Voice” and “American Idol,” searching for the next great vocalist, and yet we continue to consume what’s churned out from artists whose vocal ranges barely extend past shouting out to a friend across the room.
All of this is why Future Islands‘ front man, Samuel Herring, is such a welcome relief from the daily grind of singers with whom we find ourselves overwhelmed. On the band’s new album, Singles (released March 24 by 4AD), Herring could be compared to a new-age Freddie Mercury: a singer willing to use his voice to not just deliver a lyric, but stretching, distorting and sustaining melodies like any other instrument. Unlike Mercury, Herring’s voice soars through a much lower vocal range, setting him apart in the current market. He’s a male vocalist daring to not compete with the outrageous tenors of today’s pop and rock genres, proving that basses can have just as much fun. Which is why when he reaches the top of his range on tracks like “Seasons,” and “Doves,” it’s all the more exciting.
Singles feels like a well-coordinated effort on all fronts, thanks to Future Islands’ bassist/guitarist William Cashion and keyboardist/guitarist/programmer Gerrit Welmers. Herring’s voice is an integral layer to the music’s texture, and yet completely distinct. His deep bass adds a low rumble to the verse of “Fall From Grace,” allowing the countermelody to be played out octaves above him. His barely-spoken quality down there is further emphasized when halfway through the song he jumps up the octave to actually sing the melody. But the musicality barely lasts long enough to satisfy us. The following tricks up Herring’s sleeve include completely unintelligibly screamed choruses and in-the-basement groveling hooks. His capacity to–within a single track–speak with the drama of a trained tragic actor, sing with sustained ease and vibrato, and then scream his heart out made me wonder on first listen, is this all really him?
Yes, it is all really him. With only a little help from guest backing vocalist Katrina Ford on the songs “Doves” and “Sun In The Morning,” Herring proves to be a one-stop shop for whatever vocal styles the songs need. Singles’ melodies conserve most of Herring’s performances to the lower part of his range, while most other highly regarded pop and rock vocalists today are generally praised for their shiver-inducing high notes. In 2014, it’s actually an unexpected relief not to get constantly shrieked at by a male vocalist.
Herring proves his tenor capabilities, though, on “Seasons (Waiting on You),” one of the catchier songs on the album. The first verse’s opening line starts at the highest note in the song, which he returns to in the chorus with a more rough and raucous vocal quality. His differing approaches here convince the listener he is completely at ease in the verse, and is subsequently working so much harder to bust out those same notes in the chorus.
“I physically work hard on stage to get mouths to drop, bring people in, and to catch them off guard,” Herring said in a recent interview. “We come out and people don’t really know what to expect—and then we launch into this big music.” Certainly, to look at him, Herring lacks the dramatic persona other rockers have sported, which is maybe why his big voice comes as a shock in the band’s live performances. Even just listening to the album, his huge voice is unexpected on an indie-pop record like Singles. Herring brings the drama, intensity and dynamic vocal range to keep us listening, and wondering what he’ll do next.
Chelsea Wilson is a professional voice teacher and actor in New York City. Her students have been featured in a national Coca-Cola commercial, sung the national anthem at Red Bull Stadium, competed in NBC’s “The Voice,” are regularly auditioning for Broadway and professional theatre shows, and pursuing independent musical careers. Additionally she is the Artistic Director for the independent record label, Red Cardigan Records, based in Salt Lake City.