Vox - Steve Perry
Progressive rock is a nebulous thing, becoming something different depending on the listener. Progressive vocal technique could then be about the most difficult thing to define in the known musical pantheon.
However, as I have stated before, it is possible to define measurable abilities in a vocalist and evaluate any given singer's capabilities with respect to such definitions. This being the case, I would like this issue to discuss the contributions of vocalist Steve Perry.
Some of you will balk at the inclusion of Mr. Perry in a progressive/metal rock column, but consider that at the time Journey was hitting its stride, they were a heavily guitar influenced band—ballads notwithstanding, consider the dynamic shifts in their material, consider that Neal Schon is still one of the best guitarists working, and consider one of the best vocalists in rock music period.
Without spending inordinate time defining what progressive rock means, let me just say that it is the original "alternative music" before alternative became mainstream and subsequently died away. This being said, any song that tests new ideas lyrically, vocally, or structurally, can be said to be progressive. In all these respects Journey is successful, and so deserves space here.
More than this, Steve Perry set standards for a generation of aspiring singers by raising the bar beyond the reach of most would-be vocalists.
Let me explain. The single most important ability a vocalist may possess in to place the voice in the masque of the face. Whether done intentionally or naturally, nothing so preserves the voice and gives it the bright, dynamic tone and flexibility that causes listeners to pay attention. Classical vocal training necessarily requires that a student become a master of this technique. Steve Perry, likewise, has acquired this skill at a level of proficiency dreadfully lacking with most newcomers to rock music.
In 1994 I attended a concert for Perry's Strange Medicine album. I admit that I am not always a huge aficionado to Steve's song writing. But when the show started, I thought I was listening to Ray Alder. His power, range and vibrato were so evident that I believe he sounded better than I'd ever heard him. Of course, he immediately dispelled rumors of throat cancer and like misinformation. And while there were moments of that lush Perry husk in moments of his songs, when he intended to bring a note off powerfully and clearly, he did so with immaculate skill. This brings me to one of his important contributions: an ability to sustain a high level of vocal performance over a long career. Lesser vocalists end up painting houses while they smoke cigarettes and wonder how they got there.
In the light of hindsight, Journey seems neither heavy nor particularly progressive, but perspective is everything. At America's Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, where the telephone was first exhibited, many thought man had reached the pinnacle of all communication. Imagine what those folks would think now. The salient point is this: Steve Perry's recorded albums and live work stand up against the test of time. One indicator of this might be the affection current vocalists have for his work. Last column's James Labrie is an avid fan of Perry's, going so far as to cover one of his tunes on the Change of Seasons CD.
Beyond this, lets look at the measures of a good progressive rock vocalist. Bear in mind that these measures are uniform for all singers, but it is in a rare genre like progressive rock that these standards are more rigidly observed. Vocalists in other popular musical traditions compromise these to "style," which is tantamount to a drummer who lacks ability saying, "I'm a 'feel' player."
Perry is a consummate articulator. I recognize that this is not a priority for most listeners, even progressive rock fans, but it is an important measure of a vocalist's ability. Simply pick up a Greatest
Hits by Journey and listen to Perry hit the big notes while singing tight, restrictive vowels. Only someone concerned with enunciation will attempt this, and only someone with great craft can pull it off.
And so long as we have discussed big notes, we must acknowledge Steve's broad range. I've been in those abominable places—karaoke bars—and heard guys slaughter "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'" and a host of other Journey classics, including "Faithfully." We expect great vocalists to carry off their range with aplomb. Perry does this today better than the vast majority of the other guys.
With Steve, I must also lapse momentarily into a discussion of that ineffable quality of expression. There can be little doubt that this singer is at the height of the craft in this particular standard. Simply listen to "Open Arms," and you will understand why I am confident in saying this. This is not something that can be taught, but rather must be felt. For any technically gifted singer who has been told he lacks "feel," I commend him to this track. It resonates with emotive energy.
Another qualitative measure is phrasing, which is yet another way in which Perry shows that he belongs with all the greats. Spool up "Anyway You Want It" and listen to the vocal rhythms and the way Steve plays with the accents. The technique lends musicality to the track that otherwise might be absent. Dragging the beat, waiting a count, and lingering on a sung vowel are the usages that make Perry a model for astute vocal students.
One of the qualities of a professional singer is to duplicate what he does in the studio on stage, without resorting to lip-synching. Well, Perry is as good at this as it gets. Even non-athletic psuedo-vocalists like Brittany Spears fall down live when it comes to pulling off the sound her listeners fall in love with on the CD. Perry rears back and hits them all. Now, lest you think I'm a cultish adherent, understand that I know a biological instrument like the voice is bound to have problems—lack of sleep, illness, and poor technique can contribute to poor performances—and every vocalist will have bad nights. But taken together, a professional singer has few of these, and here Steve excels.
The great thing about him is that you get all the energy of the show and all the fidelity of the album. Unfortunately, concerts for teens these days are given by "performers" who trade on spectacle at the complete expense of musicianship.
An examination of Steve Perry must necessarily rest upon the combination of two key elements though, ones I have already lightly touched upon: tone and interpretation. Having mastered control over the very mechanical elements of diction, pitch, and phrasing, Perry moves past them quickly and draws the listener in with what is arguably one of the best voices for tonal quality and expression. The unassuming quality of his softer passages touch listeners of both sexes—not an easy task—and the inescapable pathos of such songs as "Separate Ways" remain unrelenting as they communicate something to us of desperation. Steve’s voice is perfectly suited to these conveyances. Or, more rightly stated, Steve coveys these things perfectly with his voice, and does so because he has honed his art by finding tonal and expressive qualities that render in human terms the things he wishes to sing about. This is one of the highest marks of a professional vocalist. And nowhere as often as in the progressive domain do we find artists interested in doing precisely this. Surely, R&B artists attempt it, pop artists less often, but the great wide of popular music—music created for mass radio appeal—is left in a dearth of honest emotion because the affectation is always so evident. With Steve, the sound and the way he manipulates it feel genuine, indeed are genuine, as he creates an experience with his voice we all seem to understand.
My vocal trainer is fond of saying, "The art of the art is the art that conceals the art." If you didn’t follow that, consider the last time you read a book—hopefully you all read often. When you are dangerously aware of the writer behind the words, the author has failed. The illusion needs to be so complete that the experience draws you in. The artist should be transparent after a fashion. To the dismay of hacks that screech from local club stages about being misunderstood by the society around them, superb technique facilitates transparency in a way that grit and guts never will. Steve has arrived at this quality. For this alone he is at the forefront of progressive vocalists, because to attempt vocal art on this scale is daring. Lesser singers stand behind safe tropes of the progressive genre, thus limiting the potential experience of their audience, and ultimately themselves.
One last example will serve to illustrate the genius of Steve Perry. Back before I even knew who he was—I was a musically challenged for many years—I remember seeing Michael Jackson's "Feed the World" video with all the guest vocalists. All the big names were there. I watched enthralled with the dream of one day being included in this selective list. Then this guy with long hair and a big nose started to sing and my ears perked up. I could note, if not appreciate, the styles of the other vocalists. But the man with the nose was both stylistically mature and musically superior. I had to find out who this was. It was Steve Perry, of course. I hated him, then, for being so damned good, while I suffered to overcome the warble in my maturing voice. But the gauntlet had been thrown down for me, as it was for a host of others, and we endeavor still to lift it up.
Steve Perry is a landmark in rock music. Whether you like his work or not, there is no doubting is obvious ability. And for his immense talent and the varied and creative way he introduced a high level of craft into the art of singing, he remains one of the most important progressive vocalists to have lent their voice to the stage.