The only thing more upsetting than a band breaking up is a band replacing its lead singer.
Granted, it’s distressing when any member of a band leaves. But I will argue that, for the most part, drummers, bassists, keyboardists, guitarists, etcetera, are able to be replaced without disturbing the band’s inherent character–for the most part. I’ve seen instances in which this is not true: for instance, in Guns N’ Roses, when, a decade after the band’s last album, Axl Rose pulled together a mostly brand new crew of misfits for Chinese Democracy. Despite his iconic vocals, the melodies and guitar parts sound completely passionless; without Slash, the band lost its character. Same thing happened with Avenged Sevenfold when Jimmy Sullivan, aka The Rev, died last year. He’d become more and more involved with the writing process, and any well-tuned ear could hear his immense talent and his distinctive drumming style. Although Avenged Sevenfold’s Nightmare featured the legendary Mike Portnoy (of Dream Theater) on percussion, that quirkiness was gone and will remain gone. Of course, in Avenged Sevenfold’s case, the band may never recover: they didn’t lose a band member, but rather someone more akin to a brother.
But for the most part, when a singer leaves the band, it changes everything. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. In my opinion, The Dillinger Escape Plan’s best era was when Mike Patton temporarily took over vocals. It Dies Today and From First to Last, on the other hand, completely fell apart when their singers left.
The band I’m writing this post about, however, is The Vincent Black Shadow. I discovered them back in the day — god knows how — and I’ve never met anyone who knows who they are. They’re obscure, pursuing a genre of music that’s macabre and eccentric and energetic: music’s equivalent of gonzo journalism. And their tribute to Hunter S. Thompson is obvious: Their name is a significant player in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and their music reflects Thompson’s drug induced (or abetted) tirades. It’s frenetic, manic, with lyrics about blood and gore and death and, of course, love. I fell in love with them because of their unique style, but integral to that style is singer Cassandra Ford.
Vocally, she’s Gwen Stefani’s evil twin; same enunciation in a lower register. She wears a necklace of human teeth, sings with a distinctive flair and pronunciation, and it’s Cassandra who is instrumental to the band. And yet, when I downloaded the band’s new EP today, I realised, to my dismay, that Cassandra was no longer singing.
Cassandra was one of the first female singers I really identified with. She’s my idol in the world of female rockers. The Vincent Black Shadow has never been quite as forthcoming with their writing process as other bands, but I always got the impression that Cassandra was responsible for much of the lyrical work, and had a hand in the musical aspect as well.
As noted above, there have been instances when lead vocalists have been replaced and the band has been better for it. But there is a caveat to this: the band can only be better if the new singer has something different to bring to the table and does not simply attempt to fill the old singer’s shoes. Singing is not the same as playing an instrument; with a guitar, you can change the style in which you play to emulate a particular guitarist, and you can mimic the sound by using the same model of guitar. With singing, you have what you have.
The Vincent Black Shadow, without Cassandra, did something that angers me more than anything else: they found a singer who can, more or less, imitate her. Nikki Hurst, granted, isn’t a bad singer. But she’s trying to fill Cassandra’s position, and it comes off sounding metallic and false, a parody of what used to be genuine. The musical style is more or less the same, but there’s something … wrong about it. Like a knockoff of a unique painting.
I miss Cassandra, too, TVBS, but if you’re going to get a new singer, get someone who really is new — not just a poor imitation of something irreplaceable.