Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Origins of "Cookie Monster" Vocals

Downtime allows a hollow mind to wander deeper into the still seas of useless information, picking away at thoughts, ideas and questions that float meaningless like plankton in an aimless school. This unwelcome guest has yours truly deep sea diving into calm oceans of music minutia, peeking into oceanic caves of unwanted bottom fed factoids....

Recently I've been on a very heavy music cruise through somewhat uncharted territory. My fists and teeth remain clenched most of the day to choke out the stress in hopes of safely erupting in release, and even though I have no real stereo system in place( wouldn't work with a 3 1/2 year old and a wife who prefers everything "music" without distortion) I get my kicks and metal licks on in the car and the trusty ipod...and through my metal research which may or may not make me look like a purist or a fogey, I see how time turns a page..The heavy I grew up with (AC/DC, Motorhead, Sabbath, Maiden) remain cornerstones to my interstate steering wheel drum solos..but there is so much out there that makes the sheer volume created by those bands seem like waiting room easy listening, like frat boy/token karaoke choice hard rock...So many genres to explore....and so much time. Grindcore, Death, Speed, Sludge, Progressive, Industrial, Black, Thrash, Drone, Doom and Stoner....and the splintered hybrids that that make grunge and post punk look downright passe, and blissfully hopeful.

There are a few common threads that weave their way into and settle roughly into the blueprint and spirit of the bulk of the genres of metal and their capillaric t-shirts, furrowed brows and "cookie monster vocals". 

You might have heard them by accident if you happened to be around a young boy with a cheap walkman, earbuds bleeding, who was rocking a Cattle Decapitation t- shirt and on his way to school with some mysterious bulk in his trenchcoat.  You might have wondered how anyone could interpret something that sounded like a muppet getting choked out......and so did I. 

I'm a vocalist. I know how hard it is to "find your voice" in a style and key one is comfortable with. It takes years of practice, mimicry..and focus. I know that the rest of you gravitate toward some kind of melody that makes you want to get off of that bar stool and do your best Bad Company white man dance.  But there are millions of people out there who couldn't care less about anything that came out of a singers throat that didn't sound like a dog coughing up blood.
 I have always been intrigued with the meaning and the message of vocals and lyrics. As a lyricist, I know that it is much harder to tell stories, create characters and soul search as one who writes lyrics, than it is to just sing them. You have to make your words fit with the way you intend to interpret the melody you have created. You have to find melodic ways to accentuate your words, through phrasing and emotion.
With so many genres using a vocal style that sounds like black static, I wondered if so many metal fans even cared about lyrics at all. I needed to find out the origin of the "death growl" as it is properly known order to appreciate it more....Here is what I found:

Death growls are sometimes criticised for their "ugliness". However, death growls are just as much an aesthetic to death metal as an instrument, particularly due to the percussive nature of this kind of singing; its harsh, brutal nature is in keeping with death metal's often dark and disturbing subject matter.

OK..makes sense.. alot of what I heard sounds like Captain Caveman beating his chest at last call..which is very percussive.

Most "correct" growls use either a variation of vocal fry or false vocal chords. Death growls are often referred to as an overtone style of screaming, and while tonally very different, the majority of "good" growling techniques apply the same principles that are witnessed in "clean" vocals. These principles include timing and cues, holding a note (or gurgle) for a certain amount of time without it fraying, and being able to scream rhythmically underneath the growl while alternating between different pitches if necessary. The changes in pitch are more prevalent in the less  styles. Some notable examples of vocalists who use alternating pitches in their vocalisation are Mikael Ackerfeldt of Opeth, Mille Petrozza of Kreator, Chuck Billy of Testament, Jason Mendonca of Ackercocke and Chuck Schuldiner of Death.

Apparently, its a science like any other style of singing. Which is head scratchingly cool, I guess. do you warm up for a show? Bleach instead of salt water? Cold mead instead of warm tea? Is there a growl scale? Do growlers ask a roadie to punch them in the throat right before the lights go down?

The advent of the growl as it is used today coincided roughly with the gradual emergence of death metal, and it is thus difficult to pinpoint a specific individual as the inventor of the technique. Different vocalists likely developed the style over time. The band Death (and its precursor Mantas) with its two vocalists — initially Kam Lee and subsequently Chuck Schuldiner — have been cited as among the first (although Schuldiner would eventually switch to a more high-pitched screeching). Possessed are also considered by some to be one of the earliest bands to employ growls, as are Necrophagia and Master. Around the same time, bands such as Hellhammer, with Tom G. Warrior on vocals, and seminal act Massacre also employed a variation of the growl. The vocalists from the British grindcore band Napalm Death — consecutively Nic Bullen, Lee Dorrian and Mark "Barney" Greenway — further developed the style in the late 1980s, adding more aggression and deeper guttural elements to it, while also speeding up delivery of the lyrics. Another singer who gradually deepened his voice into the growling used today ondeath metal and grindcore was Chris Barnes, original singer of Cannibal Corpse. On the band's video biography, he says that he wanted to sing as high as Rob Halford, but his voice was too low pitched for that. So he started trying to blend it with the other instruments, coming up with a dark and really low guttural voice that became his signature.

This is fascinating! Just as rock has its vocal stars like Plant, Mercury, Daltrey who sing and metal has its stars as well..Dickinson, Halford and King Diamond......who sing really high......death, black, grind has its superstars as well...Schuldiner, Warrior, Dorrian and Barnes who essentially became growlers to become an extension of the low crushing(and sometimes speeding) instrumentation around them.

And that was just the first wave that set sail from the low point of commercial metal in the 80s...separating itself from the pitiful playfulness and the prettiness of Hair Metal and faux glam..with an answer and promise of darkness,death, speed and seriousness. The growler was the absolute antithesis of the ridiculous money grabbing spandex crooner. Chris Barnes was the devious dark lord to Vince Neil's "heavy metal" angel. I get it now!

With some the modern metal bands I'm getting into today..Baroness, Kylesa, High On Fire, Saviours, Coalesce, Mastodon, Black Cobra, Bison B.C., Dethklok,....the grunt can sometimes be raised or lowered to a gutteral gargling glass...and I can pick out some bits of lyric here and there beneath the magma splattering riffage that may accompany it. Some of the newer heavy bands making my scene have singers and brave attempts at melodic delivery like Early Man, The Sword, Three Inches of Blood, Priestess, Red Fang, Valient Thorr and Naam. Either way,I'm enjoying the built out neck muscles of a man half my age with the sweaty succession of headbanging sessions.(great lyric).  Sometimes, even as I've lived as a hard working vocalist/lyricist....that is all that matters........

And that is your useless piece of rock lore to ponder on today.  Cheers and beers!


  1. As soon as i read this, i thought of "The Crusher" by The Novas (1964.) It's as far back as i can trace this style of singing. Then again, what do i know...

    Listen to it here:

  2. Picture this: It's 1984 and being a diehard Motorhead fan I was approached by a buddy of mine who said he wanted to play me some shit by a band who had a vocalist that made Lemmy sound like an opera singer.

    Hello Venom.

    It's tough to say where the Cookie Monster vocal technique evolved from, though I'd cast my lot in with Jeff's link about The Novas.

  3. Jeff...that was awesome! I insist you go to Wikipidia and throw those jokers a bone.