Death Metal Growl: The Story and Technique

From its dark origins to the mastery required to execute it, the death growl is a vocal trademark of death metal.

Key Takeaways
  • The death growl is a vocal technique that defines death metal, using guttural, harsh sounds to match the genre’s intensity.
  • Originating possibly from ancient warrior chants, it has been refined through blues, rock, and metal.
  • Proper growling technique is crucial for safety and involves diaphragmatic breathing and controlled throat pressure.

The Death Growl Explained

In the world of extreme music genres, the death growl stands out as a distinctive vocal technique, central to death metal. Known by many names like brutal vocals, guttural vocals, death grunts, growled vocals, unclean vocals, harsh vocals, and even “Cookie Monster” vocals, these growls are more than mere sound; they are a raw form of expression. Vocalists employ them to echo themes of mortality, chaos, and the shadowy recesses of the psyche, giving the genre its fierce and dark core.

Known by many names like brutal vocals, guttural vocals, death grunts, growled vocals, unclean vocals, harsh vocals, and even “Cookie Monster” vocals.

This vocal style is integral to death metal’s identity, setting it apart from other metal subgenres. Over time, death growls have diversified, permeating various metal subgenres and adopting unique stylistic variations within each.

Achieving a death growl involves controlled use of the diaphragm and air pressure on the throat, resembling overtone singing techniques. The result is a low, resonant, sometimes scarcely intelligible delivery that amplifies the music’s aggressive tone.

Growling ranges from deep roars to shrieking screams, with some vocalists weaving in clear, potent singing to add texture. Despite the growl’s aggressive sound, it is often misconstrued as mere yelling. In truth, it demands skill, control, and practice. Without proper technique, vocalists risk damage to their vocal cords; however, when executed correctly, it is as safe as any traditional singing method.

Medical experts note that incorrect growling can lead to vocal fold damage like edema and polyps. Nonetheless, with proper technique, growling is not only safe but also a remarkable vocal achievement.

Tracing the Death Growl to Viking Roots

The growl that defines the savagery of death metal may trace its lineage to the harsh chants of ancient warriors. Historical accounts suggest that the Vikings, back in the 10th century, might have unleashed a primal version of the growl, their voices resembling the untamed howling of dogs, according to an Arab traveler. This early form of expression conveyed raw emotion, perhaps influencing the vocal aggression in modern extreme music.

Moving through history, in the play “Ordo Virtutum”, composed by Hildegard of Bingen in the 11th century, the Devil’s character is portrayed using a harsh, guttural voice, possibly an ancestral whisper of today’s growl. The journey of this vocal style weaves through the heart of blues, with artists like Howlin’ Wolf and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins employing a potent, coarse vocal technique, indirectly mentoring future metal vocalists in their art of sonic force.

Before embedding itself in the death metal scene, the growl appeared in the rock genre. The Who’s song “Boris the Spider” features a growling chorus, while Mike Oldfield‘s progressive piece “Tubular Bells (Part 2)” dabbles in growled vocals. These instances, though not metal, showcase the technique’s versatility and its simmering presence waiting to erupt in the world of heavy music.

The death growl’s origins, spanning from Viking hymns to blues howls, highlight a complex evolution. It stands as proof of a vocal tradition that has evolved to become a signature of death metal’s raw, untamed spirit.

Pioneers of the Death Metal Voice

The path toward the guttural snarl of death metal vocals became clear in the 1970s with bands like Motörhead and Venom, and the punk movement pushing the limits of raw vocal expression. Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister and Venom’s Conrad Lant, known as Cronos, laid the groundwork with their ferocious vocal deliveries.

The foundation of what would become the death growl was set by distorted vocal experiments in heavy rock. Tracks like Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” and King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” hinted at the potential of a darker vocal technique.

As metal morphed through the 1980s, there was a marked shift from the piercing wails of bands like Dio and Iron Maiden to the thunderous roars of groups like Venom, Slayer, and Sepultura. Venom’s “Welcome to Hell” and Slayer’s “Show No Mercy” sharpened the edges of vocal aggression, pairing the sound with dark, Satanic themes.

It wasn’t just metal evolving this sound. The hardcore punk scene, with bands such as Antisect, chipped in, adding to the harshness. The raspy shrieks in Bathory’s debut album blazed a trail for black metal vocals. Similarly, Morbid Angel and Sepultura pushed the envelope with their demos and albums like “Morbid Visions”, introducing a lower, more guttural style.

Women in metal, like those in Holy Moses, began showing their prowess with harsh vocals, proving that female growls were just as powerful. Death, led by Chuck Schuldiner, took the technique into new territories, with Mantas (pre-Death) and Possessed laying claim to some of the first death growls on their early demos.

Death’s “Scream Bloody Gore” and Sarcofago’s “INRI” were instrumental in cementing the vocal styles in death and black metal, respectively. Cannibal Corpse with Chris Barnes‘s voice on “Eaten Back to Life” set an unprecedented bar for death metal growls. Furthermore, Napalm Death introduced the extreme grindcore style, contributing to the popularity and evolution of growling in metal.

The How-To of Growling

Growling is a craft, one that requires time, patience, and a commitment to honing one’s ability. This isn’t a skill mastered overnight. For the aspiring growler, there’s a path to follow—a road paved with practice and safe techniques.

Interest in this dark art has spawned a cottage industry of sorts. Vocal coaches now stand ready, their online tutorials a beacon for those eager to learn the proper ways to unleash their inner beast. But how does one transform from novice to maestro in the orchestra of the damned?

Warm-Up: Your journey begins with warming up the vocal cords. Humming, lip rolls, anything to get the blood flowing to those precious cords.

Breathing: Mastering the diaphragmatic breath is next. Inhale, let your stomach swell, exhale, feel it contract. The growl’s power comes from here, not the throat.

Relax Your Throat: A relaxed throat is essential. Tension is the enemy, a harbinger of damage.

Mouth and Jaw: Open wide, drop that jaw. This isn’t just for a visit to the dentist. It’s how you create depth, resonance in your growl.

Use Your Diaphragm: The true source of your growl lies in the diaphragm. Push from there, let your throat be a channel, not the source.

Find Your Pitch: Play with pitches. Find where your growl lives, where it thrives. Comfort and resonance are your guides.

Control the Volume: Keep the volume down initially. Control is key, and you mustn’t strain.

Stay Hydrated: Water is your friend. It’s the lifeline your vocal cords need.

Rest Your Voice: Rest is as important as practice. Feel hoarse? Take a break. Your cords will thank you.

Seek Professional Advice: Whenever possible, seek the wisdom of a coach, one who knows the terrain of extreme vocals.

Listen to Your Body: Pain is a sign to halt. Growling shouldn’t hurt.

Practice Regularly: Regular practice is the backbone of improvement. Short, frequent sessions triumph over marathons.

Within these guidelines lies the path to growling prowess. As with any discipline, the journey is personal, the rewards, profound. For those about to growl, we salute your dedication to the art.

Growls of Honor

The death growl is a cornerstone of the metal genre, a sound that pushes the boundaries of vocal expression and music itself. Its power lies not just in its raw intensity but also in its intricate technique and control. This vocal form is a testament to the skill of the vocalist and, when perfected, can significantly raise a band’s profile within the metal community.

It’s a sound that embodies the genre’s spirit of rebellion, standing apart from mainstream music with its extreme vocal stylings.

A powerful, well-crafted growl can command respect and admiration from fans and peers alike. It’s a sound that embodies the genre’s spirit of rebellion, standing apart from mainstream music with its extreme vocal stylings. The growl isn’t just about sound; it’s a hallmark of authenticity, a sign that both the band and the vocalist are genuine articles in the metal world.

This technique does more than just complement the music; it elevates it, enhancing the thematic intensity that metal is known for. More than a vocal style, the death growl is a badge of honor, a sign of one’s place and status in the metal scene.