Within the confines of heavy metal music, the iconic growl stands out as one of the genres unique defining traits. However, it’s abrasive sound puts many listeners off, and while we’re unlikely to start trying to bring death metal into our choral practice, it’s still a valid extended vocal technique and it’s execution often requires a high degree of technical singing prowess.
Firstly, it’s worth noting that the death metal growl can inflict serious damage on the vocal chords, with singers such as Oli Sykes of Bring Me The Horizon suffering from nodules and, lately, a rupture of the vocal chords. This is mostly down to a mixture of poor technique, extensive touring and lack of rest, and other musicians have proven that long careers are possible using the death growl.
The technique itself consists of using the diaphragm and air pressure in the throat to form the sound, similar to forms of overtone singing. Higher pitches come from the increase of pressure in the throat, and this is where most injuries take place.
Another element of the technique is the use of “Vocal Fry”. This creaky tone is produced by loosely closing the throat and allowing air to slowly bubble through. This produces the lowest vocal register, and through control can lead to record-breaking low notes, such as Time Storm, who currently holds the record for “Lowest Note Produced by a Human Voice” as well as “Widest Vocal Range”. In some choirs, when true bass singers are unavailable, a singer who can “fry” their lower notes will instead be used. Some singing tutors advise against the use of vocal fry as it may lead to the loss of some notes at the top end of the singer’s usual register.
The origins of the technique may come, unsurprisingly, from the Vikings, with the merchant Abraham ben Jacob describing the music of Denmark in the 10th Century thusly: “The growling sound coming from their throats reminds me of dogs howling, only more untamed.” However, we have no way of telling if this is akin to the sounds used by metal bands of the modern era.
In the 12th Century, St Hildegard wrote a morality play, Ordo Virtutum, in which the actor playing the Devil does not sing in the traditional style, but rather employs “strepitus diabol”, often interpreted as a low growling bass.
In 1966, The Who released “Boris the Spider”. While considered a novelty song, John Entwistle’s basso profundo, (meaning “deep bass”) used to give the titular spider a scary voice, might be the earliest recording of a death growl. Other early rock singers such as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins may also be considered influential in the development of the technique, using “monstrous” voices for dramatic effect.
Because of the gradual emergence, it’s difficult to say who the first band to definitively use the death growl, and it is possible that several bands began to use it at a similar time, independent of one another. The band Mantas (who would later become Death) are one possible originator of the technique, using a highly guttural, low pitched, almost entirely unintelligible voice. They would go on to inspire other important bands such as Napalm Death, famous for their John Peel Session in 1987.
Cannibal Corpse are also highly important to the technique. Singer Chris Barnes originally wanted to sing in a high, piercing falsetto, however his voice was too low to achieve this. Instead, he began trying to blend his voice in with the low tuned instruments, creating a darker voice that became a trademark of the band.
If this technique is to be used, hydration is supremely important , as it can lead to a scratchy throat and, in time, the growth of nodules on the vocal chords through irritation.
As with most singing, the diaphragm should handle the bulk of the heavy lifting, not the throat. Many singing coaches will stress the importance of “breath support”, that is, the correct practice of breathing in order to provide power to a given phrase. When the breath is not taken deep enough, a singer can run out of air and pressure must be added with the throat in order to complete the note. This creates tension and damage to the vocal chords.
This again shows why a proper study of singing is needed when attempting death growls. Many of the issues with the technique are also common to ordinary singing practice.
For more on the technique, including definitions and histories of heavy metal culture, Chuck Stelzner produced a fascinating report for the University of Illinois, tackling the subject from a physics-based angle