Since its inception in the 1970s, metal has been a proving ground for vocalists. First there were the operatic screams of genre pioneers like Ronnie James Dio (of Rainbow, Black Sabbath and a lengthy solo career), Judas Priest’s Rob Halford and Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, but in the late 1980s, as thrash gave way to the new, more aggressive form known as death metal, the preferred voice shifted from a high-pitched howl to a low roar, known alternately as “death growls” or “Cookie Monster vocals.” In the earliest days of death metal, the frontmen (and while there have been some excellent female extreme metal vocalists, including Arch Enemy‘s Angela Gossow, Cerebral Bore‘s Simone Pluijmers, Sinister‘s Rachel van Mastrigt-Heyzer, and Landmine Marathon‘s Grace Perry, this has been an overwhelmingly male style, even by metal standards) bellowed from deep in their chests and guts, attempting to sound as much like a raging demon as possible, the better to put across the mandatory lyrics about Satan and murder. For the most part, genre pioneers like Cannibal Corpse’s Chris Barnes, Deicide’s Glen Benton, Immolation’s Ross Dolan, Morbid Angel’s David Vincent and Suffocation’s Frank Mullen were guttural and menacing, but intelligible. But there was an exception: Obituary’s John Tardy.

Tardy’s vocals were qualitatively different from his peers’ in two major ways. On the one hand, his pitch and overall feel were much less controlled than anyone else’s at the time—he didn’t sound like a snarling demon so much as that unhinged, unclean guy you didn’t want sitting next to you on public transportation. But Tardy’s greatest innovation was demonstrated on Obituary’s 1989 debut album, Slowly We Rot. Rather than limit himself creatively by writing lyrics, the vocalist chose to simply improvise his way through several tracks, making vocal sounds not unlike those Boredoms frontman Eye Yamatsuka was exploring more or less concurrently on the other side of the planet. Tardy was an acknowledged influence on then-Faith No More singer (and later John Zorn collaborator) Mike Patton, who told me in a 2005 interview for The Wire, “I was probably 18 or 19 when that record came out. I thought the guy was a fucking genius, because there were no words. There were certain little phrases, like ‘wuuugh’ and ‘aaagh,’ and that really hit me at the time. I realized he was using the voice as an instrument within a song form. Especially with that form of music, that is genius, because no one knows. There’s nothing to say anyway. It’s a sound. Better that than hearing him talk about disemboweling some virgin.”

Over the years, and particularly in the new millennium, extreme metal vocals have become conventional. No longer a disturbing aberration, they are now a genre requirement, no different than blasting double bass drums or downtuned guitars. However, multiple styles have emerged within what might seem to outsiders like a limited approach. Traditional, old-school death metal vocals are still practiced by traditionalists like Cannibal Corpse’s current frontman, George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher, and dozens of others, including the veterans cited above, whose bands still tour and record. But other subgenres have their own favored vocal styles. Black metal, for example, requires a high-pitched, unearthly shriek, or a sort of croaking sound from the back of the throat—Cradle of Filth’s Dani Filth is a perfect example of the former method, while Immortal’s Abbath opts for the latter, sometimes sounding like a hell-spawned toad and others like Popeye the Sailor. Grindcore, which marries death metal and hardcore punk, demands an earnest, almost breathless barking type of vocal (with some, like GridLink/ex-Discordance Axis frontman Jon Chang, opting instead for full-on screaming) that’s mostly unintelligible because of the speed at which the lyrics are delivered; if the bands would slow down, the words might become clear.

Some of the most extreme vocalists of all seem to bypass the vocal cords entirely, using the throat primarily as a kind of resonating chamber. Attila Csihar, of Sunn O))) and many other projects, rumbles in a range previously attained only by Milan Fras of Laibach, while Will Rahmer of late ’90s/early ’00s New York death metal thugs Mortician had a voice so low—he made Barry White sound like Barry Manilow—that his death growls were as close as metal vocals have ever gotten to being totally inaudible; they blended with the riffs and the simplistic drum programming (Mortician had no drummer) so seamlessly it was easy to mistake them for bass amp feedback.

The latest innovation in extreme vocal technique is what’s aptly known as the “pig squeal” style, which sounds utterly inhuman and has actually become divisive even within the death metal community. The guttural-but-still-recognizably-words approach of “classic” death metal is abandoned in favor of gurgles and bubblings that seem impossible to produce using a human throat—the impression is of a badly malfunctioning toilet on the brink of explosion. And of course, there are the ear-piercing squeals that serve as punctuation at the end of lines. The overall effect is both alienating and personality-flattening, as the effect saps all the vocalist’s individuality. A perfect example of this phenomenon is Inherit Disease’s 2010 album Visceral Transcendence, on which four different guest vocalists appear—none of whom can be identified, or even told apart from the primary gurgler.

Like most formerly underground artistic strategies, extreme vocals have been incorporated into the avant-garde (or, perhaps, had their existing avant-garde nature recognized by peers). Sunn O))), with Attila Csihar on vocals, have performed as part of a gallery installation by visual artist Banks Violette; Morbid Angel vocalist Steve Tucker’s growls were incorporated into Matthew Barney’s surrealist film Cremaster 2; Brutal Truth frontman Kevin Sharp and Mike Patton, among others, have worked with John Zorn. “Pig squeal” sounds have yet to make the transition to art-scene acceptance, though—some things remain beyond the pale, which is probably exactly how the artists want it.

Phil Freeman

Here’s a Spotify playlist featuring all the bands discussed above, plus a few more:

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