The Origins of the Death Growl in Metal Music

When Arab-Span­ish Sephar­di Jew­ish mer­chant Abra­ham ben Jacob first encoun­tered the Vikings in Den­mark, he had this to say:

“Nev­er before I have heard ugli­er songs than those of the Vikings in Slesvig. The growl­ing sound com­ing from their throats reminds me of dogs howl­ing, only more untamed.”

Now what Mr. ben Jacob actu­al­ly heard we will nev­er know, but the descrip­tion does sound a lot like the “Death Growl” famil­iar to fans of death met­al. (The appear­ance of Vikings and the pre­pon­der­ance of Scan­di­na­vians with­in the genre cer­tain­ly make this tale sound true.)

Cheek­i­ly referred to by non-met­al fans as the “Cook­ie Mon­ster Voice,” this par­tic­u­lar style has evolved over time as met­al changed in the 1980s, from the pierc­ing screams of Dio and Iron Maid­en to the growl of Sepul­tura and Can­ni­bal Corpse. And that’s matched by the demon­ic and doom-laden sound of the music and the Grand Guig­nol hor­ror of the lyrics, which delight fans with its deprav­i­ty and dis­gust, the gross­er the bet­ter.

Whether it’s your cup of tea or not, you have to admit that the ‘80s and ‘90s saw the growth of a brand new vocal style that seemed to come out of nowhere.

YouTu­ber Poly­phon­ic tries to unrav­el its ori­gins in the video above, which, we have to admit, fol­lows the Wikipedia arti­cle on the Death Growl point by point. But that’s okay–imagine if all Wikipedia arti­cles had their own videos…would that be a bad thing?

On the oth­er hand, Polyphonic’s video does leave out some antecedents to this style, all of who get named checked by var­i­ous folks in the com­ments. (Yes, YouTube com­ments that are worth read­ing!)

In par­tic­u­lar, there’s no men­tion of African-Amer­i­can artists like Howl­in’ Wolf, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, or Clarence Frog­man Hen­ry. Wolf in par­tic­u­lar became a huge influ­ence on anoth­er incred­i­bly gruff and gut­tur­al singer, Tom Waits, who often sings like the Dev­il has his lar­ynx.
And do the dis­tort­ed vocals on Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” or on King Crimson’s “21st Cen­tu­ry Schizoid Man” real­ly count? Or the var­i­ous screams on Pink Floyd songs?

When Poly­phon­ic returns to the 1980s, he’s on firmer ground. Lem­my from Motör­head makes more sense as an influ­ence, and by the time we get to Ven­om, then Death, then Man­tas, it is eas­i­er to see where the Death Growl came from. (But come on, no men­tion of Napalm Death? They were the first growl­ing band I ever heard, and hats off to BBC DJ John Peel for not only play­ing them when the debuted, but he had them in ses­sion.)

If inter­est­ed, I would rec­om­mend explor­ing the YouTube com­ments fur­ther and make up your own mind. And if you are inter­est­ed in learn­ing this tech­nique, there are folks who will teach you.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Bat­tle-Scarred Heavy Met­al Musi­cians Play Rock ‘n’ Roll Clas­sics on Hel­lo Kit­ty Instru­ments

96-Year-Old Holo­caust Sur­vivor Fronts a Death Met­al Band

1980s Met­al­head Kids Are All Right: New Study Sug­gests They Became Well-Adjust­ed Adults

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at and/or watch his films here.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.