Perhaps the most definitive element of metal is the growling, shrieking, rasping, inhuman snarls we call harsh vocals. Certainly, there are genres of metal that don’t use harsh vocals, and they’re no less “metal” for it. But a full-throated death growl, rumbling and ominous, erupting from a cranked pair of speakers leaves no doubt—this is metal. There’s a reason the chief complaint of the vast majority of metal naysayers revolves around the vocals. Hardly anyone’s first thought is “those blast beats are too fast” or “the guitar sounds too aggressive.” I’m mostly kidding, of course; most people lack the vocabulary to identify what in particular they object to just because they’re unfamiliar with and uninterested in metal. But the knee-jerk reaction against harsh vocals will always remain. There’s a few reasons for this; firstly, and most obviously, harsh vocals are not an inherently pleasant sound. At all. No one has to acclimate to the sound of a harp. But many metalheads, like myself, have spent months or years learning to love harsh vocals. For most, they’re an acquired taste. But I think there’s something else going on beneath the surface. Most of the main elements of metal are familiar to a non-metal listener, albeit in a more extreme form. The guitar on a Nile album is the same instrument that’s been on, well, lots of songs. It’s heavier, faster, more technical—but it’s still a guitar. The drums are faster, deeper, more chaotic — but they’re still drums, pounding out a rhythm. The bass is there. But the vocals—this is something different. They’re human and yet not, festering firmly in the graves of the uncanny valley. There’s a powerful effect created by the corruption of the human voice into something inhuman and bestial. Metal harnesses this to manufacture soundscapes that examine the dark and macabre, the obscene and violent, the evil and the forgotten. So then: let’s take a look at where all this screaming nonsense started, and where it’s gone.
(For the purposes of brevity and clarity, this history of harsh vocals will be capped at the year 1990.)
The history of harsh vocals appears to extend quite a bit further back in time than one might suppose. If the account of an enterprising Arab merchant is to be believed, harsh vocals of some variety may have been used in music since the 10th century. The merchant believed he had never “heard uglier songs than those of the Vikings in Slesvig (in Denmark). The growling sound coming from their throats reminds me of dogs howling, only more untamed.” Another Scandinavian visitor remarked that their singing sounded like a “heavily loaded cart rolling down a hillside”. These anecdotal accounts don’t confirm that the Vikings all sounded like Johan Hegg (as much as I’d like to believe that), but it does hint toward a more far-reaching musical heritage than the metal scene of the past several decades. And it’s certainly fitting that these early accounts hail from metal-crazed Scandinavia!
Another interesting historical mention of harsh vocals is in Hildegard’s 11th century play, Ordo Virtutum. In this morality play, the Devil is the only character who doesn’t sing any melodies, and his lines are to be delivered “strepitus diaboli”. No one can be quite sure what exactly this stage direction amounted to in a performance, but it’s generally agreed upon that the lines would sound chaotic and inhuman, and may have included “yelling, shrieking, shouting, or growling”. In any case, the connection between the Devil and these abrasive modes of lyric delivery reveal just how long harsh vocals and Satan have been associated.
Moving into the modern age, examples of harsh vocals as we know them today are sparse pre-1980. Some point to Little Richard in “Tutti Frutti” and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as early examples of harsh vocals, but the connection is tenuous at best. They sing powerfully, at times nearly screaming, but the resemblance is passing at best. The first instance of recognizable death growls is found in The Who’s ditty “Boris the Spider”. In a deep, phlegmatic growl, Entwistle unnervingly intones “Boris the spider” in the chorus. As convincing and out-of-place Entwistle’s death growls are, they were only a novelty. Entwistle was merely playing the part of a villain by adopting his throaty, raspy growl, like Boris Karloff as the Grinch. Influential as The Who were, they can’t exactly claim the invention and popularization of death growls to their resume.
The next instance of recognizable harsh vocals comes in 1973, in Mike Oldfield’s rather avant-garde release Tubular Bells. Again, the growled vocals used at the 11:45 mark of the “Tubular Bells (Part 2)” are largely novelty. The entire album is an exercise in Oldfield’s ability to tie together different instruments and styles, but there’s no denying the similarity between the gruff growls in Tubular Bells and later death growls.
During the 1970’s, many bands began experimenting with rawer, harsher vocal techniques, ranging from the perpetual whiskey-and-cigar rasp of Motorhead’s Lemmy to the disillusioned shouts and shrieks of the burgeoning punk movement. But it wasn’t until Venom’s 1981 debut, Welcome to Hell, that harsh vocals as we know them today began to take shape. Trapped among a mudslide of riffs, vocalist Cronos’s voice oscillates between rather par-for-the-course gruff shouts and a darker, angrier growl. It’s no coincidence that perhaps the first album to employ harsh vocals also prominently features Satanic imagery on the cover art. Venom are far from the first or last band to use such symbolism, but they made major strides towards matching their sound to the evil symbolism they tried to project.
In 1983, several releases furthered the development of harsh vocals. While Tom Araya has never been known for an especially harsh style, his venomous inflections and hateful delivery on Slayer’s Show No Mercy were among the more abrasive vocals in 1983, especially when combined with Slayer’s intensity and speed. Similar in style and voice was Tom G. Warrior in Hellhammer’s Satanic Rites demo (frankly, he and Araya sound almost identical). Then, coming from a different end of the metal spectrum, Antisect’s album In Darkness There is No Choice showed off burgeoning harsh vocals from the hardcore punk scene. Instead of the shouting in the wild abandon typical of the punk scene, the vocalist offers a deeper, huskier performance that meshes well with the thrash-style riffs buzzing through the album. However, the harsher style isn’t used on the whole album; a more usual punk style is also employed.
And in 1984 the gates of hell opened. This was the year that harsh vocals came to be, and in many different styles, too. Depending on your personal preference, the crown of “first band to use death growls” could be reasonably awarded to either Mantas for their incredible demo Death by Metal or Possessed for their equally brilliant demo Death Metal. In addition to innovations in technical playing ability and songwriting, Mantas and Possessed both deepened and obscured the hoarse rasps of thrash into something unrecognizable and totally unique. Mantas especially captured the horrific shock value of the death growls; listen to the vocalist Kam Lee (not Chuck Schuldiner!) bark out unholy grunts and growls from the deepest part of his chest. This is death metal. And so it was; the lyrics are obsessed with death. Every song on the demo revolves around violence, bloodshed and death. The riffs and percussion are faster and heavier than anything before it, and the vocals evolved along with them to create a horrific, beautiful noise that accurately reflected the chaos of the lyrics.
And then there was black metal. Always the pioneer, Quorthon of Bathory released his first album, the self-titled Bathory in 1984 as well. Rather than continuing the trend of progressively lower-pitched growls, Quorthon opted for more of a rasping, shrieking style, a precursor to later black metal vocals. For the following album, released in 1985, he must have gargled a mason jar’s worth of molten glass; his already abrasive vocals became raspier and darker, like metal on granite. The album, titled The Return of the Darkness and Evil, focuses heavily on themes of occultism and evil. Quorthon’s perfected vocals fit the subject matter like goat blood on a pentagram. Which is to say—quite well. It’s all aesthetic, but there’s a level of authenticity that harsh vocals provide for such extreme lyrical and musical content that clean vocals can’t quite grasp (but don’t tell that to King Diamond). Also released in 1985 was the crust punk band Amebix’s debut, Arise! Taking punk to its heaviest conclusion, Amebix vocalist Rob Miller sounds like a drunken, chain-smoking prison guard with the sore throat of a lifetime. It’s no Mantas, but the vocals’ (relative) coherency works well on tracks like “Axeman” because it sounds like the murderous axeman himself is sadistically narrating his own spree.
1986 brought a series of seminal death metal releases. Morbid Angel released several demos featuring their squealing, frenetic brand of death metal. The vocals are difficult to discern because of the production quality, but the low, far-off rumblings reverberating like thunder deep through the recording are unmistakably death growls. Sepultura’s debut, Morbid Visions, burst through the Brazilian underground in 1986 with rhythmic, staccato growls and grunts that are the logical next step to Tom Araya’s style in Slayer. Perhaps the most interesting release of 1986 was Holy Moses’ Queen of Slam because of the use of female harsh vocals provided by Sabina Classen. Interestingly, Classen’s vocals align more closely to the black metal style fronted by Bathory than any pioneering death or thrash metal vocals. Regardless, Classen’s ultra-raspy croaks and howls sound perfectly at home among the deep thrum of thrash metal riffing.
Finally, in 1987, Death released their first full-length album. Employing a vocal style much different than that of his later career, Chuck Schuldiner screams and roars his way into a legendary vocal performance that helped solidify exactly what the term “death metal” meant. The breakneck, technical audacity and sheer heaviness of Scream Bloody Gore would have been left lacking without a suitably audacious and heavy barrage of larynx-shredding screams. Meanwhile, the pioneering black metal band Sarcofago released their opus INRI. Taking the black metal torch Bathory had carried alone for years and finally set down with Hammerheart, Sarcofago crystallized the black metal vocal style with its full rasping, shrieking repertoire. The vocals of Sarcofago are nearly identical to many of the tortured souls whose voices would come to define the second wave of black metal in Scandinavia. Like many black metal bands, the lyrics fiercely oppose Christianity; “Christ’s Death” ends with the lines “Die Jesus, die Jesus Christ, I hate you.” Not exactly subtle. And, like the devil in the old Hildegard play, the lines are delivered in a nearly inhuman voice—profanity at its peak.
Although death metal vocals had come a magnificent distance in only a few short years, the albums we’ve examined so far still don’t quite sound like many modern death metal vocals. They’re not quite as unrelentingly heavy or bestial as many death metal vocalists would come to sound in later years.
Enter Cannibal Corpse. Although it’s a wholly subjective measure, I’m inclined to believe that Chris Barnes was the first vocalist to perfect the current growling death metal style. He was the first to lower his pitch to a distorted, nearly inhuman bassy roar. Barnes sounds more like a pissed-off orc than any sort of human being. Because of their incredible and somewhat bewildering commercial success, it’s fair to say that Cannibal Corpse sounds more like modern death metal because they played such a large part in influencing it. Whatever the case may be, 1990’s release Eaten Back to Life set a new bar for excellence in death metal vocals.
As with all things in metal, there is a constant tendency towards extremity as a form of innovation. The riffs have gotten faster and more complex, the solos are more mind-blowing than ever, the drums are heavier, always faster, and more fluent in polyrhythms. And vocals have grown with metal, becoming ever more grotesque and inhuman and amazing.
I’ll have to cap the history of harsh vocals here in 1990 with that landmark album for now. After 1990, extreme metal escaped its somewhat self-contained boundaries of thrash, death, and black metal and exploded onto the world stage, splintering into countless subgenres and styles, forging their own blackened, unholy histories waiting to be told.