Voices from hell
The dark, not-so-dulcet Cookie Monster vocals of extreme metal

WHY ARE EXTREME metal vocals so grotesque and indecipherable? Newcomers to the genre often wonder about this – that is, why metal bands spend so much time composing intricate music and detailed lyrics only to go and "ruin it" with those awful guttural, growling vocals.

I felt the same way the first time I heard this sort of thing, on Napalm Death's From Enslavement to Obliteration. "The music's pretty good, but the vocals are terrible," I thought. Napalm Death helped originate the so-called Cookie Monster style of vocals, which has since (d)evolved into plenty of other subtle, sickening variations.

Before going further, it's important to clarify exactly what constitutes genuine Cookie Monster vocals. Really, the only genres in which vocalists use that particular style are death metal and its close cousin, grindcore – bands such as Napalm Death, Carcass, Obituary, and Suffocation, whose focus is, or was, death, decay, and other such existential dilemmas. This vocal style is not to be confused with the rasping, higher-pitched shriek of Norwegian black metal bands such as Darkthrone, the thick-necked barking of weight-lifter metal bands like Pantera, or the anxious roar of current Headbanger's Ball favorites like Shadows Fall.

In fact, the type of growl (or bark or scream) used by the vocalist is a good indicator of which subgenre you're dealing with. It may all sound like Cookie Monster to the general listening audience, but metalheads can tell the difference right away. Neurosis don't actually fit into any of the above categories, since their tribal art metal hybrid is practically its own genre at this point. Plus, half the vocals on their 2001 album, A Sun That Never Sets, sounded as much like Tom Waits as like anything typically hardcore or metal.

The question is, why do musically talented bands like Neurosis, Mastodon, and others use these vocals? For most, it's a mixture of several factors: habit, time-honored tradition, unoriginality, and necessity, in varying degrees.

Most important, though, you have to remember that this isn't supposed to be pleasant music about rainbows and trips to Grandma's house. It's the music of pissed-off, alienated people who are purposefully dwelling on the uglier side of life, or else are trying to temporarily escape it by achieving some sort of catharsis. (The obvious exception: the hundreds and hundreds of bands that are merely imitating others. Every genre has its copycats.)

It helps to try imagining what sort of vocal approach would work better than one of the ones bands already use. It's hard to fathom the guttural grindcore of early Carcass – who were vegetarians repulsed by the idea of consuming meat – without Bill Steer's grisly low-end vocals. Picture Geddy Lee, Ozzy, or Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson singing for them instead. It wouldn't work. Neurosis can enlist someone like Jarboe because their music now has some room to breathe, and it isn't all angry like it used to be, but again, they're an exceptional case.

Finally, whether intentional or not, the grisly vocals of death metal, black metal, and hardcore are an effective repellent against listeners who aren't committed to approaching the music on its own terms. And that's all you can do, because there are no good extreme metal bands that use traditionally "acceptable" vocals. What are the alternatives? Instrumental metal? The Fucking Champs? Forget it. Give me Carcass any day.

Will York