A death growl, or simply growl, is a vocal style (an extended vocal technique) usually employed by death metal singers but also sometimes used in other heavy metal styles. Death growl vocals have occasionally been criticized for their "ugliness" and for the difficult intelligibility most listeners experience when not viewing the lyrics. However, the intent of growling vocals keeps with death metal's abrasive style and often dark and obscene subject matter. The progressively more forceful enunciation of metal vocals has been noted from heavy metal to thrash metal to death metal and some black metal.
Death metal, in particular, is associated with growled vocals; it tends to be lyrically and thematically darker and more morbid than other forms of metal, and features vocals which attempt to evoke chaos, death, and misery by being "usually very deep, guttural, and unintelligible." Natalie Purcell notes, "Although the vast majority of death metal bands use very low, beast-like, almost indiscernible growls as vocals, many also have high and screechy or operatic vocals, or simply deep and forcefully-sung vocals." Sociologist Deena Weinstein has noted of death metal: "Vocalists in this style have a distinctive sound, growling and snarling rather than singing the words, and making ample use of the voice distortion box."
Death growls are also known as death metal vocals, brutal vocals, guttural vocals, death grunts, growled vocals, low pitched vocals, low growls, unclean vocals, harsh vocals, vocal fry, glottal fry, false cord vocals, death cord vocals and disparagingly as "Cookie Monster vocals". To be done properly, death growls require traditional clean/melodic vocal techniques.
"To appreciate the music, fans first had to accept a merciless sonic signature: guttural vocals that were little more than a menacing, sub-audible growl. James Hetfield's thrash metal rasp was harsh in contrast to Rob Halford's heavy metal high notes, but creatures like Glen Benton of Deicide tore out their larynxes to summon images of decaying corpses and giant catastrophic horrors."
"Singing harsh death metal vocals may seem like it's just a bunch of screaming and shouting, but it's actually a technique that takes a lot of practice to master. You can learn to perform the harsh vocals of death metal by properly warming up your vocal cords so you don't damage them and learning how to breathe and sing from your diaphragm while you add guttural growls to your vocals."
In June 2007, Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre in The Netherlands reported that, because of the increased popularity of growling in the region, several patients who had used improper growling techniques were being treated for edema and polyps on the vocal folds.
Two years earlier, in March 2005, professional vocal coach Melissa Cross released the instructional CD and DVD "The Zen Of Screaming" which is said to have sold hundreds of thousands of copies to date. It is designed to instruct rock and metal vocalists in performing breathing exercises and enhancing range and endurance without damaging their vocal cords.
A much more detailed examination of the required vocal technique of death growls is provided by Chuck Stelzner's essay "Death Metal/Throat Vocal Analysis".
Growled vocals may have been a part of Viking music. In the 10th century, Arab-Spanish Sefardi Jewish merchant Abraham ben Jacob visited Denmark and commented on the local music as follows: "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."
In Hildegard of Bingen's 12th-century allegorical morality play Ordo Virtutum, the role of the Devil uniquely does not employ melodic singing, but is performed in a manner which Hildegard specifies as strepitus diaboli and which is often taken to mean a low and growling voice.
In 1966, The Who released the song "Boris the Spider", which featured death growls sung in basso profondo by bass player John Entwistle. This may be considered one of the first uses of death growl in popular music.
The use of growling, "monstrous" vocals for ominous effect in rock music can be traced at least as far back as "I Put a Spell on You" by Screamin' Jay Hawkins in 1956. Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells, Part Two", from 1973, contains a section from 11:55 to 16:30 featuring extensive use of guttural vocals which are very close in style to the modern "death growl;" however, this effect was created by manipulating tape speed.
In 1969 and the early 1970s, the song "21st Century Schizoid Man" by King Crimson is notable for its heavily distorted vocals sung by Greg Lake. The songs "Iron Man" by Black Sabbath and "One of These Days" by Pink Floyd both contain brief passages of ominously growled, low-pitched vocals (in both cases studio-manipulated) against a heavy background of rock riffs. Other examples are Roger Waters' screams in some Pink Floyd songs, such as "Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk" (1967) and "Careful with That Axe, Eugene" (1968). Punk artists like The Clash, Stiff Little Fingers, Anti-Nowhere League, Amebix, The Plasmatics, 999, GG Allin and Yuppicide also regularly employed gruff-sounding vocals, although not as pronounced as the death growl common in metal music today. The low, raspy, aggressive pitch of Lemmy Kilmister from Motörhead was not unlike the death growl and may be thought of as a precursor to the current style. Kate Bush employed raspy, guttural vocals on the track "Get Out of My House" from her 1982 album The Dreaming.
The advent of the growl as it is used today coincided roughly with the gradual emergence of death metal, and it is thus difficult to pinpoint a specific individual as the inventor of the technique. Different vocalists likely developed the style over time. Female vocalist Sabina Classen of the German extreme metal band Holy Moses performs with growling vocals on their 1982 demo "Satan's Angel". The US death metal band Death (and its precursor Mantas) with its two vocalists—initially Kam Lee and subsequently Chuck Schuldiner—has been cited as among the first bands to utilize growling (although Schuldiner would eventually switch to a more high-pitched screeching, culminating in 1998's The Sound of Perseverance). Other early bands to use the technique include Possessed, Necrophagia, Sodom, Sepultura, Master, Hellhammer, Nuclear Death, Sore Throat and the Danish death metal band Samhain (later known as DesExult). Massacre also employed a variation of the growl. Other bands utilizing growling vocals include Morbid Angel, Napalm Death, Cannibal Corpse, Deicide, My Dying Bride, Nile, Vital Remains, Vader, Mortician, Deranged, Immolation and Suffocation.