Thursday, February 2, 2006
The following is an article by Jim Fusilli that appeared in the February 1st edition of the Wall Street Journal and also online in this location:
While the extreme branch of heavy-metal music known as death metal is defined in part by often-vile lyrics about violence, catastrophic destruction, nihilism, anarchy and paranoia, its singing style is associated with a beloved goggle-eyed, fuzzy blue puppet.
Death-metal vocalizing is also known as Cookie Monster singing, if not in tribute to, at least in acknowledgment of, the “Sesame Street” puppet that blurts in a guttural growl, his words discharged so rapidly that they tend to collide with each other.
All this was news to people at Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind “Sesame Street.” “We have nothing to do with it,” said Ellen Lewis, vice president of corporate communications. “What is it?”
“It’s a whole new thing to me,” said Frank Oz, who originated the voice of the Cookie Monster. “I’ve never heard of it.”
Most death-metal vocalists don’t seem to mind the term. “We think it’s funny,” said Angela Gussow, lead singer for the Swedish band Arch Enemy and one of the few female death-metal vocalists. “We take ourselves too seriously.”
The term is considered derogatory by some metal fans, but it’s an apt description. Issued like machine-gun fire, death-metal vocals are low, guttural and aggressive, with no subtlety, no melody and very little modulation. But unlike the garbled sound emanating from the lovable and occasionally frenetic Cookie Monster, death-metal vocals seem to come from a dark spot in a troubled soul, as if they were the narrator’s voice on a tour of Dante’s seventh circle of hell. Cute and funny they ain’t.
It’s not easy to determine where and how Cookie Monster singing actually began. Early death-metal bands such as Death and Morbid Angel that emerged from Florida in the mid-’80s helped create the musical template that characterized the blasting sound as well as that of its Satan- and occult-obsessed sibling, black metal: fast, relentless drumming often featuring two bass drums; grinding, rapid-fire chording on guitars; squealing guitar solos; muted electric bass; unexpected sudden tempo changes; and a sense of theatricality that’s inevitably threatening–”a horror film put to music” is how Monte Conner, a vice president at Roadrunner Records, sees it.
But while the vocals in early death metal are low, raspy and aggressive, not unlike the vocals by, say, Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead, that extreme degree of Cookieness is missing.
To be a true Cookie Monster vocal, said Mr. Conner, who signed some of the subgenre’s biggest bands, including Sepultura and Fear Factory, “it’s got to be really, really guttural. It should sound like they’re gargling glass.”
Nic Bullen of Napalm Death can sound remarkably like the Cookie Monster; his performance on the band’s 1987 debut “Scum” (Earache)–which contains 28 songs, 11 of which are under one minute in length, including “You Suffer,” which clocks in at less than two seconds–is a virtual Cookie Monster tribute. Frank Mullen of Suffocation, whose 1991 album “Effigy of the Forgotten” (Roadrunner) is considered a model of death-metal music, sounds like an especially malevolent Cookie Monster.
The term also signifies a level of incomprehensibility of the lyrics, which in most cases is absolute. Given the subject matter, that’s probably for the best. Carcass, a band featuring vocalist Jeff Walker, sings in graphic detail of disembowelment and the mechanics of the autopsy. Bloody annihilation is another popular theme among the groups. For most death-metal bands, the gorier the better, and few gruesome details are spared.
“If you want to make music that’s terrifying, you have to sing about ripping people’s heads off,” Mr. Conner of Roadrunner Records told me. “Singing about puppies and kittens isn’t too cool.”
Death-metal singing takes a toll on vocalists, according to Ms. Gussow, who joined Arch Enemy in 2001. She says that despite the characteristic rock-salt-and-razors growl, the sound doesn’t originate in the throat. It gets pushed up from the abdomen.
“If you use the right abdomen muscles, you get a lot of power,” she says. “It’s a primal form of vocalizing, but it’s also a very controlled style of singing. You can get weak if you don’t have muscle power.”
She does vocal exercises to keep fit, some of which she learned from Melissa Cross, a New York-based voice teacher whose instructional DVD “The Zen of Screaming” is a favorite of extreme vocalists.
“We’re on tour, sometimes, for 2 1/2 months,” the German-born Ms. Gussow said. “I can’t miss even a day.”
Mr. Oz agrees that making Cookie Monster sounds is an arduous occupation. “I never trained for it and I blew my pipes out,” he told me. “It’s completely unnatural, an explosion of force that comes from the belly through the throat. I would do a day of it and my normal voice would be a half an octave lower.” (During our conversation, Mr. Oz demonstrated the Cookie Monster voice. The sudden force was startling and the volume so loud, I had to pull the phone from my ear.)
Alas, the Cookie Monster school of death metal is dying, says Mr. Conner. In the late ’80s, popular death-metal bands like Sepultura, Obituary and Deicide sold about 100,000 CDs, not a bad total for bands on the musical fringe. Today’s bands that play only old-school death metal are lucky to sell 15% to 20% of that figure. “I stopped signing death-metal bands in ’93 or ’94,” Mr. Conner told me. “The glory days have long ago passed.”
Part of the reason is a reaction to a natural instinct among pop musicians: a desire to expand the audience. Death-metal pioneers Entombed now leapfrog between the sound of their classic ’89 album “Left Hand Path” (Earache) and more traditional heavy metal. Fear Factory‘s singer Burton C. Bell modified his Cookie Monster vocals that were prominent on the band’s early work in time for its ’99 release “Obsolete” (Roadrunner), which incorporates melodic or “clean” vocals, rap and metal singing without the Cookie Monster edge. The lyrics, clearly decipherable, tell the story of the war between man and machines. “Obsolete” sold more than 500,000 copies, significantly more than any of the band’s previous albums.
Led by 20-year-old vocalist Matthew K. Heafy, who counts Metallica and Pantera as major influences, Trivium also blends almost-Cookie Monster guttural singing with melodic vocals. The music of the Orlando, Fla.-based group echoes classic death metal, but has elements of other heavy-metal schools. Mr. Heafy says: “I can’t even do Cookie Monster vocals. It’s kind of a limited style. You can convey much more emotion with other types of singing.”