The Zen of Screaming: Vocal Instruction for a New Breed

[23 March 2006]

By Whitney Strub

Tact, prudence, and self-consciousness precluded me from really testing out The Zen of Screaming in my apartment, located in a densely populated neighborhood a bit east of Hollywood. So I had to wait until I was crawling along the 405 in my car to give it a whirl; would anyone find some unrestrained wailing out of place on America’s most congested freeway? Nah, I figured, and let loose with my best Obituary imitation.

Okay, it was pretty feeble, but that’s my fault; after all, it once took me a few hours to make it through a single verse of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” in tune, under the tutelage of a friend’s father horrified by the atrocious vocals of our punk band. So I’m a sort of handicap case, and none of this should reflect upon Melissa Cross, the vocal coach who devised The Zen of Screaming with throat-shredding metal vocalists in mind. Cross, a middle-aged woman with long curly hair and a disarmingly friendly demeanor, has found a niche for herself in the least likely of places, training singers for bands like God Forbid and Every Time I Die how to make their racket without demolishing their vocal cords while on tour.

Plenty of these bands show up to testify and train on this DVD, thus bestowing a certain underground credibility on Cross that your average vocal coach would surely lack. Clearly not all her clients were willing to sacrifice their cool cards and gush; Cross’ website lists metal heroes Cradle of Filth and Arch Enemy among her clientele, but none of them appear here. Nonetheless, the appeal of seeing, say, the burly hardcore dudes of Madball and H20 stumble through funny-sounding vocal exercises brings an undeniable entertainment value to what is essentially a standard instructional video.

As such, Cross divides her Zen into four lesson headings, each with its own set of exercises. She begins with breathing, showing how to create a reserve tank of air by focusing on the expansion of the ribcage rather than inhaling into the upper chest. To teach proper pitch, she has her metal boys biting pencils and projecting “over the pencil”. Sometimes her analogies miss the mark a bit; she tells her viewers to throw vowels like Jackson Pollack painting, when perhaps Mayhem flinging pig heads at its crowd might better speak the language of her intended demographic.

Cross’ exercises have amusing titles, from “dumping” to the “French doorbell” and the “mee-gee monkeys”, which allows her pupils to bond on the road when they hear each other running through them in adjacent rooms backstage. At times Cross’ singing lessons wander afield from the metal theme, pulling in some distinctly un-metal students to display exercises and diverting the DVD from its main appeal, which has much to do with seeing, say, the singer from Lamb of God hum, “ahhh-meeee-oooooooh”. A late section on “Heat and Fire” also provides some disappointment, as Cross broaches the topic of bringing on the guttural roar that distinguishes extreme metal but fails to offer her usual abundance of specificity and detail. Consequently, my car-bound screaming was attentive to breath, tongue, and jaw position, but it sounded closer to the Wolf parts from Green Jello’s “Three Little Pigs” than real metal Cookie Monster vocals.

Metal hopefuls eager to discover the tricks of the trade in the name of emulating their idols may thus be let down by The Zen of Screaming, though Cross’ real agenda is not to teach the basics of metal vocals but rather to teach the preservation of vocal cords under conditions of heightened vocal aggression and duress. To that end, time may be the best judge of effectiveness, although her young protégés eagerly tell of their newfound ability to actually speak after a show, which suggests Cross knows of what she speaks.

As entertainment, The Zen of Screaming has its limits; the band guys are cute in their willingness to show playful sides, but it only goes so far. Enough song rights were procured to show several concert clips, but none of them are sustained enough to really register. To focus on these aspects would, however, miss the point, which is that Melissa Cross has found a way to make dry, boring vocal lessons palatable to the hard-living, overstimulated senses of young metal upstarts. For that, those about to rock should salute her.

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