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A guttural growl straight from the deepest pits of Hell has just emanated from the throat of Melissa Cross, who follows it up with a giggle.
"See, that didn't hurt at all. But you should see the looks I just got!" she chirps.
That's because the chipper, red-tressed, late-fortysomething voice instructor is screaming, er, speaking via cell phone from a train between her native Manhattan and Long Island. She's trying to illustrate there's a right way and a wrong way to howl a lesson she tries to impart to the dozens of extreme metalcore, screamo, punk, and hard rock singers who come to her studio looking for ways to bellow bloody murder without shredding their vocal cords.
Trained in London as a classical singer, Cross fronted a string of punk rock bands in the late Seventies. "I was screaming my guts out at CBGB but I was studying opera, and what I ended up doing was throwing all that classical technique out the window in order to get the sound I wanted, and I injured myself. But in researching speech pathology and speech therapy and the mechanism of speaking, I figured out how to heal my vocal cords and then discovered ways to scream without hurting myself."
In the mid-Nineties, a friend in Connecticut who was producing a number of underground metal acts implored her to teach her pioneering techniques to some of the singers he was working with who were destroying their larynxes. Once word got out that Cross was the guru of growling, members of Slipknot, Sick of It All, Thursday, Shadows Fall, and even Andrew W.K. and Melissa Auf der Maur eventually showed up at her door. "In the beginning I was a little frightened," she admits with a laugh. "I felt like a little old high school teacher around a bunch of hoodlums, and I thought they were gonna make fun of me, but it was never like that. They're absolutely the nicest guys I've ever met; they're pussycats."
The feeling is mutual. "Most of her clients are roughneck, tattooed metalcore dudes like me," says Lamb of God singer Randy Blythe, who began working with Cross two years ago. "But she has this very nurturing thing that sets you at ease."
Her vocal and breathing techniques which bear names like The Dump, Strapless Bra, and Over the Pencil appear on her new, self-produced DVD The Zen of Screaming, which is legitimately valuable for any extreme screamer-in-training and is entertaining as hell, especially if you wanna see the burly dudes from the hardcore band Madball doing "Eee-e-e-e-yah" warmups while seated alongside the piano.
"Man, I look like a freakin' idiot on there!" Blythe laughs. "At first you feel stupid, but eventually you forget about all of that and realize, 'Okay, this crazy lady is telling me to do all this freaky shit, but it works.'"