By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The black-clad, tattooed viking of a singer stomps around the stage with a microphone clenched against his spittle-spewing lips. Calling this guy a "singer," you realize, is generous — a job title not quite accurate to the duty he performs, which is more shrieking, roaring, growling and screaming. And whether you respect the catharsis of these "death metal" bands or shake your graying locks at these kids today, you ask the same question: How does that guy do that night after night and not completely shred his vocal chords?
One woman has the answer — a short, cheery red-headed PTA mom in suburban New York. Her name is Melissa Cross, but you can call her the Scream Queen.
"I am not your mother," she says by way of introduction on her new DVD "The Zen of Screaming: Vocal Instruction for a New Breed," though she is parent to a 5-year-old boy. "He certainly knows how to scream," she added during a recent phone interview from her home. "He's imitating me all the time."
Cross, 48, is not a physician, but she's the Dr. Feelgood for the latest wave of hard-core bands tagged with such descriptors as "death metal," "death grunt," "grindcore" or "doom rock." She coaches these young men — they're almost always male, though she just picked up a girl from the band Arch Enemy — on how to communicate their passion without destroying their voices.
"They were getting hurt," she says of the bands she saw screaming their lungs out onstage, "and as the genre became more popular and these kids were getting picked up by major labels, I was suddenly the only voice teacher that tolerated them."
Those major labels sought to protect their investments, so they put Cross on speed-dial. She now has a client roster that looks like the soundtrack to the latest big-budget horror franchise, performers such as Andrew W.K. and former Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur, and bands such as Lamb of God, Shadows Fall, Thursday, Killswitch Engage, the Agony Scene and Sick of It All.
Many of these singers give testimonials in "The Zen of Screaming" (now in stores from, appropriately, Loud Mouth). One confesses, "We're no Pavarottis."
Corey Taylor isn't, either. But his band, Slipknot, just won the Grammy for best metal performance. Taylor trained with Cross last year.
Learns to warm up
"It was such a revelation," he said of Cross' vocal techniques. "It's all about movement, warming up the muscles as well as the voice. A lot of times you go out onstage and you haven't done anything with your body, so even if you have a voice that night it just feels dead. Practicing all this stuff all together before I go out lets me hit the stage with everything, ready to go."
Taylor told of an earlier vocal injury, which he suffered after screaming too hard onstage. One of his vocal chords swelled; the injury looked more serious than it was, and for a time Taylor feared his meteoric rock career would end prematurely.
"I would just scream and get the craziest sound I could to vent the emotion. It was destroying my voice," he said. "I've lost a lot of range from doing that, actually. It kind of bums me out."
Cross led her own punk band while training in Shakespearean theater and opera at school in England; she even opened for Black Flag and X. But when she got back to the States, a friend began introducing her to many of the new hard-core bands he was producing as the styles emerged in the mid-'80s. By 1990, she was teaching classical voice full time.
But the rockers kept asking her questions about technique. She decided to turn her informal lessons into something bigger.
Word of mouth
"I had the education to deal with it, so I took them on. They ultimately became well-known — one called Overcast, one became Shadows Fall, another one went to All That Remains. I had Killswitch Engage back then. One client was from Hatebreed, and he never showed up to his lesson. But he told a bunch of people he was coming, and word got around."
Cross has the definition of a sunny disposition. Rosy cheeks, fair skin, and she has lots of tapestries and crafty things lying around. Into her cozy studio walk these hulking tattooed guys.
"Ironically, most of the kids are very soft-spoken and, I would say, repressed," she said. "That's why they do what they do. They're up there screaming because they have to. Their lives are so messed up, and they need the release. Most of them are very humble, polite and idealistic — not the monsters they play onstage."
They come to the Cross studio not so much for technical training but for behavior modification. The key, she said, is to teach them how to channel their emotion — which is the key in these genres — through different physical processes.
"There's always a light bulb moment," she said. "I see it every day. It's a change in the imagery, the ability to divorce the emotional aspect out of the throat. It's like an acting gig: You feel something, but you have the control not to let it permeate the muscles you need to do the work and make the sound. You dissociate somewhat. You feel anger and passion, but you don't make it feel like it sounds. So you can still be in the moment but utterly in control of your instrument."
The passion is what draws her to this music, anyway.
Enjoys passion, power
"I like any music that has integrity. I'm not exclusively a fan of this stuff. I like opera and Beethoven and the Bulgarian Women's Choir. What I really like is the honesty of a performance. This music is full of it. It's theatrical, Shakespearean. At Shakespeare plays they used to throw blood and guts from the stage. It's reality TV onstage. But it can only move you if the performers have what they need to perform — over and over and over. No artistic voice deserves to be silenced just because they felt things too strongly."
A second "Zen of Screaming" instructional video is already in the works. This first installment, oddly enough, contains little actual screaming; Cross promises the sequel will have more. After that, it's "The Zen of Speaking" — tips for "stock traders, aerobic leaders, tour guides, anyone who has to speak loudly for a living."
In the video "The Zen of Screaming: Vocal Instruction for a New Breed," voice coach Melissa Cross knows how to speak to her young rock 'n' roll audience. A sample of some of her vocal techniques, which probably aren't in the conservatory curriculum:
The Strapless Bra
In explaining how to expand the rib cage for maximum air supply while singing, Cross tells a female student about the "Strapless Bra" posture. "You know, if you have one on that's too big, and you have to expand your diaphragm to hold it on while you rush to the bathroom?" Strike that pose.
'Above the pencil'
Cross places an ordinary pencil between the teeth of her students, teaching them the difference between projecting the voice seemingly over it and under it. Over it is the goal, and the difference is clarion.
Or "the brown note," a colorful term for the flexing of a certain group of muscles also employed during, er, gastric evacuation. Is that diplomatic enough?
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.