Denver, Colorado’s Cephalic Carnage is an anomaly in extreme music these days, a technical death metal band that can overwhelm audiences with astonishingly punishing music, yet at the same time have us doubled over in laughter with their irreverent sense of humor. On past albums, the band has taken satirical swipes at the overtly image-oriented black metal (“Black Metal Sabbath”) and the oversaturated, angst-ridden metalcore sound (“Dying Will Be the Death of Me”), and even in live settings, they’re not above taking the odd spontaneous piss-take to bring some levity to a situation. One notorious YouTube clip has a fight starting in the pit at a Cephalic show in Toronto, and in an inspired moment, the band launches into a rousing excerpt from “Eye of the Tiger”, to a raucous ovation from the kids. Sure death metal touches on subjects that are often violent and disturbing, but it’s always good to have some perspective, and as Cephalic Carnage consistently proves, you can be brutal and be capable of lightening up from time to time.
Being ensconced in remote Colorado has meant that Cephalic Carnage has had to work doubly hard to promote their product and cultivate a strong fanbase for the past 15 years, but in recent years, all that effort has finally started to pay off, capped off with 2005’s well-received Anomalies. And now, with many young metalcore fans looking for more extreme musical outlets (best exemplified by the staggering MySpace success of young deathcore band Job For a Cowboy), these veterans appear to be primed for some well-earned success, and their fifth album, Xenosapien, will go a long way toward ensuring that both respect and sales will improve significantly.
The first thing we notice upon hearing the new album is just how much more focused it is than any previous release by the band. While eccentricity can be a good thing (Anomalies had that in spades, which was its most endearing aspect), the five guys in Cephalic Carnage have decided to hunker down and apply themselves enough to take their music to a new level entirely. The proficiency is there, but for the first time, so is the songcraft, and from the get-go, not only is this technically on par with anything they’ve ever done before, but it’s far and away their catchiest record to date.
Although “Endless Cycle of Violence” is as bludgeoning as one would expect, crammed to the gills with blast beats, death growls, and squealing pinch harmonics, it’s all done with remarkable restraint on the opening track, the band sticking to the central theme and resisting flying completely off the handle, branching off into a fantastic, churning breakdown before resuming the blinding fury. Vocalist Lenzig Leal, despite sounding as indecipherable as ever, offers some rather perceptive views on our culture of violence, saying, “TV shows, the mind to kill, images of murder every night / Triggers their brains to be adult-like in every way / A baby-sitter for lazy parents, we can’t control it.” “Divination & Volition” is similar, in that structure is hidden slyly behind a façade of chaos, guitarists Zac Joe and Steve Goldberg alternating between blinding solo fills and massive riffery as Leal skillfully shifts between his guttural death metal growl and a more black metal-oriented screech, while “Molten” follows suit with a scorching combination of grindcore and thrash which, again, remains remarkably focused.
The moments of genre-lampooning comedy are absent on Xenosapien, but as usual, we’re privy to another ode to weed, and these notorious potheads coax a smile out of us on “Vaporized”, a tribute to vaporizers that is as goofy as it is charming in its simplicity (“No carcinogens or nasty resins / It’s a gift from the heavens”). Leal touches on more serious matter on the anti-Catholic rant “Touched By an Angel”, which injects a healthy dose of black metal sounds into the death milieu, much like the great Behemoth does, and the insane technical death of “The Omega Point” segues into a nifty jazz-inspired coda reminiscent of Atheist. And bless ‘em, that jazz element is even more prominent on the stunner “G.lobal O.verhaul D.evice”, a foray into clean melodies that is made all the more breathtaking thanks to guest musician Sanford Parker from avant-metal standouts Yakuza, who provides both soaring vocal melodies and a hypnotic saxophone solo.
Accompanied by a CD booklet designed by Orion Landau that can only be described as mind-boggling in its imagery, Xenosapien might not be as wildly diverse and frantic as Cephalic Carnage’s past releases, but it’s easily the band’s most ambitious effort in years. By scaling back just a touch and letting the music develop into something slightly more concrete and palatable, the Rocky Mountain band has found itself at a higher peak than they’ve ever been before, and even more impressively, at the top of the 2007 death metal heap.