Compelled to Slay

"It's definitely going to get a lot weirder." Cannibal Corpse drummer Paul Mazurkiewicz talks about playing to a click track, the changing tastes of musicians, and staying relevant after 20 years.

Cannibal Corpse

Evisceration Plague

Label: Metal Blade
UK Release Date: Available as import
US Release Date: 2009-02-03

Drummer Paul Mazurkiewicz will be the first to tell you that the past few years have been pretty good to Cannibal Corpse. After churning out albums at a reliable, albeit predictable pace during the first half of this decade, 2006's Kill saw the Buffalo, New York death metal greats sounding reborn thanks to some strong songwriting, brilliant production by Hate Eternal guitarist Erik Rutan, and inspired performances by all five members. The subsequent year-and-a-half-long touring cycle exposed the band to a new generation of young metal fans. In addition, the animated series Metalocalypse helped popularize death metal even more: the show's creators were unapologetic in their Cannibal Corpse adoration, from the brutal, over-the-top violence of fictional band Dethklok to the uncanny resemblance of character Nathan Explosion to vocalist George "Corpsegrinder" Fisher. And in 2008, the band celebrated its 20th anniversary by releasing the lavish Centuries of Torment DVD, its combination of archived live footage and absolutely enthralling three-hour documentary rendering it an instant classic among the metal crowd. Buzz even reached the New York Times, which sung the DVD's praises with as much adoration as the metal magazines.

Of course, brushes with fame aren't foreign to Cannibal Corpse, the band that made a splash with a cameo in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and even had Cher make lunch for them at her home (the photo of the band standing in Cher's closet is one of the DVD's many priceless moments). But with the February release of their new album, Evisceration Plague, on the horizon, Mazurkiewicz and his bandmates are fully aware that after years of slogging away, they just might be on the cusp of something even bigger this time around. "It's definitely a little crazy, a little surreal when you think of being mentioned in the New York Times and stuff, but we've had our little share of things over the years here and there that were a little more mainstream than normal, so it's not completely uncharted territory for us in a sense. But it's definitely going to be a lot weirder coming up, as a matter of fact."

The band might be incredibly busy these days, shooting videos, doing loads of press interviews, and mere days away from a European tour that will be followed by a major tour of Canada in April -- with an exhaustive swing through the United States immediately after -- but Mazurkiewicz sounds indefatigable on the phone, never at a loss for words, speaking in lively, rapid-fire run-on sentences. "It's been a little hiatus since Kill, there's a huge buzz with Evisceration, we're with management now, we've got them working hard on so many different aspects with promotion, we're going to be doing a lot more high profile tours, so this is going to be really the time that we're going to be noticing that and seeing more," he says. "And I'm sure it'll be even stranger than it's ever been for us. At the same time, awesome, cool, we're just trying to take the band to another level if we can, and of course by doing it on our own terms, just playing brutal death metal."

Of course, when describing death metal, the word "brutal" gets tossed around more than a 98-pound emo kid in a moshpit. When it comes to Cannibal Corpse, that overused adjective is not only unavoidable, but completely appropriate. Technicality and dynamic songwriting have always been hallmarks of the band, but first and foremost is the primitive brutality of their sound, which was captured so well by Rutan on Kill, and now even more so on Evisceration Plague, Mazurkiewicz anchoring the sound with the staggeringly complicated plucked basslines of Alex Webster, lead guitarist Pat O'Brien shredding away with precision while Rob Barrett holds the fort with his strong rhythm riffs, and the inimitable Corpsegringer spitting out the rapid-fire lyrics in a roar that can morph into a hair-raising screech without warning. With such potent tracks as the thrashy "Beheading and Burning", the demented riffing of "A Cauldron of Hate", the pummeling "Priests of Sodom", the ominous, lumbering groove of the title track, and the Slayer-esque "Skewered from Ear to Eye", along with a monstrous guitar tone that dwarfs the otherwise massive Kill, this is without doubt the best Cannibal Corpse album since 1996's Vile, and it's easy to understand why Mazurkiewicz is practically beaming at the other end of the line. This album destroys, plain and simple.

"Of course, you want to make the most bone-crushing album at the time and you do what you gotta do, and sometimes the producer wants to do one thing, the guitarist wants to do other things, everyone's going to have different opinions, and you've got to compromise here and there," he enthuses. "And we've done that for pretty much all the recordings we've made, and I know Pat was just never completely 100 per cent happy. On Evisceration, he is as happy as can be, I know that for a fact. This is the guitar sound that he wanted... If you talk to the other guys in the band, everyone's going to be pretty much saying exactly what I'm saying. Those guys are happy, which of course makes me happy."

Essential Extreme

16, Bridges to Burn (Relapse)

Rating: 6

Although this is the Southern California veterans' first album in six years, 16 hasn't lost a step at all. However, when they decide to focus on the sludge more than the hardcore, the album builds some terrific momentum, "Throw in the Towel" and "Man, Interrupted" giving both Down and High on Fire a good run for their money, Chris Jerue's tortured vocals offset by some inspired riffing by Bobby Ferry.

Cattle Decapitation, The Harvest Floor (Metal Blade)

Rating: 8

After a couple of impassioned but inconsistent albums, the San Diego band has finally gotten it right. The insane musicianship still dominates, as do the ever-present militantly vegan lyrics, but what wins us over are the clever arrangements, which dare to step outside the usual death/grind shtick from time to time, creating songs that resonate more than rant, as on "We Are Horrible People", "Regret & the Grave", and the surprisingly moody title track.

Ross the Boss, New Metal Leader (Candlelight)

Rating: 7

Manowar's coolest member (erm, ex-member) makes his long-awaited return to metal, and in so doing, has shown his ex-bandmates what they've been so dearly missing for the last 20 years. A master of the simple, classic metal riff, Ross's charismatic style is all over this record, and while formulaic, it's classy, fun, invigorating melodic metal that works the formula expertly.

One of the more likeable aspects of Cannibal Corpse has always been Mazurkiewicz's drumming, a loose, groove-fueled style that lends humanity to the band's death metal sound that many of the more technically adept, robotic blastbeaters that dominate the genre today can't quite capture. However, Mazurkiewicz took it upon himself to tighten up his drumming sound even more on Evisceration Plague by playing to a click track during recording, for the first time ever. "I've been playing drums for 20-plus years, and I've never done it," he admits. "It's one of those things -- I just play our kind of music for the most part, I don't look at myself as being some renowned drummer who can do everything on the drums, which I can't. I just focus on what I do in Cannibal Corpse and always have. So it was a little bit weird, but I think the time was right. We're older, we've been around, it's [like], what can you do to get better, what can you do to keep constantly improving, and I think it was one of those things where you look and you go, 'Man, why didn't I do this ten years ago?'"

Laughing, he continues: "It was tough at first, it was very tough. I think that's why I was always fighting the notion of playing with a click -- it was always against my thought of drumming, I was more of a wild, in your face, spastic kind of drummer back when I started, never formally taken lessons or anything like that, so I just always looked at it as my own style of drumming and my own art form in a sense... But it really helped me personally as a drummer, tightening up a little bit. Of course it made the recording all that much tighter, so it really was beneficial, and I think everybody's really pleased that we did use it, and I'm so happy with the way it turned out in the end."

While using the click track was Mazurkiewicz's idea and not Rutan's, it's that impetus to work harder than ever with Rutan at the helm that has made the last two records so strong. "[Erik's] a good friend of ours of course, he's a death metal guitarist in a great death metal band, he's one of the guys," says Mazurkiewicz. "He's basically our age, we're just hanging out with one of the buddies. It's kind of surreal looking at him, he's the guy producing our record, and this is a guy we've been playing shows, hanging out, and watching football with... He just really tries to bring out the best, that's the good thing about Erik. He's a workaholic. The guy just doesn't stop. He can push and work, he's a perfectionist, so he's going to want to do the best that he can do, and he's going to want to bring the best out of you as a musician. He's going to work you. And you work for him, because you know how hard the guy works, so of course you want to make him happy as well."

Having spent much of 2008 writing and rehearsing the new album, the band was very well-prepared when they headed into Rutan's Mana Recording Studio in St. Petersburg, Florida, but of course, that's not to say there weren't the odd speed bumps along the way. "We knew what we needed tone-wise and guitar sound-wise, what we needed to get done prior to going in, so we were as prepared as we could be, which of course helps, but there's always going to be those things that just happen in the studio, whether it be performance, tuning issues, things that you run into," Mazurkiewicz explains.

"'Priests of Sodom' is a hard one. That was one that took a while, especially playing with a click track. Now, that's where you're coming back to that [feeling that] this is a different ballgame. Some of the songs were a little straightforward and easier to play to the click, a song like 'Scalding Hail' or 'Beheading and Burning'. They're straightforward, there's not much going on in the way of different drum patterns or anything, so they were pretty easy to do. A song like 'Priests of Sodom', which has got a lot of off-time stuff going on, makes it a lot more difficult to play to the click. So I would get frustrated, I'm playing as best as I can at practice to the click track, and I'm pretty close here and there, I can say I probably never nailed it 100 percent, but I was, I have to do this in the studio, and I knew it was going to be one of the hardest ones to do just for that reason. So that one took a bunch of tracking and a bunch of time to get that one done."

Part of the Cannibal Corpse experience has always been the band's graphic depictions of violent acts. Their songs approach the gory scenarios with the twisted glee of a teenaged Fangoria reader, but while the graphic themes certainly won't be ditched anytime soon, it's clear that on both Kill and Evisceration Plague the band would rather place more emphasis on their rejuvenated songwriting and constantly improving musicianship. "We're coming up with good music, we proved it a couple of times, especially with Kill," Mazurkiewicz says. "That's one that I don't understand when they say, 'What's with Evisceration Plague, the album cover is not as brutal.' It's like, did you see what Kill was? Kill was nothing! At least it has our work. And open it up, and you'll see what you see inside. We've had Vince [Locke] do another piece. Everybody just thinks that it's always going to be like the old days and we're always going to release something like Tomb of the Mutilated. It's kind of funny in a way, but I think the music is really standing for itself these days. There's always going to be those couple detractors that want it to be the way it always was."

While today's teenaged metal geeks display their astonishing guitar and drum chops on homemade YouTube videos, Cannibal Corpse isn't worried at all about being out-shredded or out-blasted by kids 25 years younger. You can cram as many notes or beats into a song all you want, but without an actual song you're nothing, and while many new death metal or deathcore bands have yet to grasp that idea, Mazurkiewicz and his mates continue to go at their own deliberate pace, constantly evolving yet never overreaching, sticking to what they do best, which, quite frankly, remains better than most of their death metal peers right now. "I think that's just a natural thing over time as well, when you figure how you grow as a musician and what your tastes become," he says. "When we started out, we were riding this wave of thrash that was becoming death metal when we started playing music in the mid-'80s. As you get going as musicians and you're loving different styles of music, something comes out -- 'That's amazing, listen to those guys.' Like Alex has changed over the years. When Alex started as a bass player to where he is now, it's amazing how great he has become. He always was a great bass player, but I'm definitely sure that if you talk to him about that, he'd attribute it to listening to more jazz bass players, different kinds of music that really inspire him to be a better bass player and to know more and to do more.

"When you think about the last decade, Pat's been around that long now, a little over, and you think of how you've grown as a person and as a musician, I think it's just night and day in a sense. And that's good, you've got to constantly keep on growing and keep on learning and keep on improving. That's the way it should be in life in any aspect. We've all kind of matured. It's weird, you've been doing this your whole life in a sense, for 20 years now, and obviously you have to still have a sense of being like a kid back when you started, to have the energy and to be able to go out and do it on a daily basis. You have to still have that, but of course you still have to go, well, I'm an adult now, I'm an older person. Myself especially, I'm married and have a little girl, so you look at things a lot differently, but it should all be done in a positive sense and help you move forward with what you do, and with us, that's playing music. Here we are 20 years in, 11 albums in, and we're about to release our best album yet. It's crazy."

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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