Ever since Arthur Brown brashly declared, “I am the god of hellfire”, ever since Ozzy Osbourne sang of “Satan sitting… smiling”, ever since Alice Cooper howled and raged so convincingly in “The Ballad of Dwight Fry”, rock ‘n’ roll (heavy metal in particular) and horror have been inextricably linked. As metal music grew more and more extreme during the ’80s and ’90s, so did its horror-influenced subject matter. Cooper and Kiss brought a new sense of theatricality to rock; W.A.S.P. combined campy songs about torture with blood-drenched stage shows (and even made an appearance in the obscure B-movie Dungeonmaster); Twisted Sister referenced The Exorcist on its massively successful Stay Hungry album; the Mentors and Stormtroopers of Death used graphic imagery laced with outrageous, politically incorrect humor; GWAR blended crude hilarity with Raimi-esque buckets of blood; and countless bands continued to reference the likes of Aleister Crowley, H.P. Lovecraft, and of course, good ol’ reliable Satan.
| Now Slaying
For several years, it was Slayer who took lyrical content the furthest; whether singing about necrophiliacs, serial killers, or providing vivid depictions of Josef Mengele’s evil experiments (not to mention lines like, “Bones and blood lie on the ground / Rotten limbs lie dead / Decapitated bodies found / On my wall your head”), it appeared to have the gross-out market covered. That all changed in ’90, when a young quintet from Buffalo, New York arrived and proceeded to unleash some of the most gloriously disgusting songs ever conceived for the next 16 years and counting.
Singled out by Bob Dole during a 1996 campaign speech as being responsible for “a culture becoming dangerously coarse”, and heavily censored in several countries (the sale or display of its first three albums is forbidden by law in Germany), Cannibal Corpse has made a decent living out of shocking the living hell out of the masses and making its devoted fans happy by never, ever changing. Arguably the most popular death metal band in the short history of the genre, Cannibal Corpse has enjoyed a very steady career, spawning ten albums over 16 years and, most impressively, selling over a million copies worldwide with zero (and I mean, zero) radio airplay and, aside from its now-legendary cameo in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994), very few television appearances.
Derived heavily from both the speed/thrash of Slayer and the early death metal of Florida legends Death, the band’s music, especially early on, was never as technically sharp as that of early ’90s peers like Morbid Angel and Carcass. The workmanlike concoction of blastbeats and churning, down-tuned guitars managed to sound solid if unspectacular, which worked just fine considering all eyes and ears have always been focused on the iron-lunged madmen bellowing into the mike, and the truly sick lyrics they spew.
And what lyrics. Lyric writing in metal has never been particularly strong; the bombast of the genre echoes in the words, resulting in somewhat blunt, straightforward themes (hence the fantasy of Dio and the historical accounts of Iron Maiden, for example). While the majority of bands at least make some attempt at poetry (Opeth’s haunting, Poe-inspired lyrics rank among the best of the lot), Cannibal Corpse does just the opposite, and therein lies the band’s charm. As far from poetic as you’ll ever get in metal, the band’s lyrics are blunt to the point of sounding clinical: with songs like “Hammer Smashed Face” and “Meat Hook Sodomy”, you know very well what they’re about.
The band’s early efforts at disgusting the masses yielded decidedly goofy results on its first two albums, as songs like “Covered With Sores” and “Skull Full of Maggots”, icky as they were, were far from being tasteless enough. On 1992’s infamous Tombs of the Mutilated, though, that all changed, as the band hit new highs (or lows, depending on the strength of your stomach) with such jaw-dropping titles as “Entrails Ripped from a Virgin’s Cunt”, “I Cum Blood”, and arguably the most tasteless track of many, the highly graphic and disturbing “Necropedophile”. Try as other similar bands might, few have dared go to the disturbing lengths that Cannibal Corpse has, and pull it all off in such cold, gruesome fashion.
The ultimate “Cookie Monster” vocalist, Chris Barnes has made a living out of creating the most ungodly death growl in history, a monotone roar that some find enthralling and others find just plain hilarious. His vocal work on the first four Cannibal Corpse albums helped set the template that countless death metal bands have copied over the years. In the band’s early incarnation, circa Tomb of the Mutilated, Barnes’s vocals are deep to the point of being indecipherable, which would be annoying if not for his almost superhuman performance.
On 1994’s The Bleeding, his enunciation skills improved greatly, his vocal delivery actually coming close to sounding charismatic (dig those black metal screeches on “Fucked With a Knife”) on what would eventually come to be regarded as Cannibal Corpse’s finest album. Sadly, it would be his last with the band: he was fired in 1995 (but not before partaking in the band’s incredible cover of Black Sabbath’s “Zero the Hero”), leaving him to pursue his side project Six Feet Under full-time. Despite recording eight albums with the equally steady and predictable Six Feet Under, it’s his unlikely collaboration with young Finnish band Torture Killer that has Barnes returning to prominence in 2006.
Heavily indebted to Cannibal Corpse and Florida’s Obituary, Torture Killer was yet another bunch of gore metal wannabes on its 2003 debut For Maggots to Devour. Not long after its lead singer Matti Liuke abruptly left the band in September of 2004, who should come knocking a month later but Barnes. Quickly becoming friends with the band, he took the full-time job as lead vocalist in 2005 and the resulting album, Swarm!, is a pleasant surprise: 35 minutes of no-frills death, the band’s enthusiasm making up for the album’s complete lack of original ideas.
Abandoning the gore of Cannibal Corpse (though Wes Benscoter’s cover art is pretty darn cool) and adopting the style of Six Feet Under, the emphasis on Swarm! (Metal Blade) is more on groove than gross-out, the foursome behind Barnes locked into some very tight, mid-paced tempos. Barnes, who recorded his vocals with Hate Eternal guitarist Erik Rutan in Miami after the rest of the band laid down the instrumental tracks in Finland, sounds as nasty as ever, a little older, a little more haggard, those pipes showing the kind of corrosion that suits this music so well.
While the lyrics are a touch on the rote side, our attention is drawn to the young band that swaggers on the excellent “A Funeral for the Masses” and sounds downright catchy on “A Violent Scene of Death”. The guitar duo of Tuomas Karppinen and Jari Laine tinkers with enticing melodies and harmonies during the climax of “Forever Dead”. Many people will be quick to criticize Barnes for working with a band that often sounds like a Six Feet Under tribute band, but as many oldsters in music are discovering, it’s never a bad thing to perform with younger musicians. The energy the four original members of Torture Killer project, as you can hear in Barnes’s reinvigorated vocals, is contagious as hell.
Barnes’s replacement in Cannibal Corpse, the aptly-nicknamed George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher, proved to be equal to the demanding task as frontman on Vile, the excellent 1996 follow-up to the acclaimed The Bleeding. Not so much an imitator of Barnes’s style than hugely influenced by Death’s great Chuck Schuldiner, who incorporated long, drawn-out screams with his guttural vocal style, Fisher was a perfect fit with the rest of the band. The slickly-produced Vile ranked as its tightest album when it was originally released.
From that point on, the band went on to release four full-length albums between 1998 and 2004, and while the overall sound of the band on record improved (thanks to the involvement of ace producer Neil Kernon), there was little change in the band’s music. Some have accused the band of coasting, but it’s more likely it was simply giving the fans what they wanted: a decent, reliable string of six/seven-out-of-ten albums every time out. However, if there ever was a hint that redundancy was getting the best of the band, it was on 2004’s tepid The Wretched Spawn, and its unintentionally funny song title “Nothing Left to Mutilate”.
Which leads us to Kill (Metal Blade), Cannibal Corpse’s tenth album, arriving right when expectations from skeptics couldn’t be lower. In one of the most pleasant surprises of 2006, it triumphantly proves all doubters wrong. With guitarist Jack Owen having left the band in 2004 to focus on his own project Adrift (leaving bassist Alex Webster and drummer Paul Mazurkiewicz the two remaining original members), Rob Barrett, who played on both The Bleeding and Vile, returns to the fold, providing the revamped lineup with some much-needed new energy. In fact, Cannibal Corpse has never sounded sharper on record; never a band with the most solid musical foundation, producer Erik Rutan (that’s right, the guy who mixed the Torture Killer album) has tightened the screws, streamlining the overall sound and presenting it all in a phenomenal, monstrous mix that is sure to further enhance his growing reputation as one of the finest metal producers today.
And talk about exploding out of the gate: “The Time to Kill Is Now” kicks the album off with Fisher’s eight-second scream, “Kill!” (shades of the opening salvo on Vile), the rest of the band launching into a relentless thrash tempo, Pat O’Brien later ripping into a searing solo, and Fisher hollering a line that sounds less a horror fantasy lyric than the band’s mission statement for the entire album: “Do not doubt our conviction to kill!”
The guitar work of O’Brien and Barrett dominates, treating us to plenty of high-speed technical workouts highlighted by the nimble “Necrosadistic Warning” and the crunching, crushing “Murder Worship” (the breakdown on the latter is a thing of brutally dense beauty). The pair’s dual harmonies are joined by Webster’s intricate bassline on “The Discipline of Revenge”, climaxing in a surprisingly melodic solo by O’Brien. “Make Them Suffer” features an insane breakdown/chorus riff that would make Lamb of God quiver in its boots, while the instrumental “Infinite Misery” completely shifts gears from all the death madness for some good old, turgid doom fun, O’Brien and Barrett delivering their ascending chords over Mazurkiewicz’s lumbering beats before concluding with a hail of atonal, dive-bombing notes.
While Rutan’s meaty guitar tone is perfectly suited for the band’s sound, the biggest improvement on the record is in the drumming; Mazurkiewicz has never been the strongest death metal drummer, but on the new record, he simplifies his performance instead of overreaching, sticking to more of a straightforward thrash metal style and keeping the blastbeats to a minimum. Rutan, whose production on Hate Eternal’s I, Monarch yielded an absolutely massive drum sound, shows enough confidence in Mazurkiewicz to put great emphasis on the drumming in the mix on Kill, achieving a crisp quality reminiscent of Dave Lombardo’s drum sound on the best Slayer albums.
Of course, what would a Cannibal Corpse album be without the disgusting subject matter? Like a virtuoso horror filmmaker, the band hasn’t lost a step in the lyric department. “Five Nails to the Neck” is one of the most unique torture depictions it’s written, the clinical, Patrick Bateman-like descriptions veering toward dark humor of the grisliest sort (“Head is thrashing from the pain / I must nail it to the wood with long sharp nails”). “Brain Removal Device” is, you guessed it, rather self-descriptive, but “Submerged in Boiling Flesh” takes the cake, Mazurkiewicz’s vivid description of the sensation of being boiled alive displaying shocking attention to detail, its horrific imagery unforgettable and harrowing. In other words, quintessential Cannibal Corpse, which is all we ever want from them. Well, that, and a solid-sounding album, and Kill delivers the band’s best work in a decade, perhaps longer.