For a band that have held fast to (more or less) the same stylistic approach throughout their existence, Cannibal Corpse have managed to sustain a surprisingly high level of creative vigor when it comes to making new albums. Nevertheless, the Tampa, Florida-based death metal institution, which last year marked the 30th anniversary of their debut album, Eaten Back to Life, was apparently in a position to benefit from a transfusion of new blood. On their 15th album, Violence Unimagined, Cannibal Corpse deliver more of what fans have long come to expect, but with a renewed zest thanks to an unexpected personnel shakeup that ultimately played to the band’s advantage.
It’s not like anything was necessarily missing from the working formula Cannibal Corpse had settled into over the latter half of their career. The same lineup had remained intact for the last five albums in a row, with bassist/co-founder Alex Webster and guitarists Rob Barrett and Pat O’Brien all crafting fully fleshed-out songs on their own before presenting them to everyone else. And, while the band has been clear that their goal is to refine rather than venture very far from its signature sound, all five members had gotten quite proficient at challenging themselves while still working within parameters that had arguably been set in place since 1991’s iconic sophomore effort Butchered at Birth.
Often forced to choose between radical change on the one hand and stagnation on the other, death metal bands face a near-impossible dilemma. Compared to other leaders of the genre, it can’t be overstated how dependable Cannibal Corpse had gotten at delivering the goods, but just enough of a twist to keep fans engaged every time. The band was forced to disrupt its routine in December of 2018, however, by a shocking incident that sidelined O’Brien, an exceptionally proficient lead player who by that point had taken on the role of coming up with some of the most out-there riffs and solos and in the latter-day Cannibal canon. Just days after coming off the road, the guitarist reportedly broke into a neighbor’s home and, according to reports, charged at arriving police with a knife, prompting the use of a taser to restrain him.
At that same moment, as O’Brien was being arrested, a fire at his home led to the discovery of an extensive stockpile of weapons including military-grade flamethrowers, more than 80 firearms, and thousands of rounds of ammunition. As details surfaced, it was reported that O’Brien had called relatives to warn them that the rapture was at hand, and that “aliens have landed”. By coincidence, an announcement had just gone out earlier the same day that the band was confirmed as an opener for a new stateside installment of Slayer’s farewell tour the following May. With headlining Decibel Magazine Tour dates already on the calendar for February/March, the remaining members turned to pedigreed genre veteran Erik Rutan to fill-in on its entire live schedule for 2019.
As the driving force behind Hate Eternal, and as a past member of both Morbid Angel and Ripping Corpse—not to mention an acclaimed producer who had helmed four Cannibal Corpse albums up to that point, as well as records by Goatwhore, Krisiun, Tombs, and Madball—Rutan was the most sensible go-to option. A highly capable player who had shared plenty of stages with the band, Rutan was able to step up on short notice, with plum slots on two high-profile package tours looming. Fans who caught Cannibal Corpse live with Rutan during this period were able to observe how his obvious passion for playing the old material gave the band a shot in the arm.
Watching him perform the songs with such relish, along with his ability to capture the original spirit and tone of the original guitar leads, naturally tantalized fans into imagining what it might sound like if Rutan were to write and record new music with the band. This past February, two years after he initially signed-on as a tentative replacement, it was made official that Rutan had actually become a full-fledged member. As an unexpected bonus, we also learned right then and there that a new album was already finished and set for release. Now that the album is here, it’s even harder to deny that the change has breathed new life into the band’s tried-and-true take on death.
Aside from the fact that Rutan returns to the producer’s chair for the fifth time—once again capturing the band’s relentless attack with crisp, crystal-clear fidelity—he also wrote three of the new album’s songs. And, though the band have often employed dissonance and unconventional harmonic patterns to create a sense of auditory queasiness (a not-unpleasant feeling of being slightly sickened, like during an amusement park ride or a psychological thriller), his pinch harmonics at the beginning of “Condemnation Contagion” open the music up in ways we haven’t really heard from Cannibal Corpse before. Here, Rutan creates a spacey, sci-fi atmosphere that perfectly suits his lyrics, a straightforward meditation on all the dread wrought by COVID.
Meanwhile, Rutan’s James Hetfield-influenced downpicking on the song’s bonanza of riffs will have both air guitar and real guitar enthusiasts eating their hearts out flailing their wrists to try and keep up. The members of Cannibal Corpse have eschewed the “technical death metal” tag over the years, preferring instead to present their music as a meat-and-potatoes take on the genre. Yes, this a band that was designed not to progress, but songs like “Condemnation Contagion” and the Alex Webster track “Necrogenic Resurrection” demonstrate one of Cannibal Corpse’s best-kept secrets, which is that the band’s songs are quite difficult to play. They also require no small measure of ingenuity to write and arrange.
“Necrogenic Resurrection” opens with a riff that falls in the gray area between the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and proto-thrash. That introductory riff is then interwoven with a descending funnel-cloud guitar part that’s played (and mixed) in such a way that it gives the illusion of being in half-time, a pestilent mist permeating the crunch of the other instruments. Violence Unimagined is chock full of discreet touches like this, each song filled with detail upon detail that the ears can feast on over repeat listens. And if you don’t hear the intricacies right away, it’s only because Cannibal Corpse is so good at masking its complexity behind a wall of brute force. So you might be too busy banging your head to appreciate just how voluminous Rob Barrett and Erik Rutan’s library of riffing styles actually is.
Where the career arcs of genre giants like Death, Morbid Angel, Gorguts, Cynic, and Entombed have been defined by constant change, on the other end of the spectrum groups like Obituary and Cannibal Corpse have dug into their respective roles as death metal’s answer to, say, AC/DC and Motorhead. Both bands have adopted something like a chain store’s mentality with regard to branding, where the flavor and aesthetic stays consistent no matter where in their catalog you choose to drop in. Back in 1991, when Cannibal Corpse were still a few years away from etching a permanent place in pop culture with an unforgettable cameo in the Jim Carrey comedy Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Alex Webster was unequivocal about the band’s mission:
“A death metal band,” he stressed during an interview from that time, “should always get heavier and faster. And that’s what we’re going to do each album, never fucking wimping, never wimping-out. [It’s got to get] sicker in the lyrics, sicker with the album covers [with] faster music [that’s] harder to play—everything heavier, always going up.”
Because extremity has a way of becoming unremarkable after enough exposure, it’s hard to say whether Cannibal Corpse have lived up to Webster’s ideal. It’s important to remember that Chuck Shuldiner, along with Cynic’s Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert, had already pushed the genre into prog and jazz realms on the Death classic Human by the same year that Webster gave that interview, while Morbid Angel were well into their pursuit of an ambitious fusion between death metal and classical. Sure, Cannibal Corpse have always made up for their resistance to innovation with an almost punk-like commitment to attitude. But by constraining themselves, Webster and his bandmates have made it all too easy to take their musical chops (including Webster’s three-finger picking technique and his classical-composition influence) for granted.