Cannibal Corpse
Photo: Courtesy of Metal Blade Records

A Transfusion of New Blood Revives Cannibal Corpse on ‘Violence Unimagined’

Cannibal Corpse have always exploited violence while doggedly refusing to contemplate what it means. Violence Unimagined thrills nonetheless.

Violence Unimagined
Cannibal Corpse
Metal Blade
16 April 2021

They haven’t necessarily helped their case by refusing to waver from the credo of “sicker in the lyrics, sicker with the album covers” either. The band will no doubt be proud if you’re nauseated by the Violence Unimagined cover art, which depicts a blood-splattered, partially decomposed skeletal monster baring rows of razor-sharp teeth, presumably after she’s helped herself to a meal consisting of human flesh. The latest in a series of pieces by Deadwood comic creator Vince Locke, who has created all of the band’s album covers to date, the Violence Unimagined image is obviously meant to gross you out. 

If the cover strikes you as tame compared to the eye-poppingly grotesque birth scenes depicted on Butchered at Birth and The Wretched Spawn, it should be noted that the cover the band wanted to use this time features the same creature tearing a baby in half, with the mutilated bodies of other victims littering the frame. Of course, when you hear vocalist George Corpsegrinder Fisher shriek “bru-tal-ways-to-dieeeeeeee!” over breakneck guitars on opening track “Murderous Rampage”, the effect isn’t so much horrifying as it is familiar. Once you choose an album cover that shows monsters clawing their way out of a naked woman’s orifices, you can only push the envelope so much before you start to look like a cartoon. 

On Violence Unimagined, expressionless madmen methodically dismember victims with sawblades, ritual-murder captives get wrapped in other people’s skin before being buried alive, etc, etc, with countless other forms of torture inspired by films like Saw and Hostel. But the absurd level of violence isn’t “unimagined” at all, since we’ve heard it a million times. And other than “Condemnation Contagion” and Barrett’s childhood-bullying/revenge tale “Bound and Burned”, Cannibal Corpse once again squander the opportunity to ground their music in real-life horrors that would surely have made a “sicker” impact. Because the truth is that no one is going to get riled-up at this stage of the game: avid horror fans are certainly not going to feel like Violence Unimagined pushes the envelope on the gore they crave; some people will just go “yuck” and look elsewhere, and everyone who listens to the band regardless will basically shrug. 

Even Slayer eventually learned that toning-down the shock can actually maximize the power of the music. “Dead Skin Mask”, Slayer’s nonfictional account of serial murderer Ed Gein, contains no graphic references whatsoever to body parts and yet the song, which focuses on Gein’s internal motivations, is arguably one of the most disturbing—and affecting—in Slayer’s catalog. By contrast, for all the times that Rutan, Barrett, Webster and drummer Paul Mazurkiewicz use the words “suffering” and “agony” in their lyrics—and for all the effort they put into conjuring new and elaborate ways to butcher the human body—most of these songs are utterly devoid of drama. 

If your goal is to keep ratcheting-up the intensity level, shouldn’t part of that goal be to ensure that the music moves people, including you, the creator, most of all? Until Rutan stepped in, if you saw Cannibal Corpse in person over the last several years, the band rarely appeared excited by its own music, looking as glazed-over as anyone who has ever punched a clock and daydreamed about being somewhere else. Swap the songtitles and Cannibal Corpse might as well be Steve Miller when it comes to rolling through a setlist with the predictability of a jukebox. If we diagnose the band’s latter-day detachment onstage, it looks an awful lot like what happens when an artist just isn’t feeling their own message. This is especially egregious when you consider that Cannibal Corpse had never stopped generating heat in the actual execution of the songs. 

For whatever reason, though, the band continues to write as if it views its audience as a worldwide group of adolescents drawing zombies in notebooks. Of course, since we’re talking about the most commercially successful death metal bands in history, the if-it-ain’t-broke adage certainly holds water. Plus, there have been times when the comic-book approach works like a charm—the cadaver performing cunnilingus on another cadaver on the cover of Tomb of the Mutilated, the George Romero-esque bioweapon-gone-awry storyline from the 2009 track “Evisceration Plague”, the dead flesh mutating its way back into living tissue on the new song “Necrogenic Resurrection”, etc. For most of Violence Unimagined, though, Cannibal Corpse maintain a deadly serious demeanor which, paradoxically, forces the listener not to take the music as seriously as it should be taken. 

Webster has noted many times that Cannibal Corpse lyrics should match what the music feels like—a strangely limiting prescription to put on oneself (and on the audience) considering that the arousal inherent to metal can be applied to an endless variety of emotional states. Moreover, it’s just not accurate to conflate aggression, rage, hatred, violence, sadism, and psychopathy as if they’re all interchangeable. Death metal bands, in fact, are uniquely positioned to illuminate those sensations. Instead of going there, though, Cannibal Corpse have always preferred to exploit violence while doggedly refusing to contemplate what it means. On the band’s classic-era work with original vocalist Chris Barnes, for example, you won’t find a single clue about the links between sex and aggression in songs like “Fucked with a Knife” and “Entrails Ripped from a Virgin’s Cunt”. 

To be fair, Fisher projects a completely different aura than Barnes did. Where Barnes appeared to get into character in a way that made murderous urges seem somewhat believable (though much less so lately), the “Corpsegrinder” persona falls closer to a professional wrestler—even as Fisher forgoes the rock-star mystique entirely, preferring to remain approachable, with no separation between him and the audience. A happily married father of two daughters who love Christmas, Lego, Warcraft, and shopping at Target, Fisher has become a popular meme unto himself via his priceless, one-of-a-kind Instagram page, where you’ll often see him posing proudly with stuffed animals he’s won from arcade-style claw machines before he donates them to charity. And, as he revealed on his latest appearance on Hatebreed frontman Jamey Jasta’s podcast, Fisher might even make a Christmas album soon (in his raspy growl, of course). 

Needless to say, if you’re even bothering to contemplate Cannibal Corpse’s choice of imagery, then you’re falling for the same piece of bait that’s been dangling off the same blood-encrusted hook for the last 30 years. Still, you have to wonder why a band that writes songs exclusively about killing people would just go on with business as usual, rather than allow the music to reflect even an inkling of what it feels like when one of your own bandmates appears to have come awfully close to becoming a tragic headline. (Mazurkiewicz’s wife Deana did set up a crowdfunding effort on behalf of Pat O’Brien, whose home was lost in the fire, and the band did issue a brief statement saying that the guitarist was “getting the help he needs”. They’ve declined to comment since.) It would be irresponsible to speculate on whether O’Brien ever harbored any homicidal intentions, and it must also be stressed that Cannibal Corpse has always steered clear of gun violence in its songs. And, though it goes without saying, the band contends that its lyrics aren’t intended as incitements. 

But that’s almost beside the point. In a one-hour special that aired on Canada’s Much Music network in 1994, even two psychologists who disparaged death metal lyrics summarily dismissed any link between music and violence. Regardless, though, it’s certainly fair to pause and consider how all these songs about bloodbaths are supposed to land for American listeners, who now endure actual bloodbaths in the news more than once a week, a truth that’s more horrifying than any torture-porn scenario Cannibal Corpse can think of. It’s not a band’s job to resolve our current rash of gun fatality, but any artistic entity that doesn’t reflect on its mode of expression runs the risk of turning into a ghost ship, a lifeless circus act going through the motions. What purpose does cartoon-level violence serve in a society that’s numb from horrors it can’t seem to come to terms with? 

Nothing on Violence Unimagined (or in recent interviews) indicates that Cannibal Corpse have even considered the question. But guess what? As it turns out, the answer is pretty straightforward: lots of listeners view this music as the perfect remedy for what’s going on outside our proverbial window. And there’s really no argument against that. In fact, you could make the argument that, after a year’s worth of seeing tractor-trailers filled with bodies in bags and rows upon rows of patients in hospital beds fighting to breathe, there’s something reassuring about Cannibal Corpse showing up to do what they’ve always done. Just ask the 11-year-old girl who phoned in to the Jasta podcast to gush about the band. Or, for that matter, ask the women who attend the band’s shows and mouth along to every word of “Stripped, Raped, and Strangled”. 

Like Slayer, Cannibal Corpse have, strangely enough, come to be regarded as harmless—even wholesome—fun, an avatar of a middle-aged brand of metal that Rolling Stone went so far as to anoint as today’s classic rock. At the end of the day, perhaps the most shocking thing about Cannibal Corpse is how smoothly the band settled into their role as a household name that we now take for granted. Not long after Cannibal Corpse formed in Buffalo, New York, the local media took to championing the band as a homegrown underdog to root for—a truly shocking twist in a history that’s chronicled in gloriously rich detail on the three-hour documentary DVD Centuries of Torment which, along with the new album, you can stream in full on the Metal Blade Records YouTube channel. 

On top of all the other achievements, few (if any) other bands can say that they’ve worked with the same record label and cover artist for 30-plus years. Both streaks tell us something about Cannibal Corpse’s commitment to consistency. As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke… Lyrical monotony aside, Violence Unimagined turns the page onto an exciting new chapter of a most remarkable career.

RATING 7 / 10
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