Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Baroque riff serration: In praise of late Cannibal Corpse

 In 2001, Gary Giddins wrote:

"Let's be bold: The David S. Ware Quartet is the best small band in jazz today. I realize that I will almost certainly hear another quartet, or trio or quintet or octet, this week or next, that will make me want to backpedal. But every time I see Ware's group or return to the records, it flushes the competition from memory."
I loved this proclamation when I first read it—the definitiveness of it, the employment of critical license (whatever that might be) to say, "This thing that I think simply is so." Over the past week or so, I've been feeling like making a similar statement re: the realm of metal (specifically death metal, though I'm comfortable with the "extreme" qualifier):

Cannibal Corpse is the best band in extreme metal today.

Some of my greatest musical pleasures over the past few years have involved reengaging with bands I'd previously thought I'd apprehended entirely and moved on from. (One biggie would be Obituary; I also recently awakened to the glories of Immolation, though in the latter case, I was starting from scratch.) Cannibal Corpse definitely falls into that category. Growing up as a death-metal fan, I was blinded by my love for Morbid Angel. Around the time of their 1993 masterpiece, Covenant, Morbid had reached peak arrogance. I remember reading interviews with them where they'd dismiss the entire genre of death metal with a sneer, and simply state, in so many words, "We are the best, the only, practitioner of this music that matters." At the time, and for many years afterward, I tended to agree. I listened to a lot of other death metal in the early-to-mid ’90s—Deicide, Obituary, Cannibal Corpse, Disincarnate, etc.—but when I wasn't spinning Morbid records (Covenant and Domination, in particular), it was like I was taking a break. I agreed completely with their self-assessment; Morbid's output did in fact sound 1000 times richer and more distinctive to me than all the rest. They had the most memorable songs ("God of Emptiness," "World of Shit," "Nothing But Fear," "Dawn of the Angry," etc.—all still some of my favorite metal tracks, "extreme" or otherwise), the most outlandish personalities (Trey Azagthoth, the death-metal guitarist who dared to thank not only Anthony Robbins but characters from Street Fighter II in his liner notes) and, on Covenant at least, the most brutal, immediate, uncanned production. Other death metal, to me, was really a competent and—since I happened to be an insatiable metalhead at the time—moderately effective fulfillment of a certain set of conventions: blast beats, growling, lyrical and visual garishness, etc.

I should say, though, that Cannibal Corpse's fourth album, 1994's The Bleeding—an album that A) contains songs such as "Fucked With a Knife" and "Stripped, Raped and Strangled" and B) was purchased for me at Streetside Records in Overland Park, KS, by my mother as a reward for attending a Jewish Sunday-school retreat—deserves an honorable mention in that regard. No, it wasn't Covenant, but it was, and still is, an uncommonly varied, well-crafted and enjoyable set of death-metal songs, about three fourths of which I can still sing the riffs from on command ("Staring Through the Eyes of the Dead" features one of the grooviest death-metal riffs you'll ever hear, while the title track boasts a head-smackingly simple yet completely unshakable low-to-high caveman guitar part). I had the three prior Cannibal Corpse albums as well, but they all seemed to pale in comparison to The Bleeding. I didn't spend enough time with the debut, Eaten Back to Life, to develop a real bond with it, and aside from the immortal "Hammer Smashed Face," which, as everyone knows, appears in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, 1992's Tomb of the Mutilated and 1991's Butchered at Birth seemed to have little to offer than shock. Simply put, the playing wasn't that good, especially on Tomb; the band just sounded thin and flimsy to me: a rickshaw in comparison with the unstoppable tank that was Morbid Angel. And the production was simply godawful. Really all there was to fixate on was the unspeakable offensiveness of the song titles ("Entrails Ripped from a Virgin's Cunt," e.g.) and the absurdly low cavebeast growl of frontman Chris Barnes.

I now realize that in this era—again, as demonstrated particularly well on The Bleeding—Cannibal Corpse had one of the more impressive guitar tandems in extreme metal: Jack Owen (who later went on to play in Deicide) and Rob Barrett (who rejoined the band in the mid-aughts and still plays with them). But my real loyalty was with Barnes—along with Deicide's Glen Benton, probably my favorite non-Azagthoth death-metal "character" (and that's how I thought of these guys then, like action figures or something, because I never got to see any of these bands like at the time; my exposure to them was entirely through reading Metal Maniacs, Rip and various smaller fanzines). Barnes was/is an affable, pot-loving dude with a terrifying presence/delivery and a sick, sick mind. (I should say here that I really like Undead, the new album by Barnes's still-thriving post-Cannibal band Six Feet Under.) In the latter regard, the Tomb of the Mutilated chapter in Precious Metal is well worth your time.

Anyway, so right about the time I started drifting away from my first phase of die-hard death-metal fandom in favor of what I'll call, for lack of a better term, a wide variety of "indie" music (ranging from craw and Dazzling Killmen to Hoover, Fugazi, June of 44, Karate—whom I just listened to last night and found to be awesome—Slint, Tortoise and what seems like 100 others), Chris Barnes left Cannibal Corpse. I remember hearing Cannibal's first post-Barnes, post-Bleeding release, 1996's Vile, and feeling crestfallen. It seemed to me that just as Morbid Angel did when they first split from classic-era frontman David Vincent (who's been back with the band since the mid-aughts)—read more about my gradually evolving opinion on Morbid's post-Vincent period here—Cannibal Corpse had backpedaled into generic-ness, a state of contentment re: simply executing a subgenre rather than defining or expanding it. I didn't give Vile much of a chance at the time; after all, as described above, I was fixated on other styles, other avenues of underground, rock-based intensity. But all the same, I knew that the time had come to take a break from caring all that much about what the Corpse was up to.

Flash forward a decade, to 2006's Kill. Somehow this record ended up crossing my desk at Time Out New York—"somehow" is probably a bit of a stretch; I probably heard about the album and sought it out for nostalgia's sake—and I remember being straight-up shocked by how tight, aggressive and musically ambitious it was. Kill was still, in its way, a relatively straightforward death-metal statement, but unlike Vile (and again, I'm still basing my statements on that record on my contemporary opinion; I've yet to go back and revisit it, and I really need to), it sounded ferocious, overwhelming, utterly state-of-the-art—even progressive, which is a description I'd never thought I'd use with respect to the Corpse. I suddenly realized that a band I'd condemned to second-rate-ness was nothing of the sort.

I'm still playing catch-up re: their discography between The Bleeding and Kill—four full-lengths, from 1998's Gallery of Suicide to 2004's The Wretched Spawn, all featuring vocalist George "Corpsegrinder" Fisher, who's still in the band and who at this point has been with them a lot longer than Barnes was—so it's hard for me to pinpoint exactly what went down between the Corpse and me. Did I just happen to reawaken to the glories of death metal right around the time that they put out Kill? Or was Kill really a major quantum leap for them? Again, I haven't really spent good enough time with those ’98–’04 releases to answer that accurately—aside from the records themselves, which I've got a date with, the awesome and exhaustive Corpse documentary Centuries of Torment is a good source to consult—but I will venture that Kill was an important chapter marker in the Cannibal Corpse saga. For one, it marked the return of Rob Barrett, who had played on both The Bleeding and Vile, and secondly, it was the band's first collaboration with producer Erik Rutan, best known to many as the guitarist-vocalist-mastermind of Hate Eternal, but best known to me as the auxiliary guitarist in Morbid Angel around 1996 and the composer of some of the strongest, most moving material on Domination.

To bring things up to date, this past March, Cannibal Corpse released Torture, their 12th proper LP and their third in a row with Rutan at the helm; that's the album cover you see at the top of this post. It is an absolutely outstanding record, a leading contender for the best metal album I've heard in 2012. (And, like the previous two, it sounds gloriously crisp, full and alive.) It's had the effect of rendering me completely addicted to this latest Corpse renaissance; for the past week or two, aside from various obligatory, assignment-related (and, I should mention, not remotely unenjoyable!) listening and some choice pop (Gotye! Carly Rae Jepsen!), the only records I've voluntarily subjected my ears to are Torture, Kill and the record that falls between them, 2009's Evisceration Plague. I'm starting to feel that this trilogy (for now, at least; hopefully, the Corpse will continue to release excellent records for years to come) represents the peak of what I value in contemporary death metal. Artists such as the ones I mentioned above, Cannibal Corpse included, defined the genre in the late ’80s/early ’90s, and after that initial burst, the genre seemed to calcify, to cease its rapid evolution (a few freak outcroppings like Death excepted). But hearing these records, I can definitively state that late-stage death metal has become its own beast.

Cannibal Corpse may have a relatively limited sonic domain. In other words, their progression doesn't entail obvious face-lifts such as those you might see in the work of, say, Mastodon—the kind of facelifts, I'm slowly realizing, that may elicit a bunch of Oohs and Aaahs off the bat but that don't really amount to all that much in the end. But on the micro level, since the early ’90s Cannibal Corpse has evolved as impressively as just about any rock band I can think of. Most prominently, their work now has a kind of tech-forward giddiness that it never had in the early ’90s, a delight in acrobatic precision. At the same time, though, the band has retained that essential caveman edge that made classic Corpse jams like "Stripped, Raped" so much fun. And though I still don't think that Fisher is as distinctive or compelling a frontman as Barnes, his sheer power and almost comical relentlessness perfectly fits the steroidal direction the band has taken on Kill and the two subsequent releases.

I mentioned "tech-forward giddiness" above. At the end of the day, my favorite thing about these three Corpse records, and about most metal that's dear to my heart, is the sheer quality and quantity of RIFF. Just about every song on these albums features some kind gonzo stunt riff, repeated enough times and articulated clearly enough that it sticks in your mind's ear like melted chewing gum. These are the kinds of riffs that you hear once, and you're like, "What in the fuck was that?!?" Then you hear them a second time and you're like, "Oh, hell yes." Like many of my favorite rock bands, Cannibal Corpse boasts multiple songwriters; in the current incarnation, all members except for Fisher—Barrett, guitarist Pat O'Brien, bassist Alex Webster and drummer Paul Mazurkiewicz—are writing, and there's a sense in which they're trying to outdo each other, to see who can achieve the perfect balance of complexity and catchiness. (And let's not forget variety; Evisceration and Torture feature some colossally heavy slow songs—"Evisceration Plague," "Scourge of Iron"—that perfectly complement the uptempo burners.) Not every track succeeds in both respects, but very few songs on any of these three albums feels anything less than ragingly committed.

Watch a feature-length Corpse vid like Global Evisceration and you'll see that what they really are, in the end, is a fan's band. You'll rarely hear from a group that seems to have a better appreciation of the privilege of making a living playing underground music, and along with that appreciation comes a very high personal standard. In Global Evisceration, you'll hear the band talking about set lists, and how they always make an effort to play at least one song from every one of their albums during their headlining gigs. Their records aren't just obligatory merch items; the band is committed to building a quality catalog, both because that's just what long-running bands ought to be doing and because it makes for killer, jukebox-style live shows.

To go back to the Morbid Angel example: It's been a long, slow process, but in the end, I've had to admit to myself that Morbid's 2011 "comeback" effort isn't ultimately a very good album (nor is it total crap either, though!). A cool diversion, maybe, but it says a lot that the band isn't paying it much mind live; when I saw them at Deathfest last month, they were great, but they did not behave like a band that was terribly proud of their newish album. They played two songs from Illud Divinum Insanus, squashed in the middle of what was essentially a greatest-hits set. Cannibal Corpse, it could be argued, simply doesn't have as many "hits" as Morbid does; they didn't produce a trilogy of early albums as world-beating as Altars of Madness, Blessed Are the Sick and Covenant. But if you were to ask me who was the more vital band today, at this very moment, I would say Cannibal Corpse without hesitation. As you can hear on Torture, Cannibal is a band that is as psyched to be crafting straightforwardly fulfilling death metal as their fans are to consume it. And if they're not evolving in immediately obvious ways, they've taken huge steps when it comes to the details. In terms of not only speed and precision, but also re: sheer exhilaration of riff and the ability to bottle that lightning into fully coherent songs—that latter part being, again, the ultimate criteria by which I judge most metal I listen to—I don't think there's a better active-duty extreme-metal band in existence.

Here are five great tracks from the Torture/Evisceration Plague/Kill trifecta. (I hesitate to say they're my "favorites" because there are very few selections on these records that I don't unequivocally love.) I encourage you to buy these albums, because they really benefit from a proper-fidelity listen.

"Intestinal Crank" (Torture):

Key riff sequence begins at :30; it consists of two 5/4 groupings, each with a straightforwardly pounding beginning and a cool flourish at the end. The first time around, that flourish is just a little squiggle, but the second time (listen specifically at :43), it's grotesquely elongated, a writhing, trilling worm of a pattern. (Also, can't beat that five-beat stomp during the intro, a fave device in late-period Cannibal Corpse.)


"Beheading and Burning" (Evisceration Plague):

Note esp. the irregularly squealing eel of a 9/4 riff that begins at :32. (There's something about the current Corpse guitar method that always gets me thinking along serpentine lines.) The squealing eel comes back in a mutated form around :59 (this time, the riff's in 10/4, I think) and then spirals out into proggy delirium. Some death metal wants to suffocate you, but this style is all about the quick, exacting slice.


Make Them Suffer (Kill):

A classic Corpse fist-pumper here, maybe the catchiest track of their late period. So many tasty details in the early part of the song, including the drama-heightening guitar break at :28, but what really gets me is the whole breakdown section, which starts in earnest around 1:25. You get this neck-snapping, almost rappish slam riff, followed by the rapidly jostling 1-2-3-4 "Make them suffer!" repeated accent. That sequence returns again after the 2:00 mark, preceded as before by a weird groaning, squiggling variation (around 2:10). From 2:17, it's just head-kick after head-kick, till you're flattened. 


Rabid (Torture):

These three albums all have gems buried deep within the tracklists. The chugging, filigree-choked pattern that starts around :15 into "Rabid" (the 11th track out of 12 on Torture) makes me deliriously happy. It just. Keeps. Going. Unspooling into total madness. In these riffs, I hear the kind of friendly competition that inevitably arises in a multi-songwriter band. Each composer is constantly on the hunt for the sickest riff, the one that will send the other members, not to mention the listener, reeling. The section is both completely excessive and impossible to forget.


Scalding Hail (Evisceration Plague):

Nothing too fancy here; just a textbook late-Corpse slammer. But then you get another ecstatic squigglefest around :25 seconds. I love how this band crams so many wrinkles into such a small amount of musical space, and how each one is so starkly audible. Yes, Cannibal Corpse is a technical band, but you'd never describe them as "tech metal." What they really are is a turbocharged thrash band—in the current issue of Decibel magazine, Alex Webster says something to the effect of "If you don't hear Slayer in Cannibal Corpse, you're not listening hard enough"—forever fixated on ingeniously baroque riff serration. You always know they're going to come back around to these patterns, give you another crack at them, and give them another chance to worm their way into your brain.

1 comment:

Chris P said...

That was a great read... i can relate to the joys of rediscovering/reembracing/reassessing artists/groups that i thought i was done with aside from nostalgia, especially artists that common wisdom hold as having stellar early careers and average recent output (of late for me = Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Wynton Marsalis)... on the metal front, not so much rediscovering as discovering = Death! I can't believe i slept on this group and am *thoroughly* enjoying digging into their back catalogue. Cheers.