Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Delivering the death metal: A new Cannibal Corpse LP

The death-metal band Cannibal Corpse released a new album this past September: A Skeletal Domain, their 13th LP. As with the prior two Corpse records, 2012's Torture and 2009's Evisceration Plague, it took me a second to come around to ASD. What typically happens is that I register the fact of the album release without really registering its considerable significance to me, a serious Corpse fan. I spin the record once, half-listening and thinking, "Yep, another Cannibal Corpse album" (you'll often read this sort of dismissive phraseology applied to the Corpse; Brooklyn Vegan recently wrote that ASD was "notable simply for being Another Cannibal Corpse Record"), and then I move on. Some weeks or months later, I think to myself, "Wait a minute, a new Cannibal Corpse album?!" Then I load the record onto my iPod, and the serious engagement begins. This time around, it took a couple tries. Even after I started listening closely, I wasn't crazy about ASD. But within the past week or so, something has clicked: I've been spinning ASD obsessively, and I'm now thinking it might be the best Corpse disc of them all.

As I've discussed here before, Cannibal Corpse turned a corner with 2006's Kill. In my opinion, that's when the latter-day incarnation of the band—fronted by George "Corpsegrinder" Fisher, who replaced founding vocalist Chris Barnes back in 1995—really got their shit together and began cranking out truly elite product worthy of their elder-statesmen status within the death-metal realm. I believe that, taken together, Kill, Evisceration Plague, Torture and A Skeletal Domain are the best that contemporary death metal has to offer. Not necessarily the most challenging or the most innovative, or the most extreme or harsh or thought-provoking or unsettling or what have you, but simply the best. This is death metal that perfectly balances technicality and brutality, chaos and catchiness. These are albums you can play all the way through, again and again, full of songs that sound great on record or onstage. Like most great music, the recent Cannibal Corpse output is music you can use.

A veteran band besting themselves with each album. Not just upholding a standard but pushing. This is not a common phenomenon. As evidenced by the Brooklyn Vegan quote above, it's not the sort of career arc that's going to gain you much respect outside your own die-hard fan base. But death metal is, at its core, an insular art form. I recently stumbled across a making-of documentary dealing with The Wretched Spawn, the Corpse album that preceded Kill. There are many beautiful moments here, many of them dealing with the idea of the fan/band symbiosis, and the members' gratitude at being able to do what they love for a living. At 32:45, drummer Paul Mazurkiewicz says, "That's our job: delivering the death metal." Fisher follows him up: "This music is everything to me. It's given me so much, and the fans have given me, and all of us, more than we could ever give back. But we try to give back."

I'm still somewhat iffy on mid-period Corpse, the years between when Fisher joined the band and Kill. But when I've heard each of the prior three Corpse records, I've heard exactly what Mazurkiewicz and Fisher describe above. A band giving back, delivering the death metal. Professionals doing their job. ASD upholds this standard. There is so much craft and care and love, and so little bullshit, on this record. Barnes-era Cannibal Corpse had a certain seedy grime to it. (Yesterday, I stumbled across this incredible 1994 soundboard boot, which captures that lineup in its prime.) Corpsegrinder-era Corpse, on the other hand, is all about the fury, the relentlessness, the onrushing mincing machine that is the band's riff factory / nervous system: guitarists Rob Barrett and Pat O'Brien, and bassist Alex Webster, the Corpse's three principal songwriters.

Like the last couple Corpse discs, ASD actually improves as it goes on, growing steadily more demented and adventurous. The first three tracks are total anthems—clear future live staples. The title track and "Headlong Into Carnage" up the speed and intensity and breakneck Corpsegrinder word-munching to near-absurd levels. "Icepick Lobotomy," probably my current favorite track on the record, shows off two of late Corpse's signature moves: the agonizing doom breakdown (:33) and the thrilling uptempo 6/8 rock-out (2:00). "Vector of Cruelty" is one of the grooviest songs in the band's discography, orbiting around this sort of cruising midtempo feel, while "Asphyxiate to Rescuscitate" is one of the most manic and mathy, frantically juggling five- and seven-beat clusters. The last track, "Hollowed Bodies," starts off with a needling blast-beat riff that harks back to the Barnes-era heyday of 1994's The Bleeding, and goes on to effortlessly juggle tempos and feels—there's no last-track curveball here; just more Corpse-y excellence.

Basically, you finish the album and you want to play it again. There's no drop-off. ASD is just the latest example of Cannibal Corpse giving back, delivering the death metal. There's no ceremony about it. The next chapter is built in. You know the next LP will arrive in two or three years and you know it will be humbly outstanding. You know the casual spectators will take it for granted. You know the fans will show up to the concerts. You can count on this reliable cycle, and though you might grow temporarily numb to it, you know that when you hear what the Corpse does next, you will remember why they are at the forefront of their genre, 26-plus years after they started. It's a simple matter of releasing quality product. Of evolving without losing the thread. Of balancing immediacy and cleverness. Of doing their work lovingly and with full commitment. Art and craft, craft and art. Job, done; death metal, delivered. Fans, like this one, happy as hell.

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