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.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Vision Festival: NYC North Star

Last night, I caught an extraordinary set by the Darius Jones Quartet at Vision Festival 17, which runs through Sunday at Roulette. (I very much enjoyed what I saw of the Farmers by Nature trio—with Craig Taborn, William Parker and Gerald Cleaver—and Parker's own In Order to Survive quintet, but the Jones band hit me the hardest.) The performance centered on a series of heart-rending ballads. Jones sounded as precise and openhearted as I've ever heard him. Every time I go see him, I'm struck by the care and gravity he puts into each phrase; even if the passage is a delicate one, he gears up, bears down, applies enormous psychic pressure. The notes have a vocal cry—smooth, yet with rasp always threatening to creep in around the edges, like peppered honey—but they're sculpted and purposeful.

The same goes for Jones's suitelike compositions. By "free jazz" standards, they're compact and accessible; they have movement and narrative drive. (The episodic, busy-to-sparse "You Have Me Seeing Red" and the tender "The Enjoli Moon" are two that stuck in my head.) When they work up to a screaming peak, that peak is earned, contextualized. The rest of the band—pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Ches Smith—sounded really alert and attuned, but each time Jones entered, I felt a different kind of grip on my brain and heart. He's entered a new phase of maturity with this project. Its emotional spectrum is total. (Hear for yourself on Book of Mæ'bul (Another Kind of Sunrise), out now on Aum Fidelity, which celebrated its 15th anniversary at last night's Vision gig.)

As I listened I thought about my history with the Vision Festival, and how I might not have appreciate a set this nuanced and straightforwardly beautiful had I seen it back in 2000, when I first attended the event. (I volunteered at the fest that year, via my DJ-ing gig at WKCR, and I remember a fun afternoon spent folding programs in the company of heavy players like Alan Silva and Mat Maneri.) At that time, I had a real stake in the idea of avant-garde-ness in music. I was looking for a kind of assault, the freer, longer, more difficult and abstract—and often, louder—the better. I remember countless variations on this idea from various Vision Fests: a set by Peter Kowald's trio with drummer Gunter Sommer and a monster of a David S. Ware solo performance at a space above St. Marks Place; the 2 Days in April band with Fred Anderson, Kidd Jordan, William Parker and Hamid Drake at a cavernous venue in Soho (and a variant of that band minus Anderson, plus Henry Grimes many years later); mammoth Bill Dixon and Sam Rivers ensembles at Angel Orensanz; Peter Brötzmann in various settings at Abrons Arts Center last year.

Though my tastes—i.e., exactly what it is I'm looking for when I attend a jazz performance—might have changed somewhat, I treasure all those memories, not to mention the longevity/consistency of the Vision Festival, which has been something like a personal North Star in my NYC concertgoing life. I may have been guilty of taking the fest for granted the past few years. (Talking between sets last night, a friend and I were struck anew by the fact that many people travel from out of town for the event, which has come to seem to us like an everyday neighborhood hang.) Last night, I did my best to appreciate the awesome bounty of this event—for one thing, Roulette might be the ideal Vision venue; the sight lines and sound were about as good as I've ever found them to be at any previous edition—especially the fact that after so many years, it still had new joys to offer. Sure, there was an element of old-guard free-jazz stampede to be found in the In Order to Survive set, but the Jones performance (and in a very different way, the Farmers by Nature set) gave me hope that younger practitioners of what is often called "this music" are looking for ways to shatter the wall of impenetrability that surrounds the subgenre, to retain the gut-busting passion while at the same time putting on a warm, relatable show, one that avoids improvisational bombast, that places a premium on sensitivity and experiment (not just a pat idea of what's "experimental"). On the latter tip, I think of the drowsy impressionist blues that ended the Farmers set—a major surprise to me and, I think, the musicians themselves, and a definite highlight of the evening.

There's little more to say other than this: Check out the Vision Festival over the next few days if you can. (Joe McPhee and Sonny Simmons play tonight, Wednesday.) Go back next year and the year after, even if you think you've got this territory fully mapped. Like any great cultural institution, Vision can grow with you, and you with it.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Goodbye, Big Steeve

In the midst of Deathfest insanity, there was no time to report that the death-metal community lost a beloved innovator a few days ago: Mr. Steeve Hurdle, best known for his work in Quebec's Gorguts (specifically, on the awe-inspiring 1998 album Obscura) and in the spin-off project Negativa. My sincere condolences to his family and friends.

Despite all the amazing work he did during his lifetime (see above; that's Hurdle on the right, playing guitar and singing lead—in that inimitable anguished, sobbing style of his—throughout most of the song; the footage was posted by Hurdle himself, in tribute to Gorguts' then-drummer, Steve MacDonald, who had committed suicide in 2002), I can't help but think of a missed opportunity when I think of Big Steeve, as he was known. A little over two years ago, Steeve was scheduled to perform at the Stone in NYC, both solo and in a duo with Craig Taborn, but he was turned away at the border and the gigs never happened. I'll never forget how bummed I was when I heard the news. I was worried then that I'd never get to see Hurdle perform live (I got into Gorguts only well after he'd left the band and, as far as I know, Negativa never played in the U.S.), and it turned out to be true.

When I had the opportunity to sit down with Craig Taborn last year, I grilled him incessantly about his experiences working with Steeve. The two had met on MySpace, of all "places," and connected in person when Taborn played Montreal with David Binney in the mid-aughts; then Toby Driver of Kayo Dot booked the NYC Hurdle gigs, and Taborn visited Hurdle the week before the show was scheduled to occur. At that point, the two jammed. Taborn described the session to me in an e-mail:

"Steeve and I did not record that day, unfortunately; at the time, we were expecting to play the next week in NYC and I knew that would be recorded. It was fun, though, playing with him, especially [once] we got past the idea that i was a 'jazz' guy and so certain things had to happen a certain way. We fused immediately, maybe more because his way of playing sounded so comfortable to me, because I have really listened to those recordings for hours on end and learned everything, so it felt very home-like to me."
Of Steeve's work with Gorguts, Taborn said:
"Obscura really turned my head around about a lot of things compositionally and in terms of sound. Really a groundbreaking album and still full of secrets for me."
I corresponded briefly with Steeve himself after the Stone cancellation. I couldn't help asking him what he had been planned for his two sets. This was his reply:

From: Steeve Hurdle
Date: February 20, 2010 3:48:12 AM EST
To: Hank Shteamer
Subject: RE: sorry to hear about cancellation

Hello Hank,
sorry about the delay man...

What did i have planned for the stone concert was, an improvisation with Craig, we actually met the week before as Craig had a concert in Ottawa and the day after he just drive to montreal, to my rehearsal place and we had that really good improvised jam together.As for my solo set, i wanted to play the NEGATIVA album, all the songs that are gonna be on our first CD.....Unfortunately, this gonna be for another time...:S

I knew Craig from the internet, we've been writing to each other for the last 4 years.The first time i met him, he was playing, along with Dan Weiss in the David Binney band, back in 2007.

 As you said, Craig is a unique musician,lots of respect for him!

Thanks for writing and hopefully we will have the chance to meet one day...


I remember feeling so disappointed and tantalized re: the NYC Hurdle show that never was. Now, it's hard to feel anything but sadness.

Steeve Hurdle's body of work is small but timeless. (It really just comes down to Obscura, an incredible three-song Negativa EP, some live material and early work with the band Purulence; speaking of the latter, anyone know if Hurdle appears in this clip? Hard to tell…) I have no doubt that open-minded listeners will continue to discover it and marvel at it. Hurdle showed me a new frontier in metal, something feverish, hallucinatory, terrifying at times, soul-plumbing, mercilessly extreme. Listening to, say, the excruciatingly drawn-out prog-doom dirge "Clouded" from Obscura (a track on which Hurdle was the sole composer; on much of the album, he collaborated with bandmates Luc Lemay and Steve Cloutier), you could tell that this was an artist who was going to keep pushing and pushing, whether anyone followed him or not. The grotesque array of squiggles, scrapes and squeals that made up Hurdle and Lemay's guitar vocabulary on Obscura and beyond—one of the most insular, unmistakable musical languages I've ever heard— screamed the message that metal was a limitless form of expression.

Whatever I could write here pales next to what you'll see and hear in the Negativa clip below. (Big Steeve is the first person that shows up in the vid, jokingly requesting that the viewer "Be quiet" when entering the studio; he's also the one starting off the song with the insane fretboard tapping.) Innovative technique in the service of unfettered imagination; from-scratch invention of form and content; willing something into being that has never before existed. There is no higher achievement. Genre is irrelevant here. It's simply creativity, and Steeve Hurdle was a master creator. Let us honor his memory.

P.S. Go here for some info on Hurdle's life outside of music.
P.P.S. Invisible Oranges has posted a moving Hurdle tribute by Doug Moore of the band Pyrrhon.