Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Get into: Cannibal Corpse

The very idea of this article undoubtedly seems ridiculous. Why, exactly, would I need to promote Cannibal Corpse, perhaps the biggest, most mainstream-visible, highest selling death metal band of all time? No one needs any help "getting into" Cannibal Corpse- they're probably the first death metal band that half the metalheads out there were exposed to. They're the closest thing the death metal scene has to Metallica: a massive, widely-known band that forms the gateway to a whole genre of music for many. And, like Metallica, they're often widely despised and have, especially over the past five years or so, become a popular target of historical revisionism by those looking for an instant appearance of iconoclastic celebrity, saying that the band has always sucked, relied on shock value, and does nothing more than damage the mainstream culture's impression of death metal as an artistic entity through their obscenity and tunelessness.

Of course, as is usual given my feelings on extreme music and its relation to the greater culture, all that sounds wonderful to me. Let the mainstream culture be put off; it's not as though I was clamoring for their involvement in the first place. Obscenity? The absence of melody? A refusal to experiment? Where are these elements more at home than in death metal. I take no issue with a person hating Cannibal Corpse; frankly, the band is probably better without that person as a fan.

What I will take issue with is people mischaracterizing Cannibal Corpse as a generic, faceless, disposable band. Most often these sorts of statements tend to come from people who consider Portal to be death metal's ultimate goal; as someone who considers, say, Enmity to take up that title instead, my opinion tends to differ. Anyway, dismissing Cannibal Corpse as irrelevant is a statement so half-cocked and poorly thought out that it verges on objectively untrue. Not only was Cannibal Corpse an utterly indispensable part of making death metal what it is today, but the band's music itself is more often than not so excellent that they'd have a place at the adult's table even without their historical pedigree. Very few bands in metal history have managed to go so long and so far without ever compromising their personal artistic vision- while other death metal bands in the mid-'90s were busy experimenting with clean vocals, aping Cynic, and adding synths, Cannibal Corpse were plugging away on their own path, staunchly refusing to puss out or change in any fashion.

Stating that Cannibal Corpse's style is that of a "generic death metal band" is a gross misinterpretation of reality. Considering how long the band has been kicking around, they're some of the people responsible for establishing those aesthetic tropes themselves- if anything, generic death metal bands sound like Cannibal Corpse, not the other way around. But even this, I think, is incorrect, as no band truly manages to sound like Cannibal Corpse but themselves. The styles of riffing, drumming, vocals, and songwriting inherent to Cannibal Corpse's music are incredibly unique and nearly impossible to imitate, as they're the result of a band that has existed for over two decades: the style has been rarefied to the point where attempting to emulate it is a fool's errand.

Cannibal Corpse has also always been a band unconcerned with the scene politics of oldschool versus newschool. Contrary to popular belief, Cannibal Corpse's musical style has changed dramatically over the course of their career- no, they've never added arbitrary elements like acoustic interludes, but they've sharpened, refined, and advanced on both a compositional and technical level. Cannibal Corpse's last few albums (without a doubt some of the most consistent and excellent death metal records released by such a venerable band) have positioned them right at the forefront of modern death metal, but even then the band's thrash roots are readily apparent. Cannibal Corpse somehow turns the gulf between oldschool, thrash-infused death metal and modern brutal death into a fine line and manages to walk it without difficulty. A recent video interview with George Fisher showed him lauding modern deathcore bands, and not as an attempt to curry favor with a younger generation: Cannibal Corpse is composed of guys who don't give even a fraction of a fuck about the scene's opinion of them, and it's resulted in an undeniably honest and true breed of artistic integrity.

In addition, though it's not a hugely important part of what makes them so good, it seems that many downplay the technical ability of Cannibal Corpse simply due to Paul Mazurkiewicz' restrained, steady style. Not only does this do Mazurkiewicz a disservice- what he lacks in flash he more than makes up in timing, intensity, and musicality- it ignores the rest of the band's abilities, with the exception of bassist Alex Webster (who absolutely deserves praise for his bass technique, but not at the expense of the rest of the band.) Not only is the guitarwork incredibly fast, technical, and dextrous even by modern extreme metal standards, but the riffcraft is organic, memorable, and exciting despite its ludicrous density. And of course, there's always the matter of the much-maligned George Fisher, who is diregarded for the same reasons the band as a whole is and in a similarly incorrect manner. Fisher's vocals are unbelievably forceful and savage, combining an older, more shouting technique with a modern sense of tone. His ability to swing from low to high without faltering is remarkable, as is his impressively clear enunciation as well as the sheer speed with which he can deliver lyrics during the music's most intense moments. He is, without a doubt, a consummate death metal vocalist.

Take the track above as an opportunity to learn, and pay attention to the following features:

-The perpetually shifting, evolving rhythms which reverse on themselves in a manner that's abrupt but not jarring.
-The completely ludicrous riffing which is very clearly rooted in thrash but just as clearly death metal in nature, with a note selection that is convoluted and brutal but absolutely logical in its construction.
-The magnificently textured bridge riff at 1:42 which does exactly the same thing that others laud Ulcerate for but is ignored because it comes from Cannibal Corpse.

That's about it, but I can't help but think I'm forgetting something. Wait, I've got it.

-The completely unbelievable amount of fucking ass the whole thing kicks.

(As a small addendum: I've met the guys from Cannibal Corpse numerous times milling around at metal shows. They regularly come out to the local metal bars to support the small, local bands that come from Tampa. Every time I've spoken with any of them, they have been incredibly kind, gracious, and appreciative of the support their fans give them. I have never heard any of them ever say an unkind word about anyone. They are true metalheads who have not forgotten their earliest days and refuse to let their success swell their egos or diminish their appreciation for the little guys. Very, very good people.)


  1. tl:dr -

    cannibal corpse are fucking brilliant

    tbh people who go on about how much they don't like Cannibal Corpse probably haven't ever listened to them apart from the first 20 seconds of Hammer Smashed Face.

  2. I've given you a far amount of shit in the past, noktorn, but I agree 100% with what you've written here. The thing with CC is that they've defined a whole type of death metal and still at the apex in terms of quality, tenacity and commitment to the music without pandering to trends.

  3. The incorrect perception that Cannibal Corpse has not "evolved" is almost certainly due to the low levels of musical literacy among the metal community, including critics. People who are less musically literate are likely to notice obvious superficial elements, usually timbral (unusual instruments, genre combinations) but less able to appreciate compositional or structural choices (form, scale construction, meters, development of initial material over time). This is unfortunate since the latter choices are where most of an artist's "evolution" actually happens. A listener with low musical literacy is likely to fill this void with assumptions based on extramusical material like album art, lyrics, press photos, interviews, etc. or even worse, to unquestioningly allow the PR department's blurbs to frame discussion of the music. It's not hard to see how this environment could reward shallow gimmickry and neglect compositional ingenuity, or, as you noted, result in such differing responses to similar passages from Cannibal Corpse and Ulcerate.

    Cannibal Corpse has had a relatively stable lineup and releases music frequently. This makes it easy to track their development, as the band gradually establishes their musical perimeters and then explores the range of possibilities within them, occasionally absorbing compatible features from outside those perimeters and incorporating them into their stylistic toolset. This method of formulating and responding to internal compositional questions (exploring within self-imposed limits that are occasionally modified) is a self-correcting system that results in genuine development over time but is less likely to generate the glaring contrasts from one album to the next that listeners have been misled into thinking are a guarantee of progress. Bolt Thrower is another band in this position: like Cannibal Corpse they have developed a unique voice but are wrongly held to be unchanging when really they just change in response to internal (abstract, artistic), not external (easy to explain and sell), pressures.

    (This is not to say that an artist can't play, say, klezmer goregrind with harmonicas in fulfillment of their true artistic sensibilities, just that a less overtly novel approach is equally valid.)

    1. This is absolutely right. CC is one of the most technically impressive Death Metal bands out there. There's far more interesting stuff going on in the time signatures alone than you'll get from most bands that actually label themselves as technical Death Metal.

      The other great thing about CC is that their songs are insanely memorable, despite their complexity. Rarely do their albums feature more than one or two forgettable tracks.

  4. Great article. I've actually been musing upon a lot of the points you've made lately as I've been on quite the 'Corpse kick these past few weeks. I love that despite how recognizable most of their artwork is, the members don't seem to give much of a fuck about the actual band's image. They've always just been a group of dudes wanting to make top quality death metal and I think that's essentially what they've done throughout their career.

    Also, anyone who says that Cannibal Corpse died after Barne's left is at least as retarded as people who say Mayhem died with Dead's suicide.

  5. @Jute Gyte: I think klezmer goregrind would probably sound pretty sick, actually. I've always thought klezmer has a lot in common with Slayer.

  6. also, i usually hate gore-porn album covers but this one is pretty fucking sweet. it actually has an atmosphere...

  7. *Butthead voice*: this song kicks ass