Cannibal Corpse: Bible of Butchery by Joel McIver

September 17, 2014 –

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Derided mostly by casual noticers of their cover art, Cannibal Corpse created a public face for death metal by becoming the most popular death metal band in history. Outselling the rest of the genre, they have kept on tour and pushing out albums for two and a half decades and now have unleashed their thirteenth album. Veteran music journalist and metal writer Joel McIver caught up with the band and wrote a history and explanation of Cannibal Corpse.

Intelligently, McIver opted not to try to make a narrative of his own. Instead he took a Glorious Times approach and let the band speak for itself for the most part, then knitting the disparate statements together into single narratives. The first two thirds of the book consists of statements from the band members which come across as unedited although their length suggests they were assembled from multiple interviews. The last third of the book contains a history of the band as a whole told through excerpts from interviews with the band, managers and other members of the underground community. The entire book is interspersed with song lyrics with brief explanations from the band. As a result, this book becomes easily readable and very personal, avoiding the pitfalls of trying to become overly formal or over-analytical with a band that does not want to be taken overly seriously.

In our twenties, we weren’t thinking too seriously about this stuff. Chris wrote the lyrics and we gave him free rein to be as offensive and disturbing as he thought necessary. Nowadays we probably think a little more about the subject matter of our songs, and the end result can be lyrics that are still horrifying but less overtly offensive. I think that sometimes a more subtle approach can be more effective for horror fiction anyway—‘subtle’ being a very relative term in our case, maybe the difference between a hatchet to the genitals and a hatchet to the head. But that’s what our band is doing really: putting horror fiction to music. We don’t back what the characters in our songs are doing: they’re just evil characters who are appropriate for stories like these. – Alex Webster (121-122)

If the book has a theme, it can be found in the normalcy of Cannibal Corpse. The band member biographies detail their early interest in heavy metal, then in musicianship, and their desire to be part of the new movement of harder and heavier music coming out after Metallica and later, after the first nascent death metal. They mention the classics of proto-underground metal like Sodom and Slayer, but focus on not the extremity of lyrics but the music itself. These men wanted to make music that did what their musical heroes did, but took it to a new level of intensity. They also wanted to have a sense of humor about it. And, going back to their earliest influences, they found idols who had also made it big on a commercial level: the 1970s hard rock and heavy metal acts that shocked the uptight citizenry but delighted mischievous and alienated kids everywhere. The comedic lyrics of torture, sadism, butchery, gore and mass killing arise not from a fascination with the dark and morbid, but a joy in disturbing social pretense that has more in common with Kiss or Judas Priest on the big stage, gyrating away as church ladies gasped.

When assembling the narrative of the band, McIver stacked statements from band members in such a way to tell the narrative through its strongest voices, inserting summaries of major events so that the least specific material is told from a third-person perspective. This gives more space to the band to speak about their own intentions and analysis, which enables this book to move along at a fast pace and never wind down into the kind of rambling anecdotes that blighted rock journalism in the 1970s and 1980s. As a result, it is both a short book and complete in its recounting of the Cannibal Corpse story. Through skillful editing, McIver avoids having the history drag or become tangential, and with the voices of the band members he brings up every essential topic in short, readable fashion. We also hear from band members and crucial actors like label boss Brian Slagel whose voices are not normally heard in the telling of this history.

In my downtime, I shoot guns. I’ve been interested in them since I was a kid. It’s the other thing I’m interested in apart from guitars, and it’s a great way to let off aggression. I go to ranges and shoot targets. Playing loud music is another good way to release stress. I like to go to the gym and work out, and I like to go out and drink and have fun with my buddies. Luckily, I’ve always been able to go anywhere and make friends. I live day by day. I would never have guessed that I’d still be doing this after all this time… — Pat O’Brien (46)

In the history of metal, Cannibal Corpse: Bible of Butchery will be remembered as a book that started a debate instead of ended one. Most analysis of Cannibal Corpse so far has focused on the reactions of others and has been unable to get around the disturbing imagery and lyrics. By mixing lyrics with histories, and looking at the motivation of band members for personal and artistic goals instead of reading the band as an advocate of what is described in its lyrics, Cannibal Corpse: Bible of Butchery reveals the commonality of Cannibal Corpse with heavy metal bands since the dawning of the genre. Instead of serving as a kind of unpaid advocate for serial killers everywhere, this band acted as a continuation of the heavy metal tradition of upsetting parents and delighting kids. By getting past the elephant in the outsider viewpoint room, McIver shows us Cannibal Corpse as they are, and lets their story tell itself and reveal the undiscovered history behind what for most people is the public face of death metal.

Cannibal Corpse – A Skeletal Domain

September 2, 2014 –

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The best-selling death metal band of all time, Cannibal Corpse maintains its audience by writing rhythmic hooks and cramming a half-dozen riffs into each song in a way that is memorable enough for the average listener. On their 13th album, A Skeletal Domain, Cannibal Corpse sensibly alter just about nothing to their winning formula.

If you can imagine the 1988-1990 period for Slayer and Exodus combined and turned up to 11, the basic idea of Cannibal Corpse will shine through the genre labels such as “death metal.” This music has little in common with early Morbid Angel, Deicide, Asphyx or other founders of the genre. If anything, it resembles 1980s speed metal given the death metal treatment with extremely distorted vocals, absurdist gore lyrics, and a higher dose of intensity in technique and speed.

Songs build themselves around either a chorus or a memorable riff, usually with hints of melody, and the rest of the time create a primitive groove based on an expectation of rhythmic satisfaction interrupted in sub-divided patterns that recombine the same few basic riff ideas. The guitars support vocals which take center stage in a monotone that foreshadows and echoes the dominant rhythms of each piece. Lead guitars sound straight out of the 1970s but played faster and more erratically, and bass while active and precise acts in a support role to guitars. The result delivers a compact sound that displays little internal variation.

When you listen to this album while distracted, after smoking a bowl, or while typing on the internet, it seems rather impressive. Each individual riff makes sense and the riff after also makes sense. The problem is that songs as a whole do not make sense. They fit together, but no internal tension or communication occurs, which leads to a very “postmodern” style where chaos surrounds an articulated foot-tapping chorus rhythm. The lack of relation and relevance between riffs and the whole of each song makes Cannibal Corpse seem like a stream of spare parts, even if linearly riffs follow in sensible order. You will hear a lot of Slayer in these riffs, which is always welcome.

Metal fans love this band and it is hard to see why they would not. It is catchy, extreme and chaotically hilarious. Its subversively discordant attitude toward all aspects of what most people accept as good and natural life makes it the surly kid who sneaks cigarettes into chapel. The best riffs are often the support riffs, which work in melody and challenging rhythms, and often sound like more intense versions of what second-string speed metal bands like Heathen, Atrophy and Assassin used to do. While I can praise what this album does well, and appreciate the ear candy attributes of it, there is no reason I would purchase this with my limited funds and listen to it on a repeated basis.

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5 albums that ruined metal

August 12, 2014 –

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If you create anything of beauty in this world, people will be attracted to it. They will want what it has, but because achieving that would require them to change themselves, they will instead make a version of your beautiful thing that fits their needs. This will become popular and soon idiots everywhere will adopt their dumbed-down version of your beautiful thing, effectively ruining what you have created.

Over the course of metal’s lifespan, it has several times been afflicted with the curse of popularity. During the middle 1970s, bands began cloning what Black Sabbath did and mixing it with the more radio-friendly sounds of Led Zeppelin, Cream, The Who and Deep Purple. The result gave metal such a bad name it required an underground genre, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, to renovate it with punk energy and DIY spirit. Then in the late 1980s, speed metal bands started selling out and making radio-friendly jive that quickly destroyed the genre because no one wanted to associate with it anymore. Only a few years later in 1994, underground metal imploded as clone bands and outsiders began making imitations of the new sound that used songwriting conventions and “values” from other genres. Most recently in the 2000s metal became “socially acceptable” and became basically a cover story for lite jazz and indie/emo which now could claim they were groundbreaking and authentic.

But I digress. Let us look at a brief history of bands that helped ruin metal and see if we can figure out where their influences ended up in today’s milktoast hybrid metal.

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Pantera – Cowboys From Hell

Before this album came along, speed metal had a certain gravitas to it. Songs were about war, human moral conflict, literature and the apocalypse. Then along came Pantera and injected a bro-sized dose of personal drama into it. After Pantera, speed metal included talking about how angry you are, getting drunk and starting fights about whose jeans are out of fashion this season, and raging about your inability to retain women who are not covered in naturally-growing wool. It was a strike of Idiocracy against the intense music of Metallica, Nuclear Assault, Overkill, Testament, Anthrax and Megadeth that dumbed it down to the Belieber level, just with more angsty testosterone. Not only that but the complex songs got replaced by verse-chorus and lots of “emotional” vocals accompanied by softer guitar parts. The path to death for speed metal started with this watered-down, dumbed-down, ego-drama path to stupidity. Luckily after they had made their money, Pantera disappeared and the band members went on to more reputable projects.

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Cannibal Corpse – Tomb of the Mutilated

In the year that death metal reached its peak, Cannibal Corpse release an album that made death metal accessible and in doing so, made it a satire of itself. This is Dethklok before Dethklok. Borrowing from the percussive style that Suffocation innovated, Cannibal Corpse took out all the complex songwriting and replaced it with somewhat complex riffs in predictable format. It took away difficult rhythms and topics and replaced them with I-puke-blood style blockheaded lyrics. They also introduced Pantera-style songs about sexually mutilating women because women are difficult and sometimes all one can get is a brojob back at the frat house. This album crushed the growing death metal movement by putting a giant IDIOTS AND SYCOPHANTS WELCOME sign over the door to the genre and convincing people that songs with blockheaded gore lyrics and simplistic structures under grunting incoherent vocals were more “death metal” than the complex music of integrity that defined the genre at the time.

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Cradle of Filth – The Principle of Evil Made Flesh

Point your TARDIS back to 1994. Black metal was in full-swing, having just put forth all of its founding works and then exploded in a media-fueled inferno of murder, anti-Christian and politically incorrect sentiments. In come the “smart” people who figure they can make a buck off this new phenomenon. Their formula: make Iron Maiden style metal with the new screechy vocals and make it emo so that kids can feel like it sympathizes with their horrible lives where their parents just totally control them and stuff. Then mix in the usual “teen paranormal romance” rambling about vampires and evil and you have baby food for coddled toddlers. It took some brains to like black metal, but Cradle of Filth asks nothing so challenging of its listeners! Even more, this band introduced the “carnival music” style of putting radically different riffs next to each other so that the listener loses track of song structure entirely. These songs are basically advertising jingles and warmed-over Goth rock stuck into second-rate metal, but all the kiddies brought their sweaty dollars to Hot Topic because they felt it “understood them.”

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Meshuggah – None

Right in the middle of 1994 it became clear that black metal and death metal had left the building. They had said what they wanted to; people had to either top it or find some easier and sleazier way to do. Ripping off the percussive textures of Exhorder, Prong and Exodus, Meshuggah came up with a “new” style that consisted of over-extending ideas from previous and better bands. It’s worth mentioning that Meshuggah’s first album was 80s speed metal with death metal vocals, but that it was extremely boring. Meshuggah figured that if they just made their style more dramatic and used lots of choppy riffs with shiny new “complex” polyrhythms, they could fool a new generation into liking their stuff. Without fail, it worked, and now metal bands find it necessary to incorporate the worked-over 70s groove with two-chord texture riffs and claim a “djent” influence. At its core, this band remains the same bad 80s speed metal that failed on its first album.

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Opeth – Orchid

You can pitch a market one of two ways: on one hand, you can be “just one of us regular guys” and pull a Bruce Springsteen (or warmed over punk); on the other, you can claim that you are so far out and deep that only a few deep people can understand you. The best is to hide the former in the latter so that you are selling the “profundity” of sing-song music for children but it gives them a chance to pop on a Fedora and think they are really so deep, you know totally deep, that no one can be as deep as they are. Opeth sold itself on being “open-minded,” which is this message: we are different from the rest of metal because we use acoustic passages instead of just solid heavy metal riffs. What they choose not to tell their fans is that they are more like everything else that is not metal, so to like this stuff is to admit you fail as a metal listener and go back to pumping radio pap through your Beats by Dr. Dre headphones. But every underconfident basement-dwelling pretentious geek loved this stuff even though it consisted of a simple formula, soft verse and hard chorus, that is most famous for its use among nu-metal bands. Nonetheless, Opeth opened the door for people who wanted to signal to the world how profound and different they were, and now most bands are tinged with the same simpering pander that makes this music sickly sweet and an inch deep.

Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces, by Albert Mudrian

September 11, 2013 –


Precious Metal:
Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces
edited by Albert Mudrian
365 pages, Da Capo Press, $14

The 25 Masterpieces
Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell
Diamond Head – Lightning to the Nations
Celtic Frost – Morbid Tales
Slayer – Reign in Blood
Napalm Death – Scum
Repulsion – Horrified
Morbid Angel – Altars of Madness
Obituary – Cause of Death
Entombed – Left Hand Path
Paradise Lost – Gothic
Carcass – Necroticism — Descanting the Insalubrious
Cannibal Corpse – Tomb of the Mutilated
Darkthrone – Transilvanian Hunger
Kyuss – Welcome to Sky Valley
Meshuggah – Destroy Erase Improve
Monster Magnet – Dopes to Infinity
At the Gates – Slaughter of the Soul
Opeth – Orchid
Down – NOLA
Emperor – In the Nightside Eclipse
Sleep – Jerusalem
The Dillinger Escape Plan – Calculating Infinity
Botch – We Are the Romans
Converge – Jane Doe
Eyehategod – Take as Needed for Pain

 

albert_mudrian-precious_metal_decibel_presents_the_stories_behind_25_extreme_metal_masterpiecesRock journalism challenges even the bravest writer. Musicians are not known for being articulate, nor is it easy to pin them down, and lore snowballs in that vacuum. For this reason it’s great to see the series of in-depth explorations that have come about recently regarding many classic events of metal. As musicians age, given that musicians have a shorter life-span than average, this is also a race against time in many cases.

Albert Mudrian’s Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces presents a welcome addition to the genre of historical metal journalism. Combing through archives, the writers of each piece compiled band statements about the album and put them together in linear form, like a conversation. The result is a whole lot of information delivered in a very digestible form, with the extraneous confusion of live interviews edited right out of the picture. It’s a good starting point for anyone looking into these historical nodal points in the evolution of metal.

Mudrian seems aware how easily a book like this could become repetitive. Not just in the answers, where musicians might make roughly similar statements about touring, band formation, the troubles of collaboration and so forth, but in the similarity of bands. If for example he added another three Swedish death metal bands, it might start to get a little bit stuffy in the virtual room he’s created. Instead, he gives us space between acts and a wide variety of acts, but avoids the really awful nu-metal and tek-deth. However, the price of that spaciousness is that he includes bands like Monster Magnet and Kyuss which really aren’t metal at all.

There are some shockers in content, too. Some of these bands, despite their professions of various depraved behaviors, are insanely business-like in how they go about getting recorded and published. Sleep, Cannibal Corpse, Dillinger Escape Plan, Botch and Converge really had their act together. For a few moments, it was more like reading Forbes than Decibel, but it’s really gratifying to see this side of the business portrayed honestly. If you want your music heard, there’s a certain amount of business activity that must precede that event.

On the whole, these chapters are extremely well edited including the choice of material. They are in question-answer form, where the questions are usually prompts about historical events or general questions applied to specific moments or activities. When an incidental or minor character is cited, he or she speaks up for a few questions and then fades out. The bulk of the material favors the most articulate band members and major actors, but the writers shoehorn in as many diverse perspectives as they can. This makes reading Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces feel like being in a comfortable pub with these bands, on a rainy day, with a tape recorder next to the ashtray.

Each chapter corresponds to a classic album and comes with an intro paragraph. If anything, here’s where the book could benefit from some uniformity and toning down the “rock journalism” aspects. Perhaps not a just-the-facts-ma’am approach, but more of an assessment of where the band fits into history and why people like them, and leave it at that. Some of these were over the top for the actual function they serve. However, among the bombast is a lot of good information.

At that point the interview(s) compiled into a single form take over. Most of Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces is the bands speaking, and that is the power of Mudrian’s editing and the work of his colleagues. They’ve trimmed out the transient stuff, the window dressing and repetition, and left us with clear statements from the bands that show them in their own voices and approaching the situation at their own angle. This also helps create an epic feel to the epic interviews because it’s a compilation of the best moments of the band commenting on this album, put into one form that flows naturally.

Was the intro, “Human,” something you had conceived of before you went into the studio?
Ain: Yes, we had the idea before we went into the studio — we wanted to loop a scream and make it perpetual. We also wanted to use it as an intro for the live shows. A regular human scream would never last that long, so we wanted to loop it and make it sound like a scream from hell, like how you would scream if the pain was everlasting.
Warrior: We had talked about it, but we were basically still laymen, so we had no idea how we could put it together. So we told Horst what we wanted to do, and he proposed how to do it. But as I said, we only had six days to do everything. If one thing failed, we would’ve gone over budget or had to go home. So, in hindsight, it’s a miracle that tracks like “Human” or “Danse Macabre” came out the way we wanted them to. We couldn’t rehearse some of those parts, you know? I have no idea how we did that in just a few days, especially given our lack of experience. But therein lies one of the strengths of Celtic Frost to this day: Martin and I usually visualize certain pieces of music down to the last detail without even touching an instrument.

This excerpt reveals the power of Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces. In the midst of the mundane description of studio struggles, Tom Warrior articulates part of the essence of his band. Many such moments of insight, casually and offhandedly mentioned in describing some rather ordinary thing, flesh out this book and make it more than a fan’s quest but a resource for musicians and anyone else curious about the origins and process of creating extreme metal.

Not everyone will agree on certain aspects of this book and naturally any choices made along these lines are divisive. However, the book has enough to offer just about anyone who loves metal so that the purchase will not be regretted, even if there are chapters you skipped. In fact, I recommend skipping those chapters and approaching this book as a buffet. No matter what sub-genres you adore, you’re going to have at least five you’re dying to read, another five you’re very excited to read, and another five you’re curious about, and the rest will be uncertain but you might find some interesting information there, as I did.

It is impossible to find just 25 to represent metal. Some of these choices are nods to the music industry and mainstream fanbase, like Dillinger Escape Plan, or to history, like Botch, who were the vanguard of the metalcore movement. Some are near-misses like the apologetic At the Gates treatment of their best-seller, but this interview also confirms a lot that reviewers said about this album, namely that it was retro to the past generation of metal and somewhat hasty. Some others, like Converge and Eyehategod, seem marginal in that these bands spent a lot of time disclaiming metal back in the day.

On the whole however Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces offers a good pan-and-scan perspective of what was going on in metal at the time, and by showing us the fly-over accumulation of variety, Mudrian and Decibel show us not only what these bands were doing, but the forces against which they were struggling to define themselves. The result is a treasure hunt of a book, bristling with secrets and previously undiscovered pathways, for those who enjoy extreme heavy metal.