Amid the rabid following that Cannibal Corpse have cultivated over twenty-five years has also been a faint but persistent sliver of a voice downplaying and even ridiculing their achievements. Washed away variously as derivative, cartoonish, intellectually offensive, anti-human and certainly misogynistic, and responsible for the induction of a dumbass element into death metal in much the same manner that Pantera accomplished for metal at large, the litany of sins laid at the band’s collective feet is ponderous. With due credit, most of these complaints are legitimate, and it is a somewhat inevitable fork in the road that the death metal fan arrives at when he tries revisiting those old Cannibal Corpse albums that meant so much in his youth but now feel just a little jaded and unimaginative. Experiences accumulate over time and what once appeared revoltingly abrasive can now be seen in a brighter, unsparing light.
What of note did Cannibal Corpse bring to death metal? By the time the one-two of Eaten Back To Life and Butchered At Birth was delivered in 1991, death metal had already seen a slew of classics from the Americas and Europe. Techniques had been firmly established and varying ambitions had been scaled; while Sepultura, Sarcofago, and Pentagram were exposing the primitive underbelly of impoverished angst, Morbid Angel, Rigor Mortis, and Insanity were plying the serpentine route to high-octane instrumental proficiency. The likes of Death, Massacre, and Obituary complimented their South American contemporaries with simple yet highly influential, well-structured, memorable death metal. A nasty and entirely disturbing ensemble called Autopsy started expressing the myriad fetishes inside the human mind, in sound and images, and ended up influencing a whole scene on the other side of the Atlantic. Suffocation had married pounding percussion to a choppier rhythm attack, creating a template of the future while Deicide, Incantation, and Immolation wrote and rewrote the anti-bible on savagery, both technically and conviction-wise.
If that isn’t overwhelming enough then consider that all this time, a scene in parallel was taking root and seed across oceans; a scene mostly independent of their American cousins, drawing inspiration from punk’s simplicity and infusing it with a very native sense of melody that lent weight to their moodier music. These bands expanded death metal’s tonal vocabulary, adding a personal sense of tragedy to the music’s warlike aspect. Death metal was on the verge of becoming a fully flowered multilateral movement, encompassing a breathtaking range of styles and inflections that bespoke of their place of origin and individual aspirations.
Cannibal Corpse splashed into this august pool with all the grace of a fat man in a speedo. On Eaten Back To Life, armed with comic book gore art, hilariously provocative song titles, and an approach spilling over from the simmering pot of extreme thrash into crude death metal, they were obviously a band out to shock listeners into submission by any means necessary. The infamous pit-pleasing groove that they would go on to perfect in the future is largely absent on this recording, and it remains one of their better albums, charming in its naivete and youthful energy. It also contributed certain techniques that have since become staples of the genre; fast trilling and groups of 4-5 bass notes repetitively picked in a rapid, alternating manner were not an altogether common phenomenon before Cannibal Corpse, and it has stayed a mainstay in their arsenal ever since, for better or worse.
But it was obvious that the band were not exceptional song writers at this early stage. The over exuberant nature of the debut doesn’t do enough to mask its lack of atmosphere and dynamics; these songs are interchangeable if not for the slower parts that drift in as introductory snippets before dissolving away in a frenzy of one dimensional phrasing and tempo. Butchered At Birth rectified this to an extent by including fatter grooves, a little more space, and fairly stealing a bunch of ideas from Deicide‘s debut. In the throes of an identity crisis, caught as they were between two opposing schools of thought, this is the most confused and disjointed of Cannibal Corpse albums, but also one that possesses a peculiar, unfeeling barbarity.
With Tomb Of The Mutilated and The Bleeding, Cannibal Corpse chanced upon the perfect mix for their sound; extremely memorable riffs paired with longer tremolo runs to create the room sorely missed on earlier work. Tighter than before and with a sharper sense of song construction and pacing, these were the two records that made the band their name more than any other, bringing them some semblance of commercial recognition. The Bleeding, especially, is rather inventive in its low brow, serial killer art, utilizing the outgoing Chris Barnes’ monotonous growls in a surprisingly musical manner.
What tends to get lost amidst the occasional haranguing against the band is that Cannibal Corpse did not change to entertain mass appeal, a statement that holds for the whole of their career. A band certainly of the basest motives, one not particularly concerned with anything beyond the present moment or of the aether; disposable, even, but for all that, the band has remained dedicated to their sound and to their infantile fascinations in a world of ever-changing trends while churning out a truckload of instantly recognizable songs. Their musical merits may be up for debate but their sincerity certainly isn’t.
[To be continued…]