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Cannibal Corpse exist in a strange place among the legends of modern metal. On the one hand, the Florida-cum-Buffalo death metal quintet is considered by many the essential band of its genre, personifying all things gory, grotesque, and brutal in both their outrageously violent lyrical things and their charging, spastic sound. On the other hand, it’s hard to picture the Corpse’s brand of grandiose atrocity as anything other than an ultra-modern response to society at large, a product of how utterly obscene and hideous the world outside our window has become. Metal in general rests on such a time warp, legendary and loved by vest-clad codgers but perpetually dangerous to the modern youth. And 20 years ago this September, Cannibal Corpse released Tomb of the Mutilated, the perfect amalgamation of their over-the-top aesthetic and their undeniably awesome sound, a balls-out gore metal record that is nothing short of a musical milestone within heavy metal as a whole.
Tomb of the Mutilated’s timing cannot be overstated. 1992 saw glam metal choking on its own blood, grunge shyly approaching mainstream interest, black metal coming to a rolling boil off in Scandinavian obscurity, and death metal riding high on its first wave of pure legitimacy. Bands like Deicide, Obituary, and Napalm Death were shaking off the sloppiness of the primordial pustule from which they were born and were turning their sound into something technical, refined, musical. Money was poured into the genre, but major labels had not yet turned it into an overglutted imitation of itself. Cannibal had already made a name for themselves as kings of degeneracy with their sophomore effort, 1991’s Butchered At Birth, whose themes of infanticide and sexual horror far surpassed the midnight-movie gore of their debut Eaten Back To Life. For the band—bassist Alex Webster, drummer Paul Mazurkiewicz, guitarists Jack Owen and Bob Rusay, and vocalist Chris Barnes—it was time to create something that was not only a revel in heretofore-unimagined horror, but also a polished artistic expression of said bloodsoaked blasphemy.
Let’s get the words and pictures out of the way. Tomb’s cover, seemingly a modern interpretation of Alfred Kubin’s “Pocalunek” by longtime Cannibal Corpse cover artist Vincent Locke, still contains the horrific gore that made the band’s art famous, but takes it in a different direction, this time showing two ivory-skinned gutted lovers caught in an act of mortal cunnilingus, the ambience set with candles, a rotting severed head, and a butcher knife. The expression on the woman’s face is not one of agony, terror, or mania, but of despair and lust. A glance at the song titles on the back cover sees lyricist Barnes focusing on the overkill of sexual violence, specifically the utter repellance of violence against women (one wonders if death metal was as synonymous with violence against women and “cutting up girls” before the release of this album as it is now). Sure, some can be read as straight-up gross-out mindfucks—“I Cum Blood” and “Necropedophile” immediately come to mind—but others, like “Entrails Ripped From A Virgin’s Cunt” and “Addicted to Vaginal Skin” mix a Baudelarian sense of poetry and an almost alien observation of the human body. Tomb of the Mutilated is Cannibal Corpse’s first experiment with violence unknown; presenting a circuitous approach to murder that was as much a case file as it was a splatterfest.
But what sets Tomb . . . apart from its predecessors is the music. Every song on the album is a non-stop crusher, maintaining a stabbing rhythm that seems inherently conducive to awesome death metal. While Butchered . . . showcased the band’s ability to slow things down on tracks like “Vomit The Soul’ and “Covered With Sore,” Tomb . . . is swift and energetic from start to finish, even in its more strung-out moments. The guitar work on the album ranges from writhing Tesla coil leads to pulpy chugs. Barnes’ vocal rhythm and delivery are better than ever, and maybe than they ever would be again, blending bark, bellow, and howl with perfect precision. Webster’s bass lines peek through the guitar whirlwind with sagging eyesockets oozing pus and rage. Indeed, there’s a deep guttural rhythmic quality to the album not unlike a tribal drum or an excited heartbeat, from the accents of opener and death metal anthem “Hammer Smashed Face” to the slow sonorous fade of closer “Beyond The Cemetery.” Every instrument on every song is percussion, not simply laying down a series of notes or words but blending the various elements present into a distilled and completed sound. Though certain tracks do stand out thanks to the titles or riffs they contain—let’s all acknowledge that “Hammer Smashed Face” is an incredibly brutal and catchy song that deserves every bit of hype and praise it has received over these 20 years—they aren’t the record’s purpose for being. In this way, Tomb of the Mutilated is the kind of album our hippie parents liked to complain aren’t around anymore, one that can be consumed in a single sitting, a larger piece that isn’t simply a series of singles and filler tracks.
Unlike many bands honored in these sort of “Remember The Classics” pieces, Cannibal Corpse have stood the test of time—many, this writer included, would say that the band is currently making some of the best music in its existence some twenty-odd years down the road. But Tomb of the Mutilated was the album that brought them out of the underground and into the public eye as the reigning kings of the gory side of music. The album saw the band making music videos, appearing in major motion pictures, and being touted as a corrosive force against the moral fiber of the United States, all of which stemmed from its impeccable timing, extreme yet artistic aesthetic, and indomitable sound. Where before the band had wallowed in a more simplistic, and in its own way incredibly enjoyable, sense of excessive violence, Cannibal Corpse came out of 1992 with something darker and scarier, a beast with a unified vision of horror from which it was impossible to look away.
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