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Getting a box of dicks in the mail is a very special yet humbling moment in one’s life.
— Mitch Massie
It is increasingly difficult to be truly extreme in death metal. This applies not only for sound, but for aesthetic. Ever since Tomb of the Mutilated, death metal bands have been trying to up the ante on the brutality of their image and lyricism; but for the most part, such bands have only been able to tread water in regards to content, never truly out-transgressing the metal of the early ’90s. Part of this is the visual element: bands can grunt vile lyrics with impunity, secure in the knowledge that their words will only be decipherable with lyric sheets, and album covers can be reprehensible to be sure, but there are limits to how far most bands can go with visuals. Most artists balk at going the full distance with certain album covers, leaving the most extreme covers as crude facsimiles. Likewise, very few death metal bands have the production values to make music videos beyond basic band footage, and those videos that are made often lack extremity for the same reasons that album covers do: most major production companies will not finance high-budget extreme videos, and those that will are far too expensive for most bands, leaving the resulting videos either boringly mundane or too crude to be believable.
Cattle Decapitation, on the other hand, have resources. Signed to Metal Blade, they have by this point acquired not only the budget to make high-quality videos, but also the professional connections to find a filmographer willing to indulge their ever-inventive lyrical matter. Thus, when the band included a song on their latest album titled “Forced Gender Reassignment”, they found themselves in the incredibly rare position of being a death metal band able to make a music video as brutal as the song itself. Cephalic Carnage trod these waters a few years back with their “Ohrwurm” video, but Cattle Decapitation have an advantage over their contemporaries: their lyrics are more defined and shocking through their erudition, and the band has not just a sick sense of humor but also a semblance of a social agenda to make their gore at least somewhat defensible. The result of all these factors is what may well be the most controversial music video of the year, if not of recent memory.
First of all, a warning. This video is INCREDIBLY graphic. It will never appear on YouTube, and even Vimeo refused to air it, forcing Bloody-Disgusting.com to release it on their own media player. For those readers who may potentially have sensitive triggers to violence and sexual humiliation, I strongly encourage you NOT to watch. I’m including a description of the video for those who are interested in its content but may not want to actually see it, so spoilers are coming (not that I think it matters too much, but still . . . ) To reiterate, if you plan on watching this afterward, this video is NOT SAFE FOR FUCKING WORK. Caveat emptor.
So, what of this video that is so intense? Let’s unpack it. The basic plot is relatively simple: Westboro Baptist-style religious fanatics are seen picketing in some kind of homophobic protest. Their protest is broken up by an unknown assailant, and three of the protestors are kidnapped and shackled up naked in a basement with a man wearing a gimp outfit. Over the course of the video, the gimp proceeds to systematically brutalize and enact amateur surgery on his victims: one is castrated; another has the first’s testicles nailed to her pubis via nailgun, and so on. Lots of close-ups of penises being sliced with box cutters, vulvas sewn shut, even a lingering sequence without music where the gimp deftly removes the woman’s tampon (of course she happens to be menstruating; to quote Crow T. Robot, “this really just ramps up the repulsion”). The coup-de-grace comes when the third victim, having just been anally raped with a large dildo, is impaled by an overly long power drill driven through his anus and out his mouth. The video ends with the two forcibly reassigned protestors, having been given a lesson in humility well beyond what any human ever should, holding hands and stumbling painfully off into the sunset.
So, now that we’ve gathered our collective jaws from the floor, let’s talk about it. First of all, one cannot deny that this is compelling viewing, if for no other reason than the gruesome material at hand. It’s the old “train-wreck” principle: the horror of the spectacle is exactly the reason why one cannot look away. It’s like a good “torture porn/gorn” movie: an endurance test that the viewer undertakes to prove that they are brave enough to withstand the barrage of depravity. And, in a sense, being compelling viewing is all that this video is about. Cattle Decapitation is neither stranger to nor an enemy of visual creativity: this year’s “Monolith of Tyrants” video suite was simply breathtaking in its originality and striking images, like a death metal butoh performance by way of Tool. Previous videos have showed love of location, atmosphere, and genuinely unsettling performance, and it is with this latest video that Cattle Decap strings it all together. To sweeten the pot, frequent Cattle Decap collaborator Mitch Massie is a supremely talented director, able to use quick cuts without producing nausea and willing to invert that age-old trope of film, the gory discretion shot, by quickly cutting to show the vilest imagery occurring. It’s a brave stance, and one that would quickly fall apart were the editing less deft, but thankfully Massie is a good enough cinematographer to make it work.
But does it mean anything? Is all this well-made suffering for a greater point, or is it simply pretty exploitation? It’s an open-ended question, but for me it would seem to be the latter. Yes, the band does make a point of showing that the victims of the depravity are homophobic fanatics, and it is true that the band is known for a blunt, transgressive form of lyrical activism (in the past aimed at animal rights, but here trained upon gender issues). However one gets the sense that, in the end, this isn’t really about transfolk, because it’s simply not needed. This is about hatred, pure and simple. The point is not to shock in order to really make a point, but rather to shock to prove disdain for the viewer’s sensibilities. Frontman Travis Ryan even says in the video disclaimer, and I quote “For the “Forced Gender Reassignment” video I wanted something mean and cruel and flat out disturbing. It seems nowadays you have to be over the top in your presentation to get anyone to think about anything anymore.” There’s never any sense of reason or poetic justice to the events: the homophobes are clearly shitty people, but do they really deserve what comes to them? There’s a fairly large divide between writing songs about butchering slaughterhouse workers for their crimes against animals and cold-blooded torture of some morally dubious protestors.
However, this, in turn, is where the video works: it’s not a polemic, it’s a joke. Cattle Decapitation differs from many other politically charged bands in that they do not take themselves so seriously as to shy away from seeing the black humor in reality. As a result, when the shit hits the fan, you are shocked, but at the same time you are taken with it because it’s so over the top. It’s clear that most people don’t actually wish to see Westboro-types forcibly reassigned, but sometimes we wish they would. This video plays not to any firm moral backbone but instead to giggly, back-of-mind wish fulfillment. Once one stops viewing it as actual play to sensibilities and more gruesome revenge-fantasy meant to inspire chuckles through sheer shock value, we realize that it’s actually really good. Not so good that you’d openly praise it, mind, but still really good. As a final note, it should be mentioned that part of the reason one is subconsciously able to forgive this video is that the song fucking rocks. It’s a rager that is seriously one of Cattle Decap’s best tracks, and so you can’t help but rock out even as inhuman depravity plays before you on the screen. The best soundtrack can make a movie and alleviate even the darkest mood, and this song’s power, groove, and heavy-as-balls riffs add both force and also levity to a video that might otherwise come across as entirely sadistic.
When you get down to it, a video like this was inevitable. Given the rise in popularity of death metal, leading to greater general acceptance and more resources available to death metal bands, it was only a matter of time before clout and budget combined to create a truly outrageous video. But despite being inevitable, this is still important, in the same manner that, say, Cannibal Holocaust is an important horror film. For one, “Forced Gender Reassignment” is so extreme that it will be the basis on which all future “extreme” music videos will be judged, just as Nine Inch Nails’ “Happiness in Slavery” was for mainstream rock videos. Furthermore, this video shows just how far Cattle Decapitation has come, not just in terms of success, but in terms of artistic growth as well. Few other bands could pull off such a video without coming across as insensitive or crass, but Cattle Decap has done so even as you realize how vulgar the material is. Behind your finger-covered eyes, you’re laughing, and despite realizing how grotesque the spectacle is, you can’t help but bang your head. Thus is the power of metal, and in particular the power of Cattle Decapitation.
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