Cattle Decapitation; or, the Grim Cartographers of Earth’s “Death Atlas”
The past ten years of Cattle Decapitation look dramatically different from the first ten. For those not in the know, the group initially started as a vegetarian deathgrind troupe, seizing up their punk upbringing and the sometimes overlooked punk roots of grind by keeping the group politically focused around that issue and its attendant elements. This provided the grounds for some intriguing but ultimately very messy early records, with works like Human Jerky, Homovore and To Serve Man often receiving little praise or mention from even those who’ve stuck with the band for years. This is largely because it was with 2004’s Humanure that the band finally seemed to come into themselves, nailing for the first time their particularly nasty and topical blend of death and grind ideas.
Cattle Decapitation’s sound, at the time, was relatively unambitious, comfortably situating itself between Napalm Death and Dying Fetus while remaining steadfastly agnostic to the avant-garde and experimental fringes brewing within grindcore at the time in groups like Fuck the Facts and Nomeansno or that historically existed within groups such as Discordance Axis. This straightforward and intensely bruising style was the meat and potatoes of those middle years of the group, seeing them evolve from an acrobatic but spotty punk group into a brutal and polished death metal band.
But then something changed. The year 2012’s Monolith of Inhumanity presented a side to the band that was totally unseen at the time: vocalist Travis Ryan’s affectionately titled “goblin vocals” first surfaced, seemingly the vocalizations of the ravenous ape of the cover. Alongside them, the music became sharper, grander; they had not shed grind but instead began embracing some of the more ambitious concepts within it, applying them to similar parallel ideas in death metal. It was a small but noticeable shift, one that seemed both to reach back to some of the ideas present in their messy beginnings while also at times almost feeling like the band emerging from the mud, shaking off the loose detritus of sounds and ideas that had never been the point in the first place.
Gestures to these quirks in retrospect had always been present. Similar to Napalm Death, who experienced a similarly increasing definition and sense of ambition in their works, we can safely look back across Cattle Decapitation’s 20-year career of releases and see the beginnings of their current phase spread across the entirety of their work. Increasingly straightforward death metal reframed the group as they trained themselves more clearly in the style before diving into wild progressive chaos.
Monolith of Inhumanity also marked the start of what would become a decade-long jaunt towards deeper and deeper progressive territory. Now, Death Atlas reveals itself immediately to be less a shift in the band’s direction as much as it is not just the apex of this third phase of their career but the calcification of the ideas of the band from the very beginning. Death Atlas, more than any other Cattle Decapitation album, plays out like an hour-long song suite, taking the inadvertent conceptual nature of their previous records and leaning into it as a framing and pacing device for the record as a whole. The album opens with a moody instrumental over which is layered a series of spoken word snippets framing the apocalyptic fixation this record has on human-caused climate collapse and a potential sixth extinction event. This focus was present on each of the previous two records of their career, making this read as the close of a triptych, and while it was present in a very in-your-face manner on 2015’s The Anthropocene Extinction, it more substantially informs the structure of the album here.
For the remainder of Death Atlas, the band delivers three songs before inserting another interlude like the intro, forming three consecutive four-song suites before the fourth and final interlude blasts directly into the nine-minute closing track, the longest in the group’s discography and a song which acts as a summation for the record and this phase of the group’s career as a whole. This sense of ambitious structure was never present on a Cattle Decapitation record before, and their attentiveness here makes each of the songs pop more rather than eventually fading into a frenzied blur.
This sense of breath to the record effectively sharpens the focus on the small but impactful shift in the band’s sound. Grindcore is effectively entirely gone, blasted apart and repurposed bit by bit. The blast sections and tremolo riffs of previous albums are sharpened and cleaned, resulting in a feel closer to melodic black metal. The experimental quirk of Ryan’s varied clean vocals are now given a more broadly theatrical range and a greater overall presence, becoming as much a primary weapon in the salvo as neck-snapping breakdowns and hyperspeed blasts were before. This shift allows their death metal components, clearly the favored of the group since the early 2000s, to finally develop into the progressive and technical spaces they have been gesturing to more and more confidently over the past decade.
Cattle Decapitation’s time playing relatively straight-ahead death metal riffs for that middle period of their career really does pay off on Death Atlas. While its approach to techy and progressive death metal riffs is certainly more indebted to the sharp and cerebral bands of death metal’s vast history, they don’t allow the momentum of the songs to be lost in pursuit of technicality, retaining a clear focus on the role each song is meant to play within the broader tapestry of the record. Their largely unbroken refusal to showboat eventually becomes a minor frustration; given that this is the first record of the group featuring two guitarists, each immensely gifted, and combined with the riffs and ideas present, it’s hard not to mentally superimpose even more adventurous ideas on top of what’s already present.
Death Atlas is also, by far, the group’s most varied record. Songs like “The Geocide” and “Time’s Cruel Curtain” feature riffs that feel more at home among epic doom groups, with Ryan pointing his nasty goblin snarl toward the same kind of theatrical melodicism of groups like Candlemass alongside nearly gothic doom layers of synths and ploddingly deliberate riffs. The band now seems capable of any genre of heavy metal at all, performing them with the same high-caliber sense of high-tech alchemical wizardry we associate more typically with certain sci-fi oriented progressive black metal bands. It is shocking as someone who was introduced to the group via Humanure to witness Cattle Decapitation position themselves next to the sheer effervescence of even black metal groups like Mare Cognitum, but alas, they pull it off, revealing that their sentimental view toward prog and the more adventurous wings of heavy metal were not idle words but serious and studied interests.
This is most present in two places. First are the interludes, which are crafted with a stark and dour mood married to rich and sinuous synthesizer music. The spoken word portions spread across the album are seemingly pulled from news reports and scientific information about the severity of humanity’s negative impact on the atmosphere, the oceans, the soil, and the biosphere. It is also on these interludes that Ryan’s vocals are deployed most centrally, offering him up as a crooning and heartbroken response to the bitter and seemingly unstoppable coming tide of ecological collapse looming before humanity’s near future. These interludes serve a pivotal function, emotionally recontextualizing the record from rage toward sorrow, a sorrow which clearly births an incredible amount of rage but also senses of powerlessness and profound grief. Their pacing surrounds the high-tech deathgrind of the songs contained within their encasing shell, making the longer songs feel more like character perspective pieces in this vaster tapestry of responses to that profound and inescapable sense of existential terror.
The second place their immense sense of study is shown is on the title track. Over its nine minutes, it delivers melodic black metal riffs, an anthemic if emotionally doomed chorus, a recapitulation of the moody dark prog music of the interludes, a rattling machine-gun death metal riff, and even an ignorant, violent, and immensely catchy breakdown to boot. There are also Ryan’s sorrowful and rich clean baritone doom metal vocals, his ever-sharpening snarling goblin vocals and his deep and powerful death growls. “Death Atlas” is the greatest song the band has written, cutting to the quick of why they exist, why they are vegetarians, why these topics have always been at the forefront of their mind, and why they very quickly need to get to the forefront of everyone else’s, all married against both the most musically advanced and emotionally satisfying music of the group’s career. It feels at once like a brilliant epic, a modern progressive sonic encyclopedia, and a death metal take on vast, rich, and beautiful progressive doom. But this strength is only deepened when taken in the context of their broader architectural structure of the record, having seeded these melodies through the framing interludes, each preceding song focusing on one or a small choice few of the group’s compositional ideas before the finale assembles the puzzle before your eyes into a massive and staggeringly heartbreaking whole.
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As much as Death Atlas feels quite strongly the best work of the group to date, finally executing lingering ideas and gestures that in retrospect were always present among their songs and records, it’s also hard not to see that many fans will not be coming along for the ride. The album contains a vast portion of the ideas present in the earlier work and have a clear sense of emotional and aesthetic continuity both with their immediate predecessors and their summed bodies of work in general. Still, Death Atlas feels inexplicably more like a new beginning for Cattle Decapitation rather than a full-on summation and nothing else. In producing a work of this power that feels so strong not just on a song-by-song basis but magnified by astute structuring and well-executed progressive elements across the whole record, it is unlikely the band will ever go back.
Potential fans turned off by the increasing sophistication of the songwriting over the past few efforts will be only more turned off here, and those that had qualms with Ryan’s particular approach to varying his vocals will only have more to take issue with here. And I suppose on some grander scale it is a little bit sad that we likely will never get another Humanure or Karma.Bloody.Karma out of Cattle Decapitation again. A little grief feels fitting, given the themes of the album.
But most importantly, it’s hard not to be excited by all of it. Death Atlas is an immaculate record, one that taps into some of the wider ranges of death metal’s capabilities and points them toward an epiphanic emotional burst of grief. Cattle Decapitation have shown they become stronger the further they lean into their progressive tendencies and here on this release, where they lean into them the hardest, they have both their most musically and emotionally successful records to date. It’s hard to imagine the band doesn’t know this themselves; the sense of confidence and commitment are palpable on these songs and one of their most charming elements. It is strange to refer to an album of such sublime and heartbreaking beauty as invigorating, one that attempts to grapple with the unique and paralyzing terror one gets when reading that koalas are now functionally extinct due to wildfires caused in large part by human-driven climate change or that the Great Barrier Reef is bleached and effectively permanently dead due to the increasing acidity of the earth’s oceans — but that cautious and determined hopefulness is there.
Cattle Decapitation, at this seemingly fatal hour for humanity, have found a newer, better version of themselves, the best they have ever been. And as much as it can feel crass to turn such a serious and well-executed message of intense grief into glib positivity, there is something to the inspiring power of it all.
Death Atlas released last Friday via Metal Blade. Catch the band on tour; dates below.
Dec. 02 — Boston, Mass. @ Brighton Music Hall
Dec. 03 — Philadelphia, Pa. @ The Foundry @ The Fillmore
Dec. 04 — Toronto, Ontario @ Opera House
Dec. 05 — Chicago, Ill. @ Metro
w/ Atheist, Primitive Man, Author & Punisher, Vitriol
Dec. 06 — Lawrence, Kan. @ Granada Theater
Dec. 07 — Denver, Colo. @ The Oriental
Dec. 08 — Grand Junction, Colo. @ Mesa Theater
Dec. 10 — Albuquerque, N.M. @ El Rey Theater
Dec. 11 — Mesa, Ariz. @ Club Red
Dec. 12 — Los Angeles, Calif. @ Decibel Pre-Party @ The Regent
Dec. 13 — Las Vegas, Nev. @ Fremont Country Club
Dec. 14 — Fresno, Calif. @ Strummers
Dec. 15 — Berkeley, Calif. @ UC Theatre
Dec. 17 — Seattle, Wash. @ The Showbox
Dec. 18 — Portland, Ore. @ Bossanova Ballroom
Dec. 19 — Sacramento, Calif. @ Holy Diver
Dec. 20 — Pomona, Calif. @ The Glass House
Dec. 22 — San Diego, Calif. @ Brick By Brick