Cause of Death Turns 25 and it’s Still the Best Obituary Album
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Second only to macabre newspaper headlines and the cuban sandwich I sampled in the summer of ‘97, Florida’s most prescient contribution to my life is, and always will be, its early death metal scene. Sure hindsight paints things a little rosier, especially for those of us who weren’t there (guilty!), but I’m prone to call a roster of ‘87-90 era Obituary, Morbid Angel, Atheist, Deicide and Death—my “murderer’s row” in the hypothetical death metal RPG.
Of all those bands though, Obituary was always my favorite, and annoyingly, the most underrated. While the start of the 90’s saw Death priming their stretch into prog territory, Morbid Angel dedicating an album to Mozart and Deicide ruffling a few PMRC feathers, Obituary’s sophomore Cause of Death arrived rather obstinately, declaring its “classic” status not by aping the technical panache of their contemporaries, but with knuckle-dragging resistance to it.
Back in ‘89, Obituary debuted their bloodsoaked M.O. on Slowly We Rot, a gurgling pastiche of terror and dismemberment, the unrepentant mosh bit of “Intoxicated” and uncouth song titles like “Stinkpuss.” A scant year later, Cause of Death brought that cocktail to a roiling boil, coaxing doomier atmospherics, more self-referential sludge and (slightly) beefier musicianship from the unkempt squall.
The album’s cover, repurposed from an H.P. Lovecraft anthology and the would-be cover to Sepultura’s Beneath the Remains, presents a step up from Slowly We Rot’s goof-gore visual storytelling, like some angry hesher on a comedown trip. An apocalyptically purple sky flanks some unfortunate motherfucker who’s been taken captive by giant arachnids, equal parts J.R.R. Tolkien and John Carpenter. To the left, an indeterminate carcass festers ‘neath the bloodshot gaze of the all-seeing eye, Sauron’s stoner brother, bleary from a lifetime of bong-rips. A pile of skulls listlessly plays as the visual metaphor for the aural ooze within: only death is real.
Cause of Death opens ominously, Trevor Peres’ sub-tonal riffing a slithering bedrock for a fresh-outta-Death James Murphy to solo around like the unsung geetar god he is. There’s “Find the Arise,” that showcases some of John Tardy’s most impressive vocal inflections, diaphragm decimating yowls that supercede verbiage, communicating their anguished wares beyond the confines of coded language. Frank Watkins and Donald Tardy, in-the-trenches rhythm minions, steady the bottom-heavy assault through the album’s every lurch and bludgeoning tempo change, belligerent grooving from “Body Bag” into “Chopped In Half” and onto the title track. Then of course, there’s that true-to-form cover “Circle of the Tyrants,” a heart-on-sleeve tribute to the Swiss progenitors of metal at it’s least refined, the same mid-’80s tonal blueprint that inspired these pimply-faced Floridians to pick up guitars in the first place. Like all great records though, Cause of Death is hard to isolate by its individual moments and more by its total presentation. It’s a heaving mass of unfocused nihilism, the kind that finds ironic peace in death and mindless violence, not punk sloganeering or social crusades.
1992 saw the release of The End Complete, a competent record bolstered by some mainstream critical acclaim, a music video, and the best incarnation of the Obituary logo to date (note the dragon nesting in the “T”). It’s a good record, great even, but it also marks the point in which much of the greasy, unstudied magic that made Obituary’s earliest work so compelling would give way to the spate of uninspired tripe that would follow.
Ultimately, Obituary’s real ’90s legacy is their unapologetic attitude towards genre conventions. They freely sampled from death metal’s bevy of gore, horror and brutality tropes, without paying special deference to any of the hokey swords n’ satanism that put their peers in the crosshairs. They sidestepped most hipsterish diversions, masturbatory musicianship and even lyrics at times, staying their primal course. In that regard, Cause of Death plays like the absolute distillation of everything great about the subgenre they helped create. It’s the kinda shit that cannot be predetermined or faked, only forcibly wrenched from the souls of mustachio’d rednecks blitzed on dirt reefer and 5th generation Hellhammer cassettes. Cause of Death is capital “D” Death Metal: earnest, pure and devoid of pretension and polish.
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