I’m Listening to Death Metal #11: Cannibal Corpse and the Impossible Burden of Legacy
At some point, though, no narrative about death metal is complete without Cannibal Corpse. They are an intriguing group from the vantage point of the 2010s and beyond, still capable of headlining shows and major festivals, more than capable in fact, but only rarely placing on year-end lists for critics and fans alike. This is, ironically, not due to a lack of quality in their most recent material; albums like Torture and A Skeletal Domain are some of their strongest in their decades-long body of work, and even their most recent full-length Red Before Black, while hardly a gamechanger, nails certain fundamentals that we praise other younger groups for mastering on their third or even fourth release. The issue with Cannibal Corpse is not that they are slipping in quality, but instead that they raised the bar too high for themselves to the point that not even strong records can touch their earlier work, even if in many ways the newer stuff is better. This is a perverse and counterintuitive problem, one in which we incidentally punish legendary artists precisely for the importance of their earlier work. It’s endemic of a greater problem that affects artists from David Bowie to Erykah Badu, from Jay-Z to Peter Gabriel, as well as metal artists like King Diamond and Whiplash. Even the mighty Judas Priest was only with their last record finally able to convince people they were still as vital as they once had been, even though Redeemer of Souls, the first full-length with Richie Faulkner, was stronger than the back half of the group’s fabled 1980s run; then, Iron Maiden, whose triple-guitar period has seen some of their best records in their entire rightly-fabled discography, cannot seem to convince certain types that they are still worth the critical attention even as they continue to cram arenas full of rabid fans young and old alike.
It feels almost academic to say something like this, but ask yourself (and be honest): when’s the last time you tracked a Cannibal Corpse record release? When’s the last time you spun a Cannibal Corpse record, even? For many, even those deeply entrenched in the death metal gutter, the answers tend to gesture to the distant past rather than anything recent. We compare this to groups like Morbid Angel and Death, other groups of the era, and the same doesn’t seem to apply; the former rejuvenated themselves and renewed the ability to be an open and outspoken fan, while the latter seems like a perpetual fire. And yet Cannibal Corpse, one of the absolute greatest of the genre, a group that took the proto-death foundations laid down by groups like Possessed and even the more thrash-inclined early work of Morbid Angel and effectively crafted it into the genre as we know it today, seems to be slowly slipping away.
But, again, frustratingly: not away.
Not precisely. Because as much as for many they are a rarely-spun band as they dive deeper into extreme metal, they are still a monumental group. It feels less like falling out of love than it does a faithful Christian who ceases to go consistently to church or a politician who fails to read the Constitution fresh each day at breakfast. The adoration is there, real and palpable and rich and pure, all faith and belief intact. It’s just… distant, elsewhere, not at hand, even if it is at heart.
To grasp how this could happen, we have to look backward at the group’s history and output. The group formed in 1988 initially as a joining of forces of members of multiple Buffalo-based early death metal groups and quickly recorded their first demo only three months later with a release a month after that. The demo was an unabashed hit, fusing the thrashing early death metal of Morbid Angel with the more raw sounds of early Death, Deicide, and Incubus (the death metal band, not the other one). It was only a year later that the group produced Eaten Back to Life for Metal Blade, the same record label that broke Metallica less than a decade earlier, relocating to Florida temporarily to do so which inadvertently placed them at the nuclear core of American death metal in the early 1990s, a scene they would soon come to dominate. Eaten Back to Life is not just a great record; it is one of the best metal debuts of all time, up there with Iron Maiden’s self-titled, Kill ‘Em All, and Morbid Angel’s Altars of Madness.
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Death metal existed for almost half a decade prior to this, building off of thrash while pushing it to increasingly raw and distorted regions, wanting the sonics to feel like degrading tape even when the record was brand new. But death metal before Eaten Back to Life and after feel like night and day in a way not even Morbid Angel’s fabled debut seemed to deliver. Nearly every trope we imagine within death metal can be traced to this single release, gathering up the threads that bands like Malevolent Creation, Master, Deicide, and others had laid down and cinching them up into a single perfect core. Eaten Back to Life is death metal incarnate in all its bloody, disturbing glory.
We can get hung up sometimes on historicity when judging these kinds of eruptive aesthetic events. Certainly there is a value to being the first to perform an aesthetic act, and I don’t wish to imply that Possessed lacks importance for delivering what’s broadly considered the first death metal release ever in Seven Churches, nor do I wish to denigrate the absolutely stellar early death metal releases that followed in its wake. But Eaten Back to Life‘s aesthetic success isn’t built on the (at times) cheap parlor trick of novelty, nor is it necessarily the occasional evolutionary dead-end of total mastery. It is something else, a Deleuzian fertility, a particular way of assembling elements that already existed out in the world in a manner that seemed to bristle with potentiality. The fruits were immediate, both for the band within the death metal scene and for death metal more broadly. This can be credited largely to the band’s instrumentalists focusing on tight, potent songwriting, blending technically demanding elements with simple hardcore- and thrash-inspired simple mosh riffs.
Death metal had produced many wild and accidentally experimental records prior to Cannibal Corpse’s debut, largely developing a knack for intense technicality and bizarre song structures due to a combination of youthful exuberance and the lingering remnants of the shred arms race of the 1980s that struck nearly all sectors of heavy metal. But Cannibal Corpse had a knack early on for interesting but mature shapes for their pieces, having a firm grasp of not just how to put riffs in different tempos next to one another but how to subtly shape them toward a single unified emotional impact.
The emotion just happened to be ecstatic violence. This turned out to be both a good and a bad thing. The good is easiest to explain: death metal even prior to Cannibal Corpse had thrived on violent imagery, as had heavy metal more generally, and the levels of violence present on Cannibal Corpse’s debut had the perfect blend of unsophisticated bluntness and vivid imagery to carry a hefty impact, one which became a stone around which future death metal would calcify. The bad is something that became more apparent over time; Chris Barnes, the primary lyricist at the time, had a fixation on misogynistic violence that applies the generalized cartoonish gore and violence of death metal on specific kinds of oppressed bodies in a way that, were the lyrics intelligible, would feel profoundly uncomfortable and unacceptable. It is an issue which, notably, the band themselves have corrected, with their lyrics and band imagery over the past decade and a half steering away from specified violence against oppressed bodies, be they women or people of color or members of the queer community. But Chris Barnes lacked that level of sophistication, especially early on, arriving at misogynistic violence not out of explicit and intended hatred of women but instead the same ugly pernicious internalized viewpoints of what constitutes acceptable versus unacceptable violence both in common art and more shocking forms of art that many men then and now still possess.
This flummoxing core unfortunately describes one of the negative central juxtapositions of death metal. It is easy for a certain type of man to listen past tales of horrific and explicit misogynistic violence being carried out against specific violence, both due to the generally unintelligible nature of most death metal vocals (Barnes’ in particular are especially bestial) as well as being largely outside the domain and experience of those types of violences. Women, on the other hand, while not a hegemonic group, find it substantially more difficult to listen beyond tales of more extreme versions of violence they statistically have likely experienced themselves for the dense and fertile music behind it. As such, the same record generates two distinct listening experiences, one set focusing on and experiencing the compositions on a structural level, while the other is ensnared in the experiential veil of directed violence. This bifurcated becomes again unequal; it is not as though the women who hear (and are put off by) the specific kind of violence contained within somehow cannot hear the music behind it, but instead they have to hold both experiences at once. It tends to be only a certain type of male listener that beholds only the music itself and not at all why it may be so deeply off-putting to others. This lack of awareness self-sabotages their ability to meaningfully engage with those critiques, inadvertently self-blinded as they are, though some retain the ability to process the issue if it is phrased just so and at just the right time to boot.
This produces for me, as someone who dearly loves death metal, one of the more tragic and painful rifts within the genre. The split between technical and raw approaches, between bestial vibes and science fiction coldness, between directness and the esoteric weirdness the genre can contain: those are all pleasant and fertile juxtapositions, where it is precisely their contradictory nature that produces the intense and exhilarating fertility I experience in death metal, the dynamo that makes it the most exciting form of heavy metal to me. The fact that one space can contain groups as disparate as Cynic and Obituary, Carcass and Glacial Tomb, is a sign of impossible aesthetic strength to me; that they outline similar internalities despite having wildly different externalities only deepens this feeling. But the specific concern regarding targeted violence that, unfortunately, much of the lyrics and imagery of the Barnes-era of Cannibal Corpse represents (though far from being the sole perpetrators) is an ugly but necessary element to contend with in a genre I love.
The remaining records of the Barnes era continue this trend which lies somewhere between unfortunate and infuriating. Tomb of the Mutilated opens with “Hammer-Smashed Face,” perhaps the greatest pure death metal song ever written and recorded, only for a sample two tracks later to spoil the sense of musical accomplishment that masterwork brings. The Bleeding, the group’s final record with their first vocalist and lyricist, featured the first glimmers of their more technical middle and later period works, only to additionally feature a song titled “She Was Asking For It,” referencing an act of murder carried out by a clearly deranged and evil figure but nonetheless cast in a manner that begs controversy.
It feels odd, perhaps, to pick at these issues when the group’s other work is no less ecstatically violent (with artwork to match) while the genre as a whole likewise embraces extreme and impossibly absurd levels of gratuitous gore. But I ask that you consider that I do this out of love, not just of women as a class that deserve a reprieve from fantasies of violence committed against them but also of death metal as a whole and Cannibal Corpse in specific. Death metal is the greatest form of heavy metal we’ve yet made and every type of body deserves to feel safe from targeted harm while enjoying these insane blood-drenched grooves. And Cannibal Corpse prove both in the music of the more lyrically offensive tracks but also in all aspects of the non-specified tracks how strong they can be when not getting in their own way. And, again, to the band’s credit they transitioned away explicitly misogynistic violence in their lyrics the minute George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher came on board in 1996, never to look back.
Misogyny and bigotry in metal is a serious issue worthy of serious concern and attention; anyone who claims to love the art form and both its artists and the community around them can’t seriously claim that love if they don’t concern themselves with what harms those same community members. The issues within the lyrics and some of the imagery of the Barnes-era of Cannibal Corpse then should not be held as a matter just of the band in specific but of attitudes and behaviors we all can carry and inflict upon others, both within and without death metal.
Thankfully, while these are serious concerns that demand to be grappled with, they are far from the only element of Cannibal Corpse’s legacy. Butchered at Birth, the group’s second record, was not a quantum leap beyond their debut but instead a fine-tuning. The raw materials were already there, especially musically, with the band showcasing an uncannily sharp compositional ear for the various threads of death metal sonics they were employing, from thrash to mid-tempo stomping riffs to the atonalism that would later come to more centrally define the style. This slow tightening of the fundamental elements of death metal continued on Tomb of the Mutilated which produced the single greatest pure death metal piece of all time with the aforementioned “Hammer Smashed Face.”
I say this perhaps through a veil of bias. “Hammer Smashed Face” was, after all, the very first death metal song I ever heard. My older cousin, the same one I’ve mentioned numerous times before now, had sat me and my older brother down on day when we were visiting my mom’s extended family down in Florida. It was 1993; Mortal Kombat had just come out only for our mom to immediately ban it from the house for its violent excesses. My parents were white and upwardly mobile, with my dad working on Republican election campaigns and my mom a staunch centrist at the time, a relatively feeble counterbalance to my dad’s ardent Reaganite politics. As such, my mother agreed with Tipper Gore, that great shibboleth of arcane and undefined censorship, the great boogeyman of many artists and extremists of the 1980s and 1990s who demonstrated a keen lack of faith in the vibrancy of the artistic underground to keep even art alive. My father, meanwhile, found her hysterical; despite being a staunch right-winger, he had lived through the Woodstock era and the nihilistic nightmare of urban life in the 1970s as a sometimes studio musician and sometimes drug dealer in the New York City area.
(Censorship doesn’t work, or at least not fully; it can kill mainstream distribution and absorption and that can put serious strictures on the further development and pollination of certain aesthetic conceits, but no material ever ceases to exist because of it. There are certain obvious types of art I don’t mind the censor’s gavel coming down on, from predatory sexual material to anything promoting Nazism, but as we in the heavy metal world know, even righteously blocking material that should not exist is a continuous effort and not something you can address in a single one-time effort.)
My brother and I lived in a divided home on the matter of violence. Our mother would swiftly turn the channel when anything so much as Power Rangers would come on the TV, feeling that the lesson that “might makes right” was an inadvisable lesson for our young minds. In fairness, she wasn’t really wrong on that mark; I was 4 and my brother was 7 and already he was being pulled aside for talkings to for the violent fantasies his school journal contained. Both sides of the family contained incidents of ghoulish and inhumane physical violence, be it the sexual predation of uncles upon nieces or the extreme beatings parents in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s would dish out against their children. She had every right, in retrospect, to be concerned about generalized intake of violence for us, especially if it happened away from her or my father, who both were very good about talking to us about the media we consumed, be it stories from the Bible or books they read us at night or films we had just watched. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust her or my father’s parenting skills to help us process the difference between fantasy and reality in art and how we might best draw moral and ethical lessons from the world around us. It was instead her concern that, as children, we might not always employ those lessons in critical thought and engagement she and my father taught us if they weren’t around to see to it.
My father, meanwhile, was substantially more laissez-faire on the matter of violence. It was he who told us where my mother had hidden the VHS tapes of films like RoboCop 2 and Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Scorsessi’s Taxi Driver, all classics in his opinion and necessary viewing for his boys to get a proper introduction to cinema both of the arthouse and grindhouse variety. When my mother would leave the house, it was he who would blast the stereo with all manner of vulgar music, be it the ribald jokes and mind-bending jazz-fusion of Frank Zappa or the unfettered lust of early blues. In his mind, these were elements of the world, things that would never go away, things that we needed to learn about as soon as possible rather than delaying it for some ever-distant day when we were deemed mature enough to handle it, for better or for worse. But more, these were pieces of art that he loved that he desperately wanted to share with his sons. It was only years later that the severity of his emotional stunting at the hands of his parents, raising him in the 1950s with raised fists and whipping belts, not to mention his years in the Vietnam war, became apparent to me and my brother.
These acts of sharing on his part, though they were in direct contradiction to the will of my mother, took on a tragic tenor of a man who had not yet learned how to reconnect with his emotional self trying to show his selfhood to his sons through the veils of his workaholic absenteeism, his alcoholism, and his vacuity, something he would eventually become substantially better at in the decade and a half of his life that yet remained but at the time struggled greatly with.
Combined his general sense of openness regarding vulgar and violent material with our own youthful tendency to stay up late, sneak out of bed and turn on the TV at low volume late at night only to discover the seemingly never-ending stream of b-horror cinema that only shows up in those magic hours of midnight to 4 a.m. on channels that seem to disappear by sunrise, summoned only by the Satanic magick of the moon, and we had become two violence-hungered boys. My brother in particular was bitten by the bug for increasingly extreme material, be it The Puppetmaster series of films, the first two Hellraiser films, or the lyrical darkness of my father’s grunge records and the gang-oriented rap that was big in the early 1990s. I was 4; I was interested in these things only insofar as my brother was, desperate for his approval as all little siblings are, even when I would be reduced to shrieking radical nightmares for weeks on end due to the rancid visions he tricked me into witnessing. I was weak, easily frightened, in the way all children are. Despite it, I hurled myself into those gnashing teeth again and again; or, rather, I was hurled by him.
So it was that our older cousin pulled us aside one day on a trip to my mother’s extended family in Florida that he pulled out a cassette he had in his closet. It was a song, he said, one whose music video had just aired and that he’d managed to tape. He wanted us to see it. It was gnarly and cool. He was cool, leather jackets and heavy metal, later to join the Navy SEALs, something that impressed me in the years before my politics took a sharp left turn. He was an abstract figure of cool to me, Mortal Kombat and Zelda for the Super Nintendo. For my brother, he was something more tangible, an icon, a figure of becoming. My brother wanted to see this video, needed it. And if my brother did, then I did too, either by the will of a younger sibling to impress the older or else the physical force of the older against me.
He slid it into the VHS player he had hooked up to the small ten-inch TV he had in his room. The TV flickered on automatically. His fingers punched the scrolling buttons, searching back and forth, the screen a blur of static, long hair, and dark t-shirts. Eventually, he found it and, with a sick smile, hit play.
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It was “Hammer Smashed Face.”
For the next several minutes, I sat transfixed as the music roared over me. On the screen, the relatively unimpressive image, or at least one not nearly as fantastical as I might have imagined at that young an age, of five men playing their goddamn hearts out. Performance videos are easy to scoff at from the vantage point of our current era, one where music videos in general seem to have totally died, but in their time and place they were meant to convey the raw power of seeing a group perform their material for real right in front of your face. For a song like “Hammer Smashed Face,” though, as much as seeing the players whip themselves into a frenzy trying to keep pace with the music coming out of their limbs is invigorating, one imagines something closer to the crude and nihilistic cartoons that adorned their album sleeves. The beauty of Cannibal Corpse, though, is seeing that such gimmicks are for suckers when you could instead simply pen the greatest death metal song of all time and call it a day.
This is not, of course, to take from the absolute fire the band shows in the video. Instead, this is more to say that no image could really stand toe-to-toe with the song itself, especially to me at such a young vantage point. The music felt to me then like the mouth of hell opening wide. I felt my senses engaged then overwhelmed; soon, I was lost in the nightmare of that first exposure to death metal, shaking and rattling on my cousin’s bedroom floor, unable to contain myself. I was a Christian then, ambivalently so, the way any post-toddler of faith happens to be, but I knew enough of my faith to know evil when I saw it and this — this was evil, raw and blood-soaked, black soot dripping from its cavernous jaws. My brother didn’t seem to fair much better but the suffering of his younger sibling caused a kind of nihilistic joy, knowing at least I was safe from real harm as I twisted in fright as though witnessing the killer’s cold blade sinking deep into the flesh of someone I loved. Our cousin, though, ate it all up; the pained reaction of squares and the uninitiated delighted him, brain baked by the Florida heat and the steamy metal riffs he filled his ears with.
The event stuck in my head, buried deep.
When I later discovered Alice in Chains late one night, snuck underneath my parents’ bed with their remote in hand having changed their always-blaring TV to VH1 late at night just in time to incidentally catch the likewise horrifying video for “Man in the Box,” it tickled the same kind of calcified hellish latency. It felt like I was chasing this unnameable thing, its proper shape lost in the hallways of labyrinthine memory, this traumatic first brush with death metal that seared itself as one of the most profound art experiences of my life. Such that, when I rediscovered it, stumbled across that fateful song and the ghoulish red cover of the EP that was released to push that track in particular, I stole it from the mall where I found it, hid it under my bed, rotted my brain with the constant repetition of that ghoulishly heavy and evil sound, the first and most evil I had ever known.
I would later go on to pick up the discography, some purchased and some illegally downloaded. Opeth was my first death metal band I ever loved and still one of the groups most dear to my heart. But Cannibal Corpse was that primordial first blush, the beckoning demon at the doorway, and in my mind still is the group that best exemplifies what death metal simply is, in an unadorned ontological sense. Other groups explore what it can be, what that ineffable essence can be applied to and what fruits can be gained from that cross-pollination. But Cannibal Corpse is the raw heart at the center of it.
The Bleeding is best known as perhaps Cannibal Corpse’s best album, and that’s not undeserved praise in a certain sense. Their slow sharpening of the blurred edges of their root sonic concept continued apace; on a structural level on the compositions, everything was either as good or better than it had been on Tomb of the Mutilated. It was also here that Cannibal Corpse cemented the image of them that we have now. Their debut captured something haunting the air of early death metal, their followup proved they weren’t a fad, and Tomb of the Mutilated delivered the greatest pure death metal song of all time, but The Bleeding was the underline beneath everything they’d done.
On its back, the work was done; the band could have retired at that point and their legacy would have been no different than it is now, one of the absolute greatest of all time, a group that is as foundational to the form as Leo Fender is to the electric guitar.
This becomes a trap in a way. A trap, one should note, the band did everything in their power to fight against; no artist can rest satisfied knowing their legacy is complete when, in their heart, there is still so much more to do. You can even see it in the music of The Bleeding itself. The riffs there began to take on a sharper tenor, pushing the inherent technicality in making neck-snapping brutal death metal riffs just a bit further than it had been before, the production cleaned up ever so slightly, all these little touches adding up to something that felt clearly resonant with the increasing technicality of their Swedish counterparts in groups like Dismember. This was not indeliberate on the part of the group: they all have long been fans of the more technical and progressive wings of death metal just as much as the brutal and no-frills ends.
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One of the greatest legacies of Cannibal Corpse in fact is not just their records but how stalwartly they defend the scene against itself, at least on a musical level. They were one of the few bands to take a young Cynic on tour in support of their then-new record Focus while in support of Tomb of the Mutilated, only to produce the relatively more polished and technical The Bleeding the following year. Alex Webster, a quiet and unassuming virtuoso bassist, would later go on to join Ron Jarzombek of Watchtower fame in instrumental technical/progressive death metal outfit Blotted Science. Add to this drummer Paul Mazurkiewicz’s developments in the realm of blast beats and the inherently demanding tremolo picked death metal riffs of the group, and you have an ensemble that has always prided itself on technical proficiency but likewise also made those technical skills submissive to the songs they were meant to serve. The Bleeding was meant in part to show a general aptitude of the group within the realms of death metal, not a narrow or singular approach to the sound.
The only thing left was to deal with the niggling issue of their vocalist. Chris Barnes is, no matter what came after his tenure in Cannibal Corpse, one of the foundational figures of death metal vocals, pushing the sonics of guttural vocals to the limit and becoming, whether new vocalists of the style know it or not, effectively the near-singular template for the style especially in the crusty demo tape underground. His lyrics proved a mixed blessing, being extreme enough to catch attention in one turn while needlessly misogynistic regardless of his intent in others. Add to this a general cantankerousness plus the growingly obvious issue of how singular his vocals were in an increasingly gifted group and a change revealed itself as necessary. After all, the band had already moved through several guitarists by that point in search of the perfect combo; why would vocalists be immune to the same?
Enter George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher and his debut on the group’s 1996 record Vile. Vile is often regarded as somewhat beneath The Bleeding, even if special kudos is given to the opener “Devoured By Vermin,” one of the few tracks in their body of work that can comfortably go toe-to-toe with “Hammer Smashed Face.” This is befuddling to me, given that the songs on it feature, if anything, the same slow progression on the part of the band, showcasing once more only a slight sharpening of the lens, the technical parts just a smidge more techy, the gross and fetid riffs just a bit more sonically penetrable, only this time with a vocalist who had the chops to tussle with the string and skin players around him.
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If anything, it is the at-once rapturous response the Corpsegrinder era has with fans and critics compared to the simultaneous muted response to the actual records of this era that underscores my broad point about the bizarre trap of being the archetype of an entire genre. All of a sudden, Cannibal Corpse’s material was no longer held up against their own work or the work of their peers (it must be noted that they never capitulated to the urge to make bad and undercooked death-‘n’-roll records even when nearly all their peers were) but instead to the mental image of Cannibal Corpse. Vile was not competing with Eaten Back to Life or any of the other earlier records but instead with the foundational discovery of the archetypal image of death metal sui generis.
Of course, it didn’t measure up, but only because that’s an absurd metric. The genre-image of death metal at its most elemental is something no specific record or song could measure up to regardless of the artist; it is definitionally out of reach, the elusive figure we use to measure works by and not the other way around. This built-in impossibility actually illustrates clearly the failings with this Platonic model of conceptualizing genre or even the legacy-image of an artist’s work, where we abstract out some ineffable essence which we then coalesce as a metaphysical object that material objects somehow embody. Every embodiment, be it a specific death metal song or record, feels always like a kind of worsening, where we are listening more for where the work fails to capture some percentage of that higher form. That undifferentiated abstracted object is what Deleuze would call a body without organs (a fairly “death metal” philosophy term, admittedly, and one fitting of Cannibal Corpse in particular). A body without organs to Deleuze is a nested set of potentialities, just as the Platonic image of death metal is; this parallel is deliberate, with the former being Deleuze’s reconfiguration of the latter. A nested set of potentialities sounds good in theory and perhaps is a tantalizing way to conceive of genres or bands’ works.
After all, how best to measure, say, an Iron Maiden record than by measuring it against that abstract image we all carry inside of the prototypical Iron Maiden sound and album shape? It feels a fitting way to conceive of how most respectfully and accurately approach a record. The cruel irony is that it’s the opposite, instead being a barrier between us and the pure experience of the actual record at hand.
Deleuze saw objects as split into two halves ontologically speaking. This was in many ways his attempt at a reconciliation of Marx and Plato, although admittedly his reference point for abstracted objects comes from thinkers a good bit later than Plato though still clearly of the lineage. On the one hand, Marx brought to bear his philosophy of materiality, a keen eye on the mechanics of being with a stern disapproval of metaphysics, seeing the entire enterprise of abstraction to get to metaphysical objects just a fancy way of alienating objects from their identities as well as making things unnecessarily confusing for people who just want to understand the world around them better. On the other side was the concept of Platonic objects, nests of pure potentiality with no materiality, with every possibility something could become, do, or be without any stable identity component to begin the process of making those potentials real, actualized, or material. Deleuze viewed things as possessing both mechanics and potentiality, with neither taking precedence over the other all of the time. Instead, all objects and identities, from our personal identities to the identities of bands to the identities of political forms like “democracy” or “fascism” or “America,” are dual systems of both in feedback with one another, the superior aspect being more like an ebbing and waning tide drifting through and across both the mechanical/material counterpart and the metaphysical/potentialized counterpart. This reconciliation of these two opposing approaches to metaphysics takes on a psychological characteristic where navigating identity whether for something as trivial as a record by a band or as important as the concept of fascism becomes instead something more like psychoanalysis, measuring when real world material examples supersede abstract notions and vice versa, rather than giving us a clear answer as to what is always necessarily the important characteristic.
To apply this back to Cannibal Corpse, the abstracted body-without-organs of the image of their sound and legacy becomes a burden that specific records like Vile have to bear and contend with, something that isn’t fair. Had Vile been stacked side-by-side with any of the group’s first four records, its values and achievements would become a great deal easier to see. Eaten Back to Life may be a more important record, more eruptive on a metaphysical level, having more of a direct hand in shaping how we define and view death metal as a generalized form, but the songs on Vile are simply better, from the performances to the compositions.
This produces the shape of their career up until the mid-2000s, with records like Gallery of Suicide, Bloodthirst, Gore Obsessed, and The Wretched Spawn each producing a form of death metal at once too technical to be called brutal death metal and too brutal to be called technical death metal, all while the image of the band as a legacy group seemed to serve as a blockade to warm critical reception. This is a shame, considering these records, were they released under any other name, would be striking and confident metal releases. In fact, plucking these records out of the context of the middle era of Cannibal Corpse and instead viewing them as bare and unmarked death metal albums, we can get a better sense of what people when they say something like “were they released under any other name.” What’s being referenced there is specifically the fact that we have this abstract image of Cannibal Corpse not just as a good death metal group that produces good songs in the style we love but instead the archetypal foundry of death metal that, when we hear multiple albums of compelling songs, we instead judge them negatively for not hearing the archetypal foundry of the genre.
In effect, we judge albums like Bloodthirst, which is one of their best, not on its own merits but on the fact that we aren’t 14 anymore. It is for this same reason that many people’s favorite works by an artist, be it Cannibal Corpse or any other, is often the first they encountered, given that it’s only that first time that an artist is totally free of the expectations that emerge when we develop those abstract metaphysical images of their work. In fact, it is precisely that mixed sense of half-discovery, half-creation when we develop our own concepts of what something is for ourselves that can make us feel so invested in a work or an artist. This is, ironically, fair: while we may presume there is a broader sociological shared image of concepts like “democracy” or “the sound of Cannibal Corpse,” these are in fact invented and held in multiplicity across multiple psyches, for better and for worse, with that social image not even always being a summation of the various personal images.
Not everyone approaches these questions with philosophy, admittedly. But my brain does. Models like the one Deleuze uses fits best, I think, the strange complexity of how the social image of Cannibal Corpse can be so far removed from the critical reception of that middle era of the group, how even the uninitiated in the gruesome halls of death metal can recognize them as one of the important groups of the genre. But we see so little praise sung of specific works by the group outside of those early few. Barnes, whether rightly or wrongly, has become the butt of the joke of certain circles, and few would argue that the band worsened with Corpsegrinder at the mic. Yet when we track how fans discuss their albums or how critics rate and view them, we see the opposite, in a manner that seems to defy the actual material at hand. The obvious answer, though the mechanics of this answer can be a bit wonky and abstract, is that there are at least two Cannibal Corpses at once: the Cannibal Corpse of their music, the culture-image Cannibal Corpse that strongly shaped death metal, as well as the personal Cannibal Corpse’s carried in the minds of individual listeners and critics. All of these various versions are at quiet war with each other sometimes while melding seamlessly into each other in others, with no clear obvious rhyme or reason for when they might fall into disunion or union again.
Those middle records are great though. That much is thankfully simple.
But then something changed.
In 2006, the band put out their 10th LP Kill. Taken in the context of their oeuvre, it’s not a strikingly different album. It featured the same blend of technical and brutal elements as well as those hard-to-name stray elements that always feels so primal and elementally death metal when you listen to Cannibal Corpse. It was, ever as always, just a little bit sharper than The Wretched Spawn, their previous, with their machine-like efficiency at writing songs that evolve just the right amount from the last record still intact even as their career reached near the two-decade mark. By all means, given the strangely cold reception their middle-era records received from critics, it should have fared no better. There was no reason to expect otherwise.
But it broke through. After ten years with Corpsegrinder at the helm and seemingly milder and milder critical response, all of a sudden Cannibal Corpse was getting praise laid at their feet again. Moreover, the praise extended beyond just the material showcased on Kill, with people emerging from the woodwork to offer praise to the four or five albums that came immediately before it, effectively retroactively validating the band’s work. As a long-time fan, loving this band as I do for being my very first and most intense blush with death metal as a form, a genre I’ve devoted a great deal of my life and several chapters of this long-form piece to, it felt validating. Those were the Cannibal Corpse records that were new when I was a teen, after all. When I finally wore out Hammer Smashed Face and my copy of Vile, these were the first Cannibal releases I went to, not the last. I’d long known their power, had kept them in a bundle in my backpack through middle and high school, had spent long nights in my bedroom, headphones plugged into my computer, frantically trying to get my foot-speed up to snuff for those punishing kick-drum patterns and marveling over Markuzkiewicz’s clever open-hand method to playing blast beats. The span from Vile to The Wretched Spawn was where I cut my teeth after I craved something a bit heavier and nastier than Opeth and it was from there that I launched more fully into the strange waters of Finland, Sweden, eastern Europe, and American states other than Florida. So to see things suddenly click felt intensely validating, not just of me but of this material I loved and had grown with.
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The critical praise continued apace from that point forward. On their next album Evisceration Plague, the band recorded with click tracks for the first time, a move that ironically made the album a bit sloppier as they struggled to gel with the new recording practice but nonetheless failed to rob the songs of any power, the impossible synchronicity of those players simply refusing to deliver sub-par work. A Skeletal Domain, Torture, and Red Before Black formed a steady staircase upward, each tweaking a minor weakness of the previous without wildly outpacing each other or the group’s earlier work. They know how to create a great Cannibal Corpse record and know that part of that experience is having one or two small but noticeable shifts to hang your hat on each time around, and they executed this with aplomb. Critics at last seemed to return to the sentiment of the value of Cannibal Corpse’s work, no longer punishing them for not being as fundamentally awe-inspiring as they were when death metal as a whole was relatively brand new nor punishing them for not breaking wildly new ground. At last, Cannibal Corpse seemed to be freed from the burden of having to live up to strange and impossible ideals, free to make songs and have them judged on their own merits and not against the weight of the band’s own legacy.
What’s odd is that, despite the vocal metal community having resigned the group to a legacy act in those middle years, their live presence never flagged or wavered. The group managed to pack houses even in their critical doldrums and their open-hearted loved of all death metal, be it the progressive wing or contemporary deathcore, opened them perpetually to new fans who got to have the experience of falling in love with their impressive and rightfully legendary catalog for the first time. This is not to say that ticket sales automatically equals critical quality. Instead it’s to say that, at least in the case of Cannibal Corpse, that, even in the years when it was viewed somewhat unfavorably as death metal fans looked to new spaces in extreme music, the live environment freed up the band’s newer material to sit next to their older works and earn its spot, judged on how it carried the mood and energy of the evening in the context of pure song rather than whether they produced an advanced quantum leap of aesthetic.
Engaging with Cannibal Corpse is a curious task. Unlike bands like Gorguts or Opeth, they aren’t as concerned with a sense of internal motion and development. at least not at the pace and scale of those two previous bands. Even a group like Morbid Angel, a similar central pillar of death metal, employed more drastic and deep evolutionary leaps and explorations. Cannibal Corpse’s body of work is instead a study in stillness, of the inherent difference in repetition. It is a test of the critical eye to notice not the big, obvious shifts and grand, clearly stated large-scale intent but instead the small details, the accumulations. And in that fixation the thing that emerged most for me was the sense of what Derrida refers to as hauntology, where a real object is clouded by specters of irreal versions of itself in seemingly infinite multiplicity. Optional phantasmal abstract Cannibal Corpses can multiply without end because they have no matter to them, the metrics by which we state records like Gore Obsessed are somehow not engaging death metal seemingly plucked from thin air rather than grounded in the records themselves.
The group, to their credit, never wavered; they have always and seemingly will always be concerned not with repeating themselves or following a formula but instead on making compelling death metal songs, a compulsion that for them simply happens to land in the same general spaces again and again. They seem immune to the law of diminishing returns because they aren’t copying themselves; each song is made new, each album made of new songs, that just incidentally happen to outline the same sentiments of what a great brutal riff sounds like and how a cool technical guitar passage might be shaped.
This would make their second critical breakthrough puzzling if the critical lens were pointed always at their stillness and certitude. But that’s wrong. Much like Iron Maiden, Cannibal Corpse never wavered, we did. All they had to do was hold tight until we came to our senses. My heart may belong more obviously to groups like Wilderun and Alchemist and Nocturnus, the adventurous figures in the world of death metal, but Cannibal Corpse is the pole around which all of those bands turn. This is a position not just acquired by time and legacy but earned through their material. Other groups may produce better knuckle-dragging death metal or better adventurous death or better cerebral death metal, but when it comes to the pure article, there will never be a band as important as Cannibal Corpse.
Langdon Hickman is listening to death metal. Here are the prior installments of his column:
I’m Listening to Death Metal #1: Opeth
I’m Listening to Death Metal #2: Atheist
I’m Listening to Death Metal #3: Ulcerate
I’m Listening to Death Metal #4: Gojira
I’m Listening to Death Metal #5: Tribulation
I’m Listening to Death Metal #6: Morbus Chron
I’m Listening to Death Metal #7: Pissgrave
I’m Listening to Death Metal #8: Morbid Angel
I’m Listening to Death Metal #9: Gorguts
I’m Listening to Death Metal #10: Cynic and Bloodbath.