If you’ve got any affection for death metal at all, it’s a given you’ve at least heard of Cannibal Corpse, whose two-decade staying power in the genre is no accident. In a musical medium too often generically defined by unintelligible subhuman vocals, impossibly down-tuned riffs, nonstop double-kick blastbeats and gore-drenched song titles, it takes a band with particular skills in musicianship, songwriting and production to stand out from the crowd, and Corpse brings all that and more to the game – now more than ever, with their eleventh full-length release Evisceration Plague, fresh off the butcher’s block from Metal Blade Records.
The long-standing quartet of vocalist George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher, guitarists Pat O’Brien & Rob Barrett, bassist Alex Webster and drummer Paul Mazurkiewicz have inspired both godlike reverence and intense hate among metal legions since they first blasted onto the scene in the late ‘80s, with the dividing line of consensus falling between those who adore death metal and those who hear only a mega-decibel mess. I’m kinda particular when it comes to extreme music – there’s just so damn much of it out there – and pure aggression alone isn’t enough to win me over. But when disciplined technique and production quality is employed by a band to hone and temper the raw fury, that band will always grab my attention.
Corpse nailed the technique down a long time ago – “Hammer Smashed Face” from 1992 album Tomb of the Mutilated is a supreme example of everything done exactly right – but over the past decade they have also managed to step up their game in the realm of production. The new emphasis on clarity and complexity really kicked in around the time of The Wretched Spawn (2004), peaking in 2006 with the choice of producer Erik Rutan (formerly of Morbid Angel, currently guitarist for Hate Eternal) for their powerhouse release KILL. That successful arrangement continues with Evisceration Plague, and the end result is one of the band’s purest and most brutal offerings, playing out its apocalyptic drama on an epic canvas and making good on the band’s intention to make each release more aggressive than the last.
Short, tight and packed with a massacre’s worth of concentrated mayhem, Plague’s dozen tracks weigh in at only 39 minutes – but frankly, any longer and you’d be risking severe cranial bleeding. Doubters are invited to crank the volume knob to their usual tolerance level before the opener “Priest of Sodom” begins spinning and wait for the inevitable blowback. While you’re still reeling from that, the appropriately titled follow-up “Scalding Hail” breaks the sound barrier as it shears your ears in less than 2 minutes, proving its worth as one of the album’s most powerful cuts. Not that the band is striving to tear through the songs as fast as possible; in fact some of their evilest riffs can be found in the mid-tempo sections of the wicked title track. There's some seriously memorable material to be found here, and blistering cuts like the bulldozer chugger “A Cauldron of Hate” and the intricate, knife-sharp “Carnivorous Swarm” are certain repeat-play candidates, with plenty of catchy hooks that will stick in your skull long after the album wraps.
There’s a razor-edged precision to O’Brien and Barrett’s playing here (and the way their guitars are recorded) that prevents the down-and-dirty riffage from muddying up the mix – something you can truly appreciate by listening to the album through a decent pair of headphones. Death metal is often so heavily compressed (especially in the middle frequencies) that it can exhaust your ears from trying to put some order to the sound, but Rutan’s deft hand keeps all the instrumental parts in check – including Webster’s fluid bass line, which is powerfully pronounced, showcasing some elaborate and smooth fingering technique. Mazurkiewicz is a wizard at the expected double-kick blastbeats, but he’s not a one-trick pony by any stretch, and carries off intricate rhythmic change-ups and amazingly complex fills. Fisher's vocals, as always, are a solid gut-punch of rage, but just as tightly controlled and rhythmic as the other instruments. Just the right touch of doubling and overdubs fattens the vocals even more, filling the stereo field with demonic incantations.
Most importantly, the well-written arrangements (each band member took part in writing songs) keep each track’s dynamics constantly changing, which is critical to the foundation of Corpse’s sound: without these critical highs and lows, even the most brutal wall of noise will become monotonous and lose its impact – often the downfall for lesser bands of this genre.
The special edition CD of Evisceration Plague contains not only a bonus track (“Skull Fragment Armor”) but a supplemental DVD as well, filled with sick documentary footage of the band in the studio... watching them in rehearsals reminds me again of their supreme technical skills (and I'm in total lust with their guitars). There’s also an autographed edition available through Metal Blade, if there are still copies left at the time of this writing.
2009 is already promising to be an amazing year for extreme metal, and if Evisceration Plague is any indication of the direction things are going, the old guard is still defending the faith. Strap on your studded codpiece, buckle yourself in and get ready for a bloody good time.