Death metal. It’s a genre of music that inspires as many scrunched faces and condescending opinions as it does devout followers. Unlike many of its cousins, all children of rock'n’roll in some form or another, death metal has been subject to scorn and criticism since its birth in the ‘80s. One of the more misunderstood genres, death metal marches on in the face of routine bans on records from its most esteemed bands, most notably Cannibal Corpse, the Florida-via-Buffalo five-piece. Since their formation in 1988 they’ve become poster children for death metal.
Yet their combination of insidious lyrics and song titles (Mutation Of The Cadaver, Fucked With A Knife and I Cum Blood) and outrageous cover art has not been without consequence. Cannibal Corpse records were banned from being sold in Australia in 1996, as they were deemed “potentially offensive” by the ARIA. It wasn’t until the ban was lifted in 2006 that the band finally graced Australian shores for a long-deserved tour.
No stranger to controversy, Cannibal Corpse bassist and founding member Alex Webster believes one needs to look beyond the misconceptions surrounding the genre to get a true sense of what encompasses death metal.
“Death metal, to a person outside the death metal or metal scene, they’re going to hear those words and assume it’s a bunch of noisy garbage written by a bunch of stoned out guys who worship the devil. But it’s not like that at all,” says the verbose and amicable 42-year-old, reached on the phone from his Tampa home.
“There are people from all walks of life who play death metal; plenty of college-educated people,” he continues. “And sure, some of the music can sound primitive, but there’s a lot of great, serious and dedicated musicians in this style of music. People that have an open mind would be well-advised to give it a try. Try and get past the song titles and album covers and listen to the records; you might be surprised with what you find. There’s a lot of thought that goes into the music and there’s a lot of great musicianship on display in the genre.”
Cannibal Corpse may be the best example. Since 1990, the band has released 12 studio albums and become the top-selling death metal act in the United States. And while the average listener may hear nothing more than a wall of shredding guitars and unintelligible singing, the band has managed a consistent evolution since their debut, Eaten Back to Life. On Torture, the band’s latest, Webster and the rest of Cannibal Corpse maintained their continual drive to keep matters fresh in a 24-year-old relationship. Webster admits that while the process can be trying at times, learning from past efforts can provide solutions.
“Having different people writing helps,” he notes. Torture saw the band sticking with producer Erik Rutan who produced their previous two full-lengths, but moving the process from the familiar surroundings of Mana Studios in St. Petersburg, Florida back to Sonic Ranch Studios in El Paso, Texas. The band recorded 2004’s The Wretched Spawn at Sonic Ranch. Rather than rely on what may have worked for the band on past recordings, Webster believes that not becoming too comfortable has allowed the band to maintain a sense of excitement.
“We try to change up our producer as much as we can, because we recognise how that can impact a band. For example, we’ll probably go with a different producer for our next record. We made three great records with Erik and to be honest, we could probably make a few more with him. But we’ll probably go with a different producer, not for lack of satisfaction with Erik, but just to try something different,” he continues in earnest.
“These little changes make things exciting. And having everyone in the band who wants to write and contribute indeed is healthy too. It’s fun for me to learn Rob (Barrett, guitarist's) songs. It wouldn’t be as much fun if it was me doing all the writing.”
The Cannibal Corpse that released Torture stands as a very different act from the one that released Eaten Back To Life. Three of the original members of the band have since left. Webster has held down the fort, along with drummer Paul Mazurkiewicz, though response from Cannibal Corpse’s legions of fans has been unwavering. As Cannibal Corpse has attempted to evolve as a band, so too has the genre as a whole. Webster believes death metal is a very different genre since it first took shape.
“One of the [biggest changes] is technology. It’s affected everything in the world, and death metal is no exception. In the beginning, bands were very primitive. They weren’t always able to keep in touch with other. In working together, it had a positive effect on the scene.”
As Webster continues, he outlines just how wide the evolution within the genre has been. “You can’t be a brand new kind of band or play a brand new kind of music twice. So death metal was brand new in the '80s, but there’s an established history to it now. It’s going to take that much more work for a new death metal band to make it, despite their technological advantages with recording and the Internet, for example. Hell, bands even have GPS now. I remember not making it to shows when we were younger simply because we were fuckin’ lost!”
Cannibal Corpse may have made it through their early days without the help of a GPS, though those days weren’t without a few hurdles. Namely, the aforementioned ban on the sale of Cannibal Corpse records for ten years in Australia. Sure, the band has also had brushes with United States Senator Bob Dole, who accused the band of “undermining the nation’s character,” but Webster insists when the ban affects their fans, that’s what “really sucks.”
Still, when it came to touring Australia after the ban had been lifted, Cannibal Corpse didn’t approach the tour or their sets any differently. That, again, would be a disservice to their fans.
“We weren’t really nervous,” he says of touring Australia, and places where their music has landed them in hot water. “We haven’t been in charge of the business side of things. The record label would tell us we’d been banned in Australia, and we’d just look around at each other and say, ‘Well, that’s weird.’ We first came over in 1995 and didn’t return until 2007. But when we returned, it seemed like everyone had copies of the album anyway. Maybe the ban hadn’t been very effective? Everyone seemed to be very familiar with our music.”
If anyone has benefited especially from the digital age, it’s Cannibal Corpse and death metal acts which are often frowned upon by conservative tastemakers. Webster remains upbeat about the places the music of Cannibal Corpse and death metal as a genre has stretched to.
“Even countries with restrictive governments in the Middle East haven’t given us much trouble. We have plenty of fans in Iran, Egypt, Morocco and Saudi Arabia. As long as you can get online, you can find what you want.”
Twenty-four years into their career, and Webster and Cannibal Corpse still find themselves getting excited about any inroads they make into popular music culture. Long looked upon simply as outcasts in a world dominated by the easily approachable and never offensive, Webster and the band have remained true to their craft.
“Gradually, as a band, we’ve been pushing our foot into the door as hard as we can,” he says. “[The door] still gets shut pretty tight, but lately we’ve been able to play some really big shows, especially with acts that are more mainstream, at least in the metal scene. I should mention that when I say mainstream, it’s not meant to be a derogatory term.”
For Alex Webster, being derogatory about his band’s place in the music world would only serve to undermine the inroads they’ve made. As representatives of an entire misunderstood scene, Cannibal Corpse continue to work their way through bans, confusion and scorn with the esteem of the many other great musicians in their genre. And it’s the only way they know how – one album and live show at a time.
"Death metal, being largely ignored as it was, a lot of people may have missed the opportunity to get into it,” says Webster. “They weren’t obliged to follow the underground, but we believe that there’s a lot of people out there that may have gotten into death metal had they had the opportunity to hear it. And we’re finally starting to get chances to play festivals where Megadeath, Slayer or Marilyn Manson are headlining. It validates what we’ve been doing for the past 20 years, even though it was never accepted by mainstream media of any kind. But I think we’re finally getting there.”
BY JOSHUA KLOKE
CANNIBAL CORPSE hit up Billboard The Venue on Friday October 5 in support of new album Torture (out on Metal Blade Records).