Cannibal Corpse are the best-selling death metal band in the world. They’re an institution; their debut album, Eaten Back to Life, turned 30 last year. Back when bands went on tour, they were one of the most reliable live draws in the genre, heading out on the road every year, usually as a headliner (because who would want them opening the show)? In keeping with their institutional status, they’re a brand name as much as a collection of musicians — they changed vocalists after their fourth album, with Chris Barnes leaving to form the vastly inferior Six Feet Under and the genial, thick-necked George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher coming on board. Guitarists have come and gone, too; original lead guitarist Bob Rusay left in 1993, replaced by Rob Barrett, while front-line partner Jack Owen stayed until 2004. Pat O’Brien joined in 1997, and stayed until last year; Barrett, who’d left in 1997, returned in 2005. The only members who’ve been around since Day One are bassist Alex Webster and drummer Paul Mazurkiewicz, who also write most of the band’s infamous lyrics. (Webster came up with the band’s name.)

Violence Unimagined is Cannibal Corpse‘s 15th album, their first in four years. Part of that was due to extra-musical upheaval; Pat O’Brien was arrested in 2018 for breaking and entering and assaulting a sheriff’s deputy. His house caught fire, and was discovered to be basically an arsenal, including 50 shotguns, multiple semi-automatic rifles, and several flamethrowers. Given all of this, Erik Rutan of Hate Eternal (who had produced the band’s albums Kill, Evisceration Plague, Torture, and Red Before Black) came on board as a live lead guitarist, and as of this album, has joined as a full member.

Rutan’s influence on the band’s sound is immediately obvious. He wrote three songs for the new album, while Webster and Barrett wrote four each. (On most tracks, whoever writes the music also writes the lyrics, but on the opening and closing tracks, “Murderous Rampage” and “Cerements of the Flayed,” the lyrics are by Mazurkiewicz.) The band comes roaring out of the gate — “Murderous Rampage” and “Necrogenic Resurrection” are both headlong sprints, at least at first. The second song throws in a doomy, chugging bridge reminiscent of “Scourge of Iron,” from Torture, and the third track, “Inhumane Harvest,” is a mostly midtempo pummeling with a few speedy, blasting sections and a bridge that’s practically beatdown hardcore.

“Condemnation Contagion” is the first Rutan composition to appear on the album, and it’s both an outlier in the Cannibal Corpse catalog and a natural move for them in 2021. Since their debut, their songs have mostly focused on graphic violence and horror. Early on, a lot of that violence was directed at women, something they moved past once Fisher took over as vocalist (a wise choice; the final album with Barnes on vocals, The Bleeding, literally had a song called “She Was Asking for It”). They’ve had a surprising number of songs about zombies, too. But “Condemnation Contagion” is maybe the most realistic and earthbound Cannibal Corpse song ever.

As its title suggests, it’s about COVID-19, though the disease is never named. Fisher barks phrases like “Ordained confinement/Sustained isolation,” “Hallows of death surround me/Feeding my fears of the end,” “Pandemic panic/Endemic unease/The outbreak of human respiratory disease” … in some ways, this is the most emotionally vulnerable they’ve ever been, expressing fears common to most of humanity instead of reveling in our species’ capacity for violence and cruelty. It’s almost as surprising a turn as when Immolation got all introspective and sorrowful on “Lower,” from 2017’s Atonement. Of course, the music is still crushingly heavy and furiously aggressive; the drums are a never-ending rockslide, as they would be on a Hate Eternal song, and Rutan’s guitar solo is like a hummingbird stabbing you in the eyes with its beak. And the very next song is called “Surround, Kill, Devour,” so you know they haven’t gone soft.

Like all the best bands of their generation — Obituary, Immolation, Incantation, SuffocationCannibal Corpse have no bad albums, because they don’t fuck around. They know what they’re good at, and they play to their own strengths every time. Some songs may be slightly more structurally complex than others; they’re all excellent musicians, Webster in particular, and sometimes they allow themselves a moment of indulgence, to remind the listener of that fact. (There are some quick little bass flourishes on “Follow the Blood” that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Atheist album.) But they’re always going to sound like themselves. And yet, despite how thoroughly defined the Cannibal Corpse sound is almost 35 years in, the songs have never become formulaic or interchangeable. Precisely because of its inherent limitations, death metal is an extremely challenging music to put one’s own stamp on. These guys are masters of the art, and while you may not need all 15 of their albums, if you’ve somehow never heard them at all, Violence Unimagined would be a great place to start.

Phil Freeman

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