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The Horror! The Horror! In Defence Of Cannibal Corpse
Joel McIver , March 13th, 2012 08:52

Joel McIver holds up a mirror to ten songs about murder, rape and torture – and sees the man in the street looking back at him

Cannibal Corpse's twelfth album in 24 years, Torture, is out in March, and as with all their releases, it's horrible. The album title sums up the songs' lyrical themes, an imaginatively obscene range of ways of being cruel to people. Torture deals in explicit detail with a series of experiences which most of us will never even imagine, let alone endure at first hand: 'The Strangulation Chair', 'Followed Home Then Killed' and 'As Deep As The Knife Will Go' among them. The album is likely to sell rather well, and if their recent history is anything to go by, the members of Cannibal Corpse will take home a highly respectable income from the year-long tour cycle which follows.

But why would anyone want to hear this depressing stuff, you may be asking? There's a simple answer, which is that Torture is breathtakingly good: an incredibly accomplished album made by a band of great songwriting and performing talent.

I won't try to convert you to the music, which is moderately technical death metal of immense speed and violence: you either respond to it or you don't. Most people don't, which is fine, but sufficient numbers of music consumers like Cannibal Corpse to have enabled the band, a quintet based in Florida, to make a comfortable living out of their albums and tours for the last two decades.

No member of Cannibal Corpse has ever had to flip a burger for money in that time. This is a claim that very few musicians can make, and – turning our perspective outwards – it's highly indicative of modern culture and the mindset of the people who populate it.

The grisly tales which populate Cannibal Corpse's albums are all inspired by real life, which (as anyone who watches the news will know) is often a violent place to be.

As Cannibal Corpse albums go, Torture is lightweight when it comes to graphic lyrics. The band, currently George 'Corpsegrinder' Fisher (vocals), Rob Barrett and Pat O'Brien (guitars), Alex Webster (bass) and Paul Mazurkiewicz (drums), have evolved away from the blunt shock/splatter approach that they took in their earlier years. Nowadays the horrors that they write about are more streamlined and precise, the equivalent of graduating from whacking a person on the head with a stick to dissecting someone with a scalpel.

The initial line-up, which featured original singer Chris Barnes, wrote plenty of entry-level slasher stuff like 'Meat Hook Sodomy', but also entered truly nauseating territory with 'Addicted To Vaginal Skin' and 'Entrails Ripped From A Virgin's Cunt'. The personification of the victims as female made the songs even more uneasy listening, naturally enough: what was even worse was when children became lyrical targets in the song 'Necropedophile'. This hadn't been done before (as far as this writer is aware) and the subject is still too much for most sane people, as the controversy which surrounded the similarly-themed A Serbian Film proved in 2010. Grim stuff, depending on how seriously you take it.

Almost as depressing as the song themes is the regularity with which the members of Cannibal Corpse have been forced to explain that a) no, they don't take their violent lyrics seriously, b) no, they don't advise that anyone tries these things at home and c) no, they themselves are not violent or in any way generally extreme as human beings.

Inevitably, people tended not to believe this in the first few years of the band's career, and indeed for some years Cannibal Corpse were banned from performing songs from their first three albums in Germany. The ban raised interesting questions about the nature of censorship, given that the vocals from Barnes and his successor Fisher are often unintelligible when sung live, and that few sensible people would give serious credence to such fantastically violent lyrics in the first place. The practicality of the ban was also debated: how would officials from the relevant government department enforce it? Would they demand to see the setlist for each show? How would they get into the venue anyway? Presumably not on the guest list, so would the relevant jobsworth be obliged to buy a ticket, thus supporting the very band they were trying to censor? No-one was surprised when the ban was quietly lifted a few years ago – possibly, as the band-members surmised in interviews, because the relevant Frau Whitehouse was no longer in office.

America has also had the occasional go at Cannibal Corpse, you'll be unsurprised to hear. When then-Senator Bob Dole said in 1995 that the band “undermined the character of the [American] nation”, the group's profile benefited greatly (see an LA Times commentary here). As it happened, the group's journey towards the mainstream had taken an extra step the previous year, when Jim Carrey invited them to appear in his comedy Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Now that Cannibal Corpse had appeared in a PG-13 film, who was offending whom, exactly?

Not that we're letting Cannibal Corpse's lyrics off the (meat)hook, or trying to diminish their genuinely repellent nature. You'd be forgiven for assuming that songs such as 'Fucked With A Knife' and Stripped, Raped, And Strangled came (at best) from spotty adolescent virgins or (at worst) violent psychopaths. The truth is that the members of Cannibal Corpse are neither: by and large, they are settled men in their forties with marriages, mortgages and families. They simply happen to be very good at telling horror stories that scare people because they're about real people committing real atrocities, as opposed to those staple heavy metal inspirations, zombies and Satan.

In fact, Cannibal Corpse's songwriters deserve a measure of respect for their imagination. After several albums of endless bloodletting, the songwriting has gone in some interesting directions – see 'Force Fed Broken Glass' and 'Bent Backwards And Broken', both of which depict unusual ways of ruining someone's day. There's also a rich seam of humour behind some of the goriest material, although admittedly it's hidden deeply: any musicians who can write a song called 'Sanded Faceless' deserve a few free power-tool vouchers from B&Q at the very least. The industrially-themed (in terms of lyrics, not music) 'Encased In Concrete' from the new album simply adds to the canon, one of the most relentless in the whole of music.

These mesmerisingly aggressive songs may be unsettling, but they're as legitimate a form of entertainment as any other extreme expression of creativity, whether it's film, music or any version of the concrete and abstract arts. This is not to say that Cannibal Corpse's expert brand of death metal has to be analysed with an ironic eye, like some dickhead who has just discovered his first Lovecraft novel. You're allowed to enjoy it. This is music which, if you so choose, will motivate you to leap off the sofa and climb the walls, shrieking like a fool. Or, if you prefer, turn the volume up to unsociable levels, sit back and immerse yourself in the annihilation of the senses, an all-enveloping perceptual blackout that resembles the flotation-tank experience in reverse. There's plenty of evil fun to be had here, so embrace it. Thousands already have.

But when it comes to the lyrics, it's really time for us all to grow up and stop being so offended. Who is responsible for the horrific events which inspire Cannibal Corpse's songwriting? Society itself, and it is you and I who make up society. You may be shocked by these songs, and rightly so – but there are real murders and real rapes aplenty out there out there in our lovely world. In comparison, such social ills reveal death metal's true nature as a form of entertainment. Violent entertainment, but entertainment nonetheless, and it's here to stay.