There are bands out there who consistently deliver quality output, and then there are bands like death metal heavyweights Cannibal Corpse who outdo themselves with each release. Staggeringly, the extreme metal legends have just released their fifteenth album, Violence Unimagined, through Metal Blade Records, and show no signs of slowing down with this release, possibly their most devastating collection yet.
So, what is behind their consistency? Has the addition of longtime producer and friend, Erik Rutan, to their ranks made them up their game? Prior to the release of Violence Unimagined, we put these questions and more to bassist Alex Webster.
Thanks for your time Alex. So, onto the new record. It’s an incredible piece of work.
Alex Webster: “Thank you. We’re really happy with how it turned out.”
I have to say that it kind of came out of the blue a bit. There was nothing on the radar that there’s going to be a new Cannibal Corpse record and then all of a sudden there was news that there’s a new album coming out. Was it in your plans to release a new album in 2021? Or did the pandemic affect that or change your plans?
“Yeah, well, plans did change a little bit. Actually, the album being put out now in April, it’s actually been delayed just a bit. The original plan was, you know, last year, we’re recording from April until June, that was the idea, and then we would get the album ready to go and hopefully put it out in November and do a U.S. tour in November. That was the plan. And right away, we knew that was going to have to be changed. So, we ended up not really being too concerned with hitting that June deadline.
There was no reason to at that point because we didn’t want to rush to get something done, and then put it out and have it sit there for two years with no accompanying tour. So we took a little longer, maybe just a few extra weeks, and then decided, you know, April would be a good time to put it out. So, we’re four or five months later than we had originally planned and still, obviously, there’s no tour plans, but whatever the case, the release will be just that little bit closer to whatever tour eventually happens for this album.”
The other bit of major Cannibal Corpse news is that of Erik joining the band as a full-time member. Erik has a history with the band as your long-time producer and friend. From a musician’s point of view, what qualities do you think he has added to the band?
“Oh, he’s added a lot. Erik is an elite level guitar player and he’s also a very talented songwriter and lyricist. The other cool thing is that he does know what our style is. He’s got character in his musicianship and his songwriting that’s distinctly his own, you know? I can hear his sound in Morbid Angel. You can hear it throughout Hate Eternal because he writes the bulk of the material in that band or the lion’s share, and then in Cannibal Corpse, you’re going to hear it too, but yet he also knows what our sound is. He’s got his own style, but he’s integrated it into Cannibal Corpse very well. You know, I feel like the three songs that he wrote for this album, they sound like Cannibal Corpse songs. They don’t jump out at you as being, for example, Hate Eternal songs that are being played by the guys in Cannibal Corpse. They were specifically written for Cannibal Corpse and they sound like Cannibal Corpse.”
You mentioned that he’s brought something new to the band and you mentioned his incredible musicianship. How much does his presence in the band keep you on top of your game?
“It does, you know, he’s really great at what he does and, as we mentioned before, he’s also got this very high energy, he’s a hard-working guy. So, when you’ve got somebody on your team that’s giving 100 percent it doesn’t make you lazy, it makes you go the other direction. You want to work hard when someone’s putting in that much effort. We’ve always worked hard as a band, but having somebody come in who’s, you know, such a hard worker, it accelerates that. It makes us want to work even harder than we already have. We’re very excited about the future, and moving forward with the new lineup of the band. There’s good things to come.”
Like I said at the beginning, the new material is incredible. You’re now 15 albums into your career, and that would be a point where most bands are slowing down. Listening to this record though, you’ve come back more savage than ever. What feeds that energy?
“Part of it is having Erik on board. He wrote some really savage material for the album like ‘Ritual Annihilation,’ which is one of the fastest blasting songs we’ve ever had in our in our catalogue. So that’s a pretty cool thing to be able to say when you’re on album number 15. Beyond that, we really are trying to keep writing the best material that we can and I feel like, as we get more experienced, as the years go by, we’re becoming more and more experienced at writing songs. So, as musicians, we’re going to use that experience to write, hopefully, the best material we’ve ever written. We have to move forward as a band that’s going to attempt to write their best album in the future, not be a band that’s already written it. I don’t want to be in a band where I say that our best years are behind this. That’s not what Cannibal Corpse is, we are really trying hard to make sure that the stuff that we’re putting out currently is the best that we’ve ever done.”
That kind of leads to my next question. Listening to the album and looking at Cannibal Corpse as a whole from the level of the musicianship to the lyrics to the visual elements, the artwork, the t-shirts, the videos, there doesn’t seem to be a weak element or a weak link in the chain at all. What do you put that consistency down to and, with each album, what do you want to achieve with it?
“We want each album that we put out to hopefully be the best one we’ve ever done. Yeah, that’s sort of a subjective thing and some people are going to prefer one of our older albums or whatever, to one of the new ones. That’s a matter of taste. But really, we try to make each album the best one we’ve ever done. Every, every single time. So what you’ve got is 15 albums that represent the best we could have possibly done. At that time, speaking for the current members, and the ex-members, everybody gave everything they could, everybody really busted their ass on all these albums, and they all represent a really hard effort from all the band members. So that’s what we want to keep doing. We don’t want to have some situation where we’re thinking, you know, we had great albums back then now we’re just coasting. That’s not us.”
Looking at it from the outside, you’ve been at the top of the death metal genre for a long time and, to me, there doesn’t seem to be another band that comes close to what you do in terms of consistency. What stops you from being complacent? What stops you saying, you know, we can put out eleven versions of “Hammer Smashed Face,” and fans will be happy?
“We still are enthusiastic about this kind of music and pushing ourselves. It’s why we do it, you know, we’re doing it because we really enjoy it. I mean, of course, it’s the way we make our living too so that’s always a motivation but, if you can play your favourite kind of music for a living, that’s a dream scenario, and we want to do the best job we can at it. We want to keep it going and just make the best music we possibly can. We don’t feel like we’re in competition with other bands at this point. There’s so many great death metal bands, really killer, heavy, extreme metal type bands, so we don’t feel we’re in competition with our contemporaries, you know what I mean? Like they all are great at what they do, and everybody’s kind of got their own thing at this point.
Everybody has kind of got their own little area and styles, and everybody is great at what they do. So yeah, we just want to keep improving we and it helps having people in the band that are super-motivated and hardworking.”
Picking up on what you just said, that it is also the way you make your living. What is keeping you motivated in 2021 being that you’re essentially stuck at home?
“Normally, I would get up in the morning and do my routine, walk the dog. Maybe my wife and I and the dog will go somewhere hiking or something like that. Or I’ll go running, those kind of things. Then, you know, on a day when I’m home, if we haven’t really gone out to somewhere, I’ll just practice. I do a ton of practicing still. And also, I work on new material. When Cannibal is not touring, we’re always working on new material. We’re going to take this opportunity to get a little head start writing for the next one, why not? If we’re stuck at home, we might as well be staying productive. So that’s, that’s what we do, we practice a lot and write material.”
With Erik joining the band full-time, you’ve described this album as a new chapter for the band. That being the case, where do you see it going from here?
“Putting the uncertainty of the pandemic aside for a minute, we just want to keep doing what we’re doing. As long as we’re making new albums, we want the new album to potentially be the very best one. Sure, we have to have some classics that rival any of the stuff we’ve done throughout our career, and then we want to keep touring. Touring is how bands really make most of their living these days, but we also do enjoy it. The band is like a second family, I think, for everybody and we have a great time out there together, touring and performing for our fans. It’s great getting out there and touring, we love to do it.
It’s beyond just making our living, it’s something we really love to do. And we’ll keep doing it. In 20 years, I’ll be 71, we’ll see what kind of touring is going on when we’re all in our mid to late 60s and into 70s but it is what it is. You get older and you’re going to slow down a little bit in terms of what you can physically do and this is a physical kind of music but, for now, we’re all feeling great. There’s still a whole lot of touring and a lot of headbanging and mayhem in our future. So as soon as we’re able to get back out there on the road, we will.”
We’ve already talked about the consistency you’ve maintained. Watching you play live, you really do make it look effortless…
“Yeah, yeah. I feel like with music, there’s sort of a pre-programming that you do to your brain by practicing a lot so that when you’re on stage, it’s as simple as anything else that you do every day. Like you don’t need to relearn how to tie your shoes or brush your teeth every day as you do that every day and it’s the same thing with the songs. We don’t necessarily think about them with the top part of our consciousness when we’re playing them. It’s been so thoroughly programmed by playing those songs literally hundreds of times, some of them thousands like “Hammer Smashed Face’ and some of the real old older classics. That’s got to be thousands of times playing that song, and ‘Stripped, Raped and Strangled.’
If anything, the only time we would make a mistake is if we started to think about it too much consciously. There’s different parts of your brain at work when you’re performing and if you have practiced enough, you can kind of go on autopilot. I think a lot of musicians would agree with me on that, it’s kind of the way to do it. You get into a flow. It’s not easy, necessarily, but it’s definitely how it works.”
Onto the new record then. Lyrically, over time, you’ve kind of moved away from the pure gore stuff to material where you’ve explored the darker side of humanity and human life. Is that the case of this record?
“Sure. Like, there’s a lot of different subjects on the new album. In terms of lyrics for Cannibal, we’re on album number 15 and, over the years, we’ve gradually broadened the scope of the type of horror that we write about. In the very beginning the lyrics were largely written by Chris Barnes, and he had a super disturbing take which we welcomed into our lyrics, as he did a great job. As time went on, we broadened things a little bit to have more psychological horror, things that weren’t quite so overtly violent. And then we still do have songs, I mean, ‘Slowly Sawn,’ for example, that is what it sounds like. That’s a person being sawn apart. It’s coming from their point of view to which I feel is maybe a different perspective. You’re not hearing the killer talk about it, you’re a person who’s being sawn apart talk about it.
So yeah, we still have stuff that’s really graphically violent, but we also have things that are maybe a little more, you know, darker, more thought-provoking. The thing is, we’re open to a lot of different things, as long as it all fits into the horror genre although we’re not going to add gore to something if that particular song doesn’t need it. As long as it’s dark and got some sort of horror element to it, we’ll probably consider it.”
You must have a wealth of inspiration out there when you consider that, just as you think humanity’s leveled out, something comes along that is even more fucked up? Do you look at things like that and think, well, there’s another album worth of material?
“Yeah, I mean, for example, obviously, the pandemic is on everyone’s mind and artists and musicians are no exception. There are some lyrics on this album that probably had either direct or indirect inspiration from the pandemic, or just general instability of the world. In 2020, things were less stable than what we’re all accustomed to. For example, Erik’s song ‘Condemnation Contagion,’ that seems fairly directly influenced by COVID-19 but I don’t think keep the contagion he’s writing about is COVID itself.
Then, for me, I wrote material sticking with the theme of our band that we’ve laid out over our whole career. We’ll have a song about cannibalism, but this time, it won’t be zombies, or some supernatural or scientifically-caused thing. It’ll actually just be cannibalism resulting from famine and societal collapse. ‘Surround, Kill, Devour’ is a song that’s about basically famine caused cannibalism. Ok, not exactly inspired by the movie The Road, but that was it sort of in the back of my mind, that kind of a situation.”
Going back to the earlier days, Chris had a very disturbing take on horror, and there was a lot of controversy that followed the band around with your artwork, songs being banned. There was the famous story about you not being allowed to play certain songs in certain countries. Does that sort of thing still become an issue? And if not, do you miss causing that kind of mischief?
“You know, what’s really crazy is that it still happens, but it happens for songs that you wouldn’t expect it to. The place where we have the most trouble out of the countries that we play frequently is Germany. That’s been pretty well documented. They had a list of songs that they didn’t want us to play and artwork that we weren’t allowed to sell as t-shirts or CDs and albums. So we complied with all of that and then, for a little while, that seems to have kind of tapered off and ended. Now it’s back but some of the songs that they’ve forced us to cancel, are ones where I’m having a hard time figuring out why they chose them.
Like they specifically pick the song ‘Scourge of Iron’ from our album Torture. I’m thinking, ‘Why, what, what’s in those lyrics that is that bad? It’s about tyrants being whipped in hell.’ Clearly they misread the lyrics or it makes me feel like there might be a little bit of a vindictiveness there where they know it’s one of our hits. I can’t possibly know whether that’s true or not but I don’t know what these people are thinking. It’s just strange that they would censor ‘Scourge of Iron’ in Germany, when certain other songs we could play are certainly more graphically violent. Even for this album, we’ve got two different sets of artwork ready for two different versions of the release. The lyrics will be the same but the artwork will be different for those places that don’t like the gory stuff.”
Does it surprise you that this kind of stuff still affects the band? These days, I always thought that people had become desensitized to the kind of violence that inspires the band?
“I actually don’t think they have, and that’s a good thing. I don’t think people should be desensitized to violence. The whole point of making horror is that it’s supposed to be frightening but if people are not frightened by extreme violence then that’s probably a bad thing. Now, that said, of course, the way we approach it is not as frightening in the way of like seeing a really serious violent movie. Let’s take the movie The Road which is very frightening in its realism. The book and the movie are very frightening because it’s such a plausible scenario but one that hopefully never comes to pass. However, when you’re singing about something really graphically violent, and it’s just, you know, blood flying everywhere, people are probably desensitized to it, because they’re not taking it very seriously.
It almost seems cartoonishly over the top, especially if there’s a supernatural element, where it’s something that could never happen in real life. However, in real life, violence and entertainment, people become desensitized to it because they realize it’s not real. It’s fictional. But violence in real life, I think people should always react to that and find it bad. We are band that certainly doesn’t condone violence, which I think everybody knows that. Other than to the people that are trying to censor us.”
You talked about the cartoony stuff like say “A Skull Full of Maggots” through to some of the really dark stuff like say “Stripped, Raped and Strangled,” which has obviously got real dark connotations to it. Do people react to lyrics? Are they shocked by what you write about?
“The subject matters is presumably always going to be shocking because it’s about horrible things. Seeing any of these songs in real life, like the things that we’re describing in these songs would be a horribly traumatizing experience for pretty much anyone. It’s horror, it’s not comedy horror, it’s just flat out horror and it is what it is. We approach it the same way as anybody who makes a horror movie, or a horror novel would. In the same way that there’s different types of horror movies, we have different types of songs in our catalogue. Some of them are a lot more like a movie like Bad Taste or Dead Alive or Evil Dead 2, where you can certainly find black humour in that.
Then there’s others that are a lot more like The Shining, or Exorcist, or Silence of the Lambs, where it’s a more serious kind of horror. We’d like to we’d like to have all those different types of horror available to us when we’re writing as different types of music call for different types of lyrics, One thing I’ve generally found is that the darker, more doom influenced kind of stuff that we do is more suited to having the more psychological lyrics whereas a lot of the real fast crazy songs call for a little bit more of a splatter vibe.”
For someone that’s a fan of the more extreme side of life, what would you say this record would offer to them?
“It’s a variety. If you were comparing them to movies, we have a fairly broad selection. Ranging from something like Evil Dead to something more cerebral, like The Shining or whatever. Then there are things in between, like Phantasm, where there’s a surreal element to it, as well. So, like ‘Necrogenic Resurrection’ has a surreal, supernatural kind of element to those lyrics. There’s a good variety of horror, it’s all horror, but it’s not all with the same vibe or atmosphere.”
Well, that’s pretty much it covered. Just to finish, good luck with the album. It’s going to be another interesting year coming up. Have you have you got a plan B if you can’t get out touring again this year?
“Well, like I said, we’re still working on new material while we’re home. If we’re getting into the Fall and we don’t see any tours materializing, we’ll start working on live streams. I’m coming up with interesting setlists for those so that we can do something a bit different each time we do a livestream but that would basically be a replacement for touring and not something that we really necessarily want to put as a first priority. We’re just going to wait a little while longer see how things shape up.”
Hopefully we’ll get to see you on the road in 2021 then. Thanks for your time Alex.
“Absolutely, thanks for talking to me. Hopefully see you on tour sometime soon.”