Cannibal Corpse are more than just death metal incarnate. They’re more than just a bastion of consistency, a reliable presence to be leant on as the decades and state of the world morph and slide. They’re pretty much an object of disbelief at this point, how a band committed to one staple idea can remain so compelling and so on top of their game for every moment for over thirty years and counting.
The build-up to Violence Unimagined, album number fifteen for the band which is a landmark in itself, has been more challenging than most but you wouldn’t pick that out from the final product. With guitarist Pat O’Brien exiting the band and producer and Hate Eternal wizard Erik Rutan filling that space, bassist Alex Webster being stranded on the other side of the country due to COVID-19, and the prospect of keeping gore-soaked death metal fresh for yet another album ahead of them, Cannibal Corpse took it in their stride as Alex explains to Knotfest for this interview.
With this album taking longer than usual to arrive given the overall state of the world slowing everyone down as well as change within your own band, are you particularly happy to get an album out at this time?
Webster - Yeah, it’s funny you mention that because I do believe it is the longest we have gone between two albums, and we have stayed on schedule pretty close for it. The original plan pre-pandemic was that the album would come out in October of 2020 and we’d be touring November and December. We had an idea of what we were going to do and that all had to change of course, but we thought we have an album done, we don’t want to put it out a year and a half or two years even before we could tour so we put it back a little bit but April of this year seemed to work well. It is unusual for us to put out an album and have no touring for it.
You’ve just released your first single Inhumane Harvest which was very positively received. The album isn’t out for another two months so for people who have heard that track, what more would you say to them about what the album has to offer?
Webster - I would say that it’s got a variety of death metal. We’re not a band where every song is a high speed death metal song, we have slow stuff, mid-paced stuff, some very fast stuff, and there’s all of those here. The next song we’re going to put out doesn’t sound too much like Inhumane Harvest and neither does the one after that. It’s all Cannibal Corpse but each song is pretty different. If you like Inhumane Harvest you’ll likely like the rest of the album and the common thread is it’s all Cannibal Corpse-style death metal, but that can be a broad description. A range of tempos and feels, some songs are technical and some are quite straightforward, and we want to make albums that are interesting to listen to from start to finish because of that variety.
There are an awful lot of death metal bands of your generation who are still writing good records but there’s something about Cannibal Corpse that still feels genuinely heavy and violent. How much work do you have to put in to stay hard-hitting and contemporary?
Webster - I think it helps that we’ve got a number of writers in the band. Right there you have that variety in it not being one principle songwriter. We are all going for the aggressive side of death metal, you can have a moodier darker type and we have a little bit of that in our sound as well, but we really try to push the aggression and we want it to have that thing of just making you wanna slam. We want to make you wanna move when you hear them and bang your head, and that’s the background that we have. The kind of death metal that we make is based in that dark, violent side of thrash like Slayer, Kreator and Dark Angel, those are our roots and that’s always in there. I think you can hear it in songs like Overtorture or Necrogenic Resurrection on the new album which are blistering from start to finish. On top of it we just kinda have a goal to make our best album each time. We don’t want to make an album that’s just “good enough”, we want to make ones that could potentially be the best one we’ve ever done when we finish recording. We don’t look at our band as being a legacy band, we look at it as one that could potentially still have its best years to come creatively.
Do you ever find yourself writing riffs and thinking it’s too similar to something else? There’s a few songs on the album that have quite an old school vibe to their riffing, Inhumane Harvest’s opening for example sitting right next to songs from The Bleeding, without being straight copies.
Webster - We do try to make it unique but I guess if we’re gonna end up doing something that sounds a little bit like something we’ve done before, we don’t mind it too much as long as it is different. I don’t think Rob had any intention of making Inhumane Harvest’s opening riff sound like older songs, although he was part of writing those songs too and he might have even written that riff, it’s hard to remember now seeing as it’s been almost thirty years since we did that record, but I think we have decisions to make when we’re songwriting. If we write something and think that’s a similar style to something we’ve done before, I think that’s okay, we just don’t want to directly do a carbon copy of one of our hits or something. I remember when Slayer did War Ensemble, obviously Angel of Death before that is an amazing song with a great structure, and I had a friend who thought War Ensemble was very similar. I was like “yeah, in structure, but they’re different songs!” They’re a similar length, start fast and have a breakdown mosh part in the middle, but they’re clearly different. You’re gonna have a little part of overlap but that’s just called your style.
Obviously the biggest story with Cannibal Corpse this time around is the first line-up change in over fifteen years. Erik Rutan is a death metal legend in his own right and not the kind of person you would get into your band to just be a hired gun. Was he immediately bringing things to the table?
Webster - We’re really happy to have him on board, to have someone who is already a part of the family from having been our producer so many times and such a close friend of all of ours, it didn’t feel as strange as a line-up change might normally feel when you’re just getting to know the new member. We immediately welcomed him to write for us and that’s the way we’ve always looked at it in Cannibal Corpse. Whenever someone new comes into the band, we wanna make sure that it’s not just that they’re good at playing but that they have a similar musical vision to what the rest of us do so that they can write. The option to be able to write and be creative within the band that you are in, that should go without saying in our opinion. That’s part of what makes a band great, that the band members are putting their personality into the music, and so naturally by having one person leave and another person coming in there’s a little change in personality within the band. It’s still the same style but everybody brings a little bit of themselves to a band like Cannibal Corpse. Not all bands are like this, some of them do have one principal songwriter and that’s fine too if it works there, but the way we do things has always been about a team creative effort, or at least give everyone the option to do that. Erik immediately added a lot. He wrote songs for us that are Cannibal Corpse songs but they are Cannibal Corpse songs that have Erik Rutan’s style to them, and we’re really comfortable with that and are really happy with how the future looks creatively with that in mind.
Which songs did Rutan write?
Webster - He did Overtorture, Ritual Annihilation, and Condemnation Contagion. He also did the lyrics for those three songs. One of the distinguishing things about how Erik writes is he has a lot of almost duelling rhythm guitars going on. The rest of us don’t do that quite so much, Erik really loves to have the left rhythm guitar and the right rhythm guitar playing something a little bit different. That’s one way you can pick it out if you’re got headphones and are really paying attention. The stuff he writes is dark too, it’s really creepy-sounding and grim.
He's renowned as an expressive lead player in death metal. Does everyone usually do their own solos on top of writing their own songs?
Webster - Yeah that does tend to be the case. Slowly Sawn for example is a song that I wrote but Erik wrote the lead. It’s great because I just get to write the main body of the song and I can say to Erik, “just do something that you think fits”, and I love the lead he did for that song. Same thing with Rob who wrote the lead for Necrogeneric Resurrection which is my song too. I didn’t tell either of them what to do but they have a good sense for what each of us like. We’re all enough on the same page that we can trust each other to make decisions like that. Speaking about Erik in particular, he has a really good way of structuring solos, so that they have a direction. Not all guitar players are as good as he is with that, his solos can be like miniature songs within a song and are very musical solos in addition to being fast and aggressive.
What were the moments here where you tried to push your own playing a bit?
Webster - Probably Surround, Kill, Devour is the hardest one. Just a lot of hard left hand stuff with arpeggios and things, and that’s a song that would have been easier to play about 10BPM slower but it just sounded right at that tempo. It’s hard for everybody but that’s the way it sounds good so we need to play it at this speed. Erik tracked the rhythm guitar for that song too and it was a handful, literally.
This album everyone else recorded in Florida without you due to flight regulations. Was that strange?
Webster - Yes and no, it was strange to record at home for Cannibal Corpse. Cannibal has always been a band that recorded in the studio together. We record separately, drums first then rhythm guitar and bass, but we’d be around each other and it’s the only time I’ve done my stuff in a different studio to the rest of the guys. It’s something I’ve done before with side projects. I’ve been in bands like Blotted Science and Conquering Dystopia, and I learned how to record at home pretty well and to get a really good bass sound at home. I knew I could do it, I’m experienced enough with Pro-Tools and everything else, but it’s not the way I’d want to do Cannibal Corpse albums all the time. It was made a necessity by the pandemic. We had done some pre-production together in Florida in March and then I flew back home to Oregon, and by April things had gotten so serious over here that travel was being restricted and it seemed incredibly unsafe. It’s not ideal but that said, we were able to get a tone that I’m so happy with. Not to bore the readers too much but you record a direct signal which is just a very clean bass tone and then I sent that down to Erik, who was able to play that through this technology called re-amping where you play that signal through an amp and then record that as though I was there playing it. He used an amp that he really likes and a pedal by this company Darkglass and it wound up making this great tone that I’ve been getting compliments from my bass player friends about, so it turned out great without even being recorded in the optimal way that I would do it.
This is the first time as well that you can't immediately just go out on the road supporting a record. Have you found yourself at any point thinking that you might give the Blotted Science guys a ring or any other outlet to put yourself into, or have you just been enjoying time off and putting all your energy into Cannibal Corpse?
Webster - It’s mostly been Cannibal but I did a guest appearance on a friend of mine’s record, his band Devil Worshipper which I think on his first release was a one-man band but on this project had a few guests in, so I did bass tracks for that. That’s like a weird psychedelic stoner metal thing which is pretty cool and different for me to do. We’ve talked about doing some more Blotted Science too, Conquering Dystopia I haven’t heard from in a while about doing anything, but Blotted we may get to even though those guys are all busy with other things too. I’ve just been writing even more Cannibal stuff because we don’t wanna sit around twiddling our thumbs while we can’t tour. We’re getting ahead of the game for the next one down the road getting some ideas together now. We like to keep busy and it’s quite a weird thing for us to have a whole six months of touring lined up right now, which is obviously us and just thousands of other bands feeling the same way.
It’s the first time in a little while that you’ve had the need for a censored cover to go with a more explicit version of the artwork too. What's the inspiration for doing something like that today?
Webster - Honestly, I’m not sure what inspired Vince for that, because Paul our drummer is the one who talks with Vince Locke the most regarding the artwork, and he just gave him the title Violence Unimagined and said “have at it”. He sent us a few ideas and sketches and we liked the one with the mother eating the baby, even though it’s not based in any lyrics on this album that I can think of that relate to what’s going on on the cover. It’s an unimaginably violent cover so it does fit but it’s a pretty open to interpretation title.
Is it like the Torture cover where the gorier artwork will be revealed inside?
Webster - Y’know, I’m not sure exactly the details of all the packaging, I know in Europe it’s gonna be different to in America, but we had Vince do two covers and we have had him do this a number of times. Gore Obsessed, Gallery of Suicide, going back to Tomb of the Mutilated which was the first one where he just right away did two covers because we knew we were gonna be in for it! I’m not exactly sure where you’re gonna be able to get the really gory artwork, but we like having the two. What we did with Torture was cool but in a way I wish we had two covers for that too, because Vince did an awesome job with that cover and it’d be cool to have some other piece as well, though I suppose that was a unique thing among our albums so for that one album it was good. Of course though with two covers we then have two different shirts that we can make, so that’s nice! They’re both cool so if you can’t find the uncensored anywhere, at least you still have something really cool to look at.
With consumption of music being primarily online now, how much focus still goes onto Cannibal Corpse as a visual entity?
Webster - It’s actually a pretty big deal. On a business side of things, the label is hoping that people keep buying albums. If they can get the music wherever they want, then an album with awesome packaging might be more attractive in getting someone off the fence on whether or not they’re actually gonna buy a physical product. It’s made record labels step up their game in terms of packaging. You can get the music just on streaming but if you’re a collector you’re gonna want something really cool like that, an album that’s maybe a gatefold with great interior art as well, so something super simple might not be as compelling. We have really cool stuff on this album, Vince did some supplementary artwork for the interior where it’s almost like a little comic book panel with his interpretation of each song. They’re really cool and it’s some of my favorite packaging we’ve ever had, actually.
The Fifteen album from Cannibal Corpse in Violence Unimagined arrives on April 16th via Metal Blade Records. Pre-order the album - HERE