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Death Metal Is Officially Classic Rock

At a New York City show, subgenre forefathers Cannibal Corpse and Morbid Angel demonstrated why they’re still thriving after three decades

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 23: Bassist Alex Webster and vocalist George "Corpsegrinder" Fisher Of Cannibal Corpse perform at The Regency Ballroom on February 23, 2019 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images)

At a Decibel Magazine Tour stop on Thursday, Cannibal Corpse showed why they're one of the most reliable live acts in underground metal.

Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images

Cannibal Corpse frontman George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher had already shot down the possibility of an encore, playfully roasting the crowd in the process. But still, you knew what was coming. As a rule, the band — one of the biggest and most beloved in death metal — will not leave a stage without playing its signature anthem, “Hammer Smashed Face.” And at New York’s PlayStation Theater on Thursday, they did not disappoint.

The band expertly bashed through the 1992 song, whose thudding stop-time intro and seething speed bursts — not to mention Cannibal Corpse’s exquisitely random Ace Ventura cameo — have helped turn it into the underground equivalent of an FM radio staple. If this wing of metal has a “Stairway,” it is this catchy, four-minute ditty about clobbering someone to death with a sledgehammer.

The subgenre and its fans could be forgiven a bit of nostalgia. At this point, the elder statesmen of death metal — including Cannibal Corpse and Morbid Angel, their co-headliners at Thursday’s show, part of the annual Decibel Magazine Tour — are even older than the gods of classic rock were during the Nineties grunge boom. And to judge by the crowd, which jammed the 2,100-capacity venue’s floor area not just for the main sets but also during opening turns by up-and-comers Necrot and Blood Incantation, they’re as popular as ever.

And though probably not a single fan in attendance would have minded, these bands, whose roots stretch back well into the Eighties, aren’t propping themselves up on their robust back catalogs. Morbid Angel opened with three straight songs from their latest album, 2017’s Kingdoms Disdained, which signaled a turn back to a harsher and more chaotic sound after the band’s ill-conceived/-received 2011 industrial-metal detour Illud Divinum Insanus. And even when they did pull out fan favorites like “Day of Suffering” from 1991’s Blessed Are the Sick or “God of Emptiness” from their 1993 landmark Covenant, they made these songs feel scrappier and more feral than on record.

That has a lot to do with the contrast between current frontman Steve Tucker and classic-era vocalist David Vincent. Where Vincent was proud and imperious, Tucker is gruff and bullish. After an unlikely MTV moment in the early Nineties, Morbid Angel are a staunchly underground band again, a fact they emphasized by playing vintage track “Unholy Blasphemies” in its primitive demo version rather than its Blessed arrangement.

As capable as Tucker is, Morbid Angel’s nerve center will always be its mad-genius guitarist, and sole remaining founding member, Trey Azagthoth. His performance on Thursday drove home why he is death metal’s single greatest and most compelling instrumentalist.  Wielding a series of his beloved seven-string axes, he juggled lurching, sinister riffs with solos that felt genuinely surreal. A musician as inspired by Quake III and the teachings of motivational speaker Tony Robbins as he is by Eddie Van Halen and Mozart, he combines acrobatic two-handed tapping with clouds of noxious, whammy-abetted sound mist. Last night, he would often turn toward his amp, losing himself in the heady flow.

Where Morbid remain deeply eccentric, Cannibal Corpse are content to be a battering ram, and the crowd responded in kind. Enthusiastic for the first three bands, the fans were utterly rabid for the final act. That’s likely because Cannibal Corpse’s songs, especially recent downtempo crushers like “Scourge of Iron” and “Evisceration Plague,” are custom-built to induce mass mosh outbreaks. Those tracks and set opener “Code of the Slashers,” a standout from 2017’s Red Before Black that features a lean and irresistible doom riff, had the pit roiling with rowdy glee. And more hectic selections, like Red Before Black’s “Firestorm Vengeance,” the title track from 2004’s The Wretched Spawn and 1996’s “Devoured by Vermin” (the first track on Vile, Corpsegrinder’s first album with the band), showed off the band’s signature high-speed bludgeon.

Like Morbid Angel, the band dipped only sparingly into their earlier era, playing just a handful of tracks apiece from their celebrated early-Nineties efforts The Bleeding and Tomb of the Mutilated. As in pretty much every Cannibal Corpse set, “Hammer Smashed Face” was preceded by a Bleeding track that, with former vocalist Chris Barnes’ lyrics describing misogynistic violence in disturbing detail, has aged particularly poorly. Thankfully, in the Corpsegrinder era, the band has tilted more toward comic-book gore, as demonstrated Thursday by jovially bloodthirsty zombie-hunting sing-along “Kill or Become,” with its refrain of “Fire up the chainsaw! Hack their fucking heads off!”

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 23: Guitarist Trey Azagthoth of Morbid Angel performs at The Regency Ballroom on February 23, 2019 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images)

Morbid Angel’s Trey Azagthoth. (Photo by Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images)

There was, unsurprisingly, no mention from the stage of the December arrest of Cannibal Corpse guitarist Pat O’Brien on charges of burglary and assault. And, equally unsurprisingly, his fill-in, Erik Rutan —leader of Hate Eternal, former member of Morbid Angel and the man responsible for producing most of Cannibal Corpse’s excellent-sounding recent albums — proved to be the perfect sub. Tearing through the band’s breakneck riffs, enthusiastically mouthing lyrics along with Corpsegrinder and handling the majority of the set’s frantic solos, he came across as exactly what he is: a peer and a longtime fan making the most of a brief tenure in one of death metal’s elite bands.

The bill was solid top to bottom, with direct-support trio Necrot pounding out a set of no-frills, unabashedly retro goodness. Openers Blood Incantation deserve special mention. The Denver quartet is solid on record, but live they’re staggeringly tight and effective. Combining sci-fi and occult themes — “This song’s about being dead in space,” frontman Paul Riedl announced of one track from their 2015 debut Starspawn — with a sound that nails the sweet spot between brainy technicality and raucous headbang-ability, the band seems to celebrate all the elements that have made death metal so enduring. That Riedl and fellow guitarist Morris Kolontyrsky both proudly sported B.C. Rich Ironbird guitars, Trey Azagthoth’s signature model, only solidified their reverence for the movement’s history, and willingness to carry it forward.

None of the bands spent much time on banter, though Steve Tucker did allow himself a brief moment of scene pride. “A death metal show, in a place like this,” he marveled, looking around the venue. These bands and the scene they’ve helped to build might not register on the mainstream radar, but as Thursday’s show proved, after three decades, this community continues to thrive on more than just good-old-days devotion. That’s more than you can say for a lot of classic rock.

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