The mainstream music world’s exposure to Cannibal Corpse is predominantly due to their odious album art1 and appearance in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective performing “Hammer-Smashed Face.” Although they are no longer banned from selling merchandise in Australia and Germany, Cannibal Corpse’s propensity to release sickeningly graphic artwork has declined in recent years, with Evisceration Plague and Kill sporting less outwardly ghastly material – 2012’s Torture notwithstanding. A Skeletal Domain is the Buffalo, NY death metal quintet’s 2014 release and thirteenth full-length studio album in a quarter-century of activity.2
Ann Radcliffe – author of The Romance of the Forest and a crucial influence upon Marquis de Sade and Edgar Allen Poe – described the difference between horror and terror as the the former using “obscurity” and “indeterminancy” in eliciting fear; the latter, “freezes and annihilates” the senses through atrocity and cruelty.3 In other words, terror is the fear gained from suspense and not knowing what lurks behind that locked door, while horror is the visceral reaction to witnessing depravity. Alien would be terror, whereas it sequel Aliens would be horror. Similarly, the bloodthirst and graphic qualities of Cannibal Corpse’s infamous Tomb of the Mutilated and The Wretched Spawn – not to mention death metal in general – constitute horror, while Suicide’s claustrophobic “Frankie Teardrop” would be terror.
Leading track “High Velocity Impact Spatter” is classic grisly horror that one would expect from the group who recorded “Hammer-Smashed Face” two decades past. “Icepick Lobotomy” wonderfully describes the process of “cranial penetration.”4 “Kill or Become” tells the story of a viral pandemic that forces humanity to compete violently for scavenged resources; remember the advice “fire up the chainsaw / cut their fucking heads off.” On a couple of tracks, A Skeletal Domain utilizes psychological horror: “The Murderer’s Pact” describes the cognitive dissonance of a man blackmailed into killing; and “Funeral Cremation” follows a murderer’s descent into madness from the tormenting guilt of having killed a family member, where the only way to ease the conscience is to kill the rest of the family so there is no one left who can mourn.
Atonal riffs abound; one knows exactly what to expect if they have heard any Cannibal Corpse album – or for that matter, any modern death metal at all. The album is tightly produced, and Alex Webster’s bass playing deserve particular mention with respect to his versatility, not to mention producer Mark Lewis ensuring the sheer audibility of Webster’s bass lines.5
Cannibal Corpse have played the gory death metal game for some time; A Skeletal Domain is rather interchangeable from previous albums. Despite the two previously mentioned psychological horror tracks, A Skeletal Domain uses hackneyed bodies-burning/zombies-eating material. Tomb of the Mutilated and Butchered at Birth are two of the most graphic, horrifying albums in all of heavy metal; although “Sadistic Embodiment” and “Icepick Lobotomy” will fit well on any death metal playlist, A Skeletal Domain generally pushes boundaries too weakly to elicit much visceral reaction. Gore/Guts/Genitals is so common in modern and old school death metal that sure, A Skeletal Domain will throw some shock value and big riffs around, but will the listener remember it later? Probably not.
Successful modern death metal bands who seek to elicit fear would do well to remember terror should not be forgotten in favor of horror. Those who just want to smash faces with hammers should remember that the novelty of shock value and atonality has long since worn off; that does not mean death metal cannot be exciting, but reliance on old tropes sans innovation will assure otherwise. A Skeletal Domain cuts that corner a bit too close.
1. High Velocity Impact Spatter – (4:07) – ★★★★★
2. Sadistic Embodiment – (3:17) – ★★★★☆
3. Kill or Become – (3:50) – ★★★★☆
4. A Skeletal Domain – (3:38) – ★★★★☆
5. Headlong into Carnage – (3:01) – ★★★☆☆
6. The Murderer’s Pact – (5:05) – ★★★☆☆
7. Funeral Cremation – (3:42) – ★★★☆☆
8. Icepick Lobotomy – (3:16) – ★★★★★
9. Vector of Cruelty – (3:25) – ★★★☆☆
10. Bloodstained Cement – (3:42) – ★★★★☆
11. Asphyxiate to Resuscitate – (3:47) – ★★★☆☆
12. Hollowed Bodies – (3:05) – ★★★☆☆
1Tomb of the Mutilated broke me as a young teenager. I remember staring at the artwork for about ten minutes in complete shock, with my brain attempting to figure out exactly how that could happen. Did she die while being thrust against a corpse, did he start eating her out after she had already died, etc.
2That’s a crazy thought; Cannibal Corpse has been around so long, if it were a human then it’s past the median age of first childbirth in the USA. Judging by Butchered at Birth, perhaps it’s best that doesn’t happen.
3Ann Radcliffe, “On the Supernatural in Poetry,” in The New Monthly Magazine 7, ed. Thomas Campbell (London: Henry Colburn, (1826), 145–52.
4Intended double entendre? It’s Cannibal Corpse, so I’m going for a “yes.”
5It should be no secret by now that listenable bass automatically moves an album a few steps up in my opinion.