Though I would never consider myself a connoisseur of Cattle Decapitation (the band not the activity) I have to admit their latest release, Death Atlas, is much more than just a ‘br00tal’ death metal album. The album is full of variety and surprises, the songwriting compelling and aural texture unique.
The album conjures up similar chaotic qualities featured on previous releases though Death Atlas is a fair amount more ‘musical’. To elaborate, this album takes a lot more care to provide a moving and emotional experience, forgoing some mild heaviness, although I would argue ‘heaviness’ in this sense is an artificial construct.
I often find a deep emotional connection with extreme metal that incorporates clean vocals and harmonically pleasing passages more so than ‘balls to the wall’ blast beats and tremolo picking. I remember my journey into the world of extreme and technical death metal and I remember how after being an avid fan of Cryptopsy, that I could not get into bands like Brain Drill, not even a little bit. The fundamental difference: a lack of dynamism in the music. Although Brain Drill could be considered heavier from a certain standpoint, the continuity of the heaviness mitigated the experience over time. Death Atlas falls into the Cryptopsy camp, not in relative sound but in musical philosophy.
It goes without saying the technicality of Death Atlas is flawless. Instead I will be discussing what I consider to be some of the unique elements of the album. One of the most standout aspects is the high-pitched, almost shrieked, falsetto style vocals that are reminiscent of Fleshgod Apocalypse but altogether less symphonic. I love them and they are probably one of the best parts of the album. The structure of the songs is also something that sets this album apart from the rest. The ever-present contrast between harmonically beautiful sections, slower, more sustained sections, and slamming breakdowns is a big feature of this album, though this might be both it’s strongest but also most aurally tiring feature too (to be discussed later).
“The Geocide”, track two, is a perfect example of the different approach Cattle Decapitation has taken with their writing. Although the album kicks off with pretty standard blast-beats, the riffs themselves feel a lot more spacious and the chorus is mostly just a sequence of sustained chords. This is when we first hear the fantastic, high-pitched clean vocals. From this chorus, I was already hooked. Even the palm-muted riffs contain more groove than I am used to hearing from the quintet. The solo in this song takes no prisoners either and is uncharacteristically and decidedly neoclassical. Before this song concludes Cattle Decapitation has completely subverted my expectations of this album. One thing that has not changed is the band’s message. We hear “fuck the future” bellowed in a cacophony as the song draws to a close. Although I am not one for political lyrics I respect the band’s choice to display their heart on their sleeves and the ironic way in which they address it lyrically.
Although I did say this album brings new ideas into the writing, it is not devoid of slamming riffs, they are merely spread out a bit more across the album. Track three, “Be Still Our Bleeding Hearts”, kicks off with an aggressive riff where the song, for the most part, has a relaxed and almost ballad-like quality, especially in the chorus. The clean vocals again take front and centre and dominate much of the sound, the antithesis to the downtuned and distorted guitars, yet a glimmer of hope in the darkness adds to the musical texture. The song even features some more chordal, black metal sounding riffs which are a pleasant surprise.
If I were to pick my favourite track of the album it would be between tracks six and seven (“One Day Closer to the End of the World” and “Bring Back The Plague”, respectively). It is hard to say whether I prefer the melodic vocal line heard in track six or the cathartic intro to track seven but I don’t really have to choose, so there.
Where this album shines most is in its production. The record sounds as good as it gets in the deathgrind genre. Although the bass does feel like a bit of a background sound, as is standard for a lot of modern metal, the mix is for the most part perfectly balanced. The drums take centre stage, and rightly so, but the guitars are also present and hard-hitting in the mix. Though distorted they cut through the mix in a very clean and compressed fashion.
One criticism I would attach to this album is that it feels like Cattle Decapitation has found a fresh new formula but they might slightly overuse it at times. As I mentioned before, the parallel between slower and faster sections, harmonically rich passages, and brutal death metal riffs is one of the best parts of Death Atlas but after a few listens it does start to feel rather formulaic. That being said I think this tops most brutal death metal releases I have heard of late and I can forgive the band for not being as structurally progressive as I would like (I listen to ELP and Yes, give me a break).
As is in line with my taste I do find death metal more tiring on the ears than I used to, par the few classics I keep going back to and generally this has led to me listen to more black metal as well as a wider variety of music in general. However, this album definitely gets a tip of the hat for trying something new.
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