Monday 16 December 2019

Cattle Decapitation - Death Atlas (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Death Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 29 Nov 2019
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Here's an eighth studio album from San Diego's death metal legends, Cattle Decapitation, who turn out to have evolved a great deal since I heard them last. I remember them as brutal death with a nod to grindcore, but nowadays they're progressive death. There's even a strong production job on offer, a concept that really isn't something I associate with this band. Now I just have to figure out how out of date I am. It must be at least a decade.

I'm assuming that this is the latest stage in a gradual evolution away from pure extremity to a sound that's varied and interesting. Certainly, it's the longest album they've released, by almost ten minutes, though over seven of those are taken up with four interludes that address environmental issues in an apocalyptic fashion. They're ambient pieces with dialogue that may or may not be discernible: the first is in foreign languages and the third is in an awkward guttural monotone that's difficult to understand.

That means that there are ten songs proper here and that's where good stuff can be found, starting with the first, The Geocide. It opens at hyperspeed, David McGraw's drums as frantic as anything I've heard this year, and with a decent scream from Travis Ryan that presages some admirable vocal work from him. Bizarrely, he provides both my favourite and least favourite aspects to this album. He's good here, both with the expected guttural death growl but also with a second voice that's somewhere between Bobby Blitzer of Overkill and Dani Filth, with maybe a hint of Udo Dirkschneider.

It's this second voice that I enjoyed most here. It's versatile, sometimes reaching full black metal shriek and sometimes calming down almost to clean levels. It's not just the tone but the inflection and intonation that's so effective on tracks like With All Disrespect, Time's Cruel Curtain and One Day Closer to the End of the World. The guttural one works for the most part but occasionally goes way over the top, like in Vulturous and at the end of Bring Back the Plague, where it's like we're draining a vat of sludge that gargles forever. It ceases to be a voice and becomes a crappy sound effect.

The Geocide is fast in a death metal style, though McGraw does outstrip the rest of the band considerably. There's a point where he slows down a lot but they don't and yet everyone suddenly syncs. The twin guitars of Josh Elmore and new guy Belisario Dimuzio do try to keep up for a while, almost reaching neo-classical shred. Finish Them ventures into thrash territory and a couple of other tracks like With All Disrespect also go there. Vulturous has black metal style, albeit mostly through McGraw's blastbeats and Ryan's shriek.

The most surprising sound is reserved for the title track, which wraps up a long album with a carefully constructed and thought out piece of music. The Cattle Decapitation I remember had trouble writing songs over three minutes. I looked back and only found a couple over six, neither of which was a real song. Alone at the Landfill, from Karma Bloody Karma, was half ambience and Men Before Swine, from Humanure, was never anything else, just a ten minute outro. This, on the other hand, is an actual song, and it's a good one that blisters, chugs and even quietens down for a gothic section in the middle with strings.

This year, I've followed up on a number of albums by delving into the back catalogues of interesting bands. I had zero expectation of doing that after this album, but I'm going to need to do so. I remember Homovore being awful and To Serve Man not being much better. In fact, I don't remember anything from Cattle Decapitation that impressed me at all, at least until now. This didn't knock my socks off but it surprised me often and I dug a whole bunch of songs. If Ryan had ditched the toilet flushing voice and cut down on the interludes, I'd even have gone a rating point higher.

As this is clearly a progression (those eight albums spread over a couple of decades), I'm now keen on hearing their next one. I'll be working backwards too to see when they got interesting. Memories aren't everything.

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