Quite the number of classic metal groups have kept up a relatively consistent release schedule across their careers, which, although good for hardcore fans, has unfortunately seen some of the biggest names in metal gradually grow staler and staler with every record. Indeed, many staple metal bands seem to have made the decision, rather than to go out in a blaze of glory with an ambitious and epic final album akin to The Sound of Perseverance by Death, to slowly fizzle out of relevance, with each release garnering less and less attention and being received with less and less enthusiasm. Thankfully, however, despite having been releasing records rather consistently since their 1990 debut, Eaten Back to Life, iconic American death metal group Cannibal Corpse are yet to stray into this territory. I say “thankfully” not solely because Cannibal Corpse were crucial to bringing the gore and grime of slasher-inspired American death metal to a wider audience during the mid 1990s, but also because I feel a personal connection to the group, given that they were essentially my gateway drug to death metal. Their seminal fourth album from 1994, The Bleeding, was the first death metal record I bought and heard in full, which coincided with my growing interest in music as a whole, as I was just starting to pay close attention to new releases and set out to listen to as much music as possible, meaning that Cannibal Corpse encouraged me in my search for fresh blood in the contemporary death metal scene. Yet, despite having long since been enshrined amongst the pillars of American death metal, Cannibal Corpse have maintained a healthy release schedule and a respectable presence as part of the ever-evolving metal landscape. Although some of their more recent releases, like 2012’s Torture and 2014’s A Skeletal Domain, rank as amongst some of the most lukewarm albums of their career for me personally, these records have nevertheless been met with their fair share of praise from critics and fans alike, whilst the band has still managed to come through with some late-career gems, such as their ninth album from 2004, The Wretched Spawn. In this sense, there’s no real telling exactly what Cannibal Corpse will unleash upon the release of a new record, and this brings us to their 14th and latest studio album, Red Before Black.
Although splattered with the same entrails that comprise any Cannibal Corpse record, when compared to the most recent leg of their discography in their current line-up, Red Before Black marks a slight, but no less noticeable, change of pace for the band. Whilst the group’s stylings have always made room for some technical leanings, the most recent series of Cannibal Corpse albums have seen the band put an ever greater emphasis on the more intricate side to their sound, as if dismembering a cadaver with precise scythe slashes, as opposed to simply bludgeoning it to bits. In this sense, Red Before Black harks back to some of the group’s earlier material, in that the album is largely propelled forwards by pile-driving thrash grooves instead of technical wizardry. Even still, there is most definitely a technical tinge to Red Before Black, which manifests itself in the odd deviation from a simple time signature or the occasional flash of blinding musical dexterity, but by and large, this isn’t a record that will take many complicated detours on its quest to crush everything in its path. Given that my salient point of criticism regarding Cannibal Corpse’s previous album, A Skeletal Domain, was that the heightened technical chops seemed to have come at the cost of much in the way of compelling songwriting, balancing these more intricate passages with the band’s long-established flair for head-crushing thrust seemed to be the best way to go, as far as I could see. Thankfully, this is essentially what Red Before Black delivers for the most part. Although far from boundary-pushing for Cannibal Corpse, Red Before Black never falls into a predictable rhythm that could leave it being pigeonholed as passé, with the group coming through with some of the most gripping songwriting skills that they have ever brandished in their current configuration, leaving this album as a highlight of this stretch of the band’s career.
Sonically speaking, Red Before Black shows all the telltale signs of Cannibal Corpse at their strongest. Of course, even across some of their more middling material, which was somewhat lacking in engaging songwriting, Cannibal Corpse have always sounded the part, with frontman George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher boasting one of the biggest and most brutal voices in death metal, whilst the rest of the band hold themselves very well both when hurtling ahead at full, thrashing force and when breaking out some more melodic and technical flourishes. Nonetheless, there are some subtle improvements to the group’s overall sound on Red Before Black compared to some of their more recent records, with the return of Erik Rutan behind the production desk resulting in a generally more rotund and robust sonic quality to the album. This particularly relates to the place of Paul Mazurkiewicz’s drums in the mix, with Rutan allowing them a bit more room in a way that bolsters their overall power significantly, whilst also complementing, rather than competing with, the record’s vicious guitar tones, which manage to cleanly cut through the mix with their intensity without losing any of their crisp, melodic flair. Given that Red Before Black stands out as one of the most tonally diverse records from this current phase of Cannibal Corpse’s career, these slight adjustments to the production do wonders when it comes to compensating for the wider variety of songwriting styles presented across the tracklisting. From the full-throttle thrash-fest that is the opening song, Only One Will Die, to the sludgy slow-burner that is Code of the Slashers, and to the serpentine, technical heights of the record’s closer, Hideous Ichor, Red Before Black is a lot bigger on compositional diversity than some of Cannibal Corpse’s latest releases, and the production ensures that the album’s heaviest moments come down like a hammer blow to the head, whilst the more intricate moments slice and dice with razor-sharp precision.
Of course, this enhanced production value is largely successful in that it emphasises Cannibal Corpse’s primary point of improvement on Red Before Black compared to some of their more recent material, which, without a doubt, has to be the band’s songwriting skills. Whilst the increased emphasis on technicality demonstrated on A Skeletal Domain occasionally worked to the detriment of the group’s compositional chops across the album, the well-worked balance that the band finds between the thrashy and technical sides of their stylings on Red Before Black makes for an inherently more varied approach to songwriting that carries the record far more effectively, despite the fact that its core components contain nothing intrinsically new for Cannibal Corpse. Undoubtedly, this quality to the album reaches its apex on the track In the Midst of Ruin, which stands out not just as the most remarkable cut from Red Before Black, but also as one of the most masterfully composed and performed songs to have been laid to tape by Cannibal Corpse for quite some time, if not ever. The galloping rhythm that introduces the track, besides existing at the prime speed to evoke an irresistible urge to headbang, makes for an absolute juggernaut of a groove when buttressed by the band’s meaty guitar tones, rugged rhythm section and their frontman’s Herculean roars. This is only the beginning of the sheer firepower at play over the course of In the Midst of Ruin, however, as the band abruptly breaks out into full thrash mode, with guitarists Pat O’Brien and Rob Barrett, as well as bassist Alex Webster, firing off on all cylinders, as they hammer out rapid-fire riffs and acrobatic melodic descents amidst Corpsegrinder’s thunderous growls, before the tempo dive-bombs back down into a hulking groove. The rest of the song sees the group effortlessly manoeuvre amidst passages of frenzied riffs, crushing breakdowns, squealing solos and pure death metal muscle, all whilst forcibly and seamlessly binding these diverse sections together. Although no other cut from Red Before Black quite matches the masterful songwriting of In the Midst of Ruin, numerous others see Cannibal Corpse flex their compositional muscles in a variety of ways, with Firestorm Vengeance and Scavenger Consuming Death tying together straightforward, thrashing thrust with intricate timing changes and tight performances, whilst Hideous Ichor is a feast of sinuous riffs and sudden twists and turns. All this being said, there nevertheless exists a faction of Red Before Black that is bogged down by a problem that recurs across much of Cannibal Corpse’s recent material, that being an unwelcome sense of déjà vu at times, with certain cuts offering little of interest on the songwriting front. As compelling as the mighty, blaring guitar tones that introduce the mammoth opening dirge of Remaimed are, the rest of the track cycles through riffs and rhythms that are two a penny in Cannibal Corpse’s back-catalogue, and the same could be said of Heads Shoveled Off. Meanwhile, Corpus Delicti attempts to conjoin a myriad of passages much in the same vein as other cuts from the record, but the group struggles to usher in these abrupt changes of pace in a way that retains the track’s momentum across its entire runtime and brings the entire composition together cohesively. Thankfully, however, such examples are the exception rather than the rule, with the general trend of Red Before Black compared to Cannibal Corpse’s most recent spate of releases being overwhelmingly positive on practically all fronts.
If not for the occasional slump in songwriting quality or overall innovation across the tracklisting, Red Before Black may very well have ranked amongst Cannibal Corpse’s best albums ever, which is no small feat, especially from someone such as me, who considers some of the band’s best records as fine examples of first-rate American death metal. Indeed, certain individual tracks, in particular In the Midst of Ruin, amount to stand-out tracks from across the group’s entire discography, acting as culminations of Cannibal Corpse’s skills as songwriters, performers, musicians and bandmates, with every indulgence used and detour taken across their previous output being reflected on as to refine one of their most impressive batches of songs in well over a decade. Of course, this does result in the odd lulls in the tracklisting being all the more disappointing, but such moments are far from enough to prevent the album from amounting to a stand-out release in death metal from this year. Ultimately, Red Before Black isn’t solely another helping of premium death metal from one of the genre’s longest-running titans, but at the best of times, it manages to revitalise Cannibal Corpse’s sound with some of their most proficient songwriting skills since their heyday.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7.5/10