Cannibal Corpse: how one band took extreme metal to the mainstream

A press shot of cannibal corpse

“In the 80s, when we were all kids, zombies were underground! Horror movies were an underground thing. Now everybody loves zombies. Your grandmother loves zombies… so it’s no big deal anymore, and I guess it’s the same with music and the imagery we use. How can it ever have that initial shock value that it did when it was fresh? But then, we never did it to shock people anyway…”

Paul Mazurkiewicz and George ‘Corpsegrinder’ Fisher have been members of Cannibal Corpse for 29 and 22 years respectively. Two of the friendliest and most sweet-natured men the metal world has to offer, they are about to release one of the most insanely vicious and brutal albums of 2017 – their band’s 14th record, Red Before Black. Instantly recognisable as the work of the people that brought us Hammer Smashed Face and Make Them Suffer, it’s yet another strong effort from a band that have been relentless and unwavering during their three decades of active service. They are simply part of the heavy metal furniture: a steady force for extremity in a world that, conveniently, has become a lot more enthusiastic about horror stories in recent times. From The Walking Dead to the recent It remake, people all over the world are lapping up gore, so there could hardly be a better time for an album that features a song called Heads Shoveled Off. As Paul cheerfully tells Hammer, you can’t complain when the world comes round to your way of thinking.

“More people know what horror is about now, I guess,” he says. “It’s cool entertainment! That’s why we liked it when were kids. It’s just cool. So I look at death metal as kind of the same thing. Death metal isn’t changing; it’s blasting and brutal and Cannibal Corpse sounds like Cannibal Corpse, but maybe it’s not as underground as it was back in the day. It never used to be for mom and dad, it was just for us, just like horror movies, but things change and people get older and they stick with the things they love. After 30 years, we’re definitely accepted by more people.”

Resolutely sticking to a formula doesn’t work for everyone, but Cannibal Corpse have a clear, well-defined identity. Officially death metal’s most successful band, with more than two million album sales, and one of the few bands from the genre’s first wave who haven’t had any kind of meaningful break or hiatus, they really have nothing to prove at this point. Although often wrongly accused of being musical one-trick ponies – in truth, there’s a lot of variety within their brutal albums – Cannibal Corpse are living proof that sticking to the genre you love can really work.

“We’ve never even discussed doing things a different way,” Paul says, with a wry laugh. “We always wanted to be the band that we started. Too many times growing up, we were let down by our heroes. They would release one or two great albums and then that third album comes and it’s, ‘Oh man, what did they do?’ and you feel so let down! I never wanted anyone to feel that way about my band. We’re doing what we want to do, so why should we change it? We’re a brutal death metal band. That’s what Cannibal Corpse is. That’s what it needs to be. It’s gonna be Cannibal Corpse to the end.”

If you go down to the woods today...

If you go down to the woods today...

One thing that has changed in recent years is how much real-world horror we are exposed to on a regular basis. As a result, it’s difficult to imagine that Vince Locke’s grotesque cover art for 1991’s Butchered At Birth album would be shocking enough to instigate a repeat of the ridiculous bans imposed on Cannibal Corpse’s music during their early years in Germany and elsewhere. Yet in 2014, the band were denounced and banned by a Russian court for potentially causing “damage to the mental health of children”. Total insanity, but proof that the so-called developed world is by no means above regressing back to censorious, dictatorial states.

“Music’s always been an easy target,” sighs George. “No one questions Stephen King about his novels, do they? No one questions writers or movie directors, because that’s art, you know? It’s always music that gets that shit. You know, we’ve said it continually. We’ve said that we’re all about the music and, guess what? We just like horror movies and we’re just a band. We don’t have an agenda. We’re not trying to create an army of little killers. We’re not trying to force anyone to murder anybody. How much sense would that make for us financially? Ha ha ha!”

Speaking to George and Paul, what comes across most strongly is their exasperation that people can’t see the plain and obvious truth: that death metal is a positive force in the world and really speaks to a great number of people on a profound level. As an outlet for directionless aggression and a way to confront deepest, darkest fears, death metal has proved to be indispensable to countless like-minded souls around the globe. It’s a passion that Cannibal Corpse have shared and nurtured for decades, and it’s obvious how fired up George and Paul are about their own band. After 14 albums and near-constant touring, they are still thrilled to be doing this weird, scary death metal thing for a living.

As with several of Cannibal Corpse’s most recent albums, Red Before Black was recorded with fellow death metal veteran Erik Rutan (also guitarist/vocalist with Hate Eternal). Arguably, the band are guilty of treading water on a few of their mid-period records, but Erik’s stewardship and insistence on face-flaying rawness has enabled these weatherbeaten diehards to stay ahead of the chasing pack, sounding every bit as vicious and untamed as the thousands of bands that have followed in their illustrious wake over the last three decades. The band we hear on Red Before Black is one with vast supplies of ideas and energy, but as George, Paul and their comrades all approach the age of 50, we are now in unknown territory for extreme metal. Somehow it’s hard to imagine George maintaining his notoriously intense headbanging activities for another 20 years, so exactly how long can they all keep this up?

“I just turned 48 and I’m the youngest in the band,” shrugs George. “I don’t know how it’s gonna be until I get out there and start headbanging, but overall I feel good and I’m ready to go. As far as my neck goes, I’ve honestly never had many problems with it. Headbanging is something people expect from me, so I’m happy about that, ha ha ha! I have never had to go to the doctor with neck pain. I’ve had a few back issues but that had nothing to do with the band – it was actually from doing stuff around the house!”

“It’s definitely tougher now,” adds Paul. “I just turned 49 and I’ve worked so hard, harder than I ever have, just to keep going and to play harder and play better. I’ve done more exercise, I’m eating better, just little things that add up and become part of your routine and then you do start to notice the difference. But you go into the process knowing that this is how we play. We are a physical band, we are brutal and heavy and we’re hitting hard, firing on all cylinders. I want to play for as long as I can and see how long I can blast for.”

And so, with their 30th anniversary looming on the 2018 horizon, they’re off to hit the road again, armed with another fresh batch of pulverising songs recounting yet more fiendishly inventive ways for human beings to meet a sticky end. Adored by old-school death metal diehards and new-school deathcore kids in equal measure, Cannibal Corpse are those rare beasts: elder statesmen that never lost the plot. They worked hard, stayed true and kept on killing. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch.

“Yeah, the whole thing, this life, it’s amazing to me,” grins Paul. “It’s awesome. We were there at the starting point of all these crazy new metal genres and we’ve been doing this for nearly 30 years. We’re only a few decades into the whole story of modern music, right? So what are people going to be talking about 200 years from now? They could be talking about classic death metal and, ‘Hey, you know about Cannibal Corpse?’ and that’s mindblowing to me.”

“Dude, this is my 10th record with Cannibal and I’m still excited by it,” George concludes. “I’m jealous when my friends in other bands are out playing! That’s where I want to be. I can’t say if I’ll still be headbanging onstage at 77, but who knows? This is what I do. This is what we all want to do. We’re just itching to get back out and be brutal again.”

Red Before Black is out now via Metal Blade

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Dom Lawson

Dom Lawson has been writing for Metal Hammer and Prog for over 14 years and is extremely fond of heavy metal, progressive rock, coffee and snooker. He also contributes to The Guardian, Classic Rock, Bravewords and Blabbermouth and has previously written for Kerrang! magazine in the mid-2000s.