The quintet have uncompromisingly embodied the word “extreme” for over 30 years, placing them among heavy music’s most consistent veterans. But Cannibal Corpse’s unyielding reliability only makes it all the more shocking to learn that the genesis of their biggest single and the song that launched them on the world stage, Hammer Smashed Face, came from the group nearly imploding.
“Alex [Webster, bass] and I technically quit the band,” recalls drummer and co-founder Paul Mazurkiewicz. “We were fed up with the situation and one guy in particular, who we’ve since replaced. I remember us getting back from a tour and saying, ‘We’re outta here! We’re gonna start our own band!’ This only lasted maybe a week, but in that week, guess what was born: Hammer Smashed Face! We put it together out of sheer hatred."
“It was mostly Alex’s doing,” Paul adds of the track’s initial writing phase. The bassist’s in-depth involvement in Hammer Smashed Face’s inception is not surprising. The song is notorious for its pummelling and rhythmic start, where Paul’s quick yet primal drumbeats give way to a brief, bass guitar-led interlude, all before a gigantic and climactic breakdown.
“We always knew that it was important to us to have the bass shine through. Alex is that kind of a bass player; we always loved the Iron Maiden approach in that way, and that’s what we wanted. We always wanted the bass to be heard, more so on [Hammer…’s parent album] Tomb Of The Mutilated than any of the previous records.”
As Hammer Smashed Face explodes into its incessant first verse, Cannibal Corpse’s rhythm section slices through the mix like a rusty chainsaw, with an intensity fuelled by the raw production of death metal icon Scott Burns.
“Back then we weren’t experienced enough to know what we wanted,” Paul explains of the track’s abrasive sound quality. “Tomb… was recorded in two weeks. Back then, you didn’t have the time, so you had to go off experience.”
But beneath its violent production and musicianship, Hammer Smashed Face reeks of adventurousness. The monstrous anthem eagerly experiments with its speed, slowing to a more grooving pace for a gloriously growl-laden latter half – perfect for gnarly headbanging.
“We always like to mix it up. That was us learning as we go, honing our skills, working on our songwriting. We always wanted to be fast and the beginning of Hammer… is one of the most intense we’ve had for a song. Then you’ve got the killer bass break, it goes into a blast again and then, yeah, you go into the groovy, middle-paced part. That was the style we were shooting for: we like variety, even within one song. Throwing those grooves in, we like doing that. It just feels good!”
Paul happily admits that he “could probably talk about Hammer… for a long time,” but its status as one of death metal’s most pioneering and well-known tracks is also partially owed to outside help from a very unexpected source.
In 1994, two years after it first crushed skulls, the single and its creators made a surprise cameo in the Jim Carrey flick Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, in a sequence that’s gone down in cinematic history for its magnificent randomness.
“Jim, at the time, was finding death metal very intriguing,” says Paul. “We were just sitting at home in Buffalo and we had a call from Metal Blade [Records] saying, ‘We just got a call from Jim Carrey. He’s making a movie and wants you to be in it.’ We had to decline at first because we had to be in Europe for a tour. But a day went by and they called again: ‘They want you bad! They are gonna rearrange shooting around your tour.’”
Through a bizarre mix of brutality, variety and cult Hollywood comedies, Hammer Smashed Face has remained a death metal trailblazer for a quarter of a century. And it still slays.