There’s a divide in the Death Metal scene that largely manifests itself in the differing opinions on this album and its predecessor “Eaten Back To Life”. For most this is an ideological question as many in the older guard believe that the Thrash roots of the genre are the source of its vitality, while the newer adherents to the sound look for brutality more than symmetry. Consequently, this album gets trashed for essentially abandoning practically any semblance of Thrash in favor of a sound defined by atonal blurs of notes, arrhythmic shifts in beat, and a general atmosphere of gore and horror. Being a pioneering effort in unrestrained Brutal Death Metal, “Butchered At Birth” does contain a remnant of the “Reign In Blood” character of Death/Thrash, but in such a concentrated dose that it doesn’t sound very close to it to an untrained ear.
As far as I’m concerned, this ideological divide misses the point completely, as this album’s fatal flaw is not in its stylistic attributes, but in its butchered (no pun intended) delivery. It’s hard to discern whether CANNIBAL CORPSE was trying to draw out the punishingly low guttural vocal delivery of Chris Barnes or not, but the production quality of the music is so top heavy that it makes “And Justice For All” sound like a Sludge album. The guitars, in particular, sound like an aluminum baseball bat getting destroyed by a sandblaster. The bass may as well not be present through 90% of this album, as it’s buried under a towering mountain of double bass much and high end snare cracks. There’s a brief section at the end of the closing song “Innards Decay” where the bass creeps out of hiding and gets some activity beyond doubling the guitars, though it seems like its level in the mix was also boosted pretty significantly for some strange reason.
With a production this top heavy, combined with a drum production that is really dry sounding, the various lead parts tend to have a large amount of prominence in the arrangement. The guitar solos are mostly SLAYER inspired chromatic note flurries with a fair amount of whammy bar noise, which when combined with a wetter mix of guitar effects, results in the leads almost completely cancelling out the prominence of the riffs in the background. The vocals accomplish the same thing without the need of effects or a busier collection of rapid notes, as they are so morosely guttural and low that they replace the bass as the album’s bottom end. Chris Barnes’ vocal delivery is consistent and punishing, which is actually a credit to a musically sloppy album, in spite of what old school Death Thrashers might say to the contrary. When accounting for the absurd subject matter depicted in the lyrics of this album, this is the sort of voice that you look for, as opposed to the righteously angry shouts heard out of Chuck Schuldiner on “Human”.
In addition to the obvious problems in the sound delivery, the biggest problem this album suffers for is that the songwriting is extremely flat and anti-climactic. The songs mostly tend to just come and go, without any real sense of exposition or closure. “Meat Hook Sodomy” starts off with a mess of guitar notes that synthesizes the sound of a chainsaw as Barnes proceeds to emulate the almighty bullfrog deity vocally, but then they just attack with a frenetic riff over a blast beat without any sense of build up to simulate the horror before being mangled by a psycho with a really perverse way of expressing his sexuality. There’s not really any sense of terror or suspense with most of these songs, just an endless barrage of sonic gore with poetic renderings of cadavers have their organs fed to them post mortem. At first this may induce a state of utter revulsion to those with virgin ears, but after a short while it turns into an unintentional yet self-defaming joke with a super-repetitive punch line, ergo something that isn’t even funny anymore after the 3rd time.
At the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with a really brutal assault on the ear drums, as I love a good flesh mangling snuff song as well as the next guy who’s well versed in the plotline of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and other assorted gore-steeped horror flicks. Nevertheless, this album is not a representation of it being done right. They say that the earliest versions of the wheel may have been a bit square-like, and this is a pretty clear example of one with well defined corners. Sure the album cover may look pretty brutal, but the musical contents on here are a turbo charged pile of high end mush with impressive lead guitar gymnastics, ergo the spiritual ancestor of Deathcore with Kerry King doing guest slots. CANNIBAL CORPSE would get better at this by the time they put out “The Bleeding”, but if you want old school brutality with technical intrigue that is better produced, better focused, and just all out perfect, check out SUFFOCATION’S “Effigy Of The Forgotten”.
(Online March 28, 2009)