Technical Ecstasy: What Counts as Brutal in 2012?

As with a beating, it's often those first seconds that tell you how it's going to go. Here, the pummeling double-time kick/tom runs lock into bristling roller-coaster "technical" guitar arpeggios ripped at terminal velocity before the band drops into a breathless, jagged groove of chugging downstrokes, rattling snare, and guttural grunts tag-teaming from guitarist John Gallagher and bassist Sean Beasley. Before the scant two minutes of "Invert the Idols" concludes, drummer Trey Williams has pushed his inhuman speed into smooth triple-time rolls and slammed the band down into a lower gear, then lower again, for the kind half-time breakdown that sets circle pits into heaving motion and has set Dying Fetus apart from its death-metal brethren since its earliest days some 20 years ago.

This is the uncompromising sound of extreme metal. Circa when, though? 2012? 1991? As the Maryland-based band rounds its second decade strong and releases as high-profile an album as a band called Dying Fetus is ever likely to get—the new Reign Supreme (Relapse Records)—it drops its new music into a metal scene grown deeper but also wider, expanded by a new base of open-eared fans as well as a range of bands that assay heavy from all sides and approaches. What used to come off as a nearly unimaginable extremity—the sort of forbidding musical brutality that Dying Fetus has made its specialty—now can seem almost quaint.

True, it takes ears accustomed to the sonic cannonade and throat-scraping roars of death metal to hear anything quaint here. But for adepts, what you're listening is the scant evolutionary tweaking of a very particular beast. Produced again by frequent DF collaborator Steve Wright, Reign Supreme bears a more polished sheen to its rippling drum sounds and technical squeals, and long-time Fetus fans may be surprised at the snatches of melody that elbow their way out of the pit-stoking scrum, e.g. the almost hooky, ooky-spooky bit (a "bridge" mayhaps?) that jumps out of the middle of "From Womb to Waste." Of course, that's also the track that begins with a young woman intoning, "It's not my fault I'm pregnant and I love drugs. Who cares? F--k the baby, let it die." The ostensible "political" bent that helped define the band against its gore-soaked peers from its heyday (when former bassist/grad student Jason Netherton wrote the lyrics) is almost completely sublimated now; Dying Fetus 2012 is so orthodox death metal that it, well, hurts.

And that's kind of the point. Making music like this cleaner, prettier, and more palatable, even slightly, almost goes against its purpose. But Reign Supreme does find founding zygote Gallagher and his long-serving rhythm section ruling hard when it comes to doing what they do, what they always do, and maybe doing it a little better. On cuts like "Dissidence," they chop more slam breaks and hardcore bursts into their uncut DM sound than ever, somehow making more it more potent rather than less. It sounds not unlike their last album, and their next album probably won't sound much different, though it may be even further isolated from whatever heavy sound of the moment the expanding musical future may bring. But there's something to be said for waiting for the moment to come around to you rather than chasing it down. If Gallagher keeps it up another 20 years, maybe the world will beat a path to him.

Cattle Decapitation, on the other hand, can't be kept down on the farm. The San Diego-based deathgrind quartet makes an evolutionary leap with the new Monolith of Inhumanity (Metal Blade), and while more polish and more melody are part of the altered DNA, the result is hardly what you'd call approachable. "Impressive" works, though.

CD's ongoing man-as-beast, anti-animal-cruelty lyrical obsessions cleave closer to death metal's roots in blood-soaked body horror, but, as usual, Travis Ryan's from-the-killing-floor bellows fail to impart any intelligible bon mots of admonition. (Titles such as "Gristle Licker" and "Projectile Ovulation" do most of the verbal provoking.) No, Cattle Decapitation gets its message across, as such, through its blur-fast brutality. "Lifestalker," for one, opens with the kind of DM riff/grind groove combo that is Cattle Decapitation's lifeblood. At its center, though, the cut opens out into an almost power-ballad-y breakdown featuring Ryan singing in a way that most people would consider singing and guitarist Josh Elmore doing his best Slash-standing-on-a-white-piano moment for a few bars.

But it's not the melody that makes Monolith of Inhumanity a breakthrough; it's the way that the melody is thrown into the switchbacking fury that is Cattle Decapitation at its most furious, which is where Monolith is pitched throughout. The album veers between brutal ripping, melodic caw-along bits, major metal drama, and the occasional grim musical joke (little "jazzy" bass-solo doodles instantly whipped into nothingness by the surging assault), with Dave McGraw's fleet but flexible drum thunder hammering the whole thing into various pointed shapes. This is not likely the album that will convince the skeptical that they need a Cattle Decapitation album in their lives, but those who already think they might shouldn't hesitate to bite.