Cannibal Corpse Still Reigns as the Undisputed Champ of American Death Metal

It has to be one of the most improbable success stories in the history of American music: a bunch of Buffalo teenagers form a band, come up with the name Cannibal Corpse, help invent death metal, and actually start to make money from albums with titles like Butchered at Birth and Tomb of the Mutilated. And then they keep at it, for more than 20 years, earning a measure of respectability even as they churn out songs like "Encased in Concrete," "As Deep as the Knife Will Go," and "Followed Home Then Killed," all from the band's brand-new 12th album, Torture.

"We always knew that if we were going to succeed and get any more popular that people were going to have to change for us, as opposed to us changing for them. That wasn't going to happen," says bassist Alex Webster, one of two original members still in the band. (Drummer Paul Mazurkiewicz is the other.) "I think what you've seen over the past 20-something years is that heavier music has gradually become more acceptable. ... Older bands like us who have been banging out the really heavy stuff for a long time, we're finally reaping the benefits of that."

No one could have predicted the band's success—Torture debuted at #32 on the Billboard album chart in April, and Cannibal Corpse has been identified as the top-selling death-metal band of all time—when Webster and Mazurkiewicz joined forces with vocalist Chris Barnes and guitarists Jack Owen and Bob Rusay in 1988. Death metal barely existed: Less extreme thrash bands like Metallica and Megadeth were just starting to gain commercial relevance amid the hair-metal boom, and Florida band Death had released its first album, Scream Bloody Gore, a year earlier, to almost no notice. The idea that death metal's hyperspeed riffing, indecipherable bellowing, and gore-soaked lyrics about zombies and serial killers would ever have any lasting impact would have seemed ridiculous, if anybody even knew it was happening.

Of course, song titles like "F--ked With a Knife," "Meat Hook Sodomy," and "Addicted to Vaginal Skin" have a way of courting attention. By the mid-'90s, conservative politicians and activists were naming Cannibal Corpse a threat to children and decency everywhere, and officials in Germany and Australia banned the group's albums.

"If you're writing extreme music, it stands to reason you should have extreme lyrics as well, and they just match," Webster says. "That's the way we've always looked at it. The kind of music we're writing sounds like somebody being torn apart—‘Shredded Human' sounds like somebody getting shredded, you know what I mean?"

The early Cannibal Corpse catalog—songs like "Bloody Chunks" and "Skull Full of Maggots"—throbs with the same juvenile prurience that animates Evil Dead II and classic EC Comics. The best Cannibal Corpse songs are an unholy commingling of genuine dread, sonic ferocity, and a gleeful transgressive delight. Some of the deranged, over-the-top thrill has disappeared as the band has become reliably professional, but the current lineup (Webster, Mazurkiewicz, vocalist George "Corpsegrinder" Fisher, and guitarists Rob Barrett and Pat O'Brien) still turns out precise, detailed three-and-a-half-minute sagas of fear, comic-book violence, and psychological mayhem. Torture is an example of the conceptual rigor that keeps the band interested—almost all of the 12 songs deal, in one way or another, with the title subject.

"If you're going to have an entire career where every album is based on horror of one form or another, we have to make each song a specific story," Webster says. "If we're going to write a song about zombies, since we already have 10 of them, we need to write it about a very specific thing that's happening. Like the song ‘Unite the Dead' off of Gallery of Suicide—it's about zombies, but it's also about zombies copulating and creating more zombies, I guess, by having some strange undead sex. Our serial-killer thing, we need it to be a little different. You have ‘Evidence in the Furnace,' off of the last record, where it's a guy chopping people up and putting them in a furnace, or something else, like ‘Five Nails Through the Neck,' that's clearly a very specific thing happening to somebody. Yes, it's a serial killer doing it, I guess, but it's not general."

The setlist for this Knoxville stop, headlining the annual Summer Slaughter package tour, will cover most of the band's history, from 1990's Eaten Back to Life to Torture.

"With only an hour to work with, we're going to end up missing one or two of the albums, I'm afraid, simply because we want to get out there and push Torture," Webster says. "So we'll probably play at least four songs from Torture in the Summer Slaughter set, but we'll also want to play a bunch of the old classic stuff—‘Hammer Smashed Face,' ‘Stripped, Raped, and Strangled,' stuff like that. ... Normally, if it were our own headlining tour, we would absolutely make sure that all 12 studio albums were covered in the set by at least one song. ...We worked really hard on all these records, they're all pure death metal, and we're really proud of all of them, so we don't want to just forget about them."