"Sometimes less is more in horror" - Cannibal Corpse on Horror, Art and Violence Unimagined

Writing and releasing 15 studio albums over the course of three decades is no easy feat for any artist that chooses the life of a musician, and when the music you create is cursed to be followed by censorship and controversy for your entire career, it can become all the more difficult to keep your head held high. Whilst that may be true for other bands, the same can not be said for the leading example in death metal, Cannibal Corpse, who have built the foundations of their livelihoods on producing the most gruesome artwork and explicit lyrics imaginable, and it’s served them well despite major lack of radio play or TV air time.

With the prospect of slowing down not even remotely visible in the rearview mirror of their Mad Max-styled monster truck, the Florida based graphic metallers are blessing their perfectly dysfunctional family of metalheads once again with their upcoming fifteenth LP, Violence Unimagined. Comprising of 11 grizzly tales of torture and torment, we spoke to bassist and founding member Alex Webster about how they manage to keep the creativity and new theme ideas flowing after all this time:

“It’s helpful that there’s a number of us in the band that are writing as it’d probably be a little harder if it was just one or two of us as main songwriters, but we’ve really got four lyricists in the band: me, Erik [Rutan], Rob [Barrett] and Paul [Mazurkiewicz.] It’s the same for the music too; it’d be harder for one of us to come up with albums like these that have a lot of variety going on. Having a good team is key; that’s one of the keys to our bands success, that everybody is welcome to contribute and we all bounce ideas off of each other when it comes to song titles; it just helps to put our heads together.”

Do you think there are any ideas or themes that you’ve not touched upon yet?

“I would think so, but some stuff is more appropriate for Cannibal Corpse than others. We did branch out a little bit on this album [Violence Unimagined] with Erik joining the band, as he’d written some of the lyrics for ‘Ritual Annihilation’ that are a bit different for us. They’re still very violent and dark, but it’s about a Norse ritualistic sacrifice technique and we’ve never had anything quite like that before. We’ve had more than our fair share of serial killer songs and we still have some of those, and the same for zombie based things which of course has grown in popularity over the decades in popular culture. Throughout our career we’ve had so many lyrics that feature cannibalistic zombies and the like, so we have a lot of stuff that we repeat but we do also try to branch out a little bit. Erik brought a lot of original ideas to the table. We’re always trying to think of something new that still fits in with the broader category of horror.”

A decent percentage of your song titles feature alliteration, like ‘Condemnation Contagion’, ‘Bound and Burned’, ‘Slowly Sawn’; do you guys do that consciously or has that just become standard?

“It’s probably almost conscious as you’re trying to come up with a title that’s catchy, that sticks in your head, and alliteration is a great tool for that. Even our band name has alliteration like a lot of bands do and you could probably go through the alphabet: Amon Amarth, Bloodbath, Cannibal Corpse, DevilDriver, Fear Factory; I’m missing E but there’s probably one out there. Alliteration makes you remember something as a great linguistic trick, and that’s what we go for to get your interest with the titles to make you want to find out what the song is fully about. The title has to grab you first.”

What’s your personal favourite track off of the upcoming Violence Unimagined album? I think mine’s ‘Follow the Blood.’

"Actually I think that one might be mine too. That’s one that Rob came up with as it’s still totally Cannibal Corpse yet it’s so different to anything else we’ve done. He came up with something unique, so probably that one and ‘Condemnation Contagion’, which is one Erik wrote. Out of my own songs, even though I’m happy with all of them, maybe ‘Surround, Kill, Devour’ is my favourite out of the four I wrote. ‘Follow the Blood’ though is a really unique and creative song, it’s got stuff on it that doesn’t sound like anything we’ve done before which is cool after so many albums."

It obviously must suck to not be able to play a show for so long, but with this record, which track are you most looking forward to taking out and having the fans witness in a live setting?

“Oh, definitely ‘Condemnation Contagion,’ that’s going to be a fun one live. I would say ‘Inhumane Harvest,’ the song we did the first video for and ‘Necrogenic Resurrection’ we’ll probably do live too. I’d like to do ‘Follow the Blood,’ maybe ‘Surround, Kill, Devour,’ I’m really looking forward to playing a good chunk of songs off this album whenever we finally get back out there. There’s a lot of songs on this one that I think will translate well live and hopefully get people moving out there. I’d be happy to play the whole thing if we didn’t have 14 other albums that we also want to pay attention to.”

I love a good lyric when it comes to metal; really profound one liners that can conjure up profound imagery without effort and obviously Cannibal Corpse is a goldmine for that; What’s your favourite lyric from this record?

“I’ll have to think about that, although I love the chorus of ‘Condemnation Contagion,’ I can’t remember exactly how it goes but it’s got this really good flow to it. I only wrote the lyrics for three of the four I wrote the music for, Paul wrote the lyrics for ‘Cerements of the Flayed,’ but out of my three I’m trying to think of the one that’s the most visual. I haven’t thought about my own lyrics too deeply; I write them and then George performs them and then I move onto the next thing. Maybe some of the stuff in ‘Slowly Sawn.’

I think a lot of the material throughout our career has had pretty descriptive lyrics. We clearly didn’t get the memo about being able to repeat a whole bunch of lines, and when I compare the amount of lyrics we have to a pop song, one of our songs tends to have more content then four standard pop songs. Which of course is a totally different genre but death metal in general and us for sure means that our lyrics are pretty long. They’re just little stories and there’s an awful lot of words for each song, especially because George is singing so fast. We try to write little stories that take place over the course of three or four minutes and try to get you to picture something in your head, and it’ll be different for everyone because you’re using your imagination, but you wanna have a definite start and finish to the song that concludes at the end like a little story."

"Metal is music for people who love music, I’m not saying that those in pop aren’t working hard on their music but it can be background music in a way metal never could."

I guess that’s one of the main characteristics of metal in general, that it does tend to be more storytelling based. It goes from A to B to C to D, whereas pop and the like tend to bounce between A and B.

“There’s just more there. It’s not just us, it’s a lot of bands in metal that have lyrics that are more involved, just like the music is too. There’s so many more parts in metal songs and even a stripped down version of one of our songs usually has five or six parts and some songs that’ll have 15 parts. Metal is music for people who love music, I’m not saying that those in pop aren’t working hard on their music but it can be background music in a way metal never could. Metal requires your attention to get the most out of it and most fans are paying full attention.”

You’ve mentioned that the addition of long-time friend Erik Rutan, who’s also produced a few of your records so knows the ropes well already, is a seamless fit. He’s even contributed a few full songs to the new album; what different approach is Erik bringing to the band? Or I suppose having been around you guys for so long maybe it’s just a case of not messing with the recipe at all?

“He has a style that he’s developed over the years. You look at his resumé as a guitar player in death metal and it’s as strong a resumé as you will find with Morbid Angel and Hate Eternal, so after developing that style over 30 years is something we would never want to get in the way of him expressing. At the same time, he does understand what our band is about having worked with us on four of the albums, and before becoming a full member having toured with us for a year in 2019, so he got to know our music more intimately. You really learn more about a bands music when you learn their songs. With my favourites I always try to learn some of their songs; Iron Maiden, Metallica and so on, and you get a deeper understanding once you’ve played something. So to join us after all that means that he really understood what we do and the way we do it, and I think he was able to integrate his style that he’s developed over 30 years into our stuff quite well.

We always let people write when they join the band from the get go; that was the case when Rob joined and when Pat joined and it was the same with Erik. But Erik immediately came in quite ready and did three full songs, music and lyrics, and we are really happy with how they sound and they fit extremely well whilst still having his personality in there too.”

Obviously you’re heavily infamous for the grotesque artwork that adorns your album covers, but what was the inspiration behind this one? The alternate version of the ripped mouth and jaws gives me Coronavirus vibes, seeing as that’s how my face feels after wearing a humid mask on the sticky London Underground for an hour.

Vince Locke is the one that comes up with these ideas. What we do, is just give Vince a song title or an album title and he will come up with some sketches and we’ll take it from there. He’ll give us maybe four designs and we’ll pick the one we like the most and he’ll build the album cover around that. There’s been times in the past where we’ve given him more direction, but most of the albums are purely his creativity and that’s the great thing, like I said having many minds at work here on the team. Vincent Locke is one of those people where, we’re a five-man band and we’ve got several people that we call our sixth member because they’ve worked with us for so long. Certain producers like Scott Burns, and with Vince doing all this art for us all these years, he’s been so important for the visual presentation of our music. We don’t have to give him very much direction as he’s so tuned into what we want, he knows what’s going to work for us and he always comes up with this great stuff.

It’s not coronavirus inspired as far as I know but you’d have to ask Vince, I understand the mask thing and I hadn’t even thought about riding on the Subway with one for a whole hour. But it’s all straight out of Vince’s imagination, you give a guy like that something vague like Violence Unimagined that isn’t describing any particular one thing so it gave him a blank canvas, no-pun intended, to go in there and make something brutal and he did.”

I guess Vince Locke works for Cannibal Corpse the same way that Derek Riggs’ Eddie illustrations worked for Iron Maiden back in the day.

“Yeah, I had always admired the way they kept such a consistent image and were consistent with their music too. For us, trying to have a similar consistency was something I always thought would be a great idea and so did the rest of the band. When you look at our album covers you can really see that it’s the same artist for all of them, and same thing for Maiden for most of them. It’s one of those things about metal that has that consistency with logos and imagery and style; that’s what we wanted as fans from the bands that we loved, like Maiden and Slayer, and those bands delivered that. We looked up to that, and we tried to do that in our career too.”

Do you ever get annoyed that you often have to create alternate artworks, or is it an exciting feat to be able to create multiple images for releases?

“I mean it’s fine, it does give us two things to make t-shirts out of which is good, always having two designs instead of one. I wish we didn’t have to do it but at the same time I get it, when you look at all the uncensored covers we’ve had to make alternate versions for, it’s pretty obvious why. They are definitely 18+ and not really family friendly covers. We learnt to make alternate covers after Butchered at Birth because that one got censored in a number of places and then we had to rerelease it with no alternate cover, it was released with just a red cover. So from Tomb of the Mutilated onward, anytime we’ve got a cover where we feel like it’s probably going to get censored we proactively have Vince make two pieces of art. And then no matter which one you’re able to find at wherever it is you buy you’re music, you’re going to be getting something cool that Vince drew. It might not be the gorier of the two but at least you’re getting something cool."

For collectors as well that must make such a great collectors item trying to procure both possible covers.

“Yeah I know a lot of guys that get every different version of the albums we put out and each different colour of vinyl and everything else. Every now and then I actually like the less brutal version of one of our albums better. For example Gallery of Suicide has a brutal cover where a woman’s committing hari-kari and it’s a good cover, but then the less brutal cover that Vince drew was just this big ominous looking building and I actually like that one a little more. It was just a really cool, dark looking, evil kind of building that he drew and sometimes less is more when you’re talking about horror. Really it’s just a matter of opinion.”

"Can you image if a pop song sounded just like pop but was singing about all kinds of murder like death metal bands do, and you hear it on the radio in McDonalds? It would blow peoples minds, because it would be so out of place."

Why do you think music seems to bear the brunt of the controversy surrounding violence, yet horror and gore films that literally depict the actions never seem to come under fire?

“I’ve thought about this a lot of course, and I think what it is is that music is a different medium. People are accustomed to music and the people that try to censor us probably have a favourite band who come from pop music or country or folk, and they’re thinking about how they enjoy music whilst listening to a song that might be about love or about a personal relationship with their family. They’re thinking of all these things where the person singing, whether they wrote the song or not, is trying to make these lyrics relatable to their own personal experience.

We don’t approach it that way at all. It goes back to writing stories, and we approach it the way a horror directer or graphic novelist would as it’s just a form of horror entertainment to us. We’re not relating to these characters that we’re writing about. Nothing that happens in our songs we would actually want to ever happen. Not to be derisive, but if you’re listening to ‘normal’ kinds of music that you would hear on the radio or in a restaurant, most of those lyrics are trying to be relatable to people’s everyday experiences. Writing songs about serial killers is not relatable, can you image if a pop song sounded just like pop but was singing about all kinds of murder like death metal bands do, and you hear it on the radio in McDonalds? It would blow peoples minds, because it would be so out of place."

Do you know what I would love to hear? A Cannibal Corpse tribute album except the covers of your songs are in totally different genres. ‘Hammer Smashed Face’ in smooth jazz performed by Judas Priest, or ‘I Cum Blood' in a sea-shanty performed by BabyMetal.

“I’d love it. There’s actually an Australian comedian who talked about this 15 years ago and I think you can still find it on YouTube. He did a little bit talking about how we were getting censored going back to Australia around 2005 when we were having some censorship difficulties, and this guy was like, “You know, I think it’s their music that people are bothered by, because I’m going to perform these lyrics for you right now,” and he made some happy piano song using a bunch of our most disturbing lyrics, and he’s singing it smiling whilst he does it. It’s hilarious and brilliant, and he proved the point. They didn’t censor his performance even though he said all the same things we say in our lyrics but he did it in a comedic way. I don’t know if his point was made well enough to have helped us but after that tour we never had problems again. So I don’t know if any of the local politicians paid attention to that and thought ‘good point,’ but they don’t seem to have any problem with us playing down there anymore.

Have you ever heard of Pat Boone? I don’t think he made it to the UK, but back in the 50's and 60's he was a well known performer doing nice family-orientated pop rock. He did an album called In a Metal Mood, where he covered ‘You Got Another Thing Coming’ by Judas Priest and a bunch of other stuff that was amazing. Look that up, that might be similar to what you’re thinking of, although not exactly the same idea.”

If there was to be a Cannibal Corpse movie, not necessarily about the band but more in line with the lyrical themes of the music, what would the storyline be and who would you have play the characters?

“Wow. Actually, firstly my ideal thing would be to make a movie about the band and I would actually love to have Vince Locke do an animated film. Think of our album covers come to life through animation. As far as which story, it’s really hard to say because we don’t really have any concept albums. We have a few albums which are a bit more tied together than others like Torture, with a couple of songs about torture on it. Some of these songs you could expand on, there’s a lot of room left for adding tonnes of detail.”

I was watching a documentary recently about Cannibal Island that was situated in the USSR back in the 30's, where they sent normal civilians to this isolated island without food, water, or shelter, in the freezing terrain and the guards were sadistic. Within 4 days thousands of people had resorted to eating each other.

“I’d not actually heard that one, I’ll have to look it up after the interview. We have a few songs that are loosely based on true-life, but for me I’ve always preferred to keep it less realistic as I enjoy supernatural horror even though I’m not a religious guy and I don’t even believe in the supernatural. If we ever did get the opportunity to create a movie based on one of our songs, I think we’d prefer to keep it fictional and not based on a true story. I like watching true crime

stories but I don’t know if that’s what we would want to do and would just pick one of the more surreal ones.”

The break lines are cut on this Cannibal Corpse train, and the splintered tracks are dangling dangerously over a deadly drop down an endless canyon. So strap in, turn the stereo up to 11, and blast Violence Unimagined on it’s 16th April release... and maybe look forward to the possibility of a Cannibal Corpse animated movie.

Violence Unimagined is released April 16th via Metal Blade Records.

Pre-order the record here.