Pablo Picasso once said, "The chief enemy of creativity is good taste." Of course, Pablo never heard Cannibal Corpse.
He never heard songs like "Fucked With a Knife," "Stripped, Raped and Strangled" or "Force Fed Broken Glass," and he's no longer around to tell us whether good taste should perhaps win this round over "creativity."
"It doesn't bother me at all, I'm just not offended by it," says Tiffany Horvath of the band's material. Horvath is 20, a Phoenix resident and a devout death-metal fan. She says she's been into the genre for about six or seven months, graduating from Venom and old Black Sabbath to bands like Grave, Malevolent Creation, Suffocation, and her favorite, Cannibal Corpse. "It's good music, they're a great band, they have a lot of talent; I just like em a lot. I'm sure it's offensive to some people who aren't into their music."
Bone fragments clot to the hatchet
Knee-deep in the blood of the dead
Sex with her severed head.
--The Pick-Axe Murders" Despite the graphic nature of Corpse's lyrics, the violent scenarios that frequently involve females as the victims, Horvath isn't troubled by what she hears. "No, it's not that different to me," she says during a brief phone interview. "I mean, the people that I hang out with say things like that so I don't take offense to it at all."
"I think some of those girls enjoy some of the things we write about," says lyricist/vocalist Chris Barnes, his voice a quiet, congenial rasp over the long-distance line. "But they understand it's not violence toward women. That's ridiculous."
He started the band five years ago, along with guitarists Jack Owen and Rob Barrett, bassist Alex Webster and drummer Paul Mazurkiewicz in Buffalo; the group was signed to Metal Blade Records almost immediately. Corpse's latest release, The Bleeding, was anointed by Request magazine as ". . . death metal at its nastiest and most unpleasant." Which, to a death-metal fan, is the equivalent of telling a coprophiliac the plumbing just backed up. Yes, Cannibal Corpse is red hot.
To nonfans, however, Barnes' lyrics are revolting, and to some, they're stupid and predictable, as if he sat down and purposely tried to write the most offensive things he could come up with. When this is suggested to him, he is grossly insulted. "That's not how we go about things musically, and that's not how I go about things lyrically, either," he says emphatically. "I just write what's on my mind. I think of a cool story to write about, something that's just bone-chilling; a lot of things I write about frighten me. I'm very serious with the lyrics that I write, I treat it as an author would treat a short story or book that he's writing." Barnes also readily admits that the girls in the audience aren't the only ones getting a charge out of his words. "When I write the stuff," he says quietly, "it tends to arouse me sexually."
I wrapped my hands around her neck
Squeezing out her breath
Eyes rolled back in her head
Clawing at my skin
I know that it's not my fault
She was asking for it.
--She Was Asking for It"
As nature has National Geographic, as pornography has Hustler, death metal has Sounds of Death. It is a slick, well-informed publication distributed internationally, put out by editor David Horn. "I define death metal pretty loosely," he says from his home in Kirkwood, Missouri. "Thrash, speed, grindcore, there're a number of different genres I group together; it's all the intensity of the music."
He's quite familiar with the Cannibal Corpse oeuvre; Horn has written articles on the band and interviewed Barnes a number of times. "Chris Barnes is pretty genuinely a sick motherfucker, I think," offers Horn. "He's not one that goes out and does these things, he just has a very twisted mind as far as being desensitized to sexual violence, which is really what he writes about." Yet the editor rates the head Corpseman above many in the field. "There are certain players that actually have these sick beliefs and Chris Barnes is certainly one of them," he says. "But he's using his music as an outlet much as Stephen King would use his novels as an outlet for his thoughts."
While Barnes has his outlet writing and performing his music, there are plenty of kids out there who find their release in listening to it. Though the band has seen audience members as young as 10 and as old as 50, at shows around the world, the core following is in the 16- to 25-year-old range. According to Barnes, the mostly male audience are good kids raised on gore films and comic books, just looking to blow off a little steam via the ultrafast power of Corpse. His own introduction to blood, guts and violence was "watching horror films on TV with my father on Sunday afternoons." Flesh starts to rip/Gouging through skin
From the throat blood gushes/Glandular eruption
Blistered skin secretion/Internal punctures
--Force Fed Broken Glass"
"We haven't met anybody who's out there, like, murdering people and shit," says Barnes' bandmate, Alex Webster. "I would hope that no one would do that, but I've met a few [fans] that seem really extreme."
It's the classic argument against rock lyrics (usually leveled against words that sound like nursery rhymes next to the fodder found in Corpse songs), an argument that's as old as the music itself: Can lyrics drive listeners to commit violent acts? Webster, obviously, thinks the answer is no.
"We've had people give us brains," he says. "Seriously, we've received three pig brains in formaldehyde, and we had a brain thrown at us in Montreal--it landed onstage--and then I got a bag of pig parts, legs and innards, in Germany. As long as they're not committing a crime or hurting anybody, I'm not going to stop them from expressing themselves."
If you're not into death metal, it may be hard to look beyond the lyrics, but the music itself is of the utmost importance. "I don't care that much [what the lyrics are] as long as it fits the music, that's the number one priority," says Webster. "The lyrics have just got to be some kind of brutal shit to fit the music. There are some really great musicians in [death metal], but it's overlooked when people hear the vocals and see the song titles and it's all done."
One person who apparently appreciates the big picture is actor Jim Carrey. He landed Corpse a cameo, playing itself, in his recent blockbuster Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. "It would probably make more sense for us to be in a horror movie," says Barnes. "But Jim was into heavy music, and we thought, 'Cool.' We just went and did what we do."
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What they do. Is it on a par with Stephen King, or the most extreme version yet of rock guaranteed to piss people off, or an advocacy of sick, misogynistic behavior?
"I don't think there's really anything to advocate," says Barnes without a hint of irony. "I'm just telling fictional stories. I write as a fiction writer that might take some true-to-life experiences and possibilities into consideration. I don't think there's any for or against. I'm basically neutral."
I don't want to hurt you
I just want to kill you.
--An Experiment in Homicide