Cattle Decapitation are no longer a fringe deathgrind band with shock-value imagery and lyrics to hammer down their message. They have venerated giants in the technical/death metal scene and are looked at as dependable titans belting out records of the highest quality, and their newest bloody offering, Death Atlas is no exception to the rule.
Following 2015’s masterpiece The Anthropocene Extinction, Death Atlas sounds like the culmination of the transformative journey which undoubtedly began with the uber-successful Monolith of Inhumanity, although arguments could be made that the seeds were already being sown as early as 2009’s The Harvest Floor. Monolith saw the turn from frenetic grind towards a sharper, melodic, and technically surgical approach to deathgrind; an approach that appealed to a far wider demographic of death metal and grind audiences and garnered critical acclaim. This sonic palette was refined and further fleshed out on Anthropocene which further added melodic elements at the expense of the more cacophonous elements, again achieving glory in the extreme metal circles.
To prove that Death Atlas is a direct continuation and picks up, in tone, message, and overall vibe where The Anthropocene Extinction left off, the record kicks off with Anthropogenic End Transmission overlaying cryptic messages sampled newscasts in multiple languages played over a slow-moving arrangement that causes foreboding, almost threatening an impending apocalypse. True to their word, The Geocide grabs you by the jugular and rips sinew and gristle alike. The blazing tremolo-picked riffs, murderous blast-beats, and a tremendous screech send a clear message to listeners of Death Atlas: Cattle Decapitation are not interested in negotiating with their message anymore, this time actions speak louder.
Tracks on Death Atlas have a distinct balance of hyperspeed ferocity and a slower, chunkier, and melodic sections. Death Atlas is the first record featuring two guitarists, and almost every track alternates between these two phases, with guitarists Josh Elmore and newcomer Belisario Dimuzio going nuts with low-register tremolo-picked riffs punctuated with thrashier mid-paced choruses. This formula remains mostly unchanged for better or for worse throughout the runtime of the album, with the odd breakdown-ish sections on single Bring Back the Plague and the black metal aesthetics on Absolute Destitute. In contrast, Vulturous and Finish Them go for a straightforward Cannibal Corpse-esque pummeling with the stompy guitar riffs and low-pitched growls. Unique elements that instantly become memorable is the pick-scraped intro-riff on lead single One Day Closer to the End of the World and the expertly crafted intro section, and subsequent chorus arrangements on album closer Time’s Cruel Curtain which is heavily reminiscent of Monolith. Drummer Dave McGraw is inhuman behind the kit and reaches frantic tempos which seem almost impossible, yet are sturdy and lay the best possible foundation of ferocity. His insanity with blast beats, double-bass, and crazy fills are a huge part of the signature Cattle Decapitation madness.
No mention or review of Cattle Decapitation can be complete without gushing about what a phenomenal vocalist Travis Ryan continues to be. His vocal stylings are unique to a point that any other vocalist attempting what he has perfected will be immediately compared and found wanting. He has single-handedly forged his own hyperspecialized tortured wail with the clarity, cadence, and timbre of clean vocals. This vocal style is tricky to describe but fans of his work will immediately recognize his choruses, to a point that he is offered guest spots on numerous other extreme metal albums for his one-of-a-kind approach to delivery. In addition to being a top-tier vocalist with screeches (The Geocide, With All Disrespect), wails (Be Still Our Bleeding Hearts, Time’s Cruel Curtain), growls (Vulturous, Finish Them), barks, gurgles, and every other animalistic sound, Ryan is also an expert lyricist and songwriter with intelligent, insightful, and incendiary lines driven home with his superlative delivery. Much, if not all of Cattle Decapitation’s imagery and message of the devastating effect of humanity on nature, the environment, and the creatures therein, and ethical veganism (the well-known central clever antithesis of the band’s namesake) is a singular vision championed by Travis Ryan through the years. His lyrics go far beyond the stereotypical, oft trite, and hamfisted mindless violence and gore as a spectacle, by using well-crafted lyrics fusing villainy and brutality in equal measure. The chorus of Bring Back the Plague sends a clear message of ridding humanity as the only solution to saving our planet and has him belting lines like “Bring Back the Plague, Even if it Means your Own Survival is at Stake, Dig Your Graves” which is equal parts brutal and thought-provoking. Listing every other instance of his prowess would lead to a copy-paste of the entire lyric booklet of Death Atlas.
Unfortunately, Death Atlas is not a perfect record. In keeping with the nature of being a double-edged sword, the undoubted strength of the record is its cohesiveness, but that is also subtly it’s undoing. It almost seems like Cattle Decapitation have dialed down the risk they chose to take in terms of songwriting and sonic elements. Calling it maturation or stagnation is entirely up to individual opinion, but the evidence is that Ryan’s wildcard vocal range appears to be the only avenue where the band has truly attempted to push boundaries on Death Atlas. The first appearance of a second guitarist in a famously single-guitar deathgrind band should have added diversity in the soundscapes Cattle Decapitation, but the product we received seems mostly devoid of a second “voice” in the songwriting, and the tracks continue to be quite single-guitar focused, albeit assisted with overdubs and layers, with exceptions far too few in number. While the double guitar approach adds density to the sound, it does not appear to add much nuance. Lastly, as a strong personal grievance, the addition of such a new and creative bassist with such a rich catalog in tech-death bands was utterly wasted on Death Atlas. At no point did Oliver Pinard’s (of Cryptopsy, Neuraxis, Akurion fame) trademark creativity shine through and add something new to the tracks. The bass lines on the record are completely passable, but the loss of bassist Derek Engemann is sorely felt, even more so because of Pinard’s lackluster songwriting on the record, which is a tragic misstep.
Make no mistake, Cattle Decapitation is the smartest, meanest, brutal, and most insightful they have ever been. Death Atlas is a fulfilling conclusion of a journey beginning with Monolith of Inhumanity transforming them from niche grind upstarts to technical deathgrind overlords. As with their singular message, only time will tell how Cattle Decapitation will shape their future.