Coming hot off of two excellent albums in Monolith of Inhumanity and The Anthropocene Extinction, Cattle Decapitation’s Death Atlas is one of the year’s most anticipated extreme metal releases. The band are an institution and an interesting force in extreme metal for both their singular creativity and unflinchingly progressive politics in a genre dominated by derivation and incoherent edgelord lyricism. As I said in my review of The Anthropocene Extinction, Cattle Decapitation are just fucking cool, and if you’re unfamiliar with them I would normally recommend you listen to our primer playlist before you continue reading. But for this album, you might be best served by low expectations.
In line with those expectations, Death Atlas begins with an atmospheric intro track. Similar interludes pop up after every third track for the rest of the album. What I like best about these four interludes is that you can delete them and spare yourself their annoyance. With that task complete, we’re down to 47 minutes of Decapitation, or at least music made by the people in the band Cattle Decapitation and released under that name. But hey, let’s start out with the good news.
The good news: Travis Ryan’s vocals are still some of the best in the business. His snarling melodic screams take the lead but now run a wider gamut of timbres. Alongside guttural belches and screams, the mouthy cleans in “Time’s Cruel Curtain” and “Bring Back the Plague” are somewhat familiar, but Ryan throws a real curveball in “Vulturous,” double-tracking quaking baritone singing beneath robotic screams. “Vulturous” also sports the album’s best riff, a cascade of descending couplet glissandos that hearkens back to the band’s g
lory days. Death Atlas a very singer-centered album and its reliance on Ryan reminds me of Leprous’ The Congregation. Ryan, just like Solberg on The Congregation, does a great job carrying all of the songs, but fans will recall that cuts from past albums stood on the merits of their writing alone.
Which brings us to the bad news: the rest of Death Atlas is bland. Cattle Decapitation push into the territory of melodic black metal in search of a grandiosity, an approach that’s immediately clear on “The Geocide.” Save for a nice trade of solos between Josh Elmore and new recruit Belisario Demuzio, the opener consists almost entirely of steadily blasting drums, steady trem picking, and power chords. You’ll find a lot more of that across the album. Instead of angular intervals and whiplash rhythmic shifts, Death Atlas relies on featureless blasting and simplistic black metal leads a la Anaal Nathrakh. There are moments where the band pull out a nice riff or a decent groove, but they’re fleeting—that killer riff in “Vulturous” is used mostly in passing. “Finish Them” is the one track that feels like a Cattle Decapitation song and not like Cattle Decapitation covering black metal.
Cattle Decapitation aren’t the worst at being a black metal band, which is great because there are no other active black metal bands in the year 2019. I can’t think of a single one. Neither can you. What an innovation for this band to go from writing some of the most obscene riffs and grooves in the business to mostly trem-picking single pitches for four bars. We don’t see enough of that in the metal scene these days, and I’m glad Cattle Decapitation continue to buck trends and forge their own path.
Contra the previous paragraph, I’m not bitter—Death Atlas is not a bad album, but that’s entirely due to Ryan’s performance. Without that, there’s really nothing here to hang on to. The big melodies are fun but between them the songs are uninspired and lack the rhythmic grist to effectively contrast the choruses. The band have jettisoned most of the burly and brutal deathgrind that got them to where they are today in favor of the genre du jour, and it does them no favors. Even without seven and a half minutes of interludes, the album feels bloated and directionless and completely pales in comparison to the band’s best work. Ferrous Beuller pointed out that most of the songs off Monolith of Inhumanity are better than the entirety of Death Atlas and I definitely agree. Call me a gristle licker, but I vastly prefer the chunky, rough cuts of Cattle to this lunchmeat.
DR: 61 | Format Reviewed: 268 kbps mp3
Label: Metal Blade Records
Websites: cattledecapitaiton.bandcamp.com | cattledecapitation.com | facebook.com/cattledecapitation
Releases Worldwide: November 29th, 2019