Cattle Decapitation‘s transformation from novelty goregrind act into one of the premier progressive/technical death metal bands of the modern era has been one of the most surprising and rewarding events in modern extreme metal. Now (at least) three records into a career-defining hot streak that’s rivaled by few if any of their peers, the San Diego quintet no longer need to prove themselves. They can sit comfortably at the top of their game, lauding the considerable gap they’ve established between themselves and their competitors—which is exactly what they do on Death Atlas. There are no surprises in store here, just a simple display of pure, unadulterated mastery.
With Monolith of Inhumanity (2012), Cattle Decapitation pushed their sound to new, unexplored limits. It was an unprecedented turn that set a new standard, not only for themselves, but everyone around them as well. With The Anthropocene Extinction (2015), they incorporated their newfound elements into a more traditional tech-death template—doubling down on the brutality while they were at it—to deliver another benchmark-setting slab of extreme metal. Death Atlas sees the band combining these two successful approaches into a single, cohesive package that profitably trades on the appeal of both. The more progressive elements are foregrounded far more here than they were on The Anthropocene Extinction, which front-loaded its more extreme material while saving most of its more daring escapades for later. Death Atlas, conversely, makes no secret of its progressive ambitions. “Anthropogenic: End Transmission” opens the record in suitably epic fashion, building and swelling beneath a collage of apocalyptic-sounding cautions about climate change, before hitting critical mass and spilling over into the carnage of “The Genocide.” The album’s grandiose opening leaves no doubt as to its ambition and, though “The Genocide” and “Be Still Our Bleeding Hearts” still lead the record with two of its more abrasive compositions, the degree to which technical and progressive elements are continuously strung throughout leads to a more well-rounded affair than either of its already-masterful predecessors.
If there’s a unique element that sets Death Atlas apart among Cattle Decapitation’s catalogue—beyond its cohesion—it’s how immediate it all is. On Monolith of Inhumanity and The Anthropocene Extinction, the band made a point of battering their listeners over the head with their extremity. Conversely, while there’s nothing quite certifiable as “melodic” on Death Atlas, it’s a lot catchier than previous Cattle Decapitation records, despite its expanded scope. A lot of the album’s immediacy can be boiled down to its accentuated grooves. All of the album’s songs are underpinned by captivating, rhythm-based riffs that help root each of the otherwise wild compositions in place. Again, the band haven’t really added anything new to mix—there was plenty of similarly chunky riffing in play on The Anthropocene Extinction—it’s just that, by peeling back some of the layers and allowing such riffs to be displayed a bit more openly, they’ve rendered them even more effective. The approach is not that dissimilar to that explored by Pig Destroyer on their most-recent groove-laden opus, Head Cage (2018). The accentuated groove is really brought to the fore on “Vulturous”, which begins with an ominous volley of rolling double-bass and “Finish Them”, whose bouncy opening riff wouldn’t sound at all out of place on the most-recent Whitechapel record (or a number of the ones before it for that matter). “Bring Back the Plague” even ends with what could arguably described as a breakdown. Yet, while Pig Destroyer really lent into the groove on Head Cage, it remains just one perfectly-honed tool in Cattle Decapitation’s arsenal on the definitively more diverse Death Atlas.
Travis Ryan’s trademark, strangled-sounding “clean” vocals are, likewise, deployed more effectively on Death Atlas than they have been in the past. Where previously they have been primarily used to shock and unsettle, here they provide the centrepieces of the album’s often ambitious compositions. Even at their most melodic, however, they remain ominous and threatening—often reinforcing, rather than providing relief from, the violent chaos that forms their surrounds. The soaring vocal bridge of “One Day Closer to The End of the World,” for example, is backed by a constant barrage of double-bass, and when it drops into a lower, almost gothy register (which, as far as I can find out comes from Ryan, rather than one of the album’s many minor guest spots) it’s only to usher in faster blasting and a flurry of Gojira-esque pick scrapes. The constant vocal breaks might have seemed formulaic in anyone elses hands, but Ryan and the rest of Cattle Decapitation deliver each to compelling effect, with perhaps the most effective offering being the haunting refrain of “Absolute Destitute,” which dabbles in similar textures to the last Psycroptic record—except even more successfully.
Death Atlas is an album with few, if any, flaws. New bass player Olivier Pinard (Cryptopsy, ex-Neuraxis), leaves far less of an impression than his predecessor, Derek Engemann (who I’m saddened to discover has now joined Phil Anselmo’s Illegals)—save for a brief, “Hammer Smashed Face”-style bass break in “Time’s Cruel Curtain”—although that can’t really be held against him. “With All Disrespect” is the record’s only (arguably) sub-par offering. The track itself is fine, but it sounds a bit basic compared to its surrounds—having the most in common with Cattle Decapitation’s pre-Monolith output—and it’s chorus of “the hunter now does the hunting” simply sounds a little trite, given Ryan’s otherwise entirely idiosyncratic performance. It’s also likely that there will be people who find it a touch exhausting. At fifty-five minutes, Death Atlas is Cattle Decapitation’s longest album to date—coming in almost ten minutes longer than The Anthropocene Extinction and 2004’s Humanure, which are their next-longest offerings. For all its grooves and vocal hooks, the album is still an unrelenting assault. The effect is also accentuated by the false conclusion of “Time’s Cruel Curtain.” The album’s twelfth track is a mournful epic that rivals even “Kingdom of Tyrants” in its scope and execution, and which provides a perfect climax to the record. The only catch is there’s still two tracks and another twelve-minutes to go. Following the album’s fourth, and longest, narrative meditation on the impending doom of climate change—this time provided by, Phish-drummer, Jon Fishman of all people—the album’s nine-minute title-track kicks in, delivering the album its actual close. It’s a lot to take in, but it would be a far greater crime to deny Death Atlas its final, mournful triumph. As it is, the track provides the record with a perfect encore—capping off what will likely be looked back on as the defining moment of Cattle Decapitation’s career.
Death Atlas is not as wildly unpredictable or untamed as the two outstanding albums that preceded it. It showcases, instead, Cattle Decapitation at the peak of their powers, having honed the unrelenting ambition and brutality that set them definitively apart from the pack. It might not be as important or groundbreaking a record as Monolith of Inhumanity nor as confronting as The Anthropocene Extinction, but it is a more refined record than either. Whether it is the best Cattle Decapitation album is debatable, but it is undeniably their masterpiece.
Death Atlas is out Nov. 29 via Metal Blade Records.