As at least one person’s favorite New York senator once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” This feels even more relevant in our current fractured [read: fucking stupid] political climate. Here are the facts, as we currently know them: the planet is warming at a rate increasingly hostile to plant and animal life; human activity is directly responsible for a large portion of this rise in temperature; this is an incredibly depressing and overwhelming topic to think about. The latter is a bit subjective, but we’ll accept no debate on the first two points.
If Greta Thunberg doesn’t get you fired up to yell at myopic politicians to FUCKING DO SOMETHING, then perhaps Travis Ryan, with his deep bag of extreme vocal styles, will better suit the situation and your love of heavy metal. (Yes, we’ve all seen the YouTube clip of Thunberg’s speech pitch-shifted over metal riffs, which is indeed cute and funny. No, it does not compete with Cattle Decapitation’s rage.) What’s important to remember, and what Death Atlas recognizes, is that this is humanity’s problem. Individual actions can make a difference, but humans started demonstrably altering the planet’s climate during the Industrial Revolution. You can point fingers, plant a tree, or carpool to work, but you’re best off demanding that corporations and governments FUCKING DO SOMETHING.
Cattle Decapitation have always stuck to their rhetorical guns, so another album about shitty humans is not exactly a shock. But Death Atlas is a mature step forward musically, and the subject matter is equally epic: the intro and interludes set the mood well, and the topic is of such import that noted hippie and Phish musician (drummer Jon Fishman) recorded the primary spoken word portion of the penultimate track. Could the band have dropped all the fluff and followed the hallowed mantra, “less talking, more rocking?” Of course, but Death Atlas has a point to make, and the spoken interludes are just another way to hammer home that message within the framework of a very well-paced album. If you don’t like politics in music, or hate bands with a social message, then why the hell are you listening to Cattle Decapitation?
Death Atlas is significantly more accessible, by Cattle Decapitation standards, but this is still very much an extreme metal album. It’s a testament to their continued artistic growth that 15 years ago they were dealing with censorship of their admittedly disgusting Humanure cover of a cow shitting out human remains. But we’ve come a long way (baby) from those days of loose death grind. The band turned a corner 10 years ago with The Harvest Floor, and each release since then has added a bit more polish, melody, and artistic growth.
With the four year break between albums, Cattle Decapitation’s continued evolution brings a better understanding and deployment of dynamics. Ryan’s now signature “clean” vocals are omnipresent. This occasionally works to his detriment when carrying the full melody over calmer passages, but the ambition is admirable and adds catchy hooks, even when they aren’t perfect. “Time’s Cruel Curtain” is no ballad, but the slow pace and relatively naked clean vocals put a spotlight on one of the weaker tracks that would have greatly benefited from a guest singer handling the chorus. This is still a minor quibble, given the quality throughout the album.
When “Be Still Our Bleeding Hearts” comes tearing out of the gates, there’s a short “bleugh” from Ryan that demonstrates both restraint and a true love of extreme music, and it appears again to kick off another section of raging riffs in “Finish Them.” If you do not appreciate a good “BLEUGH” in your metal, then maybe take your wet blanket somewhere else. For all the seriousness of the subject matter, it’s apparent that Cattle Decapitation had fun creating Death Atlas. “Be Still…” is an actual sing-along, but there are guttural vocals, rapid-fire double bass, and a chugging breakdown after the two-minute mark that deftly balance the melody.
Riffs get downright sassy around 1:45 of “Vulturous,” the heaviest track on the front end. The song ends with a massive breakdown and drawn out gurgling squeal from Ryan, and so ends Act 1. His versatility on vocals enhances the smooth subgenre shifts as the band grinds, slams, chugs, and blasts through Death Atlas. The interludes break the album roughly into quarters (especially if you are picking this one up on double vinyl), and the 55 minute runtime is Cattle Decapitation’s longest album length to date, but it never drags.
In a brilliant bit of guerrilla marketing, Cattle Decapitation dropped single “Bring Back the Plague,” and reports emerged of multiple cases of bubonic plague in China. It’s an eye grabbing headline to pair with a remarkably catchy chorus, and the song ends with an unnaturally long gurgled growl (which I assume happened to the unfortunate plague victims as well). [Editor’s Note: We know Metal Blade and the band had nothing to do with the reemergence of the plague. We are pretty sure Fetusghost knows this as well.]
The aforementioned “Finish Them” is a love letter to extremity, and kicks off the most brutal section of the album. Ryan still breaks out his unique singing, but the focus is on vicious, speedy riffage. The nimble rhythm section of drummer Dave McGraw (behind the kit since The Harvest Floor) and newcomer Olivier Pinard on bass can stop on a dime or thrash forward with precision. Dave Otero’s crystal clear production (Allegaeon, Cephalic Carnage, and Archspire, among others) highlights incredible chops by the entire band, with the heaviness coming from the gnarly tones of long-standing guitarist Josh Elmore (the longest tenured member after Travis Ryan) and rhythm guitarist Belisario Dimuzio (who contributes to his first recording but has been touring since 2015). The professionalism and fluidity of playing is a testament to their road-tested chemistry.
Cattle Decapitation have always been a principled band that focused extreme music towards extreme human actions. Humans are shitty! Humanure! Do you fucking get it?!? As they grew as musicians, the message remained unsubtle. However, with Death Atlas, the lyrics are more discernible and just as hateful, and the scope of humanity’s utter failure has widened. The title track, lasting over 12 minutes if you include the spoken intro of “The Unerasable Past,” paints a damning picture. “We deserve everything that’s coming / We took the world to our graves,” and Laure Le Prunenec of Igorrr and Ricinn adds additional vocals and emotional weight to the final minutes of “Death Atlas.”
I have a feeling Cattle Decapitation would agree with Paul Driscoll’s inability to change what’s already happened in the 1963 Twilight Zone episode “No Time Like the Past,” where he states, “We live in a cesspool, a septic tank, a gigantic sewage complex in which runs the dregs, the filth, the misery-laden slop of the race of men: his hatred, prejudices, passions, and violence. And the keeper of this sewer: man. He is a scientifically advanced monkey who walks upright, with eyes wide open into an abyss of his own making.” Driscoll was referring to nuclear bombs dropped on Japan, but the sentiment, and our inability to rewind (or for some, even comprehend) the damage is the same. Individually, we are weak and cruel. Collectively, we have unwittingly reshaped the planet and created a new epoch in the Anthropocene. How long this epoch lasts may not be up to us, but we can certainly attempt to avoid accelerating the damage and think beyond our short, individually insignificant lives.
Cattle Decapitation continues to evolve, and they have dropped yet another socially and politically charged album as a soundtrack to righteous anger. The maturity in songwriting is a welcome and natural evolution. There are no easy solutions or quick fixes to our rapidly warming planet, but awareness and rage are certainly a good place to start.
Death Atlas is presented “With All Disrespect.” XOXO, Cattle Decapitation.