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Now What? Everybody's Dead!: Cattle Decapitation Talk Revisiting Armageddon on 'Death Atlas'

Wednesday, 27 November 2019 Written by Matt Mills

On August 7, 2015, San Diego’s gory death metal favourites Cattle Decapitation released their sixth album, ‘The Anthropocene Extinction’. With a title that alluded to the Earth’s sixth mass extinction—the ongoing destruction wreaked by humanity’s manipulation of the environment—it was very much a disc fascinated with the end of the world.

Human cadavers were strewn across its cover, plastic waste exploding from their guts while, behind them, sewage pipes poured directly into oceans and landfills were piled as high as refinery chimneys. It’s a harrowing scene, but extremely important, mirroring what humankind makes the planet’s wild animals endure ceaselessly.

Four years down the line, ‘The Anthropocene Extinction’ is finally getting its long-awaited full-length follow-up. Christened ‘Death Atlas’, Cattle Decapitation’s newest opus is, again, plainly titled, proposing new ways in which our time on its home planet could come to a sudden, catastrophic conclusion.

“Everyone was saying after our last record, ‘OK, now what? Everybody’s dead!’” frontman Travis Ryan laughs, acknowledging his band’s decision to return to our inevitable end-times. “But the themes of our albums are always quite loose. They don’t read like a book or a story. 

“It was easy to come up with the concept for ‘Death Atlas’ because I’ve been slowly eking towards more poetic writing, steeped in metaphor. While our other records dealt with actual, tangible realities that we can see, this one is more fantastical.”

The apocalyptic landscapes of ‘The Anthropocene Extinction’ and ‘Death Atlas’ cover two vastly different locations. On ‘Anthropocene’ it was one of graphic horror, placing humans in the sociopathic scenarios that we have subjected helpless wildlife to for decades. Its successor is filled with vaguer promises that are arguably even more haunting.

The songs on ‘Death Atlas’ deliver a laundry list of reasons why humanity’s tenure is nearing a torturous and, some would say, well-deserved finale. “Fuck the future!” Travis roars repeatedly in the refrain of opening track The Geocide, highlighting a reckless obsession with the hedonistic pleasures of the now. 

During The Great Dying, an ominous, bodiless voice echoes. It robotically reminds us: “Approximately half of all now-living plants and animal species in the world’s densely biodiverse regions are risking extinction due to global warming.”

Subsequently, the dual singles One Day Closer To The End Of The World and Bring Back The Plague make their cases. The former explores our near-universal fixation on death before the latter immediately, and more than a little ironically, obliterates us with a ruthless pandemic.

Elsewhere, gone is the realistic, graphic artwork that adorned ‘Anthropocene’. In its place is a more mythical image, albeit one that’s no less subversive. In lieu of rotting corpses and ruined backdrops, there is a portrayal of Atlas, lifting the globe on his struggling shoulders, but as a Grim Reaper straining as the world above him burns. It may be the least frightening of all of Cattle Decapitation’s notorious album covers, but its point is hammered home no less powerfully.

“‘Death Atlas’ is the bleakest album we’ve ever done,” Travis says. “So I definitely wanted [the artwork] to be a little more serious this time around. Fans like to put pressure on us, like, ‘How are they gonna out-do the Forced Gender Reassignment video?’ But we never do gory stuff just for the sake of being gory. We’re always doing it for a reason, aside from the song or album or video itself.”

The great irony of ‘Death Atlas’ is that, conceptually, it warns of stagnation, death and extinction on a global scale. However, as far as its music is concerned, the album is an evolution—a step forward in a world otherwise regressing into lifelessness.

Although Cattle Decapitation have spent their 20-plus years of existence essential to America’s death metal and grindcore circles, the quintet’s newest effort is, at its heart, a progressive metal experience. On one level, it’s every bit as nasty and bombarding as you’d expect: blast-beats ring out with machine gun frequency while guitar chords flurry incessantly.

Yet, built upon this no-frills backbone perfected through decades of brutalising, is a corpus of more experimental delights. Smooth arpeggios dance on Time’s Cruel Curtain and eerily catchy choruses permeate throughout the rest of the album. That’s all before ‘Death Atlas’ wraps on a gargantuan, 10-minute-long title track, which trades in ominous and patient doom as much as it does barreling rage.

“I feel like we’ve forged our own path,” Travis says of his band’s ever-expanding canon. “And I like that. I’d rather be genreless. I don’t even call us death metal. I’m one of those elitists that thinks that death metal was a time period and a certain number of bands. Everything else is just offshoots.

“We’ve always had that element of doing something differently,” he continues. “In the very beginning, we were just doing our best to be a Carcass imitation. There were a lot of Carcass clones around at that time and, although we were part of that wave, we ended up sounding more like the Locust than Carcass.”

For Travis, ‘Death Atlas’ marks his most diverse work to date. The frontman’s vocal prowess is more apparent here than ever before, ranging from deep bellows to shrill, high-pitched wails. Furthermore, his “clean” singing—which debuted on 2012’s ‘Monolith of Inhumanity’ and has breathed new life into Cattle Decapitation’s choruses ever since—is more plentiful than ever before.

“If you were to hear them solo, people would realise that those vocals are not clean at all,” Travis insists. “They just have tonality to them. Screaming vocals in death metal or grindcore don’t usually hit notes. When you juxtapose them against intense, blasting metal, they’re gonna sound clean.”

‘Death Atlas’ is the sound of progression in the face of an imminent armageddon. Yes, one day, the world will end and everyone will die, but Cattle Decapitation see this as no excuse to rest on their laurels. Twenty years after first making music, the band have unveiled their finest and most vital release, as though humanity’s tip-toeing towards oblivion has gifted them a sense of urgency unlike anything they’ve felt before.

“We’re not dad rock yet,” Travis smiles. “We’ve always been able to somehow hang in there with the new generations of kids. I think our material’s better and fresher than ever now, and it’s resonating with people. Some bands come through, go away and do their reunion shit. Meanwhile, we’ll still be here.”

‘Death Atlas’ is out on November 29 via Metal Blade. Cattle Decapitation will headline the Sophie Lancaster stage at Bloodstock 2020.

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