Album Review: Cannibal Corpse - "A Skeletal Domain"

Metal, as a genre, shows a great deal of fealty to the parties responsible for its creation. That fealty, undying in its virility, is often rewarded with a recurring stream of new material from the bands being revered. It is a cycle that is unique to the genre – such loyalty to artists in other contemporary genres tends to lead to great fame and fortune, where in metal it is more prone to cause underground acceptance, increased inspiration and a comfortable, if perhaps not incredibly lucrative, living.

Forefront among that trend is Cannibal Corpse, arguably the most active of the original Florida death metal scene (though they transplanted from Buffalo, for the record.) These fathers of American death metal are continuing the pave the road for the genre roughly twenty-five years since their inception and first album. Mainstream acceptance will always elude Cannibal Corpse, but their faithful devotees have made sure that the band will land somewhere on the Billboard 200 with each new album. That sets the scene nicely for “A Skeletal Domain,” the band’s thirteenth studio record and the next chapter in the Cannibal Corpse pantheon.

First things first – the cover art for this new record is decidedly un-Cannibal Corpse, with just a few loose (and notably dry) skeletons littered across a blasted, demonic landscape. It’s the band’s least affronting artwork since “Kill,” which can’t really be said to have artwork proper. “A Skeletal Domain” is surprisingly, and perhaps disappointingly, free of zombies and entrails, which flies in the face of convention when it comes to Cannibal Corpse.

Now, some of that may be because the band, in early press, has spoken at some length about how this album is “darker,” which every band says with every new album, but seems especially difficult to believe for Cannibal Corpse. Every reasonable fan (note: possible paradox there,) would question how Canniibal Corpse attempting to be darker would be anything but a whisper added to a scream.

Yet, there is a certain thread running through “A Skeletal Domain” that colors the music just a slightly darker shade of black. There are blast beats running from end to end and early cuts like “Sadistic Embodiment” or “Kill or Become” have a certain death metal grit to them that leaves behind the rhythm and hook of other Cannibal Corpse albums or records from more contemporary upstarts like Goatwhore. For “A Skeletal Domain,” melody is very much superfluous window dressing, replaced instead by inky, sludgy riffs and the idiomatic guttural utterances of George Corpsegrinder.

These themes continue throughout the record, pounding out songs in the original death metal template one after another. Whether you’re listening to the title track or “Murderer’s Pact” or “Bloodstained Cement,” the message remains very much on point, and the flavors consistent all the way to the rind. This is death metal, American style, with few frills and many completely over-the-top lyrical themes dealing prominently with dismemberment, murder and a general sense of madness, though without the Lovecraft-ian flair for dramatic excess. As a quick aside, Cannibal Corpse has always concentrated their lyrical message (such as it is,) on the downfall of the individual or individuals, rather than the violent expulsion of society as a whole, which sets the band ever so slightly apart from many of their running mates.

Nevertheless, the same criticisms of Cannibal Corpse that have always been valid remain in effect here. There is little to no variety on “A Skeletal Domain,” and Cannibal Corpse does little to work even the corners of their personal strike zone. The music is dense, completely rejects all pretense of hook and accessibility and is generally a slog for the duration of the record. You don’t so much enjoy this record as endure it. Much as is the case with similar bands like Autopsy, the question that has long haunted the band remains valid, which is ‘isn’t it redundant to own more than one record of this band?’

While it’s editorially lazy to simply say ‘if you like Cannibal Corpse, you’ll like “A Skeletal Domain”’ and vice-versa, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily untrue. While “A Skeletal Domain,” does test the depth of the dark water just a little, there’s not a sufficient, life-changing difference in the timbre overall. One might suggest that fans would revolt if there was. That said, this album is certain to appear on the usual spate of ‘best of’ lists come December, though there’s a lingering suspicion that that has more to do with fealty to the name on the front of the album than the music contained within.

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