Death metal, at its best, is not what it seems.
This music whose main characteristics are its heaviness, the ghastly lyrics, the relentless speed, and the growled vocals--is really a very subtle art, to which all of the above is strictly peripheral. No death metal record is interesting BECAUSE it is heavy, fast, or brutal.
The most interesting death metal (Cryptopsy, Morbid Angel, Immolation) never relies on cheap effects. The compositions, rhythms, and melodic understanding of these bands would certainly not cross over into "rock" music. The same is true for Joy Division or My Bloody Valentine or Discharge--none of the pleasures of listening to these bands can be translated into rock/pop karaoke versions.
I can't, in this review of a non-masterpiece, go into quite what that "something" may be. Cannibal Corpse have a reputation among connoisseurs for being mindless, sheer aggression, shock value--for being death metal at its most dumbed down.
A few facts: 1) to anyone acquainted with modern death metal, Cannibal Corpse are somewhat dated and quite quaint; if their entire appeal lay in shocking 14-year-olds who have never heard anything like it before, this shock cannot extend to *us*. 2) the vocals are entirely thrown away. They are so monotonous that you tune them out before the first song is over. 3) the lyrics, while indeed disgusting, are also so monotonous that they are unreadable.
The songs here all have a couple interesting parts, taken in isolation--it is only at the level of the whole song that everything becomes indistinguishable. Their "bag of tricks" exhausts itself *very* quickly. Anyone looking to have a grand old time taking this band as camp (a kind of death metal the Misfits) will be sorely disappointed, though. This all gets old fast.
At the beginning of this review, I wrote that death metal is hard to review because it is hard to get a hold of what it is supposed to do well. For any 15-second interval, Cannibal Corpse are indeed indistinguishable from the greats, and from the dregs for that matter. But earlier I was in the kitchen listening to Celtic Frost's Morbid Tales, having the time of my life. I am not having the time of my life listening to Tomb of the Mutilated. If the explanation for why this album is less immediately entertaining is BECAUSE "it's death metal" (i.e. it is trying for something different than Celtic Frost), then this is no explanation at all. Why play death metal at all if to do so is an admission that it will be less interesting than Celtic Frost? (The same thing can be said for free jazz or any experimental music that foregoes the "immediate" pleasures of, say, rock/pop).
It is my position that this is NOT the case--that experimental film CAN be as engaging as narrative film, that free jazz can be wildly entertaining, and that death metal can really rock... But this requires an understanding of the particular criteria in each case, rather than an abandonment of criteria altogether, or a construction of quality that is merely tautological or coextensive with the genre itself (e.g. how "crazy" free jazz is can't itself be used to evaluate it).
Tomb of the Mutilated is unorganized and uninteresting. If you can tune out and tune back in, you won't notice. But I would HATE to have to endure the whole thing on a long road trip.
score: 2 stars (**)/ 5
best songs: Hammer Smashed Face, Split Wide Open