Cannibal Corpse: Gory Details
Originally published in Guitar World, July 2009
Cannibal Corpse guitarists Pat O'Brien and Rob Barrett discuss the band's new album, Evisceration Plague, and the finer points of being a savage death metal guitar duo.
U.S. presidential candidate Bob Dole denounced them on his 1996 campaign trail. The German government has forbidden them to play some of their songs when performing in the country.
Yet, for all intents and purposes, the guys in Cannibal Corpse are just typical metal dudes, complete with bad reputations.
“We haven’t had anybody come and picket outside of our houses,” says Rob Barrett, guitarist for the Tampa, Florida, death metal act. “If it was really that bad, we’d get security guards or something. It’s not even close to that.”
The ice-cold reception delivered by critics and mainstream metalheads may be the most damaging injustice the band has suffered in its two decades of existence. (The short amount of screen time they received in the 1994 Jim Carrey flick Ace Ventura: Pet Detective runs a close second.) Those unable to look past the group’s breakneck tempos, grunted vocals and chunky distortion are missing out on Barrett and co-guitarist Pat O’Brien’s deft rhythmic texturing, atonal counterpoint and impressive guitar showmanship. Despite their naysayers, Cannibal Corpse’s latest, Evisceration Plague (Metal Blade), debuted at No. 66 on Billboard’s Top 200.
More important, the disc—the second to feature Barrett and O’Brien as a duo—shows off the pair’s well-tempered chemistry, honed after years of soap opera–like lineup changes. The band formed in 1988 with guitarists Jack Owen and Bob Rusay. Barrett, who like the original members is a native of Buffalo, New York, took over from Rusay in 1993, then quit in 1997. Barrett was replaced by O’Brien, former guitarist with Nevermore, but returned when Owen left in 2005. Since Barrett and O’Brien have spent signifi cant time with the group’s other members—vocalist George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher, bassist Alex Webster and drummer Paul Mazurkiewicz—they have a shared vision of Cannibal Corpse’s sound, something that comes through on the album.
Guitar World caught up with the guitarists just days before they embarked on a headlining tour in support of the album, something they’ll continue this summer on the Hot Topic stage of the Mayhem Fest tour, to discuss what makes them such a good team. Unsurprisingly, it has nothing to do with controversy.
GUITAR WORLD What initially attracted you to death metal?
PAT O’BRIEN Death metal was the most extreme music. I still think it’s probably the heaviest, most extreme music. That’s the kind of stuff I want to play.
ROB BARRETT Rhythm-wise, I liked the fast tempos and really fast guitar playing. I just wanted to do the heaviest stuff imaginable.
GW How would you define your roles as guitar players?
BARRETT Pat’s more the main lead guitar player. I’m pretty much just backing him up, doing the rhythms, but I do have a couple of leads on the new album. It’s just one of those things where I know he’s a better lead player, so I let him go at it.
GW Were either of you formally trained on guitar?
BARRETT No, I’m self-taught. I can read tablature, but I can’t read music.
O’BRIEN I studied classical guitar for a while. I think what got me into that was my dad took me to see Andrés Segovia a long time ago. I took lessons from a lot of teachers, too.
GW Since you’ve studied classical music, do you use theory when you’re writing for Cannibal Corpse?
O’BRIEN The only time I really apply theory is when it comes to a harmony or trying to pick a scale when I play lead over a rhythm part. I don’t think theory really applies that much in death metal.
GW Rob, you’ve said that when you first joined the group, you were literally laughing as you were learning the riffs. Why is that?
BARRETT I just remember I had already moved to Florida, like, a year before Cannibal Corpse did their first album. And when I heard it I was just like, Wow, man, this just sounds over-the-top brutal. And it was just so heavy to me that it was making me laugh. That’s why it was amusing to me—because I was hearing these riffs and they were just so not normal to me.
GW You were playing thrash at the time. What made death metal so foreign?
BARRETT In thrash metal, there’s a lot more triplets and crunchy kind of stuff going on. Death metal has a lot more fast picking. I think it all comes down to the choice of notes and scales—that’s what sets thrash metal apart from death metal. And, of course, the vocals.
GW What kind of gear do you use?
O’BRIEN I use B.C. Rich Vs, EMG-81 pickups, a Boss Metal Zone pedal and a [Mesa/Boogie] Triple Rectifier with Rectifier cabinets. I bought four cabs from Mesa/Boogie. I got two of them unloaded and put some 300-watt Black Label Society Electro-Voice speakers in one of them.
BARRETT I’m using some Dean Cadillac guitars. They’re custom-made. The shape is like Les Paul–meets-Explorer. A lot of the older bands from the Seventies and the Eighties, like Kansas, Heart and the Cars, used ’em. [laughs] I think I might be one of the first guys in metal—or death metal at that—to use a Cadillac. I like the fact that it’s very similar to a Les Paul. I used Les Pauls for years before I started using these Deans. I’ve got EMGs in them. I also use a Metal Zone, and I have a Mesa Dual Rectifier.
GW What do you consider to be the key elements of death metal?
O’BRIEN Palm muting, fast picking, sick notes, stamina.
GW Are there certain scales that lend themselves to Cannibal Corpse?
O’BRIEN I would say the diminished scale. We use the Hungarian minor scale. We use all the scales in The Guitar Grimoire [book series by Adam Kadmon] that sound evil.
GW Since the rhythm parts can sometimes be nearly atonal in Cannibal Corpse songs, how do you pick out the tones you use in a solo?
O’BRIEN That’s hard. Sometimes I can’t find anything I like, and sometimes I have to play a noisy solo because that’s what’s gonna sound best in the song.
GW What did you want to do differently on Evisceration Plague?
O’BRIEN From the songwriting point of view, I don’t think we really thought, Well, we can’t do that because we did it on Kill [the group’s previous album]. We didn’t overanalyze what we were doing.
BARRETT It was pretty much, Put your stuff on the table and we’ll turn ’em into songs, and when we’re happy with them, then we’ll have an album to record.
GW What was the most challenging song to play?
BARRETT If I had to pick one, it would probably be “To Decompose,” Pat’s song. For the note phrasings, my hands just aren’t used to working like that. I guess he’s been playing a lot of scales that I haven’t for a long time. He’s definitely an impressive guitar player, and I wish more people would notice that about him.
GW Why is “To Decompose” so difficult, Pat?
O’BRIEN [laughs] Probably just because I wrote it. It’s always harder for someone else. It’s got some pretty technical things going on. The hardest part about that song or when you’re playing fast picked parts like that is to play it tightly and get a clean sound so you can hear what’s going on.
GW The verse on “Beheading and Burning” is a good example of how you play off each other.
O’BRIEN That’s a really cool arrangement. Alex came up with that. There’s a part where Rob’s playing octave chords and Alex and I are playing a note-driven part underneath it. It created this weird effect, almost like the octave chords were being slowly turned up.
BARRETT It’s pretty much a never-ending bass solo riff. I think it’s one of the better riffs on the album.
GW Since we’ve been talking about how technical your songs are, does it bother you when musicians and critics slag off death-metal musicians as unskilled?
BARRETT It doesn’t bother me at all. It all depends on how much attention you pay to it. That’s why I’m interested in this kind of music—because I dissect it piece by piece. I listen to it over and over, even if it’s just three seconds of a song, because I want to figure out what’s happening there. A lot of these people who don’t necessarily like it are probably just listening to it knowing that they don’t want to like it, even before they listen to it.
O’BRIEN It doesn’t really bother me either. I think it’s funny. I think when people refer to it as “Cookie Monster” music, I’m like, “Yeah, whatever. Go hang out with Bert and Ernie.” It’s not for everybody. It’s just the nature of the beast, I guess.