In the early ‘90s, death metal was an arms race. The battle of faster-louder-grosser was being fought along America’s East Coast and on the streets of Gothenburg and Stockholm. But just as important as the extremity of death metal’s sound was its imagery. The twisted children of thrash weren’t content with skulls in hell or atom bombs vaporizing cities. They wanted art and aesthetics that looked anything like their churning, oozing, unspeakably ugly music sounded, and they wanted it to be more offensive and outrageous than the next guy’s stuff. There had to be a most extreme. There had to be a winner.
The victor was undoubtedly Butchered at Birth, the sophomore record by Cannibal Corpse. Bringing together an aggressively hostile sound and truly loathsome art and subject matter, the album by this then-Buffalo-based five-piece redefined what it was to be sick. And today, 30 years after its release, Butchered remains as priceless a piece of aesthetic savagery as anyone has ever made.
It would be foolish to discuss Butchered at Birth in any detail without first confronting its cover. Vincent Locke’s illustration for the album’s sleeve depicts a scene beyond monstrous, adding a new level of vile abomination to the zombie gore of Cannibal’s 1990 debut Eaten Back to Life. The album cover is so gorge-swellingly horrific that it transcends both realism and fantasy. This image is worse than any crime scene photograph or horror movie poster, depicting a level of blasphemy that boggles the mind to even consider. It’s not important who this woman is, how she ended up on this table, or where the aprons came from. All that matters is that it’s as bad as you think.
“Man, I’ll never forget seeing Butchered for the first time,” Cannibal Corpse drummer Paul Mazurkiewicz told us while ranking the band’s album art by how disgusting they are, “We were blown away by it, just like, how CRAZY it was. Especially going from Eaten — which was a great cover — to seeing something like that was just…WHOA. This is taking it to a whole different level. Even looking at it to this day, it’s never not disgusting. It’s never not that piece that you look at and say, This is crazy. I can’t believe these guys did that.”
Cannibal Corpse could’ve stopped there, but they didn’t. They went the extra mile. The CD booklet for Butchered at Birth contained quotes by historical child-murderer Gilles de Rais and infamous serial killer Albert Fish. The band quickly adopted the outlined skeleton of an infant as their go-to symbol. Consider that: while other bands were telling the world that they worshipped Satan or watched a lot of Lucio Fulci flicks, Cannibal Corpse made a dead baby their logo. This was a band thoroughly dedicated to the sublime nature of outright disgust.
But at the end of the day, the songs are what place Butchered at Birth on the highest slab in the morgue. If opener “Meathook Sodomy” doesn’t instantly scare the listener off, then chances are the spring-heeled viciousness of “Gutted,” the panicked dismemberment of “Under the Rotted Flesh,” the pus-spewing one-two of “Covered In Sores” and “Vomit the Soul,” and chainsaw cyclone of “Rancid Amputation” will excite them in ways they’re scared to admit in public. The album sounds like a million scabs crashing together, with Chris Barnes’ vocals still more gurgled than bellowed and the Jack Owen/Bob Rusay guitar attack grinding everything in its path into sausage. Alex Webster’s bass and Mazurkiewicz’s drums provide the concrete in which he bodies can be forever hidden.
Perhaps most startling about Butchered at Birth is its timelessness. So many shocking metal albums are dated in hindsight, leaving modern fans to wonder what the hell Tipper Gore was so worried about. But this record sounds just as destructive and looks just as nauseating today as it did in ‘91. Cannibal Corpse didn’t just play with the fear of the times as did so many Cold War-informed thrash acts. They cut deep to the core of humanity’s darkest anatomical thoughts and presented the world with the sights and sounds of its collective nightmares. The countless death metal bands trying to out-do the album since have all failed the minute they held up their own work for comparison. Butchered at Birth isn’t trying to be grosser than anyone else — it’s content to just be the grossest thing anyone can think of.
It’s astounding to see how much Cannibal Corpse have changed and grown in the thirty years since Butchered at Birth was released — the Ace Ventura cameo, the vocalist change (and subsequent fetishization of the new vocalist’s neck and wholesomeness), the appearances on massive traveling festival tours. But even as Cannibal continue to cement themselves as one of the world’s most important metal bands, fans can still put on this record, hold the cover in their hands and pull it up online, and be sickened by it. How horrible — how masterfully, unforgettably horrible.
Words by Chris Krovatin