By Joseph Hess
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Given its vile lyrics ("Human feces I season with morning eye crust and navel lint"), outlandish onstage antics (custard-spewing singer Travis Ryan could coin the term "reyogurtation") and profoundly unappetizing album art (Humanure looks like it sounds, only much, much worse), San Diego's Cattle Decapitation seems like the type of band whose dinner-party invitations might "accidentally" end up in the trash. But if it can be trusted at all, this gore-metal group can be trusted in the kitchen, where its vegetarian recipes shed a humane light on what's otherwise a grim worldview.
Observe these lyrics from the title track of the band's latest: "Men, women and children shall be strung/Sliced from hands to feet/Innards saved for a tasty treat/And beaten profusely to tenderize the meat/Choice cuts from the slaughter/Husband, mother, daughter/Dead families kept together/Their hides made into leather."
Like most of Cattle Decapitation's material, Humanure's lyrics take vegetarianism to its anti-human extremes. Musically, the group travels to an equally remote side of the spectrum, embracing the most brutal aspects of various virulent heavy-music subgenres: jackhammer jolts, bludgeoning breakdowns, treadmill-set-to-death drumbeats and straight-razor riffs; robust rhythms that rattle rib cages and vocals that approximate possession-provoked projectile vomiting.
Early records such as Human Jerky (the group donned Leatherface-style masks made of beef jerky for a few shows) and Homovore took a traditional animal-rights stance, spelling out slaughterhouse atrocities and declaring meat repugnantly unhealthy. In disgusting detail, Cattle Decapitation described foul stenches, oozing bodily fluids and gag-reflex-baiting tastes. Those songs, savage strikes to the senses that they were, could have had Ronald McDonald boiling bean curd. On 2002's To Serve Man, the band lost patience and decided to massacre mankind; the lyric sheet resembled a cannibal cookbook.
Sharp satire, to be sure, but metaphorical meals don't feed a touring act. Cattle Decapitation usually ends up scarfing down side salads from fast-food spots or graciously accepting cheese pizza from promoters for the seventh straight show.
"People always think, 'Everybody loves pizza,'" guitarist Josh Elmore says. "I appreciate the effort, but at the same time, that's all we ever get."
Elmore can be a crafty chef (see sidebar), but life on the road provides few opportunities to prepare haute cuisine. Cattle Decapitation got Thanksgiving off last year, which meant Tofurky at Elmore's place. "With some unusual sides, like lentils," he adds.
Could there be a better band to play St. Louis during the Great American Meatout (March 20-26)? Like its veggie-gore predecessor Carcass, Cattle Decapitation fits in with its carnivorous counterparts by being every bit as gross. The band's approach is similar to the Lamb-of-God-in-wolf's-clothing strategy employed by those Christian death-metal bands that sing about sadistic rituals in first person to show what a bad guy Satan can be.
Often erroneously depicted as strident vegans (they're "only" vegetarians), Cattle Decapitation's members steer clear of empty shock tactics and sloganeering. For example, the group has never resorted to cheesy rallying cries such as "Burn the slaughterhouses to the ground," which the pop-punk band Good Riddance once ordered with unconvincing urgency.
"I've never been into that kind of stuff," frontman Ryan says. "I always thought it was cheesy. I'm not out to change anybody's eating habits. We're not crazy, psycho activists."
Gee, whatever would have given us that idea?
Cattle Decapitation ends Humanure with nine minutes of unspeakably ominous noise from a slaughterhouse floor. (The recording comes courtesy of PETA.) Like the most haunting horror films, the track is menacing because of what it leaves to the imagination. All the song reveals is an eerie industrial clamor, some sickly squishing and an occasional anguished yowl, but the mental picture it conjures is even worse than the group's grotesque satirical scenarios.
Though it concludes on a sobering note, Humanure isn't without comic relief. The CD draws humor from its subject matter (the human-roadkill rant "Pedeadstrians"), wry wordplay ("Trying to grab your gas mask/An uneasy task/When your pubis is dismembered from your abdomen") and fluent ventures into office-speak ("Your request for a pleasant death has been denied") and infomercialese ("The human/So many uses/Once drained of its juices/Perfect for home, boat or office"). But even more absurd than the group's lyrics is the fact that many fans take them at face value.
"Some people actually think we have something against animals," Ryan says. "Like, they'll walk up to us and say, 'Fuck yeah, decapitate them fuckin' cows!'"
While the group's pitch-black wit is darkly humorous, its nonfiction adherence to its anti-human stance is disturbing, even if somewhat compelling. Lurking behind the songs' slasher-movie-style stage blood is Ryan's real belief that the world would be a harmonious utopia without humanity's interference. To him, humans are a repellent race, an irredeemable lot celebrating its own crapulence. Maudlin metal band Slipknot's cosmetic nihilists use the slogan "People equal shit" to foster us-against-them camaraderie with their self-esteem-starved "maggot" fans. Ryan posits the same equation as the ultimate solution to Earth's crisis: When people are nothing but fertilizer, a fate he believes to be inevitable, nature will reign.
"They're trying to give the kids something to identify with," Ryan says of Slipknot and its ilk. "I'm actively alienating everyone who walks around on two legs. My angle is more like, 'I hate you, and there's nothing you can do to redeem yourself.'"