Cannibal Corpse are one of the constants of the metal universe, a perfect example of artistic conservatism as a life path. Their music has remained essentially unchanged since their 1990 debut album, Eaten Back to Life: They play fast, aggressive death metal, but somehow manage to shoehorn just enough melody into their songs to make them memorable beyond a head-down blur of riffs and blast beats. They don’t really have one representative album to recommend to newbies, though everything since 2006’s Kill has been ridiculously impressive.
Behemoth, their partners on this tour, are a different story. They’ve evolved substantially since beginning as a black-metal band in the early Nineties, moving closer to death metal and getting more and more sonically and compositionally ambitious. Their most recent album, The Satanist, is their best by a long stretch. They’ve also got a better story: Frontman Nergal recently triumphed over leukemia, an experience that has clearly affected him. After the first song of their set at a sold-out Webster Hall, he asked the crowd, “How does it feel to be alive?”
See also: Metal Reigns Over Webster Hall
The show started early, with the first band of four, Tribulation, taking the stage at 6:30. Their music was a mix of progressive black metal and old-school rock ‘n’ roll, presented with almost glam-rock theatricality. The four members probably weigh 300 pounds combined, and most of that’s hair. The two guitarists writhed snakelike across the stage, aiming their axes at the ceiling and cutting loose with shredding solos. They should be opening for Opeth, not Cannibal Corpse, but they’ve got enough star power going that they’ll likely be headlining tours of their own soon. The next band, Aeon, had neither style nor songs. They’re the kind of ultra-generic death metal band who’ll be opening shows for better acts until they pack it in.
This was technically a co-headlining tour, so both Cannibal Corpse and Behemoth played for the same amount of time (roughly 50 minutes each), but Cannibal Corpse made substantially more of their relatively limited time onstage. They opened with one of their slowest songs, “Scourge of Iron,” as though warming the crowd up before a workout. And frontman George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher fits the role of coach or drill instructor: He’s an astonishing physical presence, big and bulky, with a neck the size of the average person’s thigh. He pinwheels his hair in precise circles every time the music speeds up, and barks the lyrics out like bullets. Behind him, his bandmates — guitarists Rob Barrett and and Pat O’Brien, bassist Alex Webster, and drummer Paul Mazurkiewicz — crank out the riffs, barely paying attention to the crowd at all. I don’t think I saw Webster’s face the whole night, as he bobbed his head above his instrument.
The setlist was mostly drawn from their recent albums, with three tracks from this year’s A Skeletal Domain — “Kill or Become,” “Sadistic Embodiment,” and “Icepick Lobotomy” — coming in a row at the end of the first half. But a few classics surprised and excited the crowd, particularly “Stripped, Raped, and Strangled,” from 1994’s The Bleeding, and “I Cum Blood,” from 1992’s Tomb of the Mutilated, introduced by Fisher as “a love song…about shooting blood out of your cock.” Ultimately, they played fourteen songs with ruthless efficiency, never stopping for more than a few seconds. Fisher’s stage banter was limited to demanding that the crowd mosh harder, or headbang as fast as he could: “You will fail, but you can try.”
Behemoth’s set, on the other hand, included only eight songs, half of them from The Satanist. As the road crew set up elaborate, theatrical stage props, it became clear that logistics, not popularity or sales figures, had determined which band would play last. Nergal took the stage in black metal face paint and some kind of chain mail hood, with a torch in each hand that he used to light a brazier hanging from his mic stand.
Their set featured a lot of taped intros and dramatic interludes, and the songs themselves were longer and more complex than Cannibal Corpse’s short, violent blasts. But they weren’t as catchy; they didn’t make you want to bang your head or pump your fist. On record, Behemoth’s music is mixed into a blast-furnace roar, aiming to overpower listeners rather than win them over. Live, the same was true: The sound was relentless and crushing, like an avalanche of superheated boulders. But the populist appeal just wasn’t there. They were playing at the crowd, not to them, and while most people stuck around, a slow but steady trickle of fans headed for the exit as their set roared on.
On the next page: Faces in the crowd.[