n 2007, Cephalic Carnage no longer sound extreme. This is indicative of both the state of metal and the band’s influence on it. Not only are the templates for death metal and grindcore firmly set, so are the conventions for its subgenres. Bands have seemingly explored every angle of “angular,” every crevice of “chaotic,” every possible permutation of “brutal.” Nothing’s shocking in metal now, and Cephalic Carnage is much to credit—and blame.
The Denver band formed in 1992, developing a cult following with albums like Exploiting Dysfunction and Lucid Interval. Their foundation was death metal/grindcore, but every ten seconds, it would veer into clean-toned jazz, electronic experimentation, or bluesy stoner metal with equal likelihood. As the band’s name implies, it’s more than geeky. Their lyrics are rife with science fiction and conspiracy theories; their intricate songs feel like math equations set to music. However, unlike its often po-faced peers, Cephalic Carnage has a strong, if strange, sense of humor. Its catalogue includes spoofs of black metal and metalcore, as well as multiple odes to marijuana. When you hear a metal band switch from precise riffs to Sabbath-esque sludge apropos of nothing, it probably copped that move from Cephalic Carnage.
On Xenosapien, the band wisely doesn’t try to out-extreme its progeny. Instead, for the first time in its career, they’ve written “songs.” They’re still fiendishly complex, often sounding like exploding kaleidoscopes. But instead of, say, 30 riffs in each, now they’ll go through only five or ten. Songs are more memorable now because they have repetition. “Divination & Volition” has flowing, discordant harmonies that suggest buckets of modern classical music poured from above, but it remains grounded in a simple, foot-dragging riff. Shrill harmonics pop out of “Endless Cycle of Violence,” giving its technical death metal surprisingly catchy “hooks.” Before, the most salient parts of Cephalic Carnage albums were the deviations from death/grind. Now, each song has a distinct identity.
Still, on a speedy album (John Merryman’s blastbeats and fills shine through these simpler riffs), the slow material stands out. “G.lobal O.verhaul D.evice,” surely one of the few songs ever written about weather manipulation, is a melodic jawdropper, trudging through massive, sustained chords. Rare clean singing and saxophone (by Bruce Lamont of Yakuza) add color to one of this year’s heaviest metal songs. A sinister, lengthy hidden track also explores the band’s doomy side. While its trademark Southern swing is absent here, Cephalic Carnage is revisiting one of its finest moments, 2002’s Halls of Amenti, a 19-minute behemoth of doom.
If previous albums were endlessly saccadic leaps, Xenosapien feels like a professional driver smoothly navigating hard turns. Orion Landau contributes a perfectly matching layout, with individual artwork for the songs and a cleverly three-dimensional cover. Who would have thought that Cephalic Carnage would make a good death metal entry point? The journey is still twisted, but now the path is more accessible than ever.