To Serve Man (2002)
USA, Metal Blade Records, Deathgrind
As a reviewer, it’s almost inevitable to make typos in any given article you write, especially in much longer and more in depth reviews/profiles. Hell, I’m sure even this article will have typos in it. While not the biggest deal, a lot of the typos I’ve made on this website stand out as unnerving pet peeves at best and glaring omissions at worst. In my Saprogenic article for instance, the phrase ‘I might add’ was used twice in a row, making my valid point completely redundant. I’ve misspelled Kraanium’s latest release in two separate articles. At the beginning of my Saprophagous profile ‘combining’ somehow became ‘combing’. However, the two most egregious typos/omissions are in my Cattle Decapitation profile and ‘Pierced From Within’ article. In ‘Pierced From Within’s case, I SOMEHOW left out Disgorge in my list of bands vying for top Death Metal band, even though I was sure I had written them in. Cattle Decapitation’s case managed to be even worse; I credited ‘To Serve Man’ as the start of the band’s contributions of progressive elements to the genre of Deathgrind when I was sure I had written ‘Karma. Bloody. Karma’. This is what I get for writing articles instead of sleeping late at night. Although I can’t guarantee such errors will outright disappear from my writing, I can assure everyone that I’ll be making much greater efforts to NOT make these kinds of mistakes in the future. I can also say beyond a shadow of a doubt that the day I like ‘To Serve Man’ is the day I go completely mental, put on a pink dress and call myself Slappy McNiggins.
It may sound harsh but I don’t think there are very many better examples of potential so thoroughly and utterly wasted. This is not the Cattle Decapitation that made ‘Harvest Floor’ or ‘Monolith Of Inhumanity’. Hell, this isn’t even the Cattle Decapitation that released ‘Human Jerky’ and ‘Ten Torments Of The Damned’ which, while amateurish, were nice chunks of sickening Goregrind. As dismissive and facile as it may sound, ‘To Serve Man’ just fucking SUCKS. There’s no two ways about it. What’s worse is it didn’t have to suck. Unfortunately, there’s so much crap burying anything and everything worthwhile that listening through this whole album becomes a filthy, embarrassing chore, like scrubbing a toilet. The only difference is scrubbing your toilet actually accomplishes something worthwhile and listening to the entirety of ‘To Serve Man’ just leaves you feeling grimy, pissed off and without the money you paid for it.
Now before I go any further and let my haterade flow like an unstoppable river of contempt, I’d like to point out that there are plenty of people who love this album and think it’s an amazing slab of putrid Deathgrind. Great, more power to them. Some people also like BDSM, Tyler Perry movies and wearing sandals with socks. Human beings are a strange bunch and there’s no account for taste. Not all taste is created equal though and in the case of liking ‘To Serve Man’, I can’t even begin to understand. There’s so many things wrong with this album I don’t even know where to begin. Between the awful vocal layering, the non-stop RATATATA-RATATATA ear rape passing itself off as a drum performance, the (non-existent) bass and quite possibly the most repetitive Deathgrind guitar riffs ever written, this album isn’t just awful, it’s catastrophic.
First things first, Dave Astor’s drumming, if it can be called that. I’m not sure if the guy who mixed this album hates Death Metal fans but after the migraine inducing racket I’ve had to sit through, I wouldn’t be surprised. This has to be the most amateurish and sloppy death metal drum performance this side of ‘The Wet Sound Of Flesh On Concrete’. Even the most basic of fills and double bass patterns sound labored and there are at least fifteen distinct moments when even the piss poor tempo of these ‘blast beats’ seems to be too much for Dave to do. It’s also ridiculously loud, to the point of drowning out everything except Travis’ vocals, which I’ll get to in due time. When I first heard Dave’s drum patterns, I wrote them off as supremely obnoxious. By the end of the title track, I felt like my head was going to explode into indiscernible bits of gore and migraine. If you feel brave enough to actually listen to this album, make sure you’ve stocked up on Excedrin. Also, don’t be surprised if the only thing you remember from ‘To Serve Man’ is a nonstop RATATA-RATATATA-RATATATA-RATATATATA drilling itself into the depths of your subconscious I actually had to put this review on hold for a while because I started hearing Dave Astor’s pseudo blasts as the soundtrack to a recurring dental nightmare. I wish I was making that shit up.
If nothing else, my cat Patches who always loves listening to Death Metal with me goes insane whenever ‘To Serve Man’ starts blasting. Bear in mind, she purrs when I put on Disgorge, Brodequin, Liturgy or Enmity but ‘To Serve Man’ crosses over into auditory animal abuse. How ironic. I’m sure I’ll be having that awful dental dream for the next two weeks but I’d rather suffer through that then let this goddamn album ‘win’ in any sense. For providing the soundtrack for a murderous dentist, scarring my kitty for life and making me pay through the nose for headache relief, my only recommendation for Dave Astor is to ream himself with a cactus. Dave’s work on this record has turned out to be the worst Death Metal drum performance I’ve ever heard, if only for how loudly it sucks. There have been worse individual performances (‘Perverse Recollections Of A Necromangler’ comes to mind) but even that album had the sense to keep the drum mix relatively level with everything else.
Are you happy now ‘To Serve Man’? You made me say something decent about ‘Perverse Recollections Of A Necromangler’. GodDAMN you.
As livid as the drum massacre on this album makes me, you’ll be happy to know the riffing is just as infuriating for entirely different reasons. Whereas Dave Astor is trying too hard to be a worthwhile drummer and failing miserably, Josh Elmore isn’t trying at all. When you think of Deathgrind guitar work, what is it you imagine? Whatever you imagine, it’s most likely incredibly agile, vicious and never boring. Apparently Josh Elmore’s answer to that question in 2002 was ‘The same mindless, paper thin tremolo riff repeated ad nauseaum for three minutes.’ There is so little effort put in on Elmore’s part I have to wonder if he went on a drinking binge while the rest of the band was in the studio and then woke up with the worst hangover of his life on the last possible day he could record and said ‘Fuck it, it’s not like I’ll be very high in the mix anyways’ and proceeded to rework the first lackluster pattern that came into his alcohol addled mind for all thirteen tracks. I have never played guitar a day in my life and even I could come up with more than the mind-blowing musical mediocrity of tracks like ‘I Eat Your Skin’ and ‘Colonic Villus Biopsy Performed on the Gastro-Intestinally Incapable’. If there’s one thing I can give kudos to ‘To Serve Man’ for, it’s how varied the failure is. Between trying too hard and not trying at all lies this album, the absolute nadir of Deathgrind. Well, when you’ve hit rock bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up and thankfully modern Cattle Decapitation (especially Elmore) has more than made up for the sins of this atrociousness.
The bass is also horrendous. Why? There is no fucking bass on this album…and before anyone tries to correct me on that, no, I do not count five seconds here and there on a 34 minute album as an actual bass performance. If Disgorge could release some of the best bass heavy Death Metal of all time the same year this pile of excrement came out, there’s absolutely no excuse for Cattle Decapitation. Thanks to this, the entire album (save for the drums and vocals) is hopelessly trebly and pathetically thin. There’s simultaneously no punch from Elmore and a synapse beatdown from Astor. It’s no wonder the producer of this album never mixed another Death Metal record again.
Finally, we come to Travis Ryan himself, the only remotely positive thing on this album. His gutturals and animalistic shrieks are still as depraved and amazing as they’ve always been but far be it from ‘To Serve Man’ to leave its only positive aspect well enough alone. Sure, the vocal performance itself is great but the dual layering on Travis’ vocals makes it an absolute chore to listen to. That hurts to say but it’s the truth. As soon as I start enjoying some guttural sickness, the shrieks start overlapping and turning the whole performance into a clusterfuck of unimaginable proportions. It takes the low end out of his gutturals and ruins the high end of his shrieks, leaving only an indiscernible mish-mash of great vocals ruined by an incompetent hack of a producer. You’re definitely one of the greatest vocalists in Death Metal history Travis but they butchered you here. What a waste…
When all’s said and done, the biggest problem with ‘To Serve Man’ is more than the sum of its parts. It goes beyond the worst Death Metal drum performance I’ve ever heard or Josh Elmore being asleep at the wheel or even the complete lack of bass and the waste of Travis Ryan. No, ‘To Serve Man’s biggest issue is how phony it is. Coming from a Goregrind background, I’m sure the transition to straight Deathgrind was challenging but it’s nowhere near impossible. ‘To Serve Man’ is the exact opposite of what it should have been. Instead of a harrowing, churning plunge into madness, it postures and boasts but delivers nothing. Right from the get go with ‘Testicular Manslaughter’ it’s clear that the only reason this record sounds the way it does is because Cattle Decapitation completely misunderstood what Deathgrind is and how it works. Just because your lyrical content is shocking, your production is lo-fi, your vocalist makes people sick and your guitarist knows how to play grinding tremolo riffs doesn’t mean you can make good Deathgrind. Compare this fecal matter to the reigning champion of the Deathgrind genre to this day, ‘Human Harvest’ by Circle Of Dead Children. Superficially, all of the same elements are there but whereas ‘To Serve Man’ has no musical conviction or power ‘Human Harvest’ is a revolting masterpiece of twisted riffing, blasting drums and maddening vocals. The lack of bass also isn’t due to some idiotic production mishap and doesn’t hinder ‘Human Harvest’ even an iota. The biggest kicker is these two albums came out within a year of one another and represent the exact ‘do’s and ‘don’t’s of Deathgrind respectively.
The only way ‘To Serve Man’ could have worked is if it were a Goregrind record. Think about it; Dave wouldn’t have to try (and fail) to execute simple blast beat patterns, Travis’ weirdly layered vocals could actually work and Josh could have focused on writing groovier, slower, churning riffs instead of the ridiculously lazy tremolo crap he did write. It could have been a very interesting and exciting take on the genre that blew their previous goregrind demos/EPs out of the water and paved the way for a full on transition to Deathgrind; think Dead Infection meets PETA. Instead, people like me would have to wait until 2006 to start hearing what they wanted to from Cattle Decapitation and even though ‘To Serve Man’ garnered a cult following of very dedicated fans that have stuck with Cattle Decapitation through thick and thin, the rest of us saw desperation. Shameful, pandering desperation. Like an old man in a toupee hopelessly gyrating, trying to attract a woman.
^ ‘To Serve Man’ in 14 seconds.