The masters of gore metal, Autopsy did for music what Herschell Gordon Lewis did for film. After leaving Death in 1987 when Chuck Schuldiner moved to Florida, drummer Chris Reifert formed an equally influential death metal band when he started Autopsy. The band’s first two records, 1989’s Severed Survival and 1991’s Mental Funeral, stand as heralded classics of the genre, sickening celebrations of blood-‘n’-guts, backwoods disembowelment, and cartoonish body horror. Whereas like-minded bands like Carcass approached topics of gore from a pseudo-medical standpoint, Autopsy got off on the sheer absurdity of how sick they could get.
It was the band’s ability to conjure up depravity both lyrically and musically that made them so special. Especially on those early records, Autopsy created an atmosphere of unparalleled creepiness. You read a song title like “Twisted Mass of Burnt Decay” and you get a fucked up mental image and somehow the song sounds exactly like that mental image. Coffin drums beat madly; guitars tuned to dissonance spiral into chaos; Reifert’s vocals are obscured gurgles and shrieks. The nihilism and emotional desensitization from the subject matter required to make this music is genuinely disturbing. How heartfelt can a songwriter be when they’re writing about rotting flesh and stillborn children being ripped from the womb? Were Autopsy really serial killers projecting their misanthropic desires through metal?
Severed Survival and Mental Funeral are anomalies. After two decades of death metal bands, there’s still nothing quite as filthy and putrid as those records, to the point that even Autopsy themselves have been unable to match them. Since reuniting in 2009, the band has been prolific, releasing three full-length LPs. And while each is a competent slice of death metal, they lack the intangible, “disturbing” atmosphere of the early works. Meanwhile, Autopsy’s legacy has grown, due in large part to those first two records, and it’s hard not to hear their new material in that context.
Their latest, the Skull Grinder EP, is a gift for diehard fans. It comes as part of the four-disc After the Cutting compilation, which gathers highlights from the band’s discography, unreleased tracks, and live cuts. But as a standalone release (Skull Grinder is also available exclusively on vinyl, separate from the box set), it’s more of the same competent-but-safe death metal Autopsy have fallen back on since reuniting.
Self-parody isn’t the word. Rather, Autopsy settle into a mode of self-emulation. The title track’s proggy change-ups from spiraling speed metal to sluggish doom are an Autopsy staple — and tactfully performed here — but what’s new? “Children of the Filth” predictably jumps between d-beat hardcore and the dissonant, slow pace the band perfected a long time ago on Mental Funeral’s “Torn from the Womb”. There are glimpses and examples of Autopsy’s brilliance throughout the EP, but it’s not applied with the same intensity and attention to morbid detail. Reifert’s once muddy howls and vocalizations are now more of a discernible, metallic bark. The insanity of his performance was always part of Autopsy’s allure, but except for a couple of wild moments on “Children of the Filth” and the fantastic instrumental “Sanity Bleeds” — where dozens of Reifert’s shrieks are layered and overdubbed under a guitar solo — he’s tempered a bit.
Skull Grinder, like Autopsy’s other post-reunion LPs, lacks the atmospherics that made the early albums the stuff of death metal legend. The modern recordings are too clean, too by the numbers, too obvious. Still, Autopsy is a band worthy of its reputation and worthy of career-spanning box sets. They influenced an entire sub-genre of metal and created some of the most horrific audio recordings of all-time. A weak fan-service bonus EP can’t take away from that.
Essential Tracks: “Skull Grinder”, “Sanity Bleeds”