Death metal exists in a void somewhere between high and low art. On one hand, the musicians playing this style are often world class, studying their instruments to an extreme level of virtuosity. It’s not unusual for extreme metal musicians to have extensively studied classical music (see Gorguts, Fleshgod Apocalypse) or jazz (see Atheist, Cynic), nor is it odd to find acts with an interest in philosophy, history and mythology, or politics and social criticism. However, more often than not, those skills and interests are translated into songs that typically deal with tearing flesh and destroying Christians. It’s music for people that appreciate artistic craft, but also like B-horror movies. Since it falls under the massive umbrella of “popular music,” many would argue that death metal can’t qualify as high art, but with its frequent use of advanced compositional techniques and experimental songwriting, it might be the closest thing the non-classical, non-jazz world has to high-culture music.
No band has better exemplified this situation than Cryptopsy did in their heyday. The French-Canadian outfit showed serious promise with their 1994 debut Blasphemy Made Flesh, but in July of 1996, they unleashed an instant classic sophomore effort, None So Vile. Using a classical painting (Herodias, with head of John the Baptist) as an album cover before it became a cliché to do so, the artwork belied 32 minutes of arguably the most brutal, technically demanding metal ever made.
In stark contrast to the Elisabetta Sirani painting on its cover, None So Vile opens with a sample from The Exorcist III: Legion and closes with the voice of Bruce Campbell in Army of Darkness. The lyrics are written by an English teacher who clearly has an understanding of literary form, but he uses that knowledge to write lines like “I seek the loving warmth of your anus as I place my worshipful lips about your teats.”
Every member of this Cryptopsy line-up has mastered their respective instruments, but they choose pummeling over finesse whenever possible. Guitarist Jon Levasseur plays riffs that could slice someone open. Bassist Eric Langlois nimbly matches Levasseur’s dexterity and then settles into a spine-crushing groove (check the solo before the breakdown in “Slit Your Guts”). Flo Mounier is an absolute monster behind the kit, whose lightning speed stands out in a genre full of unfathomably skilled drummers.
And then there’s Dan Greening, better known as Lord Worm. For budding death metal fans, there are a series of vocal thresholds to cross before truly becoming a fan of the genre. One might start with the basic shout of Death’s Chuck Schuldiner, graduate into the rasp of Carcass’s Jeff Walker, and eventually enjoy the standard “cookie monster” approach most associated with death metal. But I don’t think you can honestly appreciate death metal until you’ve learned to love Lord Worm.
There have been very few frontman in detah metal history who have sounded quite as inhuman. Many harsh vocalists try to sound demonic, but Lord Worm is the only man (besides maybe Demilich’s Antti Boman) who really sounds like he’s from a different world than ours. His array of growls, shrieks, grunts, and howls is unmatched, and he is never intelligible. Those grotesque, Baudelaire-like lyrics of his go to waste if you don’t read along (not that they’re much easier to understand with the words right in front of you. He blatantly skips syllables throughout the album.).
This group of high-caliber musicians created something completely savage: a combo of brutality and technicality that few could touch before or since, with a distinct image and theatricality that separated them from the likes of Suffocation or Cannibal Corpse. Along with their more avant-garde contemporaries Gorguts, Cryptopsy set the bar for extreme metal in Quebec. The province has become a tech-death haven in the past two decades, producing bands like Neuraxis and First Fragment, who have pushed the instrumental skill of their forefathers even further. But even beyond eastern Canada, any slam death band who can make music with actual replay value must have None So Vile on heavy rotation. Songs like “Slit Your Guts” and “Benedictine Convulsions” are textbook examples of how to do a heavy groove right.
Unfortunately, Cryptopsy never lived up None So Vile again. Lord Worm left a year after the album’s release, and the band replaced him with Boston native Mike DiSalvo, who sounds like he should front one of that city’s many hardcore acts. Cryptopsy released two albums with DiSalvo, but they had quickly become more of a pedestrian death metal band. Whisper Supremacy was solid, but didn’t have the same magic, while And Then You’ll Beg was competent but unmemorable. The DiSalvo era of Cryptopsy was noodlier than before, with riffs that didn’t stick, and a lack of the groove that reined in the chaos of None So Vile and Blasphemy Made Flesh.
After recording a live album with short-term vocalist Martin LaCroix and saying goodbye to Levasseur, Cryptopsy welcomed Lord Worm back into the fold for Once Was Not in 2005. The result was mediocre. Lord Worm’s vocals, while still distinctive, were not nearly as ferocious as they had once been. Beyond that, the songwriting was still in the mode of the two DiSalvo albums, which did not mesh well with the more brutal vocal approach. Lord Worm left soon after.
The band reached their nadir in 2008 with the deathcore faceplant The Unspoken King (choice Encyclopedia Metallum review: “Jump da fuck up with Cryptopsy – 2 percent”). By this point, Langlois and Mounier were the only original members, and a rhythm section alone is rarely enough to keep a band great. Today, only Mounier remains from the original line-up, and he’s turned his crew into an inoffensive tech-death also-ran who release material independently to decent reviews.
It’s hard to listen to None So Vile without thinking of what could have been. If Lord Worm had stayed, would the songwriting have matched up to their landmark album? If it did, they might have dominated the late 90s and early 2000s, when the competition for standout death metal bands was thin. They probably wouldn’t have sold albums at the level of Cannibal Corpse or Napalm Death, but they’d be more than a familiar name thrown onto package tours these days. Instead, 20 years later, Cryptopsy’s legacy lives and dies with that half hour of high low art.
Travis Marmon is slitting guts on Twitter.