Monday, October 22, 2012

Impetigo - Ultimo Mondo Cannibale (1990)

For all its charms, Ultimo Mondo Cannibale is the sort of album of which I've always felt its actual influence exponentially trumped the actual quality of its content. Not only was this arguably the most important disc in the whole Wild Rags catalog (that shifty Californian label which was so prominent in the 90s), but a blueprint that countless brutal death, splatter thrash and goregrind acts would reference when forging their gruesome careers over the ensuing decades. Hell, just about the entire Razorback Recordings roster owes much of its aesthetic gimmickry to this very CD, even if musically Impetigo's 'offspring' might derive just as much from Carcass, Autopsy, Death, Obituary and the like. That label even did a reissue of this. Thanks to its handy chronological placement and persistent cult horror themes, I am not surprised that Ultimo Mondo Cannibale has developed into one of the most impersonated and worshiped records in its entire grisly pantheon.

Even upon viewing the album, you could tell it was going to rank among the more extreme efforts of its day, but I'd say this was achieved more through the lyrics, sample choices and Italian cannibal/exploitation cover art. By 1990, really, who had seen a more repulsive and disgusting film than something like 1980's Cannibal Holocaust, which this seems to reference directly? The samples of torture, suffering and zombie speculation are quite substantial, and used to great effect, in fact I found them the most fascinating aspect of the album, and without a doubt they (along with others like Mortician) kicked off the decades long trend of borrowing audio from cult cinema, something numerous bands have gone over the top with in just about every song. The lyrics are in general well written, a little more 'descriptive' than Cannibal Corpse or Mortician on their earlier recordings; but there are points on the debut, like "Bitch Death Teenage Mucous Monster From Hell" where they take on a more primitive, punk-splatter attitude for laughs, so there's a bit of inconsistency in how much pathos and brutality one is going to take away from this...

The vocals, too, were well ahead of their time. Sure we had John Tardy, Chuck Schuldiner, Chris Reifert and Martin van Drunen out their painting our ears with their ghastly inflections, but Impetigo was way, way over the top. Spunk-guzzling garbled growls are interspersed with hoarse, haughty barks that would remind me of harder edges thrash acts like Rigor Mortis, while they also incorporated sinister snarls and an even more foundation-rattling guttural which often appears to hilarious effect. Where a lot of the death metal vox of the time felt like they were being hurled at you atmospherically from a creepy cemetery, Stevo Dobbins and his backups felt as if they were mocking you, shouting their lungs out before decapitating you with a chainsaw, and though they've no choice but to feel incredibly tongue in cheek, they're probably a fairly apt representation of a serial killer with a few screws loose. Hell, they even transform the lines at the end of "Unadulterated Brutality" into this weird spoken word sequence above the musical clamor, like a horrific Henry Rollins perversion out to terrify every soccer mom in a hundred mile radius.

While Impetigo were never a 'high budget' sort of band, and would never have even desired such, I do have to say that the production of this debut holds up pretty well. The guitars and bass are thick, muddy and feel like a spiked bludgeon being applied to someone's wet, exposed intestines. The ridiculous vocals are all quite clear, though I occasionally felt they were too loud or dramatic over the instruments. The drums are perhaps the most varied, busy and 'technical' element to the music, with loads of fills in among the brutal blasts or the more mid-paced rock rhythms. It's actually better balanced than an effort like, say, Repulsion's Horrified which had that caustic, buzz saw tone throughout, without losing any of its ability to dig its heels right into your guts and induce vomiting (though that other album is far grimier and superior). The samples are fairly noisy, with clear source hissing, and don't exactly transition well into the music, but at the same time this was a relatively novel practice in metal music in 1990, so there weren't a lot of precedents to follow.

So with all this going for it, where does Ultimo Mondo Cannibale fail me? Simple: the guitar riffs. I have never, in decades, found the chord progressions here to be all that impressive or distinct. The primacy of the patterns is perhaps adequate to the intentions of the music, but it's more or less a smattering of notes that have been mildly altered from Carcass, Death, Napalm Death, Repulsion, and numerous punk and hardcore sources through the 80s. Despite the mesh of thrash and death influences, there is not one point throughout the whole of this album in which a guitar line actually becomes infectious. As a result, I'm left with only the 'dressings' of an entertaining orgy of evisceration, and no actual bloodbath in support. There are occasionally harried periods of tremolo picking intensity, but most are just rather average thrash patterns played at a punk pace. The leads are wild, ratty and entirely forgettable against the meatier rhythm guitars, and there's never any sort of interesting dynamic or atmosphere to speak of. Don't get me wrong, the tunes are pretty brutal for this period and do create a stark contrast to the more technical developments of thrash and death metal taking place, but this sort of caveman approach to writing still would have benefited from better songwriting.

There are also boring little drudge-core vignettes here like "Venereal Warts", "Jane Fonda Sucks Part 2" or the grinding "Heart of Illinois" which are all under a minute in length and completely unnecessary; not to mention they don't always feel thematically flush with their neighbors. I really don't need these wastes of space to assert that Impetigo have a sense of humor; that much is already obvious from the vocals. As a whole, the inclusion of such pieces leaves the impression of a sloppy, undecided effort which still drags its heels behind in cheesy garage grind and doesn't fully commit to a stronger sense of gruesome purpose. Not that it would be a far better record without them, but it would at least feel more cohesive in delivering its already lackluster riff progressions.

Ultimately, Ultimo is just not that special of an album, and beyond a healthy appreciation for its placement in history and commitment to its cult horror/exploitation influences, which exceeded that of most other death metal acts of its day, there is rarely any incentive to listen through it. Albums like Consuming Impulse, Realm of Chaos, Mental Funeral, Symphonies of Sickness, Left Hand Path, and Cause of Death were just so much more compelling and atmospheric musically, sticking with the listener long after the sound was emitted from the speaker. In comparison, Impetigo would just splatter brains and beef against your windshield that were easily enough washed free by turning on the wiper. Its limbs might have grown up and strengthened through future applications of the form, but the roots have long since withered.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10] (prone on the operating table)

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