A Psychological Wrestling Match with the Greatest Death Metal Song of All Time

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The following is an excerpt from Volume 4 of Badger’s History of Heavy Metal zine, THE BIRTH OF DEATH: Early Death Metal 1985-1993. Check it out here.

“Hammer Smashed Face” — Tomb of the Mutilated (1992)

The greatest death metal song of all time had me stumped for a good long while, mostly because it’s so hard to distinguish from every other death metal song ever made. There seems to be so little that’s overtly remarkable about it: it’s not the first of its kind, it doesn’t do anything especially novel, it doesn’t make any kind of conceptual statement beyond the usual shock-rock standard, it has no identifiable chorus nor really much of a hook at all and in fact there’s nothing about it that you could really even deem “catchy”. At first glance, and for quite a few more glances after that, it seems like a pretty generic piece of death metal music, not very much different from literally tens of thousands of other songs. So why is it, then, that this one has stuck with me so strongly for literal years, when so many thousands of others at best generated a paragraph or two of analysis or at worst bounced off me altogether? What is it about this tune in particular that always leads me back to it, no matter how many times I’ve heard it and no matter how many other similar tunes I’ve heard and no matter how sick of them I get? What about this one so thoroughly sums up the death metal aesthetic that it automatically springs to mind whenever I think of the style, which I do a lot? Why, when I first sat down to write this entry, was the phrase “the greatest death metal song of all time” the very first thing that popped into my head?

For a while, my operative theory was that it fell into the same rarefied category as “Ace of Spades” and “Sex Machine” and “Green Onions”: tunes that are so obviously, toweringly great despite (or perhaps because of) their apparent banality that there’s something imponderable and inarticulable about them. I don’t think that category really exists in other artforms; I don’t think that critics of other media ever have the indignity of looking at, say, One Hundred Years of Solitude or Citizen Kane or Beethoven’s Sixth and being reduced to saying “fuck it, I don’t know why it’s good”. I guess every medium has a certain ineffable something that separates the great from the merely very good, but I doubt that there’s any great novel or movie or symphony that defies analysis as completely as some great rock and roll songs do. Surely that’s a part of rock and roll’s enduring appeal. It is a music, essentially, of prestidigitators—of artist-hucksters continually shuffling around the same old bags of tricks along with a steady stream of new gimmicks to entrance or dazzle or just plain amuse their audience with the spectacle of the day. But sometimes these magicians manage to stumble into an act of genuine sorcery—to produce a song that’s so utterly great and yet so seemingly generic and insubstantial that it leaves you frantically checking out every gag and every angle and every potential hiding place only to finally realize in wonderment: there’s no trick to it. You can’t figure out how it works because there is no way that it works, it just does.

That would have seemed an appropriate explanation as to the nature of The Greatest Death Metal Song Of All Time, if only because it’s such a willfully narrow style of music. While an obsessive scholar such as myself can discern a surprising breadth of aesthetic diversity within the confines of the subgenre, an undeniable fact still asserts itself whenever I take a look at the big picture: all this stuff pretty much sounds the same. Or at least, it’s all pretty damn similar in the grand scheme of things, and the style’s unremittingly violent soundscapes and general disregard for normal songwriting means that individual songs tend not to be especially differentiated from each other. So it seemed like there would be something poetic about death metal’s greatest achievement being the result of random magic—if the eventual result of so many death metal monkeys on so many death metal typewriters was to produce a song that really was exactly like every other death metal song except for the fact that it was the perfect one, the one that was so completely satisfying in its archetypal death-metal-ness that it transcended the form on no other basis than the mysterious crystalline beauty of its construction.

And that is what happened, kind of. “Hammer Smashed Face” really is the archetypal death metal song, which is just another way of saying that it’s a generic death metal song that just so happens to be the best one—it genuinely doesn’t have much in the way of really distinguishing characteristics. But it turns out that its greatness isn’t quite so mysterious or incomprehensible as I first thought. Being a not-especially-humble man, and unwilling to admit defeat in the face of the mysteries of rock and roll (1), I set about using my big fucking brain to take a really close look at the tune’s musical particulars. What that revealed was a truly remarkable composition, and a masterpiece of heavy metal craftsmanship. Its deceptive sophistication starts to reveal itself at the very beginning of the piece, with the tune’s introduction being among the tightest and most exquisitely structured twenty-three seconds in all of metal. It leads with an elegant and rigidly dissonant figure that falls as 4 staccato hammer-blows, a mercilessly unsyncopated measure of three low power chords punctuated by a tritonic leap up and then a noisy slide back down—the bluntest and most striking dissonant contour this side of “Black Sabbath”, and one that sums up the entirety of the brutal austerity at death metal’s bloody heart. It repeats three times before gaining a consequent phrase to round out the musical sentence, one that’s slightly more complex but equally as elegant: a low-register ascent in 8 notes, followed by another dissonant leap into a 16th-note chromatic descent—a busier figure to contrast the preceding staccato quarter notes, with another call-and-response contrast nested inside it. A brilliant riff from top to bottom, which makes it all the more striking that it only plays once in its original form, doubled by the bass and drums, before it undergoes its first mutation.

The drums launch into a continuous 16th-note roll on the kick, with strict quarter notes marked by the snare, while the staccato low power chords are replaced by a single-note gallop, transforming the stationary violence of the original riff into an onward-charging monster of four-to-the-floor momentum. The forward impulse is so violent, in fact, that it can’t be sustained—this version of the riff plays only twice before it collapses, as the drums and bass resume the original staccato figure while the guitar is reduced to desperately trem-picking a single low E-flat for three uninterrupted bars before being halted by an unforeseeable and utterly striking texture shift: the guitars and drums suddenly cut out so that Alex Webster can play a silly little bass break that shimmies around for 4 goofy, unaccompanied seconds before the rest of the band roars back in with a whole new riff (2) that bursts in on the back of a brutally sudden blastbeat. I bring the bass break up because it demonstrates, more than anything else, Cannibal Corpse’s uncanny mastery of pacing. They figured out how to brutalize their audience pretty much right away, but so did literally thousands of other death metal bands. But what sets them apart is their unfailing sense of when they should let up, just for a second—just enough time for them to shift their grip and slam you even harder.

The rest of the tune proceeds with equal perfection, mostly with a new set of riffs (the original riff is reprised, but not as much as you’d think, and never when you’d expect): an overwhelmingly dissonant jumble of linear chromaticism, its equally dissonant rejoinder in the dominant (3), a truly bestial one-bar-wonder of low-register churn punctuated by a nails-on-a-chalkboard pinch harmonic, a call-and response figure of descending minor thirds and chugging power chords (not to mention the two-beat hypermetric irregularity that transitions into that figure) that eventually synthesizes with the pinch-harmonic riff in a structurally impressive and wonderfully disorienting integration of contrasting sonic violences, a repetitive section of only the B section of the original riff (which it turns out is strong enough to stand on its own, and they know it), another sludgier variant of the intro riff made of languid palm-muted power chords and sinuous trills, and a frantic trem-picked variant of the call-and-response riff that heralds the climax. And it’s not just that all those riffs are good, which they are—it’s the way the band pinballs unpredictably between them. They mutate, get taken apart and put back together, and interrupt each other seemingly at random, all over an equally shifty set of drumbeats that alternates between staccato accents, domineering kick rolls, wild backbeats, and hyperviolent blasts that seem to proceed based on their own structural logic that’s only intermittently connected to what the guitar riffs are doing, sometimes fortifying them with an appropriate groove, but just as often fighting them with unpredictable modulations to half- or double- or quarter- or quadruple-time—all in absolute, microscopically precise phase-locked precision. It’s a great piece of music.

But even with this technical, rational, and painfully in-depth understanding of the tune, an aura of mystery still remains, just like it would with anything that engenders this level of obsession. The stylistic imperatives under which “Hammer Smashed Face” operate—the imperatives to maximize dissonance, to overwhelm with sonic aggression, and to disorient through structural perplexity and through sheer volume of riffs—are the same ideas that animate death metal in general. It’s a tune that’s remarkable for the extremely and specifically pleasing nature of its execution, and not for its underlying concept. There are probably hundreds of other tunes that I could have subjected to this level of focus and come up with an equally extensive analysis of how they work—this is hardly the only death metal song with a bunch of good riffs, or a bunch of good variations on those riffs, or with a notably complicated structure. But this is the one that drew me in above all others, that made me want to sit down and take the whole thing apart note by note until I figured out why I liked it so much. This is the one that obsessed me, that captured my attention more than any of the thousands of other tunes that sound like it, and there’s a point at which my powers of reason fail to account for the level of fixation. I know how it works. I know that there’s a trick to it. But goddamn if it doesn’t feel like magic anyway.

1 Partly because I already burned that rhetorical gimmick when I wrote the entry for “Ace of Spades”, way back in Volume 1.

2 It’s actually foreshadowed by the preceding bass break, but Webster’s tone is so gurgly and percussive that its hard to tell what he’s even playing, so you mostly perceive it as just a weird little noise.

3 Or at least, the totally non-scalar death metal approximation of the dominant—there is at least a perceptible motion by a fifth.


Get yourself a copy of The History of Heavy Metal, vol 4 – The Birth of Death: Early Death Metal 1985-1993 here on the zine bandcamp page .

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