Cannibal Corpse has always been a controversial and polarizing band. Not so much for the reasons one might think, such as all the attention that they received for their gory cover art and graphic song titles. But within the underground, a lot of people hated these guys just for the fact that their records were considered to be inferior to those of many of their peers, yet they became the most popular Death Metal band in the world. Though Cannibal Corpse was never the best, and even their classic years produced albums that were only half-developed, their debut is a different beast altogether and is often forgotten. Released in August 1990, Eaten Back to Life sounds almost nothing like those records that followed it.
Musically, this L.P. is much more varied and interesting than the band's later recordings. The songwriting shows a fairly strong Thrash Metal influence, owing a bit to the likes of Slayer, Sodom and Sepultura. One can also hear similarities to the second Death album, Leprosy. Rather than being driven by the vocals and percussion, as is the case with Butchered at Birth and Tomb of the Mutilated, at times, Eaten Back to Life is very much a riff-oriented album. The guitars are the dominant feature of this recording and there are many memorable riffs to be found. In particular, the opener "Shredded Humans" includes riffs that will probably remain with you for years, even if you were to never touch the album again. The same can be said for "Scattered Remains, Splattered Brains" and "Born in a Casket", both of which feature riffs that actually create a dark atmosphere, something that th band soon after forgot. There are plenty of high-speed sections, but they rarely last for too long and often give way to thrashier parts. This is probably a good thing, as the drumming gets somewhat sloppy when the pace quickens. The vocals of Chris Barnes are much different than the more guttural approach that he would adopt for the next release, utilizing more of a dry and raspy sound that really gives the impression of a half-rotted corpse that has just clawed its way from the damp soil of an ancient grave. This adds so much more to the deathlike atmosphere of the album, it is really unbelievable that so many Death Metal bands preferred the deeper and more useless vocal style that Barnes used after this. He sounds somewhat like a more demonic version of Evil Chuck, here. Also worth noting is the presence of Glen Benton (and some other guy) doing guest vocals on a couple of songs. The songwriting, overall, is much stronger than one would expect and never gets too dull. The less interesting songs actually clock in at under two minutes, so they never get the chance to become too boring or to annoy the listener. While much of the compositions are different than what they would later do, "Buried in the Backyard" very much foreshadows the direction that was to come.
In this case, credit should be given to the often-horrible Scott Burns for managing to give the album a powerful and yet sharp production job. This was before he decided to make the guitars on every record blend into the background and sound weak and ineffective. On Eaten Back to Life, the guitars are heavy and the drums are forceful, without distracting, and the overall sound is very similar to Sepultura's Beneath the Remains. The Slayer-esque solos are clear and carve through you, while the vocals are at an appropriate level, not rising too far above the rest and yet not getting buried in the mix. Perhaps, if the band utilized this sort of production for the following releases, they would have been more enjoyable and less bland.
All in all, Eaten Back to Life is a solid old school Death Metal album. For anyone that has written this band off, without hearing this, you should give it a chance. It fits well among the likes of Leprosy, Persecution Mania, Consuming Impulse, Resurrection Absurd, Beneath the Remains and Slowly We Rot and should appeal to fans of late '80s Death Metal as much as the more vicious Thrash that was still being released at the time. While not exactly a classic, this is probably the best album that Cannibal Corpse ever recorded and the one that possesses the darkest atmosphere, from the vocals and riffs and even the nocturnal graveyard on the cover. If you are looking for a good mixture of horror and Metal, this is certainly worth a listen.