Beyond Brutality: Cannibal Corpse's Alex Webster Stretches Out|
In The Metal/Fusion of Blotted Science
Bass Player Magazine
Published December, 2008
There's metal, and then there's death metal, and then there's Cannibal Corpse, whose name, imagery and sound have stood out for twenty years as a standard of the ultimate brutality and aggression metal has to offer. Lurking behind that frightening façade is bassist and founding member Alex Webster, a native of the Buffalo, NY area whose loyalty to Cannibal shows by the fact that, during his tenure, he's only played two shows in another band. So it's all the more striking to hear Webster, whose intense fingerstyle chops have long set him apart from the pack, let loose on Blotted Science's The Machinations of Dementia, a collaboration with legendary prog-metal guitarist Ron Jarzombek, and an instrumental metal/fusion album staggering in its songwriting and technical complexity. Webster's long been writing tunes for Cannibal; the Blotted Science project shows him taking the riffs and counter-riffs to another level, some of which is crossing back over into the already challenging Cannibal material. The Corpse crew is currently tracking another album down in the adopted home of death metal, Tampa, FL, where they all live. It's due out in early 2009. Are you scared yet?
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How did you end up as a fingerstyle metal bassist? And what's your take on pick vs. fingers?
My very first teacher (Mike Hudson) was the bassist in our high school's jazz band, and he taught me to play fingerstyle from the very beginning. I have always felt a better connection to the bass by playing fingerstyle - it just feels like I'm in much more control of the tone than if I played with a pick. People sometimes make the argument that pick playing sounds tighter than fingerstyle, but I think that if you work on your technique enough you can achieve the same level of tightness. And there are areas where fingerstyle offers advantages over a pick, like string-skipping.
Most of my favorite bassists when I started out were fingerstyle players as well. I started in 1984, and within two years I had seen concerts by Rush and Iron Maiden. Iron Maiden's special guest that night was Buffalo's own Talas, featuring Billy Sheehan. You can imagine the impact that evening would have on a first year bassist, seeing Billy Sheehan and Steve Harris both on the same night. Other influences (also fingerstyle players) were Cliff Burton from Metallica and Steve DiGiorgio from Sadus.
You wrote a significant amount of material on both Cannibal Corpse's Kill and Blotted Science's The Machinations Of Dementia. How did you approach those projects differently?
In Cannibal, I'm one of the main songwriters, and I generally write entire songs on my own. With Blotted Science, Ron Jarzombek sort of leads the way, and I just contribute ideas to his master plan. Ron would make specific musical requests of me, such as "write a riff at 178 b.p.m. using only these four notes." He would then fuse it into other riff ideas he had. It was always interesting to see how the complete song would sound.
I've actually learned quite a bit about music from working with him on Machinations. Cannibal Corpse has always had unusual song structures and challenging riffs, but Ron's music is quite a bit more technical, especially when it comes to timing and time signatures, [and] jamming with Ron probably had some impact on my writing for Cannibal's most recent album Kill. In Cannibal we are trying to create a dark, aggressive sound, and I've found that the unnatural feeling created by using odd meters can really help achieve that goal.
What can you do in Blotted Science that you can't do in Cannibal Corpse?
In Blotted Science there are a lot more opportunities for me to play bass lines that are different from the guitar part. In Cannibal, most of the time I'll just play in unison with the guitar, although I do try to look for ways to break out of that. With Blotted, Ron wrote a lot of the bass parts I played, and he looked at the instrument's role a bit differently than I normally do. He had me playing with the drummer a lot more than I do with Cannibal. There are certain parts where normally I might have put a unison line where he put something completely different. Ron can really see the big picture when it comes to composition.
Can you discuss the historically controversial role of bass in the mix of a metal album? How do you get the bass sound you want to show up in the final product, both with Blotted Science and Cannibal Corpse?
Bassists have a lot of problems cutting through the wall of guitars in extreme metal, especially if they are tuned low. The best solutions I've found are adding some midrange to cut through, and to also try to write some bass parts that are different from the guitar. Something a little different has a much better chance of popping out over that wall of down tuned guitars.
It was easier to have my bass be heard on the Blotted Science album since many of the bass parts are different from the guitar parts. Also, I think the guitar sound Ron used on that record was a bit cleaner than on the Cannibal albums, and that probably helped as well.Bassists in metal bands deserve to be heard just as much as the rest of the band, and with a little creativity that can be achieved in a way that also increases the overall heaviness of the music.
Talk about the role of bass in modern metal. How has it changed over the years? Where do you think you fit in to that evolution?
Some of the early metal bands I listened to like Accept and Judas Priest had their bassists taking on a much more traditional role, where they played along with the basic beat the drummer was laying down. Once the thrash metal movement began you started to see bassists playing in unison with the guitars for most of the song. Cliff Burton's playing with Metallica is a great example of what a lot of people call the "wall of sound" approach, where the entire band (drums, bass, and both guitars) is often playing together like one big rhythm section. This creates a much heavier sound, but it also gave rise to the metal bassist's woes in the mix that we discussed above. I think my playing is probably an extension of the "wall of sound" introduced in the thrash era, although I've been trying to think of creative ways to break out of that without reducing the heaviness of the song. The tapping at the beginning of "The Discipline of Revenge" on Kill is one example of that, and the bass line in the melodic sections of "Necrosadistic Warning" (also from Kill) is another.
Cannibal Corpse's lyrics and cover art contain intensely violent imagery. Do most people notice the complexities in the music behind that?
I think that the extreme imagery and lyrics as well as the guttural vocal style have probably deterred some people from giving our music a chance. This comes with the territory when you're making a band that is basically an extreme metal version of gore movies like Hostel or Saw. If the listener is not familiar with death metal, they might take one look at our album covers and song titles, [hear the] growling vocals, and give up on us right then and there. Well, we'd encourage those people to look beyond the imagery and give the music a chance, because they might be surprised with what they find. In the same way that you can recognize a horror movie featuring graphic violence is well crafted without necessarily being a fan of that style of movie, you can also recognize that death metal is a valid form of music even if you don't care for the imagery or lyrics.
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CAN BE HEARD ON
Cannibal Corpse, Kill [Metal Blade, 2006]
Blotted Science, The Machinations of Dementia [Eclectic Electric, 2007]
Hate Eternal, Fury and Flames [Metal Blade, 2008]
Jonas Hellborg, Art Metal [Bardo, 2007]
Meshuggah, ObZen [Nuclear Blast, 2008]
Brain Drill, Apocalyptic Feasting [Metal Blade, 2008]
Comments: "Apocalyptic Feasting has to be one of the most musically over-the-top things you'll ever hear, metal or otherwise. There are probably more notes played on that than any other metal album I can think of. Also, their bassist Jeff Hughell keeps right up with the intense guitar shredding and gives one of the best bass performances I've heard on a death metal album."
Basses: 2 Spector Euro 5's 3 Modulus Quantum 5's Ibanez SR1500 4 string (used on the Hate Eternal album)
Live Rig: SVT 4 Pro SVT 810E cabinet D.I. box direct from the bass, blended at front-of-house
Studio: For Blotted Science, a Bass Pod XT.
Comments: "I used the 'Classic Rock' with a few minor tweaks. That preset is basically the Pod's Ampeg SVT sound." For Cannibal Corpse, same rig as live, plus another channel or two. "Last time we recorded a clean D.I. channel, the amp, and the Pod. We only ended up using the amp and the Pod. What you hear on the album is probably 90% amp."
Other Gear: DR Hi-Beams, 45-125 (50-130 for the bass that's tuned one-and-a-half steps down), EMG pickups, Zoom H2 Handy Recorder, Digidesign Mbox
Comments: "The Bass Pod XT is an amazing tool for home recording. The Blotted Science bass sound is one of the best I've achieved in my career, and it's just my Spector Euro 5 and the Pod."
Reprinted with permission from the December, 2008 issue of BASS PLAYER. For subscription information, please visit http://www.bassplayer.com.