Hand Me the Bonesaw: Six Feet Under’s Discography Dissected

Six Feet Under, the death metal band that critics love to hate.  I’ve never really understood why all the cool kid metal writers are so intent on using SFU as a punching bag, especially when there are far more worthy targets scattered across the metal landscape.

Fortunately I’ve never been cool, nor am I an SFU hater; quite to the contrary, I’m a fan of this band and I’m not afraid to admit it, having seen them live on numerous occasions and being a proud owner of all twelve of their studio albums as well as various DVDs, shirts, posters, etc.

In reading others’ reviews of Six Feet Under’s work, I can’t help but get the feeling that the reasons other metal writers hate them are the exact reasons why I enjoy them.  I dig their simplicity and catchiness and I also dig the fact that whenever I pick up a new SFU album, I for the most part know exactly what I’m getting, though I’ve often been surprised by the band’s willingness to get weird and experiment, a facet of SFU which is often conveniently swept under the rug by their detractors.

I’m also a fan of Barnes’ vocals, which always seem to bear the brunt of the criticisms lobbed at the band.  Last time I checked, a death metal vocalist should sound like death, and Barnes’ vomit vox have only gotten nastier, gnarlier and more diseased-sounding over time, coming off something like a cross between the Tar Man from Return of the Living Dead and an old, pissed off and possibly rabid junkyard dog that’s been poked with one goddamn stick too many.

So without further ado, I present a look at SFU’s entire discography, proving once and for all that this is not a band that puts out the same album over and over again, and that they have plenty to offer to those who are open to it.  Haters gon’ hate, taters gon’ tate.

a0834366660_10Haunted (Metal Blade, 1995)
Six Feet Under’s debut album is also one of their best, containing catchy yet crushing tunes such as “Silent Violence” and “Lycanthropy” which still to this day manage to make their way into the band’s set lists over two decades later.  The band began as an unholy alliance between vocalist Chris Barnes, who had recently parted ways with Cannibal Corpse after lending his vocals to four straight death metal classics, and Obituary guitarist Allen West; their collaboration on Haunted would essentially lay the groundwork for SFU’s entire career.

Indeed, Haunted established SFU’s patented formula of thick, pummeling grooves and sludgy tempos combined with Barnes’ horror and gore filled lyrics; the band would refine and tweak the formula for subsequent albums, but for the most part their songwriting would continue to adhere to this template.  Whether you like it or not, it cannot be denied that SFU’s sound was a singular one from the very beginning.

Twenty-two years later Haunted continues to hold up well, and its influence is evident when one considers that deep, down-tuned grooves so very similar to those found on SFU’s debut are being incorporated by many of today’s slam and brutal death metal bands.

a3222070173_10Warpath (Metal Blade, 1997)
For album number two, Six Feet Under went full bore into groove metal territory, as evidenced by the likes of “Nonexistence” “A Journey Into Darkness” and “Revenge of the Zombie.”  This album would also be the first glimpse of the band’s interest in experimentation; “4:20” is an ode to marijuana that sounds more like a deathed-up Black Sabbath tune than anything the band had done previously and features some wonky-as-hell clean vocals from Barnes, while Holocaust cover “Death or Glory” is essentially a punk rock song on Quaaludes.

Overall, Warpath is a heavier, sludgier album than Haunted. The increased heaviness and clarity is likely due to switching out Scott Burns for Bill Metoyer on the engineering front, while the slower tempos probably have something to do with Barnes’ penchant for smoking the stickiest of the icky.  It is also less horror-based lyrically, focusing more on topics such as insanity and inner/personal struggles, although good ol’ murder still remains a constant. Musically, the West/Gall/Butler lineup delivers some of killer grooves, but nothing here is quite as devastating as what the band accomplished on Haunted or would go on to accomplish with the mighty Maximum Violence.

Warpath would be the last SFU album to feature Allen West, setting the stage for the arrival of guitarist Steve Swanson and cementing the long-standing (until recently) Barnes/Swanson/Gall/Butler incarnation of the band.  It isn’t as timeless-sounding as Haunted and is definitely a product of the ’90s but it’s still a fun listen and is probably the grooviest album in SFU’s catalog.

a0044561838_10Maximum Violence (Metal Blade, 1999)
Let’s just get it out of the way; Maximum Violence is Six Feet Under’s finest hour.  It’s heavy, catchy, ugly, sludgy and groove-laden, essentially encompassing everything the band is about.  The damn thing is stacked front-to-back with SFU catalog classics from opener “Feasting on the Blood of the Insane” to the likes of “Bonesaw” “Victim of the Paranoid” “No Warning Shot” “Torture Killer” and “Hacked to Pieces.”  If you haven’t figured it out by now, what SFU has that so many death metal bands lack is hooks, and this album features some of their most memorable songwriting moments.

Six Feet Under is infamous for their penchant for cover tunes (see the Graveyard Classics series) and this album features one of the band’s most memorable in the form of a run-through of KISS’ “War Machine” taken from the perpetually overlooked and underrated Creatures of the Night album.  This is easily one of KISS’ heaviest songs, and its plodding, thick ‘n’ chunky main riff works perfectly for Barnes to unleash his signature vocal chunder over; it fits in surprisingly well amongst the album’s originals.

Maximum Violence also benefits from one of Barnes’ finest vocal performances; his clarity and enunciation is impeccable, which serves to drive those aforementioned hooks deep into your skull. Barnes eschews the experimentation of Warpath in favor of a more straightforward death metal style vocal approach, but does mix things up here occasionally by unleashing a higher pitched attack that sounds like a zombie with its gonads in a vice.  The most interesting song from a vocal perspective is “Hacked to Pieces,” the opening verse of which almost sounds like death metal rapping.

Overall, Maximum Violence is Six Feet Under’s best album and probably the best place to start for novice listeners, given that many of the band’s best known songs are featured here.  In other words, if you opt only to listen to one SFU album, you damn well better make it this one.

a0736698964_10True Carnage (Metal Blade, 2001)
SFU’s fourth album True Carnage is a fine offering when viewed on its own, but given that it is the follow-up to Maximum Violence, which is easily the band’s best album, it’s hard to view it as anything other than something of a disappointment.

From a production, playing and songwriting perspective, the album pales in comparison, but that isn’t to say that it’s without merit.  True Carnage features one of Barnes’ deepest, darkest vocal performances, and there are a couple SFU classics on here, most notably the “The Day the Dead Walked,” which was made into a wonderfully gruesome music video with the help of artist Paul Booth.

True Carnage is also noteworthy for it’s experimentation in the form of vocal cameos from Ice-T and Karyn Crisis on “One Bullet Left” and “Sick and Twisted” respectively. “One Bullet Left” is elevated by Ice-T’s rapping and his verse is every bit as brutal anything you’d hear in a standard death metal song, if not more so. “Sick and Twisted” is supposedly the first male/female death metal duet and adds some much needed variety to an album which features many rather similar-sounding tunes.

Ultimately, True Carnage‘s single biggest flaw is that after three straight albums of SFU firing on all cylinders, it comes off as a bit uninspired by comparison, in spite of a few very interesting twists on the band’s established formula.

a2755331078_10Bringer of Blood (Metal Blade, 2003)
With Bringer of Blood, it would appear that SFU realized their approach had started to stagnate slightly and was in need of some modernizing.   Nowhere is this more evident than on “Amerika the Brutal,” which can best be described as a death punk tirade against the Bush administration, not exactly the kind of thing you’ve expect from the band that previously brought us the likes of “Cadaver Mutilator” and “Suffering in Ecstasy.”

When one takes into account songs such as “My Hatred” “Murdered in the Basement” “Ugly” and the title track, it’s evident that Bringer of Blood is SFU’s most death ‘n’ roll sounding album, with a penchant for chugging, moshy riffage (even more so than usual for SFU) and lyrics that tend to be more angst-ridden than gory or grotesque. Musically, the band sounds far more hungry and inspired than they did on True Carnage, making for a much more memorable outing, bolstered by a dynamic songwriting approach, energetic performances and a muscular, crunchy production job.

Bringer of Blood is one of the best albums of the Barnes/Swanson/Gall/Butler era of the band, not to mention being among the most fun to listen to.  Far from being a straight-up death metal album, it is more akin to the anomalous Warpath and is a nice change of pace after the somewhat stale-sounding True Carnage.

a1866897624_1013 (Metal Blade, 2005)
After getting a bit weird on True Carnage and Bringer of Blood, Six Feet Under went back to basics for 13.  No guest vocal spots, no death ‘n’ roll tunes, just straight-up groovy death metal in the vein of Haunted and Maximum Violence.  I distinctly remember being surprised by this album when it came out, as I had fully expected SFU to continue down the path they had started down with Bringer of Blood, bringing a more moshy, upbeat vibe to their sound.

At this point it should be blatantly obvious that in spite of what many critics would have you believe, SFU doesn’t just put out the same album over and over again.  Sure, they’ve got a core style that they stick to, but with each album they tweak the formula.  For 13 the band went old school, and while songs such as “Wormfood” “Shadow of the Reaper” and “Stump” are vintage SFU, the album as a whole has a gloomy sound to it that makes it unique within the band’s lengthy catalog.

Upon first listen, the production scheme of 13 seems a bit flat and muffled, but with subsequent listens at an appropriately loud volume, the album opens up and that aforementioned gloomy feel begins to cement itself, lending an extra deathly quality to tracks like “Somewhere in the Darkness” and “The Poison Hand.”  In a way, the album is almost depressive sounding with it’s rounded off edges and understated vibe.

13 is a difficult album to rank within the scheme of SFU’s discography.  It’s an improvement over True Carnage, yet it isn’t quite as flat-out crushing as Maximum Violence or Bringer of Blood. Whatever the case, it is an enjoyable enough entry in Six Feet Under’s discography, even if ultimately it isn’t quite as essential as some of their other more well-known albums.

a0298742992_10Commandment (Metal Blade, 2007)
2007’s Commandment might be the least talked about album in the SFU catalog, which is a shame, because it’s one of the Barnes/Swanson/Gall/Butler lineup’s most solid offerings.  It’s quite similar in approach to 13 in that the band doesn’t really do any experimenting, but it sports a clearer, heavier production than the preceding album, as well as better songs.

Indeed, tracks such as “Doomsday” and “The Edge of the Hatchet” are exactly what you’d expect from SFU by this point; chugging, grooving, gory death metal tunes steeped in low-end and strangely catchy in their construction.  The sound is so thick you could stand up a fork in it and Barnes’ vocals are as disgusting as ever.  The band as a whole sounds a bit more inspired here than they did on 13, but the album still could’ve benefited from a few Bringer of Blood-esque curveballs.

Perhaps that’s the reason Commandment isn’t mentioned more often; it’s Six Feet Under doing what they do, nothing more, nothing less.  That isn’t a bad thing by any means, it’s just that the album doesn’t have any shocks to the system like an Ice-T cameo or a death punk song about the current president.  Instead it continues the return-to-roots trajectory that started with 13 and would ultimately end the following year with Death Rituals.

a2458638219_10Death Rituals (Metal Blade, 2008)
Death Rituals is the swansong for the longstanding Barnes/Swanson/Gall/Butler lineup of Six Feet Under and it’s also one of the most downright evil-sounding albums in the band’s discography.

Tracks such as the zombie stomping “Seed of Filth,” the hard-grooving, almost Prong-like “Shot in the Head” and the bulldozing “Killed in Your Sleep” are among the best things this lineup of SFU ever wrote, and the increased emphasis on lead guitar throughout the album brings some much needed freshness to their sound.  Although there is a bit of a feeling that this iteration of the band had taken things as far they could, they still managed to turn in a worthy collection of songs that adheres to and at times improves upon the formula.

SFU does include a few surprises this time around, such as the ambient/electronic track “Crossroads to Armageddon” which comes completely out of left field yet somehow still works within the context of the album; I’d still love to hear Barnes do an entire album’s worth of music like this someday.  The band also turns in an ultra-heavy cover of Motley Crue’s “Bastard” that blows away anything from the various Graveyard Classics sequels.

If there’s one gripe to be had with Death Rituals, is that at almost fifty minutes it runs a bit long; a pitfall that SFU had readily avoided in the past with short, sweet albums. However, of the back-to-basics trilogy of albums that followed Bringer of Blood, it is arguably the darkest and most thoroughly crushing.

039841508925Undead (Metal Blade, 2012)
After a four year layoff between albums, SFU came back in 2012 a very different-looking beast. On Undead, Barnes and longtime guitarist Steve Swanson were joined by drummer Kevin Talley (ex- Dying Fetus, Misery Index, Chimaira and roughly a trillion other bands) and guitarist/bassist Rob Arnold (ex- Chimaira), resulting in something of a late career renaissance. It isn’t that the presence of Talley and Arnold drastically altered SFU’s sound, but it did give the band a kick in the ass, getting Barnes and Swanson back into that lean, mean and ready to subject every mofo in the room to a slow, painful death head-space.

While Undead found  SFU as a whole playing like they’d been injected with a syringe full of Herbert West‘s re-agent, Barnes in particular sounded better than he had in years, The lyrics don’t stray from SFU’s tried ‘n’ true themes of death, murder and the supernatural, but Barnes’ sickening, highly rhythmic cadence imparts them with a gravitas that is enhanced by the band’s grisly, down-tuned trudge.

Six Feet Under stuck to their guns with Undead,  while at the same time creating an album that sounds fresh and memorable. It’s the album that dug  the band out of their creative rut, easily standing toe-to-toe with their best work.

1000x1000Unborn (Metal Blade, 2013)
Six Feet Under proved that their was still life left in their patented brand of sludgy, simplistic death metal with Undead, an album that featured a re-tooled lineup centered around founding vocalist Chris Barnes and longtime guitarist Steve Swanson.  The band shook off the stagnancy that had set in over the course of their last several releases and proved that they were still a force to be reckoned with. Just one year later, they followed up with Unborn, further proving that Undead was no fluke.

For Unborn, Barnes and Swanson held onto über-drummer Kevin Talley and added bassist Jeff Hughell (ex-Brain Drill) and guitarist Ola Englund, with additional contributions from Ben Savage of Whitechapel and ex-Chimaira guitarist Rob Arnold. It would be one thing if these collaborations resulted in an abrupt change in style or sound, but quite the contrary, Unborn is still Six Feet Under through and through, but with bigger musical muscles and an even worse attitude.

Just as on Undead, Barnes completely recommitted himself to creating the most grotesque vocalizations possible, bringing back the deep gutturals and vicious streak that made him one of the most influential throat-shredders in the business.  Simply put, it’s a late-career defining vocal performance for Barnes, putting most growlers half his age to shame with both passion and putrescence.

Against all odds, Six Feet Under released not one but two killer albums in the span of two years.  Unborn and Undead would set the stage for Barnes’ continued collaboration with the next generation of death metal musicians and prove that in spite of being unfairly maligned for so many years, SFU could still be downright deadly.

a0420989451_10Crypt of the Devil (Metal Blade, 2015)
2015’s Crypt of the Devil ushered in another drastic lineup shift for SFU.  The album is essentially Chris Barnes fronting Cannibal Corpse-worshipping weed freaks Cannabis Corpse, and given the growler’s well documented love of Mary Jane, this was surely a match made in hell. Indeed, the album continued Barnes’ highly successful attempts to inject his long-running band with some fresh blood, which first began paying dividends with the deathly double whammy of Undead and Unborn.

As good as those albums were through, Crypt just might be the best thing they’ve released to date since 1999’s eternally underrated Maximum Violence.  The Cannabis boyz did a great job of staying true to SFU’s sludgy simplicity while at the same time infusing the material with just enough of an old school Cannibal Corpse vibe to get the plasma pumping, and Barnes’ patented growls somehow sound even more ungodly wretched here than they did on Unborn and Undead.

Cannabis Corpse’s Phil “Landphil” Hall wrote all the music for Crypt of the Devil in addition to taking on recording engineer duties, and to say that he excelled at both would be an understatement.  This is probably the most musically impressive SFU album from a pure songwriting perspective, projecting a legit vintage Florida death metal vibe and playing to Barnes’ strengths as a vocalist.  It’s catchier than herpes and sounds great, with a pleasantly gritty, bottom-heavy production scheme that recalls Haunted and the aforementioned Maximum Violence but doesn’t sound in any way dated.

Crypt of the Devil isn’t just a killer SFU album, it’s a killer death metal album period, and it’s unfortunate that the collaboration between Barnes and Cannabis Corpse was only a one-time deal.  It’s got just the right mix of old and new ideas and features some of the most well composed, produced and played material in the band’s entire oeuvre.

six-feet-under-tormentTorment (Metal Blade, 2017)
Finally we arrive at this year’s Torment and Six Feet Under’s lineup has shifted yet again; this time around ex-Brain Drill bassist Jeff Hughell (who also played on Unborn) handles guitar, bass and the bulk of the songwriting duties, while ex-Brain Drill drummer Marco Pitruzzella does the skin-bashing.  The result is the most modern-sounding album in the SFU canon; indeed, Torment often moves into musical territory that features speedier tempos and highly technical playing (though still not anywhere near as hyper-technical as Brain Drill).

That said, Torment still adheres closely to Six Feet Under’s core sound; there are plenty of thick, chunky and chuggy rhythms to be found, as well as the deep, abyssal grooves they’ve been making their name on since day one.  Much like with Crypt of the Devil, there is also a bit of an old school Cannibal Corpse flavor to some of the tracks and there ain’t a damn thing wrong with it.  Hughell does an excellent job of introducing some new elements to SFU’s by now well-worn songwriting algorithm without losing sight of what made them such a fun band to listen to in the first place.

The album was mixed and mastered by Zeuss, who has previously made everyone from Crowbar to 3 Inches of Blood sound like they’d been pumped full of sonic steroids.  The results are no different here as the combination of more dense, technically proficient playing and a heavier production scheme make Torment by far the burliest-sounding Six Feet Under album; tracks such as “Sacrificial Kill” “Skeleton” and “Obsidian” roll over and suffocate the living shit out of everything in their path.

Similar to Death Rituals, I find that Torment runs a tad long at forty-seven minutes, but if you’re a fan of the band it’s hard to complain about getting so much Six Feet Under for your money, especially when the album is as good as it is.  Overall, this a positively killer entry in the SFU catalog and a great deal of credit must be given to Barnes for his continued willingness to subtly evolve and refine SFU’s sound by striking up such auspicious partnerships with the younger generation of extreme metal musicians.

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