He bares no flesh — simply a skeletal frame. His only armor is a hooded, tattered cloak. His only weapon is a sharpened scythe. And he’s coming for all of us. He’s coming for you.
This universally feared character is none other than the grim reaper — death incarnate — and he finds himself as the central character throughout the lyrics on the new album 13 by death metal giants Six Feet Under.
“When you use the term ‘grim reaper,’ people think of that image of the cloaked skeleton, but that’s just a basis instead of saying ‘death,'” says Chris Barnes, frontman, lyricist, songwriter, and founding member of Six Feet Under. “With 13, the lyrics are really based on life and death, but this album also links lyrically into other songs I’ve written through the years. I’m very intrigued by the supernatural and I always have been.”
Barnes, who has been dubbed the “living grandfather of death metal” (even though he’s only in his mid 30s), began his death metal career as the frontman and chief lyricist of the seminal death metal band Cannibal Corpse. Barnes’ presence in Cannibal Corpse, both lyrically and sonically, would help define the burgeoning death metal genre from 1988-1995. His guttural, “cookie monster” vocals (dubbed as such for their resemblance to the Sesame Street character) and his horrific, gore-filled lyrics in such songs as “Scattered Remains, Splattered Brains”; “Force Fed Broken Glass”; and “The Pick-Axe Murders” (and a few sexually-tinged, purposely over-the-top titles that won’t be mentioned here) would help propel the band to the top of the death metal heap.
That is, until his departure in the mid ’90s, when he elected to start a “side project” — Six Feet Under — that quickly became his only project. Since that time Barnes and Six Feet Under, which also includes guitarist Steve Swanson, bassist Terry Butler, and drummer Greg Gall, have released six full-length studio albums, four live albums, and two discs of cover songs dubbed Graveyard Classics 1 & 2 (all on the Metal Blade label). Though the style of music may have changed slightly from one band to another — Six Feet Under has a more groove-oriented vibe than Cannibal Corpse — Barnes’ lyrics, while more focused and mature, continue to revolve around death in its many forms.
“It’s nice to see movies about axe murderers and priests hanging from trees and stuff like that, but the reality is death is happening right now as we speak; it’s happening on a major scale and it’s creeping up on each one of us, either in an apocalyptic way or individually,” says the dreadlocked frontman. “You don’t know what’s lurking around the next corner. I feel like I’ve escaped death twice in the last two weeks. Horror is not a make-believe thing for me, and the things I write about in these songs are oh too real. Even the fictional accounts I take seriously.”
With song titles like “Rest In Pieces,” “The Art of Headhunting,” and “Deathklaat,” 13 is as frightening as it is heavy. But while Barnes admits that the lyrics may seem straight out of his favorite slasher film, he isn’t channeling Carpenter, Craven, or Argento.
“I think a lot of horror films have been written through the same ideas and questions that I have,” says Barnes. “Writers of this type of horror derive inspiration from greater themes. For example, Night of the Living Dead was derived from the biblical apocalypse. In those terms I don’t think I’m deriving themes from movies; I’m deriving them from the same sort of thoughts and inspirations that other horror writers have had. Questions of life and death have been haunting the living since the beginning of time. I’m just one of those people.”
But as the movie screen is the palette for the aforementioned creators, songwriting has been the palette for Barnes for the past 17 years. And on 13 Barnes is again at his furious, demented best. Shortly after coming off the road on their European tour for the 2003 release Bringer of Blood, the band headed immediately into the recording studio. They had no songs written. What they did have, however, was a massive dose of energy left over from a very successful tour, energy that they ferociously hammered into the 11 tracks that would become 13. In just over one month’s time, the CD was written and recorded.
“That’s exactly how it happened,” says Barnes, who has also produced the band’s last few studio efforts. “Tapping into that momentum was really reflected in the songwriting, and that’s what I was going for with 13.
The tracks on 13 showcase an urgent intensity not heard since their now-classic 1999 release Maximum Violence. Standouts include the driving, politically-themed opener “Decomposition of the Human Race,” the raw stomp of “This Suicide,” the gnarling, buzz saw riffage in “Somewhere in the Darkness,” and 13‘s finest moment, the pounding, relentless “Shadow of the Reaper.”
“We filmed the video for ‘Shadow of the Reaper’ right in the middle of the flooding heart of Hollywood, CA,” says Barnes, noting that the video can be seen on MTV2’s Headbanger’s Ball. “The video has a real eerie ghostlike quality — just filming the scenes we did scared the hell out of me. It was like being in the middle of one of Dario Argento’s nightmares.”
Aside from filming the video for “Shadow of the Reaper,” the quartet recently recorded a show from their early ’05 European tour that will be included in an upcoming box set, which is currently scheduled for a Halloween ’05 release. The band also has a U.S. tour scheduled for the fall, though no dates have yet been announced.
“I’m going through a pile of old demos from the early days of Six Feet Under, and I have some unreleased tracks from 13,” says Barnes of the box set. “There will be four CDs and two DVDs, and the packaging will be very intricate. It’s going to be chock full of some interesting stuff.”
Bonus question: What are your favorite horror movies of all time?
“Probably Friday the 13th Part II; I love that movie. I remember seeing it in the theater when I was a kid, and it scared the daylights out of me when Jason came through the window at the end. I also love Gates of Hell…but I’ve seen so, so many horror movies. As far as newer movies, I really liked the director’s cut of Donnie Darko. It’s excellent, a new type of psychological horror. It also has an “older” feel to it, especially with that rabbit character.”
Many thanks to Chris Barnes for taking time out of his busy schedule to chat with us. For more information on the band, visit the official Six Feet Under website.
Six Feet Under is (from left to right)
Steve Swanson, Chris Barnes, Greg Gall, and Terry Butler
13 by Six Feet Under (2005)
1) Decomposition of the Human Race
2) Somewhere in the Darkness
3) Rest in Pieces
6) Shadow of the Reaper
8) The Poison Hand
9) This Suicide
10) The Art of Headhunting
To check out the video for “Shadow of the Reaper,” just cut and paste the following url into your address bar: