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My standards for what constitutes death metal proper are probably much greater than most peoples', and I'm one of those annoying folks who considers 'Scream Bloody Gore' and 'Seven Churches' to be not much more than glorified thrash albums. This is another formative album in the death metal genre that I still wouldn't describe as wholly death metal; probably about 75% at the most and the rest is a relatively extreme breed of thrash. Cannibal Corpse effectively began as a thrash band, and the seams of that style are still showing on essentially every track on this disc; with shoutier vocals, less oppressively atonal riffing, and a spot more groove and this would essentially be a pseudo-death metal 'Scream Bloody Gore' style album, and consequently, not nearly as interesting, because most of the worth of this release comes from the fact that it's rather essential in the development of death metal's overall aesthetic and not that the music is particularly inspired. 'Eaten Back To Life' certainly has its moments of brilliance, but they're fewer and further between than most would lead you to believe, and I find that the band developed substantially on just about every release after this.
The same thing that makes certain parts of this so good is also it's downfall when it comes to the album's delivery overall: the thrash. It's responsible for some of the best moments on the album, such as the gang vocal chorus on 'A Skull Full Of Maggots' (one of the clearest and most obvious instances of this album being anything but 'pure death metal'), but it's also responsible for diluting many of the most brutal and extreme moments the album has to offer. In a lot of ways it feels like the album is forced to hold itself back by virtue of its thrash influence; it's as if there were a few less skank beats this would suddenly transform into 'Kill', as obviously untrue as that may be. But I can't help but get the feeling that with this album, Cannibal Corpse new they were on the verge of something more brutal and purely death metal and were aware of it, but didn't know exactly how to do it and so reverted back to old standards.
'Eaten Back To Life' has its share of good to great tracks: opener 'Shredded Humans' gets the album off to a tense and very death metal start, and other tracks such as 'Born In A Casket' or 'Bloody Chunks' certainly represent some of the more brutal future of the band. But then songs like 'Mangled' or 'Buried In The Backyard' are tepid and overly thrashy numbers which tend not to go anywhere with their riffsets except in circles. Granted, Cannibal Corpse is one of the first death metal bands, and as such was rather held to the verse-chorus song structure we've all grown to hate, but the tracks here slavishly hold to a handful of riff styles and tempos, so the band never gets a chance to really flex its creative wings. The riffs are certainly the best part of the album and indicate a much brighter future for the band; Cannibal Corpse was probably the first (and still one of the only first-tier DM groups out there) to almost completely eschew melodic passages for an endless series of tense and gory tremolo riffs, and most of them are very good and indicate a band capable of something greater.
I've never been a fan of Barnes on vocals, and ironically this is probably where he's at his worst during his period in Cannibal Corpse. His voice is still essentially a thrash shout, though shifted down an octave or so, and he generally feels weak and dry compared to the riffs. I much prefer the indecipherable, utterly guttural stuff he would start doing on the very next album, and as such his performance here doesn't have a lot of appeal to me and funnily enough is closer to his work with Six Feet Under than later Cannibal Corpse. Drums are also surprisingly thrashy; I don't think there's a single true blast beat anywhere on this CD and the music is content with an endless series of thrash beats. The main problem with them is their dry and cheap-sounding production; the hi-hat in particular is irritatingly jangly and barely rhythmic in tone, and the kit as a whole sounds dry, immediate, and lifeless. The production for the rest of the voices isn't particularly stellar, but that's certainly the weakest point.
This is probably Cannibal Corpse's weakest Barnes era album, and while I don't think it's terrible by any means or even view it as historically unimportant, it's certainly not a necessary purchase by weight of music alone. It's a necessity for anyone with an even minor historical interest in death metal and I recommend it easily on those terms, but I consider the fact that there's a CD worth of music attached to the history as a bonus. Doesn't get a lot of listens from me, but those more inclined towards death/thrash would probably get better mileage.