Cannabis Corpse started out as highdea: “What if we took the songs of death metal icons Cannibal Corpse and made them about marijuana?” But the band might as well have been born in a marketing meeting. The Venn diagram between death metal fans and weed smokers has a heckuva lot of overlap, and a couple hundred of those stoned metalheads came out to the Echoplex on Monday for a blasting set from the Richmond-based trio.
Cannabis Corpse is the brainchild of twin brothers Philip “LandPhil” Hall and Josh “Hallhammer” Hall. LandPhil's banter between songs Monday night let you know they don't take themselves too seriously.
Each song ended with a friendly “thank you” from the singer-bassist, who's no doubt a very polite young man. He would then giggle or smirk, ever so slightly, and lay out the plot of the next song, which might be about a portal that takes you to another dimension where weed monsters live, or maybe about killing a drug dealer who sells you fake bud.
Then it was back in character — full growl, full speed ahead with pounding double-bass beats from Hallhammer and searing guitar from Brandon Ellis.
The set was short, because death metal songs are short. Right before the encore a dude dressed up as a weed monster emerged on stage, dove into the crowd, surfed aloft for a while, and then joined the circle pit. Within the mythology of Cannabis Corpse, this guy is mad at humans for smoking his kin, but Monday night he just wanted to have a good time. By the end the dude's mouth was bloody. Of course that didn't stop him from hanging around and taking pics with the crowd.
Cannabis Corpse's lyrics are all about violence and marijuana, but without LandPhil's introduction of each song there's no way you could've discerned that from his growl. As with all death metal, no one can parse these lyrics without the help of liner notes, or at least an SEO-friendly website with a lot of pop-up ads.
Which raises the question: Do the lyrics really matter that much in death metal?
Lyrics, of course, are an important part of music. A great song can be ruined by a bad couplet. Your brain won’t let you ignore the semantics of the words you hear. This is why music in languages you don’t understand can sometimes be a pleasure. You probably like a few foreign pop songs with really dumb lyrics that you would never give a chance if you knew what they were singing.
But death metal is different. You can't understand the lyrics when listening to a proper death metal song for the first time, even in your native tongue. You just can't.
This lack of comprehension isn't necessarily a bad thing. There's usually some really vile shit in those liner notes, including murder, suicide, rape, necrophilia and whatever else a band can imagine to outdo its peers. Based on the timbre of a lead singer's growl, you can guess there's some hatred in there, but you don't know for sure until you look up the actual words later.
If you'd rather not know the lyrics, that growl can just be another instrument, along with the drums, bass and guitar — another element to be appreciated for its high-speed virtuosity. But if you must know what's being said, learning the lyrics and adding what they mean back onto the song later is a secondary experience.
Death metal lyrics are kind of like those artist statements that accompany paintings, and not just because the words are often overwrought and half-sensical. You can read them and add something to the experience, or you can avoid them altogether.
But you can't avoid a guy dressed up as a weed monster.
It might not matter much that somewhere in LandPhil's growls there are stories about marijuana and aliens. The band's schtick just adds a slightly skunky smell to the songs. But when you see a dude in a fuzzy weed costume getting pummeled in a circle pit, you know you're at a marijuana-themed death metal show.