Inside CANNIBAL CORPSE's 1995 Decision To Fire CHRIS BARNES

November 7, 2023

To celebrate last week's official release of "The Scott Burns Sessions: A Life in Death Metal 1987 - 1997" — a massive oral history of the celebrated Morrisound recording career of iconic death metal producer and engineer Scott BurnsDecibel has shared the second and final excerpt from the 460-page hardcover book authored by David E. Gehlke ("Turned Inside Out: The Official Story Of Obituary", "No Celebration: The Official Story Of Paradise Lost", "Damn The Machine: The Story Of Noise Records"). The following passage takes readers back inside the hallowed halls of Morrisound in 1995 and the growing tensions between then-CANNIBAL CORPSE vocalist Chris Barnes and the rest of the band were about turn their "Created To Kill" album into "Vile" and rechart the course of death metal history.

Book excerpt:

CANNIBAL CORPSE booked Burns and Morrisound to record its fifth studio album, "Created To Kill", in October 1995. The sessions were preceded by SIX FEET UNDER's "Haunted" a few months prior, a not-so-obvious omen that vocalist Chris Barnes was thinking about a career beyond CANNIBAL. While Burns enjoyed recording "Haunted" and thought highly of the SIX FEET UNDER lineup, he believed there was too much going for CANNIBAL for them to splinter, especially after the band's coveted appearance playing "Hammer Smashed Face" on "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective", which hit theaters the year before.

Yet "Created To Kill", which was eventually re-named "Vile", became the most dramatic recording session of Burns's career. The simmering disagreements over Barnes's vocal patterns on "The Bleeding" blew up before his eyes, with no one agreeing on the best path forward. It often left Burns in stunned silence while Barnes and bassist Alex Webster and drummer Paul Mazurkiewicz argued, with the producer in agreement with Webster and Mazurkiewicz but worried about alienating Barnes, whom he saw as the band's most valuable commodity. When Barnes made the ill-advised decision to abandon the remainder of his vocal tracking for a SIX FEET UNDER European tour, it ended his tenure with the band before the album's completion. (Barnes declined interview requests to be part of this book.)

MONSTROSITY vocalist George "Corpsegrinder" Fisher was brought in to rescue the album — and CANNIBAL, providing a shotgun burst of energy and ferocity. Burns relished tracking Fisher but also had to ensure his immense vocal talents were harnessed; otherwise, CANNIBAL would be in a heap of trouble. Only adding to the situation was that Fisher was still in MONSTROSITY, who was also booked at Morrisound in the fall of 1995 with Burns.

Scott Burns: I loved working with CANNIBAL and was always happy when I'd get the call from the band or Metal Blade that they'd be coming back to do another record. However, I will say that "Vile" was one of the most demanding albums of my career.

Alex Webster (bass): Metal Blade never pushed us to do something different. They sometimes suggested things with our band but were not pushy overall. ATHEIST, NASTY SAVAGE and us were the only bands they had that went to Morrisound. Metal Blade wasn't pushing us not to record with Scott. I think some of the other labels he had worked with had given him a lot of work, then started sending their bands to other places. Bands like us, DEICIDE and OBITUARY loved Scott and wanted to keep working with him. Labels are a business. We became close friends with Scott, so we wanted to keep recording with him, where labels are like, "This is hot now, so we're going to move our business over there." That had to be discouraging for him.

Rob Barrett (guitar): This was after we had moved to Tampa. After the touring cycle for "The Bleeding", I had been pushing on these guys like, "We should move down to Florida." I had already moved down there. I didn't want to live in Buffalo anymore after living in Florida. They agreed. The thought process was, "If we're recording in Tampa, we might as well move down there and get out of this weather." Eventually, we moved down in the summer of '94 or '95.

Scott Burns: These guys all practiced six days a week for seven hours a day. CANNIBAL was always prepared. They even moved to Tampa, which I thought was wise for the convenience of being close to Morrisound and the nice weather. If you would talk to Alex back then, he would tell you, "This is our job. We practice, write songs, go on tour, get paid." Barnes wasn't putting in as much. Plus, he had SIX FEET UNDER now, which was becoming more of a priority.

Jack Owen (guitar): I wasn't bothered by Barnes doing SIX FEET UNDER. I think Rob was still doing SOLSTICE, and if I had another band, I would have kept doing it. I didn't hold it against him.

Scott Burns: CANNIBAL also brought in seven-string guitars, and Alex started using a five-string. It instantly made them heavier. Because the seven strings were in a lower tuning, I stressed — like on "The Bleeding" — that everything had to be extremely tight. Otherwise, the guitars could sound muddy. I was excited by what they had come up with. "Devoured By Vermin" is a classic; so is "Mummified In Barbed Wire".

Alex Webster: "Vile" was the first album where I used a five-string bass. We went to Thoroughbred Music and rented a five-string Spector. It was just a really good bass. I still play them today.

Jack Owen: We were getting a little more technical and got newer guitars. I got a seven-string, and Alex got a five-string. Sounds were changing; maybe we were getting faster and more technical. I don't want to say we left Chris in the dust or anything, but things were evolving in different directions.

Paul Mazurkiewicz (drums): It was frustrating. We were so pumped for the material we came up with at our practice facility. A song like "Devoured By Vermin" was next level from "The Bleeding". Barnes was at practice and sang every day, but it was funny — we could never hear his vocals. I've never been one to need the vocals when we play. To this day, I don't need the vocals — I need the guitars to hear the rhythm. Barnes worked as we did during practice, singing every song and working on the lyrics. We just never heard the vocals or the patterns, so we weren't thinking much of it.

Rob Barrett: The vocals. [Laughs] That's where there was the big blowout. I wasn't even going in there when he was tracking. He didn't want anybody in there. Two other guys [Mazurkiewicz and Webster] wanted to oversee what was happening because of issues on "The Bleeding". Everything else seemed to go pretty smoothly with that record.

Scott Burns: I think it was more about that they wanted Barnes to try different things. They thought he was taking the easy way out or not working on things. The guys weren't happy with Barnes the first time we did vocals. They wanted Barnes to try different things. Paul, Alex and Rob, who is a great singer in his own right, would make suggestions, very simple ones, like, "The chorus should start here." Or, "Maybe try coming in here." And Barnes wanted nothing to do with changing his vision. He simply said, "You guys don't know what the fuck you're talking about." He was not responsive at all. It quickly became apparent that this would not end well. It was way worse than what we dealt with on "The Bleeding".

Jack Owen: We had fights in the past where he would quit, they would quit and there was this side and that side. Things like, "Okay, you got your girlfriend." "Wait, she used to be my girlfriend." Every kind of fight you could imagine — including jumping over the drum kit to attack the drummer. For "The Bleeding" and "Vile", I think the jealousy of Chris handling all the band's business was one of the issues. He was the manager. That just made everything uncomfortable in the band. We took it out on his vocal delivery and lyrics, and it came to a head.

Paul Mazurkiewicz: That was the worst thing when we finally laid the music down with Scott and heard the vocals. We were so excited because we had so many great songs. But once we heard Barnes's vocals, we felt utter dejection. We were so let down by it. It felt like the air was let out of our tires because the vocals were detracting from the songs. There was a sense of dread because the songs were getting ruined.

Scott Burns: The goal was to get Barnes's vocals done before he left for a SIX FEET UNDER tour. It became increasingly evident by the day that it wouldn't happen. Alex and Paul were adamant that they didn't like his takes, but Barnes didn't give a fuck. Truthfully, I didn't think his patterns were all that great. The songs were now more technical than ever. Barnes couldn't approach them the same way. It wasn't going to work. While he was in the booth, I tried to be patient, but I'd turn around and see Alex with a worried, frustrated look. That was the cue that things were about to get messy.

Paul Mazurkiewicz: We had to fight with him to make lines fit in the song. Barnes wrote his lyrics and didn't want help from anyone. We were okay with that, but when he was in the booth, Alex and I started saying to each other, "Man, this doesn't sound right." Then we would suggest to Barnes, "Hey, if you took out this syllable or if you took out 'uh' or 'the,' then the line would fit better." But Barnes pushed back like we were stepping all over him like it was his poetry we were ruining.

Scott Burns: Alex would take a deep breath, raise his hands, slap both hands on his knees and go, "Chris. We don't want you to do this." Paul would say, "You're just not doing it." Barnes snapped back, "You guys are assholes. You don't get my vision." My position was difficult. My goal was to get the best performance and sound from Barnes. I thought he would eventually budge, and they'd meet halfway. But song after song, it wasn't coming together. It was like CANNIBAL was going full speed, and he was only at half.

Rob Barrett: He didn't want to budge. Barnes had an attitude about it like, "I'm the singer, I write the lyrics, and I'm going to do what I want. That's it." Then it turned into a "fuck you" match. That's why Paul and Alex were pointing things out. They weren't feeling certain things like, "Man, that could be better." I know Paul and Alex — they're not callous dudes. I'm sure they probably approached it in a friendly way, like, "Hey, no offense, but that doesn't sound as good as it could be. Maybe let's work on the pattern or something." That was just a direct attack on Chris's ego. He seemed to me like the kind of kid that didn't want to share his toys with other kids. That was the whole attitude that he had as a grownup. He didn't like to share. He didn't want to collaborate. It was like, "Wow, man, you're a greedy fucking dude."

Paul Mazurkiewicz: "Devoured By Vermin" was the last song Alex wrote. It was clear that it would be the song to start the record. We were all really into it. Then Barnes went to sing it, which was probably the worst one in our eyes. I'll never forget Alex telling Barnes while he was still in the booth, "Hey, Chris, I'm going to rewrite the lyrics." Barnes did not want to hear that, which was hard for him. He removed the cans [headphones] and left the studio. We'd never said those things, but it needed to be said. Otherwise, the song would have been ruined. That was the last day in the studio with Barnes.

Scott Burns: I was used to bands running over their allotted studio time. For Barnes to up and leave without finishing his parts was a big deal. There were a lot of unhappy people. This was supposed to be a huge album.

Rob Barrett: Something was going on there. We went in and recorded the music, and then he came in to do his vocals a little later because he was on tour with SIX FEET UNDER. At first, we thought, "That's weird." He knows that we're going in to record, and he's saying, "Oh, well, you need to wait for my parts because I'm busy doing something more important."

Paul Mazurkiewicz: We had to take a break from recording because Barnes had a tour with SIX FEET UNDER. The premise was that we would finish the record before he went on tour. The plan was to complete tracking, then come back and mix once he returned. We were a little irked by that, but at the same time, there was a half-positive thing going, like, maybe it wouldn't be a bad thing to take a break and come back with fresh ears. Then again, we were irked because it was like, "Dude, it's your side project. CANNIBAL is our band, all of us, and you're going to go off with your side project. Okay. Whatever."

Alex Webster: We dismissed Chris; it just wasn't working out. We'd had personal difficulties a little bit here and there throughout the years in the band with Chris, and it came to a head with the music.

Rob Barrett: I came in one day to Morrisound. Paul and Alex said, "We're fucking getting rid of Chris. He's out." I was like, "Oh shit! This is a doozy right in the middle of recording a new album."

Scott Burns: It was Alex who told Barnes he was out. That was one of the most uncomfortable moments for me as a producer. I had a great relationship with Barnes up until that point. I was friends with all of them — Barnes included. We always worked well together in the studio. I usually let him do his thing, but 'Created To Kill' was totally different. CANNIBAL wasn't the same band anymore — they grew apart in many ways, starting with the music but also on the business end.

Jack Owen: It happened all so fast. Alex had the talk with Chris. I was like, "Wow, I guess that's it."

Paul Mazurkiewicz: We had no other option at that point. The band felt strongly that we needed to do something because it was difficult for Barnes to change anything or work as a team. That wasn't a good time to be in the studio. It was a significant change, and the last place you want to do it is in the studio since we're wasting money.

Jack Owen: It was an unknown territory because he was the only singer we knew. There was nobody as good as him that we were going to get.

Scott Burns: There was considerable drama in the death metal world because Metal Blade was furious. There was lots of shouting over the phone from [owner] Brian Slagel and [president] Mike Faley over who was right or wrong. The rest of the CANNIBAL guys were adamant that they wanted a record where the vocals fit. Metal Blade saw it as CANNIBAL was losing their most visible asset, Barnes.

Jack Owen: Brian Slagel was not happy about that at all.

Paul Mazurkiewicz: Metal Blade was irked that we were kicking out our singer. It was a big deal for an established band, and "The Bleeding" did well. They and many people agreed, "What are you doing here?" It was like we were committing suicide, but we knew what to do. Of course, we felt George was the man, and things would improve.

Rob Barrett: Barnes's attitude was like, "I was going to leave anyway," because he's got his new supergroup going on. At that point, we were like, "All right, well, we got the new album recorded except for the vocals, so what are we going to do?" Some of the guys were throwing around names of people that we should maybe try out. Then I said, "Man, we should just get George. We shouldn't even try anybody else."

Paul Mazurkiewicz: The band sat there saying, "Scott, this is what we're going to do." We had to convince Scott since he was almost the ringleader in the situation. We had been around each other long enough, and Scott was part of the band to understand the inner workings of CANNIBAL. We were dealing with someone very difficult in Barnes.

Scott Burns: I thought Barnes was irreplaceable. I had no idea who could take his place, but occasionally, amid the drama and confusion, Rob Barrett would speak up and say, "Let's bring in George." Rob was the easiest to get on board with the decision. I'll stress this: The decision to remove Barnes was ultimately the band's. Alex and the guys knew I didn't think Barnes's performance was up to par, but kicking out a band member was not my territory. I wasn't thinking about George ["Corpsegrinder" Fisher] at the time. I worried about getting the album done and didn't see how we would do it without Barnes. I remember the CANNIBAL guys saying they didn't care if Metal Blade dropped them. They wanted to make one record where they were as happy with the vocals as the music. It took a lot of courage to make that call.

"The Scott Burns Sessions: A Life In Death Metal 1987 - 1997" can be ordered at this location.

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