Label: Peaceville Records
It’s an old tale: classic band splits. Classic band re-forms a few years later. Classic band releases new material. Classic band releases an absolute clanger of a record. Classic band splits, and we all collectively agree to never talk of said disaster of an album ever again. Classic band splits for the second time. Such was the case with Cancer, the UK’s death metal veterans who released some undeniable classics in the form of To the Gory End and Dead Shall Rise. They also released the horrid Spirit in Flames – but we won’t talk about that. Instead, we’ll focus on the fact that Cancer have reformed again, and have a new album, in the form of Shadow Gripped. And, other than the artwork, it’s an utter triumph. It’s the sound of a band who have learnt from past mistakes, and come back with something that can sit comfortably alongside their old classics. This is no-nonsense UK death metal, as vicious as ever, and it’s just what you want from Cancer.
The opening moments of first track ‘Down the Steps’ might suggest a more melodic version of Cancer, but this doesn’t last long, with a stomping UK death metal riff right out of the 80’s soon coming in to claim its place. The feeling is like an unexpected reunion with an old friend – you might not have heard from them in years, but as soon as you see them it’s like they were never away, even if things have slightly changed. So it is with Shadow Gripped. What Cancer have made here is so familiar, but with a few subtle hints that demonstrate that it’s not the early 90’s anymore, and it doesn’t take long for Shadow Gripped to remind you of why those first few Cancer records are held in such high regard. It’s exactly what you hoped it would be, and all the bad memories of those failed reunions wash away.
So it is throughout the course of the album. There’s nothing sophisticated, innovative, or especially challenging about Shadow Gripped – instead, it’s classic UK death metal done right. It is, without exception, crude and vicious, with songs like ‘Garotte’, ‘Ball Cutter’, and ‘Crimes so Vile’ reveling in their tales of the macabre; the musical equivalent of a horror movie, delighting in every disgusting riff and murderous lyric. If you told me these songs were left over from Cancer’s best days in the early 90’s, I’d believe you; practically everything on Shadow Gripped sits comfortably alongside their first two albums.
And that fact really must be celebrated. The groove metal of Black Faith and Spirit in Flames is gone, and with it the confusion over Cancer’s identity. Instead, Shadow Gripped is the sound of a band embracing their status as a cult classic of UK death metal; but also, perhaps, playing to type. It feels wrong to describe Shadow Gripped as “safe”, but it so neatly fits into the idea of what an old-school death metal album released in 2018 would sound like that it could never be described as adventurous or challenging. Which is absolutely fine! That Cancer are back, with a stronger sense of musical identity (and stronger songs) than they’ve had in 25 years is something that the death metal underground should take joy from. And, given the reactions to their previous reformation attempt, it’s hard to blame the band for sticking closely to a formula that they, in large part, helped define. Shadow Gripped won’t win any awards for originality; but when it’s bludgeoning your head with such force, such complaints feel utterly misguided. The only thing that is undeniably bad about Shadow Gripped is the cover art. Otherwise, this is classic UK death metal throughout, every bit as vicious and crude as you’d hope for.
Shadow Gripped is due for release on 2 November 2018. It can be pre-ordered on CD and vinyl via Peaceville Records.