Cattle Decapitation’s ‘The Anthropocene Extinction’ Vividly Portrays Our Current Ecological Crisis

tom morgan
Cattle Decapitation Anthropocene Extinction

We’re starting to see it now. It’s been discussed for years— imagined, debated and preemptively analyzed. But now it’s becoming real. Our planet’s ecology is decaying before our very eyes. Scorching heat waves smother Southern Asia, temperature records are being smashed in Northern Europe, wildfires burn through Western America and flooding decimates Australia. These have all become routine occurrences and will increase their frequency and severity year on year.

The planet is getting hotter. Carbon emissions and other heat-trapping gasses blanket the Earth’s atmosphere, causing heat waves, extreme weather and rising sea levels. Driving this is the compulsive growth drive of capitalist economics, which has also led to rampant deforestation and pandemic-causing habitat encroachment. Ocean acidification has increased 26 percent since pre-industrial revolution levels. The natural rate that biological species go extinct has risen 1,000 percent in that time.

These are just some of the destructive effects of what has been called the “anthropocene” era. The term places humanity within the lineage of Earth’s geological time scale, arguing that our impact on Earth has already been decisive enough to constitute its own epoch. We have broken this delicate, complex system, and the consequences are looking dire. As “Manufactured Extinct,” the opening track of Cattle Decapitation’s The Anthropocene Extinction venomously spits “we used it up, we wore it out/we made it do what we could have done without”.

The Anthropocene Extinction operates as a sort of atrocity exhibition. Its twelve tracks (14 including bonuses) describe the worst and most grotesque effects of the anthropocene era. This macabre cover art encapsulates this bleak vision. Contorted bodies lie rotting in an industrial wasteland, swathes of man-made plastics spilling from their insides. This potent image contrasts the bright colors of the artificial plastics with the washed-out, barren hues of the destroyed landscape, excoriating humanity’s prioritization of these shiny disposable objects over the now-obliterated natural world.

Cattle Decapitation are among the most well-known metal bands to use ecological concerns as the conceptual bedrock of their work. Metal has long been concerned with the health and well-being of the planet, dating right back to its conception. As with everything in the genre, it traces to Black Sabbath, whose hippie obsessions with warfare and the apocalypse envisioned a vibrant natural world ruined by humankind. Later environmental concerns can be found in thrash metal’s fascination with nuclear and toxic contamination, in the righteous dedication to animal rights of the ’90s hardline crossover acts and in black metal’s murky infatuation with the mysterious, elemental rhythms of the natural world.

Perhaps it’s metal ability to harness the dark side that makes it such fertile ground for elucidating and excoriating these grand, troubling ideas. Instead of broaching specifics, The Anthropocene Extinction is a product of our contemporary, all-encompassing concerns. It’s a holistic take on our myriad ecological ills, connecting different miseries to one another with intricate ease. Nothing in the natural world exists in a vacuum and the anthropocene has many ugly limbs connecting to one monstrous whole. The album’s lyrics broach disparate but interlinked topics such as disconnect from nature (“Apex Blasphemy”), industrial research (“Clandestine Ways (Krokodil Rot)”), pandemics (“Plagueborne”) and oceanic pollution (“Pacific Grim”).

Cattle Decapitation’s frontman and lyricist Travis Ryan has a way with words that’s as eloquent as it is embittered, weaving metaphors and stark parallels into his dark observations. Individual tracks on The Anthropocene Extinction often possess a specific focus but by the end of their runtime degenerate into hallowed philosophical questioning and doom-leaden misanthropy. “Clandestine Ways (Krokodil Rot)” mutates from visceral imagery featuring “syringes filled with dihydrodesoxymorphine” and “tubes in your anus leading to open sores creating sepsis” into simple but profound questioning: “why do we do these things?/is this the meaning of human being?” Ryan’s narrative voice here is practically that of a fallen angel, surveying a ruined, hellish landscape.

Ryan’s assessments of this desecrated terrain lead to some pessimistic conclusions, namely that humans are a scourge and the planet would be better off without our presence. “Plagueborne” (“turn us to ashes/reduce us to dust”), “The Prophets Of Loss” (“we fucking die tonight and that’s perfectly alright with me”) and “Mutual Assured Destruction” (“let mountains bask in utter silence”) all conclude that the end of humanity is not only something that would serve Earth and its ecology well, it’s a punishment we deserve because of our reckless mismanagement of this fragile, beautiful world.

Ryan’s most memorable and incendiary lyrics err toward the notion, central to modern anthropocene studies, that there is a temporal and ontological separation between humanity and nature. Historical research in the modern era has too-often placed human affairs at the center of its telos at the expense of the natural world, similar to the geocentric model of pre-Copernican cosmology. Even Fernand Braudel, one of the most revered historians of the twentieth century, separated history into three different temporalities—the immobility of nature and climate, the slow temporality of the economy and society, and the rapid temporality of events e.g. battles and politics.

This separation has had profound consequences on humanity’s understanding of our place on this planet. Western historiography is effectively-never dictated from the perspective of landmasses or ecosystems, in the way that the wisdom of indigienous cultures so frequently is. Throughout The Anthropocene Extinction, Ryan uses this ontological separation as fodder for some thoughtful and vivid imagery. “Apex Blasphemy” describes food as “packaged in plastic from the factory to your table,” while “Circo Inhumanitas” features the sharp couplet “dominion over leaving beings/degradation behind the scenes.” These musings reveal Ryan’s prime concern regarding the dangers of the anthropocene—that its causality is bound up in humanity’s dissociation from the ways, processes, customs and patterns of the natural world.

This questioning of human ontology and where it fits into the enormous geological time frames that Earth and its ecosystems operate within gives The Anthropocene Extinction its hard-hitting philosophical power. Ryan’s lyrics are grim and pessimistic, but only if viewed from the perspective of humanity. He’s deeply empathetic to the Earth’s non-human ecology—an unorthodox teleological standpoint that, for the sake of all life on this planet, it’s important, maybe even imperative, that we listen closely to.

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