Album Review: CARCASS Surgical Steel
In spite of several well received tours over the past six years, a successful Carcass studio comeback was never a guaranteed proposition. With only Bill Steer and Jeff Walker returning as original members, neither of which has been prolific from a songwriter perspective in recent years, there has always been the danger that Carcass would fall prey to the same rusty band chemistry that has hamstrung previous comeback efforts by contemporaries such as Obituary and Pestilence.
Carcass initially took flight on a simple gimmick: take the horror film-like obsession with gore that dominated extreme metal and put a clinical edge to it, replete with mortician jargon and a bent sense of humor regarding bodily fluids and flatulence. Tie that to the state-of-the-art in heaviness, which was the nascent grindcore genre at the time, and hope that John Peel sees through the novelty aspect and comes to respect the band for the talents that they were.
Reek of Putrefaction is a horribly recorded, tin can of a record that has nonetheless gone on to become a cornerstone grind album for a simple reason: Carcass never made another one. Symphonies of Sickness retains a hearty quota of grind touchstones – the discordant production, the wet, gargled vocals and the crust scene's version of a "Wall of Sound" instrument mix – but structurally the band were firmly in the death metal camp by this point. It was some of the harshest death around at the time, sure, but death nonetheless.
Any fans the band may have lost by "selling out" their grind roots were quickly replaced (and then some) when 1991's Necroticism was released. A defining effort of the death metal movement, it was one of the earlier genre efforts to feature an emphasis on melodic riffs, though the results were nonetheless so defiantly brutal that no one really lumps it in with the whole melodic death movement even to this day.
When Heartwork was unleashed two years later the genre would find itself redefined once again. Frankly, after the brilliant compromise between brutality and catchiness that was Necroticism, the band flirted with disaster on its follow up. Heartwork is practically radio friendly, the anthemic riffs and singalong vocals representing the biggest bid for stardom by a metal band since The Black Album.
If it weren't so fucking brilliant – really a perfect 10 if there ever was one – it would have been the death of Carcass' career. Instead it became one of the calling cards that had Columbia Records dialing up Earache's Digby Pearson and offering to cut a distribution deal.
That deal almost broke death metal. Columbia had no idea what to do with all of these bands they suddenly had on their hands, and many influential bands who found their careers suddenly hampered by a clueless A&R department just went ahead and broke up outright in the aftermath of the debacle. Carcass would be one of those bands.
Swansong found the band effortlessly spouting off riffs, but without any real semblance of conviction. It wasn't quite the unmitigated disaster some fans would have you believe, and if a few of the leftovers compiled on Wake Up and Smell the Carcass – "Edge of Darkness", "Blood Spattered Banner", "I Told You So (Corporate Rock Really Does Suck)" – were reclaimed and substituted for a few of the tracks that did make the cut, Swansong would be a dependable if underwhelming catalog entry in the Carcass canon.
Alas, the band had already gone their separate ways by the time Swansong belatedly came out in the summer of 1996, with 3/5 of the band continuing in a similar vein with Blackstar Rising, while Bill Steer changed direction completely with the classic rock flavored Firebird project and Michael Amott – inarguably the most (only?) prolific Carcass member post-breakup – went on to form Spiritual Beggars and Arch Enemy.
When Carcass began touring again in 2007, Amott brought along fellow Arch Enemy member Daniel Erlandsson to fill in on drums for the ailing Ken Owen. Owen had tragically suffered a serious brain hemorrhage in 1999, which led to the breakup of Blackstar Rising and the more or less permanent retirement of Owens as a touring musician (he has since made guest appearances with Carcass at various European festivals but is still too fragile to travel regularly).
Prior to beginning work on their first album in 17 years, Carcass once again found themselves out of pocket when Amott and Erlandsson bowed out, ostensibly to focus more time on Arch Enemy. Any trepidation that fans may have had due to having legendary musicians replaced by relative unknowns – drummer Daniel Wilding was poached from Trigger the Bloodshed, with touring guitarist Ben Ash graduating from the southern rock-inflected Pig Iron – seems to have been laid aside to make room for the enthusiasm attending the announcement of new Carcass songs. The band has been touring for so long now that it was beginning to look as if they were content to be a legacy act, playing catalog material to a fervent fan base while having little inclination to pen new songs.
Then the news hit: earlier this year it was announced that there would in fact be a new Carcass record after all. The band reunited with producer Colin Richardson, who had in the aftermath of Carcass' breakup gone on to invent nu-metal, and the album was given a title: Surgical Steel. And now, with just over a month to go before release date, it's time to show and prove.
Titling the opening instrumental "1985" is a bit puzzling; it refers to the year Carcass formed, which could be taken to imply that Surgical Steel is a return to the band's grindcore/d-beat roots. Er, not so fast. It's probably safe to say that most if not all fans will have heard lead single "Captive Bolt Pistol" several times by now. You may have noticed that it's not exactly "Genital Grinder 3", bearing much more of a resemblance to Heartwork-era material like "Carnal Forge" and "This Mortal Coil".
To state that the rest of the album follows in this vein is both accurate and also highly misleading. The band do largely stick to the melodic, groove-laden riffing found on that album, but also find themselves reaching back in time to borrow some of Necroticism's old school death metal sound on occasion, most notably for "Thrasher's Abbatoir" and "The Master Butcher's Apron" (yes, even "Captive Bolt Pistol" to an extent).
This is a more interesting choice than it may appear to be, what with either Necroticism and Heartwork representing the favorite Carcass record among something like 95% of the fan base, but these two albums also bookend the Michael Amott era. Amott has often been given the lion's share of credit for pioneering the band's melodic sound during the first half of the 90's, but the sheer wealth of snappy riffs and catchy hooks on Surgical Steel certainly calls for a reappraisal of just how much credit Bill Steer should have been getting all this time (songwriting credits haven't been publicly distributed yet, but Steer is the only guitarist credited on the album).
The strange decision to open the album with a 75-second intro followed by a two minute, uncharacteristic rave up aside (I would have moved "Thrasher's Abattoir" to the middle of the track listing myself), there is truly nothing of fault to find with this 47-minute condensation of the band's talents, with "Noncompliance to ASTM F 899-12 Standard" and "Cadaver Pouch Conveyer System" in particular immediately joining the upper tier of Carcass classics.
The only real sign of experimentation is reserved for the finale: "Mount of Execution" is the band's longest song ever at 8.5 minutes, retaining the melodic crunch of the rest of the album yet frequently undercut by a more morose tone, lying as it does about midway between 80's thrash and the moodier melodic death of 90's pioneers like Dark Tranquility and late-period Sentenced. It does, however, tend to peter out toward the end, coming off like a bunch of unrelated parts were rescued from session outtakes and tacked on out of reluctance to discard them altogether… which is strange, considering there are four additional songs tracked and finished during the album sessions, presumably awaiting release as b-sides on some future EP or another.
And so, for a band that was known for drastically altering their sound from one album to the next, Surgical Steel is the first album that finds Carcass in a period of stasis rather than evolution – that 17 year gulf be damned – but for those disappointed by Swansong's unrealized potential it should be comforting to see the group reestablish momentum in such convincing form. Should the reunion stick, it's hard to believe that Bill Steer will get away with revisiting this same sound over and over again, but until the muse once again gets restless Carcass are motherfucking back, y'all.