Saturday, November 9, 2013

Review: Carcass, Surgical Steel (2013)

Short version: it's outstanding. Get it and listen to it repeatedly or be destroyed.

Long version: before we get to the song-by-song breakdown, a bit of Carcass history is in order; after all, it's 28 years since they first arose from their nursery of crusted iron, cracked stone and steel. One thing that this other review gets right is splitting Carcass's work into two periods, the grindcore and the death metal periods (where grind includes Reek of Putrefaction and Symphonies of Sickness). Carcass is one of my favorite bands, period, and I have listened to each of the grindcore period records exactly once, which I do not regret.[1] What's interesting is there's really not a smooth progression from one period to the next; there's really a full saltation from Symphonies to Necroticism, without any obvious exogenous reasons like personnel changes. By the way: now might be a good time to re-visit Necroticism. This record seems to be prompting that from a lot of old Carcass fans, and if you're a new Carcass fan, all the more reason. Badly simplifying, the new record is like Necroticism with Heartwork production and some Heartwork licks.

Every time a band takes the effort and money to make a record that doesn't sound like it was made in their parents' garage, the fragile underground types of the world invariably start mumbling "sellout". There aren't many negative reviews of Surgical Steel but the one negative review I've found so far seems to hail from these quarters. The ship out of the underground sailed long ago in the case of Carcass, and I'm glad that the people who like the technical death metal version of Carcass are no longer shy about telling the neckbeards to go cry it off in their parents' basements. If indeed any such basement-dwelling obscurovores are listening to the new record, then the two most stinging insults come from this album itself, which features a) an opening with a riff from a proto-Carcass recording, now given full professional production (nice catch by Michael Nelson in the first review above) and b) a whole song directly addressing said neckbeards. This latter irony seems to have escaped the neckbeard who wrote the negative review.

Me with Bill Steer and Jeff Walker outside House of Blues, Los Angeles 2006. Bill was as laid back and nice as you would expect. Jeff was as sarcastic and blunt as you would expect, but still somehow not a dick. Amott didn't talk to the fans.

In general this record continues in the vein of Necroticism and Heartwork, more like the former than the latter, with fewer neo-classical arrangements and more bizarre exotic melodies, bizarre music theory experiments[2] and skewed arpeggioid motifs (e.g. the odd ascending minor scales in Carneous Cacoffiny.) For those Carcass critics who don't like Swansong, there's not a lot here that is clearly an extension of that record, except maybe their greater reliance on metal's traditional major third harmony to build power (although to good effect). In many ways, Carcass's finest moments fit squarely within thrash - drum and bass synchronization with crunchy riffs, the use of exotic scales, and song structures that are generally not that complex. If I have complaints about Surgical Steel, they are:

1) that Amott is conspicuously absent from the album in all respects, including in the thank-yous. I can't imagine what would have prompted Amott not to be part of this other than something negative (wanting more money or personality conflicts). Not surprisingly, there's an absence of neo-classical bits seen most on Heartwork that most people had previously (and correctly) attributed to Amott; these made their first appearance on Necroticism, specifically in Incarnated Solvent Abuse;


2) that I was hoping to see a continued growth of Carcass's ability to develop songs, which talent Edge of Darkness on Wake Up and Smell the Carcass brilliantly demonstrates.[3] (Another example of what I'm talking about is some of the Tool song Eulogy.) But what Surgical Steel lacks in subtle thematic development it makes up for in volume of massive, smash-your-head-in, attention-demanding riffs nailed into the songs. Some find riff-fests like this to be a bit clinical (think Chuck Schuldiner) but if you're reading a Carcass review, that's probably not you.

If there is any stand-out change from previous albums it's a more personal feeling to the lyrics - more than before, you really feel this is Jeff Walker, telling you what's what, and that's fine - but more than that, the drums are impressive. There have been a number of comparisons of the guitars on this record to Dave Mustaine, but Ken Owen's[4] replacement Dan Wilding is truly Lombardoesque in the small touches he places, in particular the little fills just prior to the ends of phrases (see Mount of Execution).


1985: A relatively brief guitar intro which would not have been out of place on Master of Puppets.

Thrasher's Abbatoir: a straight-ahead Carcass song with fast amodal fast-picked fret sweeps and kick-snares, but with few stand-out riffs. The lyrics make this one. I guess they were worried about picking up fans for the wrong reasons: "Hipsters and posers I abhor, Welcome to the thrasher's abattoir/Detruncation, Termination, With no sedation/Emasculation, Terrorization, Extermination. This means total W.A.R., welcome to absolute poserslaught. Die...time to die...die in pain." Right then!

Cadaver Pouch Conveyor System: early in the song there's a nice melodic guitar riff in a kick-snare section, and then some of the unexpected sequences of open chords (see I Told You So, Corporate Rock Really Does Suck from Wake Up). Then that section goes straight into one of my favorite moments on the record, an excellent solo during a simple bass-driven 4/4 crunch riff, which is reminiscent of a section in Opeth's Deliverance.

A Congealed Clot of Blood: this is the song on Steel that's closest to being "part 2" of a previous Carcass song, in this case Necroticism's Corporeal Jigsore Quandary. Why? Because of the part where a slow massive evil riff is put on display to bring our infernal lord forth into this world. Hail His infernal majesty! Hail Him this night! Hyperbole? Judge for yourself:

When that riff begins, you know the death growl is coming before you hear it. Plus, they're insulting jihadis, and it's always a good thing when religious extremists are insulted.

Master Butcher's Apron: there's a nice major-third riff in an early bridge section, followed by an excellent Bill Steer bizarre backwards-sounding riff. Apparently about post-colonial dictators; this is a much more political album than anything Carcass has done before, but I blame this on our being in a more political world than in 1996.

Noncompliance To ASTM F 899-12 Standard: opens with an unapologetically beautiful harmonic descending riff, then blasts straight into speed-picked fretwork. (One of the strengths of Carcass - the juxtaposition of the beautiful and brutal. See Heartwork's Death Certificate or Swansong's Polarized.) The harmonic opening is possibly not an accident, because this song is one long insult against the underground. Here Walker's word play is back in top form (see Embodiment, Blind Bleeding the Blind), with the single-letter changes and oxymoronic phrases one on top of the other: "Artistically moribund, Soulless ghosts of the underground, By the past you are bound, Stunted at birth/Dulled, blunted, low tensile dearth metal, Melodists of soullessness, Harmonisers of the converse". By virtue of one excellent high-register bridge riff with bent notes, this is the most Archenemy-sounding song on the record. (Oddly, considering the aforementioned total absence of Amott.) The name is another pun, because ASTM F 899-12 is a steel alloy used in surgical instruments in the U.K.;[5] the demi-humans of the underground have apparently found Carcass to be departing from the regulations.

The Granulating Dark Satanic Mills: no I don't know what the numbers mean, but they're inexplicably cool. Walker mentions that there's a lot of dirty hard rock influence on this record and I think it's on strongest display here.

Unfit For Human Consumption: the tract against the meat industry on this album. The main riff is nice and fast and charges ahead (the kind that makes you involuntarily nod your head in time while listening). I wish Carcass would do more of this.

316 L Grade Surgical Steel: this is the most personal thing Carcass ever wrote, about a bitter failed relationship. In keeping with GCP (Good Carcass Practice) I had to look up a word ("wittol", an acquiescent cuckold). Oddly, I would be more disturbed by a Carcass veering into saccharine emotional exploration than by a Carcass that did a serious acoustic album (what that says about the genre or me I'm not sure). This is probably the song that most consciously develops a theme (listen here). There's also an excellent crunch riff.

Captive Bolt Pistol: one of the weaker songs on the record actually. I was a bit nervous when this was the first track released, but it's not representative of the other work here. There's a fast-picked guitar solo that's absolutely inhuman, but without that this would be a rather colorless death-thrash piece.

Mount of Execution: this is the one with the ass-kicking ending and in some American States is a valid defense for speeding and assault (give this some time). It also has a more traditional accoustic section than Carcass has used before. I'm not sure which particular horrible Latin American massacre they're referring to here, but it can't be a coincidence that Walker spent a lot of time in Mexico in the interregnum. This is the last song on the record and there's an outro that rubs some people the wrong way but it's just a nice big crunchy riff that didn't find a home elsewhere, so they put it here, because they're Carcass and they can do whatever they want.


[1] In fact I'm not even sure I listened to Reek exactly once. It was on a cassette and for this attempt, it was in a deck that automatically changes sides and then restarts at the beginning. So maybe I listened a little bit less or more than a full cycle. Either way it's like listening to an Anal C*nt record, there's kind of no point once you read the lyrics and you really can't tell anyway.

[2] A (non-metal-fan) friend did an analysis of Death Certificate for a music theory class and was forced to the conclusion that the fast riffs are 12-tone. I can't tell from listening to it and have never seen the music for it so I can't agree or disagree.

[3] Edge of Darkness is one of their masterpieces. How it ended up on a B-side collection rather than displacing one of the several weaker songs on Swansong like Firm Hand is beyond me. As a further aside I don't agree with critics of Swansong. Although it's about a 75 degree turn and a simplification from Heartwork, it was a focused effort that anticipated the late 90s return to neo-thrash and it showed Walker's song-writing skills; he is after all the punk in the band, so you shouldn't expect him to put together 14-movement pieces with ornate riffs.

[4] At the 2006 L.A. show, Walker's best one-liner was "Yes, I'm afraid Ken's in a bad place right now...England."

[5] I looked the titles up because my dad actually had several patents on types of surgical steel and the coolest thing in the world would be if one of them was in the title of a Carcass song, but the Brits have to be special and use their own alloys.

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