Carcass - Surgical Steel

Posted on Thursday, August 15, 2013

How do you review the comeback album from a band that’s been defunct for 17 years? This sickness fest of a band that used a copy of a medical textbook as a lyrics sheet broke up in 1995 and released their last record a year later, so what do you expect a new release straight out of nowhere to sound like? The answer is that this is a pretty decent offering from the UK foursome, and long story short, it sounds a lot like if the original band had gone into the studio in 1993 after the release of the Tools of the Trade EP and continued down that road.
Let’s catch up with a bit of history, first. In 1995, Carcass fell apart, largely because of problems with Columbia/Sony and the hurried recording of Swansong. Michael Amott had already split after Heartwork; everyone except Steer started Blackstar, with Steer forming Firebird, both bands significantly different than Grindcore. Ken Owen had a cerebral hemorrhage, spent a year in a coma, and eventually went back to school. Everyone else wandered, and extreme Metal fell out of the limelight, going into a dark era of Grunge, boy bands, modern Country, and whatever the hell else happened between the mid-90s to present. In 2007, the band more or less reformed, to play live and do the festival circuit in Europe, with the Steer/Walker duo rejoined by Michael Amott, who recruited drummer Daniel Erlandsson from his group Arch Enemy to replace the I’m-lucky-I-can-still-barely-walk Owen. (Owen does contribute some backing vocals to this new album, however.) Going into the studio for the new release, swap out the two Arch Enemy guys for Daniel Wilding on drums and Ben Ash on guitar, and you’ve got the whole family tree for the last twenty years.
I should add a disclaimer here, as this is a huge point of discontent among Metal fans. Of the Carcass studio albums, my personal favorite is Necroticism. No huge controversy there; I think most people would agree. But I don’t hold any grudge about Heartwork or Swansong. Agreed, they are different, but I don’t like it when a band who has hit a near-perfect stride with an album continues to try and record that same thing over and over. I always feel that even (and especially) when a group records an almost flawless album (like Necroticism) they should always try something new that stays true to their sound, but reaches a bit more, into new territory. And, of course, studio technology evolves and advances, and either bands get bigger budgets or the cost required to record an album decreases, so you get those improvements over time. I’m not saying this always works, or that the intent is always correct. A good example would be Entombed, who went from the sheer dark and evil perfection of Clandestine to the cock sucking Butt Rock of Wolverine Blues. But I never strongly disliked the later work of Carcass, and simply saw it as the next stage of their evolution, just like they evolved from a Grindgore sound on their first two albums to a more produced and Death Metal-oriented structure by 1991.
Okay, I’ve burned three paragraphs without mentioning anything about what this record sounds like. Surgical Steel is really two albums mixed together into a single disc of music, with a rough concept related to medical tools used in operating rooms. (Don’t think Operation: Mindcrime concept album; it’s more thematic than conceptual, along the lines of Necroticism, maybe dialed back 10%.) The band alternates between a fast, almost blistering Grindcore, maybe not as Grind-derived as their 1991 outing, but certainly higher-RPM than their last two albums. The other half of the tracks are much more melodic Death Metal, which is more in line with the last two. It’s maybe enough to appease those who liked Swansong, but not enough to completely piss off those who hated it. The album is laid out for the most part with the first half being the speedy stuff, and the more melodic tracks making up the B-side, with a few exceptions to mix things up. (Kids: go look up “LP” on wikipedia or ask your grandfather about “records” that had “sides,” which were used a century before you downloaded shit off the internet.)
For example, take the song “Thrasher’s Abbatoir” (which is actually the same name as the first song the band, then called Disattack, ever wrote) is a quick 1:51 of straight-up velocity. The next track, “Cadaver Pouch Conveyor System,” is also a short 2:24 of blast beat drumming that drops out of hyperspeed for a bridge with thick leads before returning to the previous pace. “A Congealed Clot of Blood” slows things down, but then “The Master Butcher’s Apron” gets right back into Necroticism-style double bass attack runs punctuated with chunkier bits. (Oh, the opening track, “1985,” is a guitar instrumental intro, before the album launches into full fury. What’s interesting is that this riff is basically taken from a very early Disattack rehearsal recording.) These first tracks, structure-wise, sound like they could have been slotted in right before or after a song like “Incarnated Solvent Abuse” on Necroticsm.
A few things help to make this true. One is that Wilding’s drumming is very close to the same style as Owens’ work. He’s a very technically precise player that patterns his foundation of the music well, and can get in and out of the different tempos required in these song structures with good aptitude. I have found that some Death Metal drummers master the ability of laying down that insane, speedy double-bass blast, and then feel a need to keep it going constantly, which then causes their slower transitions to sound inauthentic or just plain stupid. I’ve always appreciated Owens’ ability to mix things up and get in and out of different types of rhythm without faltering, and Wilding keeps with the same spirit here.
The other thing is that Colin Richardson returned as producer of this recording. I realize he’s produced all of their albums, so if you hate Swansong, you can assign blame there, but I’ve always associated his production work with Necroticism, and thought he did a stunning job there, in being able to present the amazing lead guitar work on top of an immaculately crisp drum sound. Here, he does not disappoint, and twenty-some years of evolution in recording technology makes everything even better, which I would have never though possible back in 1991. (Do an A/B on the two albums and you will be amazed.)
As far as guitar work, I’d say that Steer is at his prime here. I had great worries that his long foray outside the world of Metal would have made this album as riffy as a remember-the-70s AOR marathon of Bad Company hits. But, like Necroticism, his main competency is laying down extended soloing over the top. It’s not a shredding “look how fast I can sweep pick every note in a Hungarian minor scale a dozen times in a row” soloing, but an extremely melodic sort of lead. Granted, in Necroticism, he was trading off leads with Amott, but here every lead is meticulously sculpted and performed, and fits the structure of the songs extremely well. I should say something about Walker’s bass playing, which is great, although it’s not as up-front as I wanted. If you listen to their latest live festival work (there are no official releases - go hit YouTube) you’ll hear him with a very bright bass sound, up front in the mix. The bass does cut through, and it ties together the rhythm of the incredible drums with the melody of the guitar, but it’s not like Les fucking Claypool front-and-center. It doesn’t need to be, though.
As for that melodic Death Metal stuff: if you thought that Swansong was gayer than fellow Metal Curse reviewer Jack Botos’s unnatural obsession with that Behind the Candelabra movie about Liberace, you might not be as into some of the longer tracks. But for me, this is where the band really shines. The best example of this is the finale, “Mount of Execution,” which is an 8:25 masterpiece starting with acoustic guitars, and no drums, then slowly building to a steady gallop that’s a good foundation for Steer’s haunting melodic leads. It’s the perfect end to the album, and shows the versatility of the band, how they aren’t just a bunch of blast beats and lyrics about guts and autopsies.
A big part of my rating for Surgical Steel is what this record isn’t. I really feared that it would be like that last Morbid Angel album, with just a slight ghost of the Death Metal past, mixed with healthy servings of Dubstep remixes and prostate massages. It’s not. There are no samples or St. Anger douchebaggery, no attempts at Industrial Dance music or DJ scratching. And given the band’s involvement with non-Metal music, there were legitimate concerns that this would be some Blues-based Yardbirds wankery here, which there is not. Even worse, I feared that the band would just phone in a pale imitation of the albums they did twenty years ago, a collection of new songs that are the same as the old songs. But it isn’t. This is a strong contender, a complete album that continues from where the band left off in the ’90s, and I really appreciate that.

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