Premature Evaluation: Carcass Surgical Steel
The opening song on Surgical Steel — the first album of new music in 17 years from English death metal band Carcass — is an intro track called “1985.” It’s not an especially oblique reference: 1985 was the year Carcass (or a nascent version thereof) was formed, in Liverpool, by guitarist Bill Steer and drummer Ken Owen (later joined by bassist Paul — just Paul — and vocalist Andrew Pek). Back then, they were a D-beat band called Disattack, and their repertoire consisted mainly of covers of songs by American thrash acts like Exodus and S.O.D. In 1986, Disattack put out a 4-song demo called A Bomb Drops; soon after its release, the band replaced Paul with bassist Jeff Walker — of Wigan-based crust-punks Electro Hippies — and changed their name to Carcass. (Pek, meanwhile, had departed to India and changed his name to Sanjiv; he would return to England and Carcass, but quit the band abruptly, allegedly unhappy with their shift from punk to metal, leaving Walker to assume vocal duties)
So anyway! The title of the first song on Surgical Steel, “1985,” is a pretty overt nod to the year Carcass was conceived. But it’s only a fraction of the full reference. The title of the second song on Surgical Steel reveals another layer: That song is called “Thrasher’s Abattoir.” As pointed out by commenter “Max” at Invisible Oranges:
The name ["Thrasher's Abattoir"] was familiar; so I dug out an old issue of Kerrang! from 1993 which profiled Carcass and recapped their history. Sure enough, it tells us that once Carcass got bored of playing Exodus covers after their ’85 formation, their very first original composition was called “Thrasher’s Abattoir.”
Disattack didn’t include “Thrasher’s Abattoir” on A Bomb Drops, but a recording of the song does exist, on an underground-circulated 1985 rehearsal tape (which also includes a cover of “Exodus,” by Exodus, among others). You can hear “Thrasher’s Abattoir” below — just scroll to 28:45 on the following video. Then listen for, like, 15 seconds:
Primitive! Rudimentary! Paleolithic! Ah, 1985.
Beyond the name, though, the 1985 version of “Thrasher’s Abattoir” bears no similarity to the 2013 version. They’re altogether different songs. HOWEVER, if you listen to the above snippet — the 1985 version of “Thrasher’s Abattoir” — and then listen to the aforementioned 2013 song “1985,” which opens Surgical Steel and leads into “Thrasher’s Abattoir,” and which you can hear by listening to the first 20 or so seconds of the following video …
Pretty goddamn cool, huh?
It’s more of an Easter egg than an artistic statement, but you don’t have to get the joke to be swept up in the proceedings. “1985” is a beautiful, if brief, piece of music: shimmering, pitch-shifted pinch harmonics soaring upward, hovering briefly, and falling slowly, like fireworks. It’s a towering sound, ominous and inviting as a cathedral. It’s also an apt introduction to the album: Though it’s rarely again so gentle, Surgical Steel is full of such beauty and might.
“1985” leads directly into the 2013 version of “Thrasher’s Abattoir,” one the album’s heaviest songs. But “heavy” isn’t really a helpful descriptor in this case, and it may in fact be a misleading one. It’s extreme, yes: The rhythm is as frenetic and fast as a tweaker’s heart rate, with guitars and drums swerving and veering violently; Walker’s vocal is an ugly snarl, and it’s punctuated by fiery belches from Steer and Owen. (Due to health concerns, Owen was unable to play drums on Surgical Steel — he’s replaced by Dan Wilding — but he did contribute some background vocals.) But aside from the white-knuckle speed and coarse singing, the song has many rather light elements: the guitars are crisp, the tones are clean, the instrumental performances are delivered with acrobatic agility. And while it’s by no means “pop,” this is richly melodic music.
And with that, it becomes clear those references to 1985 are somewhat misleading. I talked about this at some length in this week’s Black Market, but in brief: Carcass’s career can basically be split into two periods — their grindcore period (roughly 1987 through 1990) and their death metal period (from 1991 through 1996, when they broke up). Their grindcore records — 1988’s Reek Of Putrefaction and 1989’s Symphonies Of Sickness — are puerile, inaccessible, grotesque, and punishing. Their death metal records — 1991’s Necroticism: Descanting The Insalubrious, 1993’s Heartwork, and 1996’s Swansong — are melodic, smooth, cleanly structured, and nuanced. (Necroticism and Heartwork are considered two seminal works in the melodic death-metal subgenre.) Certain elements remained more or less consistent across both periods (primarily the band’s lyrical employment of medical-science terminology and corny puns), but callbacks aside, the Carcass of 2013 aren’t really revisiting the Disattack days or the grindcore period. Surgical Steel is very much an extension of what Carcass was doing on Necroticism and Heartwork: making technically flawless, highly ambitious, perfect-sounding death metal in which every note is somehow part of a hook.
That’s invariably going to be disappointing to some fans who were hoping Carcass might return to their roots, and frankly, those fans had some reason to believe the band might do just that: In their grindcore period, the Carcass lineup comprised the aforementioned trio of Owen, Walker, and Steer. Before Necroticism, though, they were joined by Swedish guitarist Michael Amott, who was a prominent contributor to that album and its follow-up Heartwork. Amott was no generic session axe, though: He left Carcass after Heartwork to form his own band, Arch Enemy, which would go on to become another of melodic death metal’s defining acts. The degree to which Amott’s presence affected Carcass cannot be quantified, but after he left, the band lost all momentum and artistic vision: Swansong was a disaster; Carcass broke up before the album was even released. Without Amott, a return to death metal was no guarantee.
Moreover, a return to death metal was cause for at least mild ambivalence even for fans of death metal-period Carcass: Without founding member Owen behind the kit, and without ace contributor Amott there to elevate the material, it seemed perfectly feasible that a Carcass two decades removed from their best album — and 17 years removed from their last and worst album — would be more of an embarrassment than an event. (We were all badly burned by Morbid Angel’s 2011 reunion album, and thus, I think, all reasonably skeptical of similar scenarios.) But the leak of Surgical Steel track “Captive Bolt Pistol” in late May calmed those concerns. It was death metal, all right, and it was vintage fucking Carcass. It was a shot of excitement, a call to attention: guitars snapping and bashing like a monster truck joyously bouncing along and caving in the roofs of a junkyard’s worth of derelict Pontiacs; bright melodic flashes whipping by in gusts of speed and twists of rhythm; Steer kicking out a solo worthy of peak Mustaine.
The new confidence instilled and inspired by “Captive Bolt Pistol” is more than rewarded by Surgical Steel. In fact, I question whether “Captive Bolt Pistol” was ever intended to be released as a single — it’s Surgical Steel‘s second-to-last track, the album’s least outstanding number in many respects. It’s a great song, to be sure, but it’s surrounded by giants. As I said in the Black Market: If you were able to remove the music from historical context, you could pretty easily make the argument that Surgical Steel is Carcass’s finest work. But even stacked alongside Carcass’s genre-defining accomplishments, as well as everything that has happened in metal over the last two decades, Surgical Steel would be a highlight. It’s instantly, obviously, one of 2013’s best albums.
The immediate point of comparison (and connection) here is Heartwork, previously Carcass’s most fluid, accomplished album. Like Heartwork, Surgical Steel sinks anthemic, indelible melodies deep into songs built of caustic elements — primarily Walker’s vocals and Wilding’s ferocious, superhuman foot- and stick-work. Steer is the band’s euphonic center, and he’s never sounded better. Steer, of course, was more or less done with metal by the time Swansong was released; he’s admitted that his loss of interest in playing metal was at the core of that album’s problems. And after Carcass broke up, he spent more than a decade away from metal, playing in the classic rock-inspired band Firebird. Here, though, the guitarist has employed those very tools and sensibilities in the service of music that is absolutely metal … and every song plays like a highlights reel. His leads are going to be painstakingly dissected, discussed, and transcribed by guitar nerds around the world — and that tribute is deserved — but they also provide joyous aural sensations even for the casual listener. And his riffs are simply glorious, pulse-raising things that keep inviting me back, and giving me more each time I return.
Masterfully produced by Colin Richardson, much of the album feels European in style — the way the hard, pugilistic elements combine with sweeping melody on songs like “The Master Butcher’s Apron,” “The Granulating Dark Satanic Mills,” or “316 L Grade Surgical Steel” — recalling bands like Germany’s Kreator or Sweden’s At The Gates. Surgical Steel closes with the world-beating “Mount Of Execution,” which pairs some slide guitar from Firebird with Iron Maiden-esque acoustics, all leading into a set of sweet thrash riffs that could’ve been written 30 years ago — or at any time over the last 30 years — but their clarity, precision, and full-bodied sound are distinctly of the moment.
For all I know, those riffs — or any others on Surgical Steel — really were written 30 years ago. I’m sure “1985/Thrasher’s Abattoir” isn’t the only reference included here to the Carcasses of old. But no way am I gonna catch ‘em. I’ll wait for the inevitable Wiki, wherein trainspotters around the web point out those treasures the rest of us could never hope to identify. The only one I’ve got — and it’s an obvious one — is the album’s sleeve art: The cover of Surgical Steel echoes the cover of the band’s 1992 EP Tools Of The Trade; both feature a wheel of medical gear: scalpels, saws, syringes. But damn if they don’t look so much bigger, shinier, sharper this time around. They fucking sound it, too.