(BadWolf reviews the new album by Carcass.)
My age was in single digits the last time Carcass released new material, but Surgical Steel does not feel like a comeback album. Carcass never exited the zeitgeist. Their first four albums have remained fresh and relevant since their release, and remain touchstones to which all other extreme metal releases are compared. 1988’s Reek of Putrifaction may still be the best overall grind album on the market. 1991’s Necroticism is one of the only technical death metal albums I can name that boasts actually memorable songs. 1995’s Heartwork—praise it—is one of only a handful of melodic death metal records that still sounds good after puberty’s end.
Carcass will never leave the market—since I’ve been interested in extreme metal, their work has been rereleased and re-rereleased in increasingly indulgent and deluxe packages. The most mainstream of extreme metal acts—The Black Dahlia Murder, for example—routinely sing Carcass’s praises in the pages of glossy print ‘zines.
Keeping that in mind, calling Surgical Steel a comeback album rings false. It’s just an entree I ordered at a popular and crowded restaurant that took a long time—17 years long—to cook. So long I forgot ordering it. Well, I’ve eaten my long-delayed entree. It came to my table still piping hot. The waiter is getting a 50% gratuity. I’m going to walk into the kitchen and congratulate the chef—The Master Butcher—personally. It’s fucking delicious.
Surgical Steel will be one of the most critically-acclaimed albums of any genre this year. Major outlets will review it, and sing its praises. The only metal album that might best it in that arena will be Deafheaven’s Sunbather. By my estimation, it deserves most of that praise on merit, not legacy. Every song on Surgical Steel is an equally solid melodic death metal anthem, but I’ve always listened to the album from front-to-back—it flows the way Heartwork does, and the shortest song comes across as immediate as the longest.
Jeff Walker and Bill Steer, the only original members of Carcass on the record, only made incremental adjustments to their formula. Surgical Steel very much feels like a sequel to Heartwork. It runs a little faster, opens with a two-minute thrasher and ends with an eight-minute epic, but still fits snugly into their discography—which is precisely what Carcass is aiming for. Even the album cover uses the gray metal palate of Heartwork’s art, married with the surgical implements from their Tools of the Trade EP. Carcass’s new drummer, Dan Wilding of Aborted, plays it straight, with minimal fills but faster tempos than Heartwork overall, but knows how to drop it low in powerful breakdowns—”The Master Butcher’s Apron” in particular packs hardcore swagger.
Surgical Steel sounds better than any extreme metal album I have heard since Meshuggah’s Koloss. Carcass was always a tone-chaser’s band, and their thick, voluptuous sound on Heartwork may still be the gold standard for death metal in general. Surgical Steel very nearly matches that tone, but trades in a smidgen of weight for clarity. Carcass’s longtime studio partner Colin Richardson produced the record, but left its mixing to Andy Sneap. Surgical Steel may be remembered as Sneap’s redemption after years of wasting his talent on commercial metalcore bands and twilight pieces by legacy acts (OK, the new Accept records are sweet, but the man also produced Megadeth’s Endgame, so let’s not give him too much credit.). His penchant for surgical precision, pun intended, serves the album well—it sounds like a million bucks at any volume, on headphones or car stereo.
Lyrically, Surgical Steel marries the emotional content of Heartwork with the thesaurus-loving vocabulary of Carcass’s earlier material. The vegetarian philosophy that some members of Carcass follow in their private lives provides fertile subject matter. When I saw Carcass at Maryland Death Fest, I found myself in a conversation about Carcass with Invisible Oranges scribe Scab Casserole, who said the crux of Carcass’s lyrical themes is meat—we are all made of it, we also eat it, and what does that say about the soul? According to Surgical Steel, it says contemptuous things about our behavior. “Unfit for Human Consumption” reminds the listener of that old truism: you are what you eat. When I listen to Surgical Steel, I question my own dietary habits; it bothers me in a way Cattle Decapitation does not.
If there is any fair criticism of Surgical Steel, it is that the lyrical content is the only upsetting or challenging content—to someone accustomed to extreme metal, at least. Up until now, Carcass was a band who pushed their own boundaries—in terms of sound and songwriting alike—on every album the band wrote. Even 1996’s much-maligned Swansong album progressed beyond Heartwork, perhaps to its detriment. By contrast, Surgical Steel is a very safe album—it doesn’t push death metal into any new artistic or formal territory they way Carcass used to do every two years like clockwork.
Rather, Carcass executes a now-classic form—one they helped create—almost flawlessly, and that alone is noteworthy. Metal bands seldom age with grace; recall the Slayer lineup debacle earlier this year; recall Morbid Angel’s comeback album which shall not be named; recall that ex-members of Carcass went on to become Arch Enemy. In 2013, any sensible metal enthusiast approaches an album like Surgical Steel with several grains of salt. We expect—I expect—older musicians to release bad music. Surgical Steel is the monolithic middle finger to ageism that the metal community needs periodically—something to backhand jaded expectations out of our heads.
Surgical Steel is necessary, and it is worth the wait.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Surgical Steel will be released on September 16 in the UK, September 13 throughout the rest of Europe, and September 17 in North America. Pre-orders for various formats can be placed through Nuclear Blast here or here, or on iTunes.
And now, for some new and some never-gets-old: a lyric video for one of the new songs and “Corporeal Jigsore Quandary” performed live at Party.San 2013 in Germany about a week ago.