The cold and glistening stainless steel of the examination table sits next to an arsenal of surgical implements. The cadaver is rotted away and barely recognizable as human, an acrid stench of decay assaults your nostrils. A quick snap of the latex glove against the wrist echoes in the operating room, sickly light glows from the table lamp. Pick up your scalpel and make your first incision: directly into your Carcass album of choice. This evocative nature is the absolute essence of extreme music and is a particularly strong trait found in the Liverpool quartet’s art. This isn’t Sgt. Pepper’s, this is raw and unflinching brutality smeared in gore and read aloud as if to onlooking medical students witnessing their first autopsy. This is the Carcass I’ve known and loved for many years. This is why fans were simultaneously delighted and apprehensive when the band announced they would be releasing a new album in 2013, their first pathology report in nearly 20 years.
“Don’t you want to be honest, like every other interviewer who has told me they were kind of surprised?” asks Jeff Walker with his trademark honest and snarky wit. The fact is, I did want to be honest with Walker. After such a long wait, the album didn’t just meet expectations, it surpassed and even challenged them. Surgical Steel is the Carcass album we’ve been waiting for.
But why the wait? Why such high hopes and admittedly less than high expectations? It seems like every few months or so, yet another band from yesteryear has decided to give it another go, reunite and release a new album. This trend has led to some great work, like Canadian thrashers Sacrifice and their album, The Ones I Condemn (2009), or, perhaps more dramatically, Gorguts and their yet-to-be-released masterpiece, Colored Sands (2013). But for every comeback, there is a Black Sabbath 13 (2013). Honestly, the less said about that one, the better.
Carcass put out the most controversial album of their career, Swansong, in 1996, which left many fans feeling like the band had peaked after a string of flawless albums prior: lackluster composition in the style of death n’ roll, bland song structures and an overall forgettable album that ended up being less gore and more bore. After so many critically acclaimed and truly groundbreaking albums, it was tough not to be disappointed by Swansong. Both the band’s debut Reek of Putrefaction (1988) and the follow-up, Symphonies of Sickness (1989), laid the groundwork for the grind and goregrind genres to be born. A fascination with pathological minutia and medical jargon, used to describe everything from the horrors of the meat industry to grinding a person into powder and snorting them, Carcass have never held back with the grotesquely violent imagery in both their lyrics and album artwork. Genre pioneer and guitarist Bill Steer’s lust for speeding riffs, rotten tones and penitent for challenging song structure made listeners take notice in his short lived stint in Napalm Death on the back half of their seminal Scum (1987).
With all of this pedigree and strong artistic vision, Carcass went on to release the culmination of grind and death metal in the fan favourite, Necroticism – Descanting the Insalubrious (1991), and the melodic death metal pillar that is Heartwork (1993); records that to this day are cited as influences by bands spanning many subgenres. This seemingly infallible standing within the underground metal community was achieved on all the previously mentioned albums by Carcass’ core member’s guitarist Bill Steer, bassist and lead vocalist Jeff Walker and then drummer Ken Owen. Owen suffered a massive brain hemorrhage in 1999 that left him alive, but unable to play drums any longer.
When Carcass reformed in 2008 exclusively for live performances, Swedish melodic death metal band Arch Enemy’s drummer Daniel Erlandsson and guitarist Michael Amott were enlisted, the latter of which had helped out during the recording of Necroticism. While the band played the major festival circuit and many more intimate shows across Europe, fans were always wondering if a new album was ever going to be released.
“I was the last person on board with the reunion… I’d been out of that world for so long, I had no concept of anybody being interested in us playing again,” says Steer.His public denouncing of the idea was infamous during the band’s hiatus. “But, once I did get into it, I was really keen and, to me, it felt like the next logical step at some point would be to welcome some new material… at least try it. It was clear immediately that Michael (Amott) wasn’t into that idea. So really, we were in a situation for two or three years where the notion couldn’t even be discussed because half the band was dead-set against it. Once they stepped out of the band in 2010, that gave (Walker) and I the chance to try something.”
That something would end up being the duo recruiting their current drummer Daniel Wilding, formerly of Trigger the Bloodshed and Aborted, and entering the studio on their own dime to create something new. The band chose to record entirely on their own, with no label support, until a product was finished. “There was no way they were going to trust us to make a strong album. Any offers we would have got would have been cursory because they were expecting us to deliver a turkey. We were well aware of that,” Steer says, his sardonic tone underscoring his words.
This preemptive hyperawareness of expectations obviously extended far past the labels and was found more so from the fans of the band. This strain would be enough for most bands in this position to not even bother, but Steer and Walker were not daunted by such pressures as they had truly set out to make this album for themselves.
“We tried to make the best Carcass album we could. Believe it or not, that’s what we’ve tried to do with every album. People might disagree, but after 17 years, we’ve got something to prove. We weren’t doing this to fulfil any contractual obligations or adhere to any deadline. We did this for ourselves and hopefully as a payoff, people will enjoy it,” Walker points out.
It is clear that the band is true to their word by listening to the album, but many facets and details about the album fill the picture in with stark definition. The album’s cover art depicting surgical implements directly references the Tools of the Trade (1992) EP as well as the monochromatic desaturation of Heartwork, giving the whole album a throwback feel before the listener has heard the fantastic harmonized album intro of “1985,” after the year in which the band formed. The song titles are immediately reminiscent of this same Carcass era. Abstruse titles, such as “Noncompliance to ASTM F 899-12 Standard” and the blatant and brutal “Thrasher’s Abattoir,” should sound familiar to any Carcass fan. Regardless of genre, Carcass are aggressively showing the rest how a comeback is done by releasing a challenging, enjoyable and brutal album that manages to give something for fans of every Carcass era.
Carcass will headline the Noctis 666 — Lucifer Rex Metal Festival on Saturday, September 21 at MacEwan Hall.
By Tanner WolffAB, Alberta