Surgical Steel Review
Carcass is the band that interested me in the extreme side of heavy metal. Perhaps in the minority of Carcass fans, I enjoy all of their previous albums— yes, even Swansong (though I could not get into the risible Blackstar (aka Blackstar Rising) project). From their opaque grinding inception to their groovy death ‘n roll conclusion, I enjoy the varied musical offerings from Steer, Walker, and Owen. Memorable riffs (in many different styles) and interesting arrangements are the constants of quality for this ever-changing entity.
When I heard that Carcass would be releasing a new album, I was excited but wary, and when I read that the album was to be a mix of their previous styles—plus new stuff—my enthusiasm grew. The reported vocal presence of Bill Steer was also something to look forward to, but it’s been a long time away for these guys, and there was no way to know creatively where they were at. I was 23 the last time I heard a new Carcass album, and as a 40 year-old fan, my tastes have developed—I’ve written a lot of music and a ton of criticism and heard thousands and thousands of death metal songs.
So I am happy to report that Surgical Steel proves to be a respectable and triumphant return for Carcass. From the Hellion-inspired intro 1985 to the weighty closer, this is a good album, loaded with ideas. There’s a lot of talk as to which incarnation of Carcass this new effort most resembles, and the answer is obviously Heartwork. There are moments from other albums—the progressive arrangements and twin guitar circling of Mount of Execution recalls Necroticism and some of the overstuffed vocals in tunes like The Master Butcher’s Apron recall the force-feeding lyrical approach of the grind era—but essentially, Surgical Steel is Heartwork, Part II. Lots of catchy thrash riffs with palm-muted chugging that would fit comfortably on some of the better Megadeth albums (albeit with different tuning), lots of heavy metal twin guitar (with uglier harmonies), lots of time changes, and lots of interesting (but not too complex) arrangements comprise this release. So like Heartwork, Surgical Steel is an energetic album full of sterling hooks, cartwheeling solos, somber melody, left turns, and speed, but lacking the creepiness of their necrotic, sick and putrefactive days. In short: This album is not atmospheric at all, but rather exciting and catchy.
The main limitation here—and also on Heartwork and Swansong to a lesser degree—is Jeff Walker’s singing. I had hoped to hear 17 years of musical wisdom in his choices, but this performance is actually a step down from his lead singer approach on Heartwork. His singing is and has always been limited—it’s a pretty good spoken word snarl, but not much more—and whenever he tries to expand his rasp into contoured death metal crooning as he does a few times on this album (esp. Cadaver Pouch Conveyor System) and throughout Blackstar and often on Swansong, his singing makes me think of Krusty the Clown. Long held notes and melodic contour just don’t sound great in Walker’s clearly enunciated snarl. And when he leaps out to the front with playful ideas, it can get a little embarrassing— the singing at the end of the otherwise terrific 316L Surgical Grade Steel is pure St. Anger stuff and injures the song. So yeah, Walker does a specific thing pretty well (and on the best Satyricon albums, Satyr does the exact same kind of vocals much more tastefully), but the sheer quantity of the lyrics for some of these songs is just out of control—a “cramming in” approach to vocals that is the main relic of their grindcore days and out of place here. Proof: The best vocal chorus on the entire album is in The Granulating Dark Satanic Mills where Walker simply sings numbers for the major part of the section and leaves a lot of open space. Drier vocals and sparser singing suit him better than more emotive or playful stuff. The tiny, almost insignificant vocal contributions of Most Valuable Carcass, Bill Steer should have been greatly expanded (he used to have the far better voice), and Walker’s singing should’ve been cut down by 50% or more. And when Steer’s voice is present—I’m assuming that’s him in the chorus of Captive Bolt Pistol—his voice is way, way over processed and squandered. So Walker’s singing—the overwhelming amount of it, the timbre, and the pedestrian phrases he contrives—is the only reason that this album is a good album and not a great one.
Former drummer Ken Owen’s distinctive beats are missed in Carcass 2013, but as is usually the case with line up changes in successful bands, the new player is more technically proficient and less creatively compelling than his predecessor. This is not to chop on Dan Wilding’s playing—he is very good at rocking some of the weird left turns—but Ken Owen’s progressive playing in songs like Embodiment and Heartwork and his deep pocket groove in Rock the Vote evince a songwriter’s mentality (and on a personal level, incredibly inspiring—I used to practice to these three songs). Wilding’s drumming snaps into place and propels the action and grooves when needed, but lacks the singular musical voice of Ken Owen (who is a ride cymbal artist). I fully concede that the comparison is a bit unfair—there have been over two decades of extreme metal drumming since Symphonies & Necroticism and a lot of extreme drumming patterns and techniques have been cleaned up and standardized (for better and for worse).
Looking at the larger picture, the second half of the album is far stronger than the first, though all of it is good. From Noncompliance of ASTM F 899-12 Standard onward, Surgical Steel has my interest 100%. It’s at this point—track 6—that song structures get a lot more compelling and the riffs get more dynamic. Additionally, since there are more in the way of instrumental passages in the second half, the best element of Carcass music—the riffs and color changes and arrangements—aren’t as smothered by vocals. Steer’s solos are certainly sharp and exciting, mirroring the characteristics of the album as a whole. And the musical trepanation after Walker’s cry of “Trepanation!” in Captive Bolt Pistol is an excellent example of imagistic riffs and a tactile listening experience—that hook certainly bores into the brain.
Although Surgical Steel is hampered by some pedestrian singing, the album is a catchy, exciting, inspired, inspiring, and commendable continuation of the Carcass legacy. Unfit for Human Consumption, Mount of Execution, and Noncompliance of ASTM F 899-12 Standard are some of the best tunes in the band’s varied catalogue, right alongside Incarnated Solvent Abuse, Lavaging Expectorate of Lysergide Compostion, Forensic Clinicism, Embyrionic Necropsy and Devourment, Rock the Vote, Death Certificate, Heartwork, and Embodiment. That three songs on the first new Carcass album in 17 years match the very best songs they’ve ever recorded is a testament to their artistry, craft, and passion.