Review Summary: Picks up where Heartwork left off.
Carcass, the British band famous for having a profound influence on two distinct subgenres of extreme metal, reformed in 2008 for several successful reunion tours after calling it quits in 1996. The band’s tours went well enough to lead to the writing and recording of a new album featuring a lineup of original members Jeff Walker and Bill Steer along with new drummer Daniel Wilding. The album, titled Surgical Steel, is the first new material from Carcass since 1996’s Swansong, and stands as a worthy follow-up and an essential addition to the Carcass discography. Surgical Steel features surprisingly strong writing and an equally strong performance, and stands as one of the greatest reunion albums of all time.
Musically, Surgical Steel is much closer in style to Carcass’s 1993 classic, Heartwork, than to Swansong. In fact, Surgical Steel makes sense as the album’s logical follow-up. If this album had been released in 1996 it is doubtful Carcass would have received the backlash they did from a lot of their fans for adjusting their sound to a more death n’ roll influenced brand of extreme metal. On Surgical Steel, the death n’ roll influence is mostly absent, with Carcass favoring a more standard melodic death metal approach. Twin guitar harmonies abound, lengthy and impressive solos are included on nearly every track, and the guitar leads are generally very creative. Steer’s lead guitar playing does not come across as forced or melodic just for the sake of being melodic; instead the leads come across as portraying genuine emotion, adding a great deal of depth to the album. A clear album standout in regards to guitar performance is track six, “Noncompliance to ASTM F899-12 Standard”. The song begins with a clever descending guitar lead and a harmonized tremolo-picked segment and features two lengthy solos.
Admittedly, Surgical Steel does get off to a rough start. The album’s introduction track, “1985”, is as brief as it is pointless, consisting of a rather annoying guitar lead repeated over and over for the track’s duration. This introduction track also leads into what is by far the weakest track on the album, “Thrasher’s Abattoir”. Another brief piece, the song consists of lightning-paced tremolo picking underneath Jeff Walker’s vocal lines, which repeat a bunch of extreme rhyming words like “mutilation”, “amputation”, “dehumanization”, etc. The song breaks after a brief but impressive solo by Steer, and Walker changes his lines to repeat: “Die. Time to die. Die in pain.” After Walker’s brilliant lyrical work on Heartwork and Swansong, the childish lyrics on this first piece serve as a major disappointment.
Luckily, as if “Thrasher’s Abattoir” was an intentional tease, the lyrics get better very quickly. Expanding on the political writing that began on Heartwork and improved on Swansong, a wide variety of topics is covered lyrically on Surgical Steel. “A Congealed Clot of Blood” attacks Muslim jihadist ideologies, while “The Granulating Dark Satanic Mills” serves as a scathing appraisal of the British industrial revolution. The latter is a clear album highlight, featuring excellent lyrics, an extremely catchy chorus, and fantastic melodic guitar leads. Not only is “The Granulating Dark Satanic Mills” the best song on Surgical Steel, it also stands alongside the best material Carcass has ever written, easily comparable to the best songs off of Heartwork. Another album highlight is the closing track “Mount of Execution”. It begins with an unexpected acoustic passage before unfolding into a lengthy, fast-paced metal piece that lasts around eight and a half minutes. The multiple solos featured on this piece give it a light, fun feeling, coming across as more of a jam song than a serious piece. Although this is in stark contrast to its rather severe lyrics, it serves as a fun and extremely effective way to end the album.
Addressing the vocal performance on the album, Jeff Walker really must be commended. Even though it has been almost twenty years since Carcass’s last studio album, Walker’s voice has not deteriorated even slightly, sounding just as powerful as he did in 1996. While his vocal performance on Surgical Steel is not incredibly varied, it is certainly a strong performance and suits the style of music very well. Walker’s vocals are aggressive but clear, and listeners should have no real difficulty in understanding the lyrics at most points of the album. It should also be noted that track eight, “Unfit for Human Consumption”, features guest backing vocals from original drummer Ken Owen. The guest vocals, making their appearance in the verse, fit the song very well and are a worthy addition to the song.
As for the drum performance, new drummer Daniel Wilding is true to Owen’s legacy, providing an excellent performance on Surgical Steel. The drumming is precise and varied, fitting in well with the other instrumentation. Wilding was certainly a good choice to take the place of Owen, and one hopes to hear more from him on future Carcass albums.
Surgical Steel is a must listen for any fan of Heartwork era Carcass. Everything on this record, excluding the first two tracks, is essential Carcass, with the band never coming across as putting out an album to simply cash in on a willing audience. Carcass deserves to be applauded for making such a powerful return. The album is a worthy addition to the Carcass discography and stands as one of the best releases of 2013.
Album Highlights: “The Granulating Dark Satanic Mills”, “Noncompliance to ASTM F899-12 Standard”, “Mount of Execution”