Released: 2013, Nuclear Blast Records
Reviewer: Peter Atkinson
With Surgical Steel, England’s Carcass have seemingly done the impossible. Despite a 17-year recording hiatus, they have unleashed an album that not only sounds relevant and fresh, it washes away the disappointment of the band’s disastrous apparent 1996 farewell Swansong, and by happenstance or keen calculation delivers exactly the kind of kick in the ass most Carcass fans were probably hoping it would - but perhaps were afraid it might not.
Surgical Steel is a smashing success from top to bottom. The songs rule – and rule hard. The performances bristle with the enthusiasm, energy and power that Swansong sorely lacked. And the band blend bombast, melody, dexterity, aggression and purpose here like they haven’t since 1991’s landmark Necroticism: Descanting the Insalubrious.
The album kicks off with a nod to the band’s origins, with the brief instrumental intro “1985,” the year Carcass was conceived, before launching into the steamrolling “Thrasher's Abattoir,” whose title harks back to the band's first original composition. Though this song is new, it grinds away with the abandon of old over its frantic 1:50, making it Surgical Steel’s gnarliest, nastiest track highlighted by bassist Jeff Walker’s alliterative snarl. And it opens the door nicely for the rest of the album, which finds Carcass painting in relatively broad strokes but never losing the concussive heaviness that “Abattoir” brings to bear – the sound harnessed here by longtime producer Colin Richardson is immense.
“Cadaver Pouch Conveyor System” keeps the momentum going, but expands the sonic palette with actual verses and choruses and some nifty guitar harmonies, all wrapped around new drummer Dan Wilding’s pneumatic pace and Walker raging vocals - which are as venomous and irritable as ever over the album’s entirely.
“A Congealed Clot of Blood” slows things down a bit and introduces more rhythmic complexity, showing Wilding’s versatility and drive. His style, which leans more on tempo and tenacity than flourishes and fancy, is quite similar to original drummer Ken Owen, who has been unable to rejoin the band since he still suffers from the effects of the cerebral hemorrhage that nearly killed him in 1999, making for a seamless, natural transition. Owen does contribute to the album, however, adding backup growls and grunts here and there, which is a nice touch.
“A Master Butcher’s Apron” and “Noncompliance to ASTM F 889-12 Standard” - the “Standard Specification for Wrought Stainless Steels for Surgical Instruments,” in case you were wondering - showcase guitarist Bill Steer’s almost effortless aplomb. Operating on his own here, second guitarist Ben Ash was added after the album was done, he melds gnashing riffs and haymaker hooks with deft, often gorgeous soloing, yielding results that are both imposing and inviting.
The more pronounced melody and infectious main riff on “Noncompliance” has an almost Arch Enemy-like feel to it, even though on again/off again guitarist Mike Amott bowed out of the Carcass reunion before work commenced on Steel to focus on, well, Arch Enemy! “The Granulating Dark Satanic Mills” offers a bit more of the same, with is soaring guitar harmonies and a hard-charging lead break, but it is perhaps Steel’s weakest track as the bulk of the song merely spins its wheels. It’s the lone B+ on a report card that otherwise is all As.
But the bracing “Unfit For Human Consumption” sets things straight with shuddering authority, boasting some of the album’s weightiest riffing and a rollicking, chugging tempo that carries over to “316 L Grade Surgical Steel.” The more breakneck, abrasive approach of “Thrasher's Abattoir” reappears on “Captive Bolt Pistol,” which seemed an odd choice as the premiere track from the album since it’s probably the most punishing, ominous song here. But it’s certainly convincing evidence that the band are back to their old vicious selves, which was probably the idea in the first place. So mission accomplished.
“Mount of Execution” then concludes Carcass’ triumphant reanimation in the slowest, catchiest, “epic-est” way possible. The eight-plus minute opus rides Steer’s surging grooves, and with its grand choruses and almost delicate flourishes “Execution” shows what Swansong could have been had the band not just played out the string and split up.
Anyone hoping for a return to the crude Grand Guignol of Symphonies of Sickness here should have known better in the first place. But anyone fearing more of Swansong's toothlessness, breathe easy. Surgical Steel is a return to form of mid-period Carcass at their finest, and is performed with the zeal and finesse of a band in their prime. It doesn't just meet expectations, it far surpasses them. Phew!