The anticipation that follows a classic band’s second coming is something that bolsters the average music reviewers urge to deliver. There are two possible outcomes to such a situation and in the mere year and a half that I have been busting my keyboard criticizing what a band of musicians lost days and nights perfecting, I have seen both. One, the album is a stellar comeback of sorts, you do enough justice to the album, and everyone goes home happy. Two, the band mostly rehashes the same age-old formula, fans get pissed or defensive, you call a spade a spade, and the fans get more pissed and defensive, bedlam ensues.
“Surgical Steel” is a balancing act that Carcass, the masters of not one but two sub-genres, have put forth after dropping out of the partially blocked views of their long-haired fans. Setting the album off to a start is the track “1985” (No Bowling for Soup jokes, please.), a warm-up of sorts before the duo of Ben Ash and Bill Steer embark on a series of assaults. Setting the premise, for what is in all probability a masterpiece of a comeback, with the calm of a lull before the storm, “1985” features a bluesy down tempo lick which should have most of their “Heartwork” fans prick their ears. However “Surgical Steel” is cleverly constructed to host a relentless series of aural assaults. Keeping in mind their work on “Necroticism” one might say that it comes as no surprise, but personally this looks more like a sum of almost two decades worth of pent up aggression, and given that it is being voiced by one of the forefathers of the genre, the brutality would be embraced by most with open arms, or rather, ears. When people wonder what really causes injuries in the pit, it’s not really callousness or carelessness; “Thrasher’s Abattoir”, is by all means built on the template for their Grindcore leanings- short, blisteringly fast, straightforward palm-muted aggression- the kind of stuff that would make you want to jump of face first into a protruding elbow in a mosh-frenzied crowd.
The album finally hits its stride when “Cadaver Pouch Conveyor System” is half passed its mark. Two minutes into the track would give most attentive listeners a list of bands that have been directly inspired by Carcass, it’s all in there. Jeff Walker’s careful shrieks growls pierce your eardrums enough to have them shrieks reverberate in there long after the record stops playing. Bill Steer’s chops are brilliantly displayed when the bridge section comes up. The Melody in Melodic Death Metal is there for this precise reason. Most listeners usually refrain from putting too much into the “comeback basket”,
especially when it comes to the legacy of a band of Carcass’ stature. However the band is in no way easing down to give us the benefit of doubt and “Congealed Clot of Blood” is plenty of fact to support that statement. Intricately sculpted with finesse only a band with so many years of savagery in their kitty can showcase, “Congealed Clot of Blood” stands apart from anything that falls under the label of Death Metal, and it owes it all to the Steer-Walker partnership. The careful shift in dynamics, the measured growl, they all fit into Steer’s class guitar skills. Harmonized lead parts cut sharply into the song when you least expect it only to make room for more harm. Like a cult horror movie which adds a gentle amount of comic relief to take the edge off the gore, “The Master Butcher’s Apron” pays an ode to Carcass’s knack for sharp objects and cold blades. A subtle combination of the mastery they have come to exhibit in all their classic tracks, “Surgical Steel” has more hooks than a butcher’s shop, sharpened further by Andy Sneap’s touch. I have always been a fan of Daniel Wilding for the kind of technicality and brutality that his other band Trigger the Bloodshed are capable of; in this context I find it only fitting that he plays a part in the making of this gargantuan album.
“Unfit for Human Consumption” is another personal favourite, which I credit mostly as Wilding’s no-nonsense drum-fills, and the galloping guitar rhythms that are punctuated by Steer’s ominous, dark howls from the background. This almost begs the question, what if Carcass was to pen a Technical Death Metal album? Then what? For insights into my own vocabulary and understanding that I’d rather not make public, I’m going to simply pull the curtain on that piece of debate with the statement that for all we know they could have been meaning to put “Surgical Steel” out there as their foray into the realm of Technical Metal and none of us ever stopped to consider it. Far be it for me to judge their technical prowess but at this point, given Carcass’s compositional standards, it’s a distinction without a difference. “316 Grade L Surgical Steel” is the track that most would want to rush their playlist to- given that it is the closest thing to a title track- but perhaps deservedly so. While most of the tracks stand out in its own right, “316 Grade…” stands out for its concoction of delicious bass grooves, Heavy Metal inspired galloping rhythm sections, and purely menacing, dark lead-work. “Captive Bolt Pistol” witnesses the guitar harmonies of Ben Wash and Bill Steer vying for attention while soaring at a breakneck tempo. “Mount of Execution” draws the kind of conclusion that an album as epic as “Surgical Steel” deserves: Best of Carcass’s efforts, an acoustical intro to highlight the culling of the assault, a memorable tone accentuating a solo that has Steer written all over it, and Walker endlessly shrieking to be heard the last.
Keeping in mind the love and hate they have received over “Heartwork” and “Swansong”, respectively, “Surgical Steel” perfectly fits into their discography as a gist of all that they have accomplished and all that they are capable of- A perfect amalgamation of aggression, melody, catchiness and virtuosity. One can only imagine what would have happened if “Surgical Steel” had come out 15-17 years ago as retaliation to the terrible let-down that was “Swansong”. “Surgical Steel” shines where most of the current crop of Melodeath artists fail, primarily because the album not only portrays the band’s skill, which is there by default for a band of Carcass’s oeuvre, but also because of their habit of incorporating sounds and compositional nuances that you do not usually find on a Death metal album. The highlight of the album would be the Death ‘n’ Roll and Thrash inspired riffing and grooves that pop up every once in a while, such as on “The Granulating Dark Satanic Mills”. Basically any Old School Metalheads wet dream. The long standing debate of what makes an album perfect may never be one to be resolved fairly because the benchmarks vary from listener to listener. “Surgical Steel” in the humble opinion of yours truly, is the one that comes closest to satisfying all criterions. Given that one of their pivotal members is absent, Carcass still pulled well-received stints at festivals across the map. Now that the finesse is reflected in their studio-work as well, it remains to be seen how they unleash themselves on an equally hungry fan-base. Here is a list of dates where you can happily have your ears lain to rest
A classic case of when “actions speak louder than words”, Carcass have gone ahead and stapled most naysayers shut even before they set their jaws a-flappin’. Possibly the conditions in which the band released “Surgical Steel” was what favoured to them, i.e. the lack of considerable amount of hype and unrealistic anticipation , and given the gyp that was Megadeth’s “Supercollider”, I for one am most glad that all worked out fine for the band in question. However, that is all a big what-could-have-been right now. The sheer technicality, that fluid virtuosity, the raw aggression come as no surprise, since it’s from Camp Carcass. At the risk of ranting and giving away too much and=building too much anticipation for the uninitiated, I’m not going to urge you to purchase the record, because if you’re not convinced this far into the goddamn article, you never will be, and if you are then you have already left to trample bystanders to get your hands on a copy. I figure it’s my duty as someone who has already been a victim, to ask you to lock yourself in an underground bunker before you play the record- The mainstream public does not react normally to the sight of a black t-shirt clad, headphone-clutching individual sitting there, headbanging with a maniacal gleam in their eyes, just like surgical steel…