Review: Carcass – ‘Surgical Steel’

First things first: Surgical Steel is a superlative Carcass record that often bests what many consider their finest hour, Heartwork, and, in its brightest moments, reaches the heights set by their masterpiece Necroticism: Descanting the Insalubrious. These are not idle boasts, either. No one was expects a reunion album to be this good and our collective low bar for such releases is the sane response to what is often a barely passable product in service of reclaiming a quantum of attention from a modern audience to facilitate a round of touring. Rarely, if ever, are they an opportunity to make a statement.

And then there’s Surgical Steel which feels like the clearest expression of the sound Carcass always had in their heads.

The albums cover makes the clearest case for this thesis: a fusion of the Tools of the Trade surgical tool array with the grey aesthetic of Heartwork’s cover represents the fusion of their savage grind tendencies with the clean, hooky melodic death metal they helped pioneer. And yet, look at the tools themselves: unused, polished and prepared for new ventures. This, apparently, is what is meant by Surgical Steel. This is not a return to form. This is new music.

It starts with the year of their inception, “1985,” a layer cake of Bill Steer’s thick, inviting guitars. Producer Colin Richardson is the third ingredient here, as always articulating their wall of distorted strings with a natural-seeming clarity. It’s hooky, it’s heavy, it’s metal, yet it’s slick enough to emphasize melody over grit. One can only hope that Carcass’s next touring cycle will find them hitting the stage to a recording of this inspired guitar chorale.

From there, we’re thrown in the deep end immediately with “Thrasher’s Abbatoir,” perhaps the heaviest thing the band’s recorded since their pre-Heartwork days. It’s fantastically grind-heavy, precise, and yes, even a bit hooky. Jeff Walker’s rhythmically-aware vocal delivery has never been more on-point. Carcass diehards will be happy to note that Steer’s ominous growl is back as well, a welcome texture absent from their previous two efforts.

Moving forward, the pounding rarely relents, as though Carcass is making up for lost time. With titles like “Cadaver Pouch Conveyor System” and the thoughtfully spare “A Congealed Clot of Blood,” it feels from top to bottom as though we simultaneously have the old Carcass back and a yet-unrealized manifestation fashioned exclusively for this record. It’s an impressive hat-trick that will cause old fans to beam with delight while new ears simply get a kick-ass death metal record the likes of which ought to always be welcome.

Through tracks like “The Master Butcher’s Apron,” “316 L Grade Surgical Steel,” and “Captive Bolt Pistol,” we’re treated to an array of familiar Carcass tools: atonal machine-gun-picking strafes, heavy mid-tempo stomps, virtuosic yet hooky Thin Lizzy-esque twin-guitar harmonies. But never before have they been integrated so well, like a recipe that’s at last been concocted with its ideal ratios. This may not end up being your favorite Carcass album (mine is still Necroticism) but it may be objectively the best realization of their sound. Special mention must be made of new drummer Ben Wilding, who has a careful and precise awareness of the contributions of his forebears to the Carcass whole, seamlessly lifting the tide often well beyond its previous high marks (with all due respect to the innovative and powerful Ken Owen).

Surgical Steel ends with stand-out track “Mount of Execution,” the first and only track to stem the onslaught with its hushed acoustic intro. This preamble gives way to a Maiden-esque mid-tempo roll, a powerful respite that cements all that came before it by not attempting to trump it. Cleaning tools to forge new works. Great job, guys.

Alee Karim

Stream the track “Captive Bolt Pistol” from Surgical Steel below, and look for the LP via Nuclear Blast this September.