By the time extreme metal pioneers Carcass released their (then to be) final album ‘Swansong’ in 1996 they had already ceased to be a band, with founding guitarist Bill Steer having quit due to becoming disillusioned with death metal. It also didn’t help that the band had taken a bit of a beating from record company Columbia/Sony, who had signed several Earache Records bands and didn’t know what to do with them, and whilst the likes of Cathedral and Napalm Death would return to Earache and soldier on, Carcass never quite recovered and disbanded under something of a black cloud.
Whilst Bill Steer has remained a prominent figure in the rock and metal scene with his blues-rock band Firebird and by playing with Gentlemen’s Pistols and Angel Witch, the remaining three members – bassist/vocalist Jeff Walker, guitarist Carlos Regadas and drummer Ken Owen – formed the short-lived Blackstar, who took the gruff, Megadeth-esque metal of ‘Swansong’ and added a huge dollop of Thin Lizzy-style hard rock, before Ken Owen was struck down with a brain haemorrhage and Blackstar disbanded. Jeff Walker appeared on the radar again in 2006 with an album of country covers that featured, amongst others, appearances from Steer and Owen (providing backing vocals), and also appeared on Napalm Death’s ‘The Code is Red… Long Live the Code’ album, but a full-blown Carcass reunion still seemed off the cards.
Until 2007 that is, when it was announced that the band were returning for a string of live dates, with former guitarist Michael Amott returning to the fold along with his Arch Enemy bandmate Daniel Erlandsson replacing Ken Owen. This line-up continued to play festivals over the next few years until Amott and Erlandsson quit to concentrate on Arch Enemy, but Steer and Walker recruited Trigger the Bloodshed drummer Daniel Wilding and the trio have recorded ‘Surgical Steel’, the first new Carcass material released since 1996, but after seventeen years do the band still have that edge that made them such an irresistible musical force in the first place?
The short answer is yes, and a big fat yes it is as well. The opening double-whammy of instrumental “1985” and the bullish “Thrasher’s Abattoir” do enough in their combined three-minute running time to convince you that this is a rejuvenated band with a hunger to cement their legendary reputation. Jeff Walker’s dry vocal rasp and Bill Steer’s searing guitar work are instantly recognisable and are executed as if the band have been with us all along for the past seventeen years, and Daniel Wilding keeps it all locked down brilliantly, paying respect to Ken Owen’s distinctive style but adding enough flavours of his own to make this a slightly different and, it must be said, tighter beast than before. Ken Owen does appear, though, providing backing vocals.
Once again produced by Colin Richardson, sonically the album is reminiscent of the melodic death metal of the band’s classic ‘Heartwork’ album, although there is plenty of the technical brutality that the band displayed on 1991’s ‘Necroticism – Descanting the Insalubrious’ and even some of ‘Swansong’s choppy riffing, like in the multi-layered “The Master Butcher’s Apron”. Elsewhere, the snappily-titled “Noncompliance to ASTM F 899-12 Standard” is full of those melodic flurries that made ‘Heartwork’ such a stand out album amongst the death metal standards of the day, switching from blast-beats to intricate solos by way of some huge riffs and intense runs up and down the fretboard.
But it isn’t nostalgia that drives ‘Surgical Steel’. Steer and Walker sound as genuinely committed to these songs as they did before the rot of the Columbia/Sony debacle set in, and whilst the album obviously pays great respect to what has gone before – why wouldn’t it? – it also points forward, with songs like “Mount of Execution” opening with an acoustic passage before bursting open into a steady grind before closing out with the sort of twisted groove that the band excel in.
Had this album come out back in 1995 then things may have turned out differently for Carcass because, for all intents and purposes, ‘Surgical Steel’ is the proper follow-up to ‘Heartwork’ that we should have had back then. But at the same time this is also an album that feels a part of the 21st century metal scene, a statement from a band not content with trading off their past glories and who are forging ahead with fresh enthusiasm and a set of killer songs that easily equal anything from their back catalogue. It’s obvious that this is no mere cash-in and the band are enjoying making this type of music again, and ‘Surgical Steel’ is one hell of a mighty comeback.