Not many bands can say they helped to launch a genre. (Or to launch a sub-genre, whatever you want to call it. We’re splitting hairs.)
Even fewer bands can say that they helped to launch more than one.
But Carcass can. In the span of five records and less than a decade, this sometime trio / sometime four-piece exhibited a remarkable progression that saw them expanding and perfecting different branches of extreme metal with each subsequent release.
The initial three-piece line-up of these Liverpudlian giants were among those who lead the charge in the early British grindcore scene, beside the likes of Napalm Death, Bolt Thrower, Extreme Noise Terror, Heresy, and Sore Throat. Though there are distinct differences between them, each of those bands was raw, furious, and born as much of hardcore and anarcho-punk as of thrash and speed metals; they ratcheted tempos up to nearly inhuman numbers, only to play songs that were one-minute (or much less) blurs of pure aggression; the guitars and bass were distorted and noisy, sometimes indecipherable atop the blasting, the vocals gurgled and screamed and spat with a venom above and beyond anything anyone had heard before. A new child was born, and the new child was ugly.
In the midst of the birth of grindcore on the whole, Carcass’ lyrical emphasis on medical terminology and general gory grossness would, in turn, directly and almost single-handedly launch the sub-sub-genre of goregrind, paving the way for so many imitators that the term “Carcass worship” would virtually become a genre tag in itself. Pitch-shifted vocals, a pathological obsession with the morbid and pathological, riffs as sharp as scalpels, short bursts of bonesaw-buzzing surgical intensity… Here’s where it really begins, for better or worse, and I’m going with “better,” because thirty years and thousands of goregrind records later (many of them excellent, and many more of them very good), no one has yet done it better than Carcass did.
From humble and woefully underproduced beginnings in Reek Of Putrefaction, Carcass cleaned up their production and tightened up their metal, improving on both fronts with each subsequent release. Through the death/grind hybrid of Symphonies Of Sickness to the full-on death metal of Necroticism to the melodeath masterclass of Heartwork and the death ‘n’ roll drive (some might say “dive”) of Swansong, Carcass expanded not only their own horizons, but those of extreme metal on the whole with every new album. They rode the first wave of grindcore and invented goregrind along the way; they perfected a death/grind hybrid all their own, one that set the template for countless clones. And then, not content to just be nasty, they added melody and musicality without sacrificing any of their intensity, releasing one of melodic death metal’s earliest and strongest touchstone albums. Finally, they dropped into a rot ‘n’ roll groove by the end of their first era, stripping down the death back a notch in favor of a more accessible aggression. That’s five sub-genres across as many records, each performed impeccably, each perfect in their own way, all shades of the same bloody red but all distinctly different. Ask a Carcass fan to name the best Carcass record, and you’re very likely to get five different answers, depending on which of the band’s forays into various styles that particular fan holds dearest. (Author’s note: The correct answer is Symphonies Of Sickness.)
Now fifteen years into the second chapter of their career, Carcass has settled into the role of elder statesmen of extremity. Though it offered little in the way of musical surprises, Surgical Steel was one hell of a comeback, showing the returning duo of Walker and Steer still on top of their game despite a decade-and-a-half hiatus. Last year’s Despicable EP was a bit of a holding pattern, not bad but not transcendent, but if the first single from the forthcoming Torn Arteries is any indication, there’s still plenty of gore left for these gods to grind.
In preparation for the new, come along now and let’s take a walk through the morgue and check out thirteen of the most rotten Carcass-es… [ANDREW EDMUNDS]
CARNAL FORGE[Heartwork, 1993]
For the first minute or so, “Carnal Forge”, the second track on Heartwork, seems like a straightforward, albeit catchy and thrashy number. For a melodic death metal song, the initial riffs are focused more on punishing staccato rhythms than they are on melody. This is Heartwork, however, an album so brimming with musicality that even the most seemingly stock tunes are filled with luxury features. Consequently, after blazing through the first chorus, all of a sudden, it’s sexy time. The band slips into a half-time groove and Bill Steer delivers an exquisite, silky smooth solo. There’s your melody, ladies and gents, and it’s the real genital grinder, if you know what I mean. The half-time grind continues a bit longer, but with a decidedly more menacing bent as the band slowly, but purposefully works itself back into a thrashing furry, just in time for Michael Amott to deliver a certified guitar hero-grade solo that would do Randy Rhoads proud.
Ultimately what makes “Carnal Forge” such a great track is what makes Heartwork such a great album: In five minutes or less, Carcass gives you light and shade, beauty and terror, blistering speed and creeping death. The band gives you everything and everything is performed impeccably. [JEREMY MORSE]
BURNT TO A CRISP[Reek of Putrefaction, 1988]
So I was a little (OK, a lot) slow in digging back through Carcass’s pre-Heartwork catalog. What I needed was someone to give me a giant kick in the ass, and who better than a Carcass-obsessed college freshman who built his entire college radio profile around them? I used to hang out in the studio with him and he wasn’t having any of this melodic business, no sir. He made sure we all got Reek of Putrefaction rammed up, in, and through every orifice we had. “Burnt to a Crisp” was a favorite, and the first thing I ever heard off the album.
I was floored. This wasn’t anything like I was expecting from their first album. It was still filthy as hell, but… it had melody, structure, vocals you could tell were words. It chugged and churned in a death metal vein and grinded away at ridiculous speeds in between. It had a closing solo named “Malevolent Scrotal Incendiary Including Extreme Hate.” Why had I been so trepidatious? They were kicking my ass and I was liking it. “Forgive me, for I have sinned!” I’m pretty sure I exclaimed to nobody in particular, as they incinerated just about every preconceived notion I had of what grindcore was.
Oh I would soon come to learn that they were full of surprises and often exactly what I thought they’d be, but it was a good thing. “Burnt to a Crisp” wasn’t the straightest line line to Carcass’s days of residency, but it damn sure was direct. [DAVE PIRTLE]
CORPORAL JIGSORE QUANDARY[Necroticism – Descanting the Insalubrious, 1991]
After a sample discussing the aspects of identifying dismembered bodies and a brief drum intro, “Corporal Jigsore Quandary” hits the listener with one of Carcass’ most iconic riffs. When I think of this band, it’s this riff and the one from “Heartwork” that first pop into my head. It chugs and it flows with equal measure while the stop-start kick rolls provide a glimmer of groove that make it impossible to not bang your head. From there, Walker and Steer trade off snarls that bite harder than a snapping turtle. Around the 3:30 mark, a mighty roar and momentary dip in the guitar notes announce the first of two absolutely glorious leads and right between the two is another top-notch riff that hints at the type of melody they would more steadily rely on moving forward. The majority of the remaining runtime hunkers down into an almost doomy and ominous realm punctuated by gross gurgles and other vocalizations that carry no words before one final twisting passage concludes the track.
Oh and how about the amazing lyrical concept for this one? The whole song is about a human meat puzzle, which has to be one of the greatest death metal topics ever. Check out this snippet:
“A pathological toy, each chunk rigorously
Inter mortis locking, as you pathogenically rot
Such a perplexing task
To fit the remains in the casket
Uliginous mess so quiescent…”
NONCOMPLIANCE TO ASTM F899-12 STANDARD[Surgical Steel, 2013]
You clearly don’t need me to tell you what a big deal Surgical Steel was for Carcass fans after it finally dropped back in 2013. However, for the sake of clarity: If you’re the sort of individual that either jumped in fairly late to the game or who, at the least, appreciated the band’s journey from gutter grind to insanely melodic sophistication, you were likely rather underwhelmed with Carcass’ literal swan song (er…onetime swan song) and spent the whole of Surgical Steel’s 47 minutes doing the sorts of flips that could prompt a tidal wave of Béla Károlyi spit-takes. Was the record better than Necroticism or Heartwork? C’mon… Get outta here with that stuff. What it absolutely did, however, was make the lines separating the age-old “please progress / please regress” conundrum blur enough that we maybe perhaps possibly stopped remembering how incorrigible we all are just long enough to simply enjoy having these totally degree-less surgeons slice into our bodies with melodic and reckless abandon.
Although the record is stacked to the rafters with songs that cut straight to the heart, it is “Noncompliance to ASTM F899-12 Standard” that does so with the strongest nod back to the Necroticism / Heartwork days, and it does so while underscoring melody in an absolutely maniacal manner. That lyrical opening fret-run will stick to the brainpan until the end of time, and the overall speed, energy and utterly seamless fluidity dispensed as the song whips, tricks and dips is enough to keep you beaming even in the darkest of times. Solos: un-named :’( [CAPTAIN]
TOOLS OF THE TRADE[Tools of the Trade, 1992]
Becoming a fan of Carcass in the mid-90s meant learning very quickly that Heartwork represented a rather drastic stylistic shift. Wake Up and Smell the Carcass and its reverse chronology soon provided the chance to hear the band devolve from the melodic death metal of the day to their snotty goregrind origins. I still wasn’t impressed, but smack dab in the middle of the track listing was a glimmer of hope: “Tools of the Trade.”
This was the bridge between two eras: the speed, guttural growls, and low-fi production of grind (a genre which I was not a fan of at the time) entangled with the riffs, comprehensible vocals, and song structures of melodic death (which I didn’t even know was a thing). It’s the audio equivalent of a poor sap being dissected and dismembered, delectably disgusting. Some of the medical stuff was a bit silly, but you could hear where they had come from, and you could hear where they were going (and wish that they had kept the crazy naming for their solos). Still a far, jarring cry from “Heartwork”, but at that time, it was what I needed to convince myself that the earlier stuff was worth hunting down.
It would be a couple more years before I’d finally find my way back to proper full-lengths, and I’d always held on to “Tools of the Trade” as a motivator to track them down. The track became so embedded in my mind that when it came time to add a knife set to my wedding registry, I opted for the Tools of the Trade brand, and pronounced it just like Jeff Walker (in my head) as I scanned it in. [DAVE PIRTLE]
PYOSISIFIED (ROTTEN TO THE GORE)[Reek of Putrefaction, 1988]
Let us first address the elephant in the room: Paul Talbot’s work on Reek Of Putrefaction may well be the pinnacle of music production. You hear that, audio engineers around the world? Take your reference copies of Aja and OK Computer and Pet Sounds and insert them into your vomited anal tract. Nothing will ever sound as dynamic and perfectly well-crafted as this record.
I’m being ridiculous, of course. Imagine a world where Reek Of Putrefaction became the gold standard for audio engineering. (Looks sideways at stack of Agathocles and Haggus records.) Sonically, as has been mentioned in roughly every single piece ever written about it, this first Carcass album is a total shitshow, a muffled and rushed roughshod calamity that the band was “anything but happy with,” per guitarist Bill Steer. And yet, Reek Of Putrefaction was also the sound of a new sub-genre being born, and though it likely seemed incredibly unfathomable at the time, this album has been often imitated (and seldom equalled) in the thirty years since, even if (or perhaps entirely because) it sounds like something went horribly, horribly wrong.
So while initial listens are confounding at best (and off-putting at worst), when the dedicated grindophile scrapes away the piles of mud and shit, Reek Of Putrefaction is actually quite a strong album, filled with killer riffs and gut-churning grind and pointing directly toward the more refined mastery of Symphonies Of Sickness a few years down the road. At nearly three minutes, “Pyosisified (Rotten To The Gore)” is one of Reek’s two “epics” (the other, “Oxidised Razor Masticator” also deserves a spot on this list, if you ask me), and it’s a clear-cut example of how early Carcass still brought the gory goods, even if you can hardly hear it. That mid-section lurching trudge? Perfect. The way it drops right into a blasting goregrind cacophony? Also perfect. The descending riff that you can barely make out because the guitars are tuned lower than the engineer apparently could hear? That’s a great riff, just begging to be noticed, waving its hand since that’s all that’s above the mire. They’re all here, all the tools of Carcass’ trade. You just gotta dig for ‘em. [ANDREW EDMUNDS]
REEK OF PUTREFACTION[Symphonies of Sickness, 1989]
For context, imagine it’s 1989. Furthermore, and I know this might be a lot to ask, but imagine you’re John Peel. You’ve heard Reek of Putrefaction, the debut from this bizarre Liverpool band spawning from the cesspools of grindcore. You heard a brilliance in the haze of the–ahem– traditionally “sub-optimal” production, even going so far as to invest in this band, and, at extreme risk to your reputation, amplify them with a treasured spot on your radio program. Now imagine you’re dropping the needle on this bizarre, grotesque band’s follow-up effort, Symphonies Of Sickness, for the first time. Confusingly enough, it begins with “Reek Of Putrefaction.”
Imagine hearing those cymbals crash out of the warped pulsing noise that starts off “Reek.” Imagine hearing that thin production on the debut given some depth, apparent even from the suspense oozing from the synths echoing haunting, hollow breaths. Hearing Jeff Walker’s vocals converting from a dry and distant snarl on the Reek album into the wet and odorous gurgle that belches out at the 0:33 mark. The chainsaw-cranking windup howls in the form of the whammy squeals, screaming across the soundscape. There’s anticipation in the little hammer-ons between the chords of the introductory riff, and it all accumulates into pulsating tachycardian anticipation. The tension across the introduction to the song alone consumes a full third of the track’s total length. It gets the heart pounding, the blood pressure building as adrenaline secrets its way from the glands and into the clusterfuck of erythrocytes.
The hormone, spawned from fear and the anxiety/relief of amputative catharsis, pumps heartily through the bloodstream as Ken Owen’s teeth-chattering blast beats rattle with amphetamine bruxism. They never stop moving, even from the blast transition to the blitzkrieg d-beat and through to the gastrointestinal spillage of the grove section. The sticks whirl their way down the toms as the kicks thud with the hyperactive intensity and surprising weight of exposed tissue spilling from the open incisions. The palm mutes blur their way across the soundscape, wielding a surgical blade across the exposed, vulnerable flesh of the organs that pulse so intently from the rhythm section. The hypertension in the track alone spews blood with every slice, cut, and incisition across every inch of the crude operating room.
It is hard to put oneself in the position of John Peel listening to “Reek Of Putrifaction” and not already be blown away at the fully realized potential of the band you heard such promise in, let alone what they would go on to become. The excitement at hearing the sounds that were but only teased before being actualized by Carcass as the major step up to the work that would go on to be a definitive leap in the evolution of gross, gory, grindy death metal, a scar that that still lurks within the delicious wounds Carcass inflicted on the flesh of extreme metal so many years ago. [RYAN TYSINGER]
PEDIGREE BUTCHERY[Necroticism – Descanting the Insalubrious, 1991]
Have you ever looked at your dog and thought, “I wonder how much you’d enjoy eating me if I were crammed into a tree shredder and then added to some dry kibble mostly comprised of sawdust?” The answer is A LOT. Your dog would probably like that a lot. And then he or she would likely wonder where the hell you went like five minutes later. For this reason alone, look to humans other than yourself to press into a tree shredder when considering bolstering your dog’s diet with meat that’s likely somehow worse for them than the canned horse lungs and zoo odds-n-ends they normally scarf down at 6am. That stout Amazon delivery person who always peeps in the window when they drop off culottes and instapots, for example—excellent choice.
Hey, it’s Michael Amott! Sure am glad he was never fed to the dogs, because ushering him into the Carcass fold for Necroticism resulted in one of the most crucial developmental building blocks for melodic death metal, like, ever. Sure, Carcass probably would’ve headed in this notably more technical direction even if they’d netted Billie Joe Armstrong for second guitar, but the Steer / Amott back-and-forth throughout Necroticism—and particularly with regard to the four distinct lead break-outs within “Pedigree Butchery”—was just sublime, and I don’t mean Sublime the reggae-rock band that should’ve been ground up and fed to mongrels thirty years ago.
In truth, you could probably pick just about any song from Necroticism and make a case for it being the most exceptional—the album’s just that good. But “Pedigree Butchery” wins the day because it’s got a fresh beat you can dance to, the leads are particularly effervescent and contrast Steer’s vulgar riffing perfectly, and by God, it’s just plain fun to think about ol’ Sarge scarfing down a hearty can of Kid Rock ’n’ Vital Organ Meats. Solos: Gutted, Hashed and Deboned; Prepared On the Slab; Choicest, Prime Cuts; and Firm, Meaty Chunks. [CAPTAIN]
THIS MORTAL COIL[Heartwork, 1993]
“This Mortal Coil” is a pitch-perfect track to kick off Heartwork’s B-side, particularly coming on the heels of the thick, chugging swagger of side A’s closer “Embodiment.” The opening riff is a sharp, clinically slicing thing, taut and off-balance in its drop-beat shuffle which immediately sets a contrast to much of the blossoming groove to be found throughout the rest of the album. It flits around for nearly a full minute before dropping into a spryly bouncing gallop with the verse, but the most impressive thing is how fluidly the band drops in and out of that quick-meter riff and the song’s other sections. The bridge that follows the solo section pulls way back, so much so that it almost seems to slow down. Ken Owen’s drumming on this track in particular is a model of economy, punching in louder as just the right spots but then laying back to highlight the fleet, almost airy interlocked guitars from Steer and Amott.
With the hindsight of almost 20 years’ distance, it’s tempting and easy to try and look at Heartwork as either a purely transitional album, or somehow as the apotheosis of everything Carcass ever wanted to accomplish. It even makes sense to want to contextualize the album as part of a death metal push for the mainstream, or in terms of the development of death ‘n roll (Entombed’s Wolverine Blues was released just two weeks prior to Heartwork), or in terms of the still somewhat nascent melodic death metal scene (Dark Tranquillity’s Skydancer had been released a few months prior, and At the Gates had debuted one year before). If there’s some truth in a lot of that, though, it does a disservice to an album absolutely littered with death metal piss and heavy metal vinegar, swinging for fences that maybe had yet to be built. Carcass has yet to release the same album twice, and what a song like “This Mortal Coil” reveals is that tomorrow’s legends are always today’s toilers, sweating it out one riff and one stitched-up transition at a time, playing with all the confidence they can muster and trying to see if they can punch it one level higher. [DAN OBSTKRIEG]
RUPTURED IN PURULENCE[Symphonies of Sickness, 1989]
There’s of course a lot to be said about the way Symphonies of Sickness kicks off with a song as overwhelming as “Reek of Putrefaction”; speaking as an individual crusty enough to have been there when the album first dropped, I can confirm that literally nothing outside of an alligator battle over a drowned wildebeest sounded as unhinged as Carcass circa 1989. (Macabre was close, but perhaps a little too muppet-like.) “Ruptured in Purulence,” though—that’s the song you played for your friends who hadn’t yet had the Carcass pleasure, even (or perhaps especially) those friends who couldn’t even care less about metal. There’s just something about the frolicsome manner in which the song opens with Ken Owen gingerly tapping out that entrance beat, Jeff Walker’s ensuing YE-OWWW replete with brutal bass flutterings, and the whammy-squeal that conjures yet another Bill Steer riff eruption—it’s like a siren’s song to any and all oddities exploring the deepest recesses of the early Earache extreme metal treasure trove. The opening minute-or-so is just so…danceable, while the remaining 3 minutes finds itself largely dead set on shredding your face to ribbons with an interminable vortex of gurgle-durgle vocals and “music” that sounds like the very literal aural translation of having a carbuncle nestled deep in the forbidden depths of your large intestine…well, rupture in purulence! Solo: Smeared Organic Mess. [CAPTAIN]
INCARNATED SOLVENT ABUSE[Necroticism – Descanting the Insalubrious, 1991]
“Incarnated Solvent Abuse” holds a bit of an interesting place in the context of Necroticism. On one hand, it’s among the album’s most direct songs, coming in at an even five minutes, a good deal shorter than many of the quite-long-by-Carcass-standards songs. But on the other, it’s always felt like a bit of a centerpiece, thanks in large part to the way it starts: in extremely alarming fashion.
After the requisite pathological intro, the track shrieks itself into existence with the sound of a thousand ambulance sirens all fighting for your attention, and they’ll have it with every grinding blast and jarring riff. It’s all the more alarming because it isn’t even the very first piece of music in the song. It’s preceded by the briefest of chunky riffs that is almost immediately taken over by those klaxons, serving as both a bit of a false start and preview for the rest of the song’s brutal heft. It’s a sneaky little trick and a downright perfect kickoff to a monster tune.
Soon things settle as much as Carcass ever settled during this era, trading off between a catchy drive featuring some key bass progressions and sections of extra riff chonk, with the vocals adding the majority of the splatter. The track builds through controlled chaos, rumbling and bouncing and almost seeming to fold over on itself before it eases up a tad and arrives at a smooth Bill Steer lead. The rest of the song then seems like a journey back to the start, calling back to previous sections, offering yet another solo (this time from Mike Amott), and dropping into a dragging and almost smartassingly deliberate passage ‒ complete with Ken Owens’s great syncopated hi-hat use ‒ with the opening sirens eventually returning to close it out.
And a more fitting bookend there could not be. “Incarnated Solvent Abuse” covers as much if not more range than the longer tunes on this particularly dizzying, whiplashing record. It demands your attention, rewards you greatly when you comply, and then demands your attention again before leaving you wondering what the latest emergency was all about.[ZACH DUVALL]
In the span of five years, Carcass had gone from releasing one of the worst-sounding debuts ever to releasing an album on Columbia Records through that label’s ill-fated partnership with grindcore pioneers Earache.
They’d also grown up, shifting from gnarly gory grindcore gods to a precision-tuned melodic death metal machine, so, in retrospect, the major label signing makes a bit of sense. If there’s any death metal album that’s ever been released that could’ve courted mainstream success without generating immediate cries of “sell out,” then Heartwork is it. Building on the razor-sharp riffage and meathook-to-the-skull catchiness of its predecessor in Necroticism, Heartwork balances its melodic sensibilities against a hefty death metal underpinning. It was both the logical continuation of their trajectory and a massive leap forward in their musicality, one that eschewed the medical dictionary lyrical slant in favor of an equally verbose sociopolitical angle. It also left behind the gore-gurgle vocals — the last vestige of the goregrind in their sound — in favor of a newfound focus upon only Walker’s snotty snarl. And yet, even as it was a clear break from the Carcass of the past, Heartwork was and is of such undeniable quality that it established a new direction for a band that had already released two straight classic records and it managed to bring along a good number of the fans in the process.
As the title track of one of the greatest extreme metal albums of an era, there’s a lot riding on the song “Heartwork,” but it delivers, no question. In fact, it overdelivers, laying waste to everything around it with a quick tremolo-picked d-beat raging intro that resolves into some sweet Amott-Steer interplay and an eminently hooky verse/chorus combo. Still, as immediate as that “a canvas to paint, to degenerate” chorus is — and just try not to scream along with it, I dare you —it’s the song’s ferocious bridge section that gets me every time, a quick detour into pounding kick-drums that are balanced against a descending chord pattern and the return of that tremolo-picked intro. This is melodic death metal power, perfect in four-point-five minutes, and one of the earliest examples of how metal can be both utterly destructive and legitimately catchy. [ANDREW EDMUNDS]
EXHUME TO CONSUME[Symphonies of Sickness, 1989]
With two quick hits and a little guitar squeal, “Exhume to Consume” is off to the races with another patented putrid plucky Carcass riff accompanied by the grossest era of the band’s vocals being rhythmically vomited into your ears. If that wasn’t punishing enough, the kick drums are blasting away to create extra puncture wounds in your cranium. The song then decomposes into a buzzing bacterial sprint that’s regularly sliced through with bends so perfect they’ll give you vertigo. Don’t worry though, Carcass knows you want a sickly lead, so at the 1:30 mark everything opens up and a twiddley tinny guitar crawls through your skull with an eerie tone equivalent to an evil cartoon mortician’s voice. The speed is brought back to the forefront and the final minute of the song is a Ken Owen drum clinic as he blasts, rolls and fills like a maniac beating the hell out of the kit as if he just found out it dug up his mom’s corpse and had relations with it.
If you haven’t listened to Symphonies of Sickness in a while, it’s time for you to exhume the album from the crypts of your collection and consume it in full. Bless yourself with the rot! [SPENCER HOTZ]