Ever been disappointed with a pretty good album?
On the one hand, I haven’t either.
But then… on the other hand…
Let’s get that first cat right out of the bag: Torn Arteries is a pretty good album. We were expecting that, of course — Carcass doesn’t really make bad records; it’s just not what they do. But it’s also the second-worst Carcass record, just above the half-hearted rock/metal of Swansong.
Unfortunately for those of us looking for grindier sounds, Carcass’ nostalgia only goes back so far. Long gone are the gore-gurgle vocals and the razor-raw controlled chaos of the earliest days; what’s left is an amalgam of their shined-up 90s heyday, a formula that feels almost focus-grouped in its obvious attempt to distill the latter half of Carcass’ intra-catalog stylistic shifts into one archetypal omni-Carcass. And for the most part, that formula works well enough. Often mentioned in the list of metal’s best comeback albums, 2013’s Surgical Steel offered nothing at all in the way of surprises beyond its mere existence, but that lack of surprises seemed very much to be the point. It was almost custom-designed to slot between Necroticism and Heartwork, those twin towers of the band’s discography that are generally cited as fans’ favorites. But then follow-up EP Despicable saw that focus shift just a bit chronologically forward, fitting instead more between Heartwork and Swansong, and any fan will tell you that’s a downward trajectory.
So what then of Torn Arteries, which, I will remind you, is a pretty good record? In that same Rolling Stone interview, Steer and Jeff Walker relayed that they were trying to inject new ideas into Carcass’ oeuvre, putting new twists on a now thirty-five-year-old approach, but I can’t say for sure that any of those work like they’d hoped. Or honestly that I even noticed many of them at all. Mostly, Torn Arteries feels like the logical follow-up to Despicable and thus a further step from Surgical Steel. It’s got the melodic touches of Heartwork, and dashes of the death/grind mastery of Necroticism, and enough of the rock-based tinges of Swansong. It’s almost entirely midtempo, which is unfortunate, as its greatest failure is that it feels safe and somewhat tired despite any of those attempts to experiment.
Of course, Carcass is Carcass, and again, they don’t really make bad records, even if this one manages to be both disjointed and indistinct. Walker can still craft an overly verbose vocal hook, and Steer can still write some great riffs. So in each instance, bits of songs float up through the same-same melodeath, but only rarely do the pieces coalesce into a fully great song. The title track opens, arguably the best song on Torn Arteries, and one that certainly sets the stage for a level of quality that the remainder falls just short of. Second advance track “Dance Of Ixtab” has a killer grooving main riff that’s lost in a song that largely goes nowhere. The wonderfully titled “Eleanor Rigor Mortis” grinds briefly before dropping into one of the many midtempo grooves that permeate Torn Arteries and never picks back up, while “Under The Scalpel Blade” makes a follow-up appearance from the Despicable EP, the only song to do so. The nearly ten-minute “Flesh Ripping Sonic Torment Limited” squanders a pretty cool chorus and a handful of good chunky riffs in a song that trucks along forever, overlong by a full half of its run-time. First single “Kelly’s Meat Emporium” is the second-best track on hand, one that also showed a promise that isn’t quite realized, and by the time of the stuttering intro to “Wake Up And Smell The Carcass,” which is only four-and-a-half minutes but feels like twice that, almost the whole of Torn Arteries has blurred into a big batch of midtempo melodic death.
So then, you might ask, what makes Torn Arteries a pretty good record? Well, professionalism, I guess. Even the worst Carcass record is still better than a lot of bands’ median output, and Torn Arteries isn’t terrible — it’s just not Necroticism… or Heartwork… or Symphonies Of Sickness… or even Surgical Steel. It’s a pretty good record by a band that has traditionally made only stellar records, and its reception will be dependent upon any fan’s willingness to accept Carcass as a dad-rock act, and upon the listener’s tolerance for fifty minutes of Carcass-by-numbers.
As for me? I like it, even as I know that a pretty good record isn’t good enough, really. I doubt I’ll return to it as often as I do any of the classics, but more often than I return to Swansong (which is almost never). When I’ve worn out the others, there’s enough here to satisfy, even if they’re empty calories.
Nostalgia is a hell of a drug, after all.
And also, the cover art is cool.