Retrospect: Carcass' 'Surgical Steel' 10 years later
'Surgical Steel' is a masterclass in leveraging skill decades after your supposed expiry date has passed
It would have been enough for Carcass to call it a career after Swansong in 1996. Between that and their grindcore roots of the late 1980s/early ‘90s, they had all the clout needed to just not care anymore, maybe start some side-projects, or coast by on those sweet, sweet extreme metal residuals. That’s a thing, right? They’re UK extreme metal legends - were then, and are now.
This is, clearly, not what the hell they did. They found it fit to return in 2013 with a dick-stomper of a comeback album, one of the best ever propagated by an artist of any genre, with Surgical Steel. 11 tight tracks of melodic death metal that really excelled with the foundation set with their gentler LP pivots from grindcore, Heartwork and Swansong.
For my money, I think Swansong’s a pretty good album - arguably their worst, sure, but still an incredibly solid effort if you’re just here for good writing and riffs. Carcass moving deeper into this sonic modality was fine by me. It wasn’t the metallic ass-blast that Symphonies of Sickness or Reek of Putrefaction were, but there was something better on Heartwork and later albums: nuance.
For all of metal’s maximalism, that’s something that gets lost in the noise a bit. I guess that’s by nature - if you’re doing everything at once, how can you do less and stay true? Unless you’re looking at post-metal, prog metal, or other subgenres where ambience rules, you’re not likely to find it, even less so in something death metal-based. But Carcass were pioneers, capable of forward-thinking freshness unlike anything their name suggests.
1993 brought Heartwork, a key progenitor of melodic death metal, the likes of which influenced seemingly countless bands around Europe and the rest of the world, including one modern metal juggernaut I talked about recently. As such, it’s one of the very best in the genre, not bogged down by overstretching, or unwarranted or underbaked integration with other sounds from across the heavy music multiverse. Listen to the intro of “No Love Lost” and tell me how hard it is not to nod your head a bit (difficulty: impossible).
Michael Amott’s involvement pretty much clinched a great album for the band with Heartwork, but even after he left, Bill Steer carried the torch with unfaltering work on guitars and songwriting which kept the band afloat like a cadaver in a lake, even through a prolonged hiatus of 11 years from being active at all and almost 17 between LPs. Along with vocalist/bassist, Jeff Walker, Carcass, paradoxically, lived on.
Dropping on September 13, 2013 via Nuclear Blast Records, Surgical Steel was an album that should not have been. Think about it - how often do you see old bands take extended-ass breaks and come back with anything worth a damn? It’s exceedingly rare, and part of the reason why we have the conception and stereotype that old bands are washed up/should have hung it up years ago/need to move on. We’ve all said it, because we all know at least a handful of bands that we feel just aren’t doing their legacy any favors.
Surgical Steel though? Absolutely reinvigorating for Carcass, veritable smelling salts for the shredding. This album is action-packed with stellar guitar work, solid vocals, and vicious drums from newcomer Daniel Wilding who was only 24 at the time of this album’s release, almost half the age of Bill and Jeff. Dude didn’t sit down and collect an easy check as part of a legacy act either - he more than earned his keep by slamming out some brutally surgical (sorry) rhythms and fills to make this LP more menacing than it would be with the ability to capture extreme metal’s cutting speed and also slow things down for a groove. And believe me, there’s a lot of groove on here.
There’s melodies here that make me wiggle like this cute, very metal otter. Every single song has at least a moment or two where melody is the absolute focus for Carcass; not even vocals sometimes, just uncut, pure riff, the kind that feels illicit to supply - felonious even. One of my favorites is in “The Granulating Dark Satanic Mills” which has two ridiculous riffs that really showcase what Carcass are capable of. The first riff is dark and groovy, slow and churning, to sell the album’s themes of academic violence and elevated death. The third one, right before the first verse kicks in, is just one of the catchiest ones on the whole album, wonderfully complementing the rhythmic timbre Walker’s ghoulish vocals have.
You’ll get a similar feel from “A Congealed Clot of Blood” which has a slower approach when it comes to tempo without lacking any of the heaviness. Not only is this a break between flanking speedy thrasher tracks, but it allows the storytelling of the track to shine as Walker lays out lyrics detailing a bloody (un)holy war waged by false prophets using Islam as the basis. It’s not as Islamophobic as it may sound, more of a stylistic backdrop to tell yet another tale of death and war as death metal is wont to do, common sensibilities be damned.
Much of Surgical Steel spends its time on the speedier end of the spectrum though. “Thrasher’s Abattoir” is a quick post-intro opening salvo of massive drumming and finger-bending guitars, complete with an open-hand slapper of a solo. It’s so fun, I’ll even look past the weirdly cringe, gatekeepy lyrics (“Hipsters and posers I abhor… Welcome to absolute poserslaught”). Or what about “The Master Butcher’s Apron”, a barn burner about British monarchy war machining and imperialism, with its ebb-and-flow attention to pacing. It’s one of the weaker songs on the album and still carries an enormous amount of heft.
One thing Carcass have become known for is being a vegetarian band, though saying it like that is a bit loaded. It’s not like they lace their songs with anti-meat industry rhetoric - though that sort of thing is rife for macabre death metal exploration and many bands already do that - but it does inform Carcass’ brand of violence. “Captive Bolt Pistol” contains many references to the eponymous slaughterhouse mainstay that’s used to stun cattle or other animals before killing them for harvest, usually by hanging and bleeding them from the neck. Here though, it’s turned a bit on its head and used on humans, perhaps a poetic justice moment of dying in a way that we subject hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of animals to daily.
There’s also “Unfit for Human Consumption” which is an official designation in UK public and food safety circles. It’s a sick song, literally and metaphorically, listing various diseases and conditions that can befall food animals to make their meat inedible (“Seductive lymphandetitis/Delectable septic metritis/Tempting glanders jaundice”), but it’s good enough for cadaver dogs. That verse is redirected a bit for the final verse, a biting indictment of meat-eating that’s less scolding and more disgusted (“Indulgent lymphandetitis/Aromatic mastitis/Corrosive carcase rotten and obscene/After all, you are what you eat”). As a meat eater, it’s always unsettling to think about the nature of those industries and maybe that was the point in Carcass writing songs like this.
Since their grindcore inception, Carcass have had a fascination with clinical medicine and gore. Naming your album Surgical Steel wasn’t enough, they had to name songs things like “Noncompliance to ASTM F899-12 Standard” which is a reference to a rule specifying the “chemistry requirement for wrought stainless steel” for manufacturing surgical instruments. A good example of steel compliant to ASTM 4899-12 is “316L Grade Surgical Steel”, basically the gold standard when it comes to corrosion resistance and being high tensile. And they say metal music is degenerate - in this album alone are several things, from vocabulary words to specific medical references, that you need to look up to even begin to understand if you’re not a med student. The songs rip too, just as the implements they’re named after.
Personally, I’m in a precarious place with analyzing Carcass’ work - I didn’t get into them at all until Surgical Steel, but I’ve done my homework over the last decade listening to the classics over and over, enough to solidify them as one of my favorite legacy acts, even rarer for such an act to still be putting out hard and heavy shit like they did in 2021 with Torn Arteries, a direct continuation of what they did with Surgical Steel. The last ten years has allowed the band to sit pretty and create some of the most genuinely engaging, infectiously catchy metal possible without shuffling too far from the heavy core that they’ve always found a way to wield like a wrecking ball. Bill Steer and Jeff Walker in particular, the only original members of the band of course, have only gotten better with age, as cliche as it is. Daniel Wilding injects a youthful vigor into the act by providing some top-notch percussion, and touring members like Nippy Blackford on guitar ensure they can always tear shit up on stage and get heads banging all around the world.
I know a lot of people who don’t see the hype when it comes to Carcass, especially since leaving their heavier roots behind. I get it. So many metal bands - whether motivated by money, fame, or actual creative decisions - make similar moves only to tank their careers and good will with fans. In this context, you can put Carcass up against any other metal band that’s done something like that and it’s very likely they’ll come out on top, the subjectivity of personal taste aside. Still, nothing I’ve said here will convince you to like them, but maybe give Surgical Steel another try if anything. If you don’t like it, you don’t - this is a remarkably visceral, corporeal album that’s best felt. You feel the intense, deep groove on “A Congealed Clot of Blood” put a tinge of creep in the air, or the rollicking, fadeout ending of “Mount of Execution” raise the hair on your arms. It’s tactile because of how much love and care went into it. Surgical Steel would not have been made if it didn’t feel right - Steer said as much himself when talking about the lead-up to dropping this mirror sheen motherfucker.
It feels silly to talk about the relevancy and resilience of something only ten years in the past. It’s a long time ago, sure, but the reason why Surgical Steel was such a hit when it dropped was because it was so absurd competent with or without the context of the band’s history - even Pitchfork dropped their air of pretension to show it some deserved love. Of course this album holds up today, and they’ve only proven that more with the release of Torn Arteries which rides the same wave, but came up just short of the greatness that this album conjured up.
Maybe Carcass always had it in them. From the jump, they always seemed destined for some sort of reverence. Nothing will do that more than pioneering an entire subgenre of music, then showing people - most half your age - how the game is played 30 years later with a project understandably billed as a comeback album, but is it really if you’ve always had it in you to legendary degrees? Like LL Cool J said, “don’t call it a comeback”.