Anyone who knows me, or has read enough of my writing, knows that I'm not much of a fan of death metal. Most of it is too sloppy, too noisy, or just too far removed from what I consider the heart of music for me to get a lot of enjoyment from it. I understand why people love it, but I would never be able to throw myself headlong into the genre. In a discussion I had with my colleague Drew a while back, I challenged myself to make a list of my five favorite death metal albums. Smack dab in the middle of that list was Carcass' landmark “Heartwork”.
That album, as much as any other, crystallized what I consider death metal in its optimal form. Bill Steer and Michael Amott provided more great riffs than I've ever heard another extreme band produce, Jeff Walker's lyrics were among the most intelligent in all of metal, and the whole affair dripped with class. “Heartwork” may have offended the underground, but it was the defining statement that proved extreme metal could indeed by art.
Seventeen years after their last album, Carcass has arisen from the ashes once again, to a landscape littered with bands who have made careers ripping them off. Comebacks rarely live up to the hype, but “Surgical Steel” crushes every death metal band who calls Carcass an influence. This is what a comeback is supposed to be; a statement that no imitation can ever compare to the original, and that the fire still burns inside to make great music.
What's most amazing about “Surgical Steel” is that after all these years, and Bill Steer's foray into classic rock with Firebird, the album is unmistakable as anything but classic Carcass. From the first notes to the last, “Surgical Steel” is a perfect encapsulation of Carcass' prime, those years where they emerged from the underground and produced two legendary albums of staggering artistic growth.
Bill Steer, now acting as the sole guitarist for the band, single-handedly trumps every other death metal guitarist on the scene. His death metal by way of classic rock riffing is jaw-dropping at times, how he's able to weave guitar melodies atop the frenzy, how he can write shockingly heavy riffs that are razor-sharp and unforgettable. Whether thrashing through the madcap “Thrasher's Abattoir”, or galloping through the eight minute epic “Mount Of Execution” like Iron Maiden playing on the Devil's stage in Hell, Steer's riffs are instantly memorable, hooky, and damn near singable most of the time. While other bands are content to chug along, Steer and company show how it's supposed to be done.
Not to be outdone, Jeff Walker snarls his way through the album's cuts with the ferocity of a man half his age, his approach still unique in a world bearing his influence. Medical terminology in hand, the images Walker paints are no less cruel and disturbing as those of more perverse bands, but done with an intelligent touch that makes the truth contained therein ring that much louder.
I'd hate to resort to comparing “Surgical Steel” to the legendary “Heartwork”, but it's hard to avoid, considering how close this album comes to matching what I thought was an unreachable standard. There isn't that one track that blows me away and captures my attention like the title track off “Heartwork”, but top to bottom, “Surgical Steel” is as strong as anything Carcass, or anyone else, has done.
With a masterful production job, a guitar feast, and intelligent songwriting unlike anything death metal has offered up recently, “Surgical Steel” is as close to the perfect death metal album as has been released in ages.