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Carcass is a band that needs no introduction, but I'll give one anyway in case you somehow don't know. From their early pioneering days as a three-piece goregrind band to their groundbreaking experiments with technical, then melodic death metal toward the end of their career, few (if any) bands have influenced and inspired so many future musicians in so many different walks of metal. Simply put, Carcass is one of the best and most important extreme metal bands of all time, and when dealing with such a legendary act that walked so many different musical paths, one question always tends to pop up: what is their best album? For me, without a doubt, the answer is Symphonies of Sickness.
Everyone has their ideal Carcass era, but for me, the best days of the band's existence were back in the late 80's as a young three-piece, without the distracting mainstream tendencies Michael Amott would bring to the table or the emergeance of Jeff Walker's bloated (and destructive) ego. Despite their young age, one can immediately realize that Carcass needed neither of those things to make great music, although they still managed to do that even later on. Symphonies of Sickness is the best kind of sophmore release, building off of the foundations laid by the band's debut while growing and improving on it in every aspect. There's no doubt about it, Reek Of Putrefaction was a landmark album that paved the way for hundreds of aspiring acts and had the musical competance to back it up. However, Symphonies absolutely crushes that album in so many ways, from the production to the musicianship to the songs themselves, that its hard for me to even really listen to that album anymore without having the desire to throw this on instead.
The most obvious area of improvement from the debut is the production. ROP had, without question, one of the most crippling production jobs on the music at hand ever heard, before or since. It no doubt ruined the album for many people and even for those that can stomach the production (like myself) the music contained, while great in its own right, will always be tainted by that horribly muffled sound unless someone re-masters it. Symphonies's production, while still not perfect, is improved tenfold since the debut. The guitar and bass sound, the worse offence from Reek, is clear, loud, and devestatingly heavy this time around. Some of the riffs are still a little hard to make out at first, but the overall tone is excellent and would provide the blueprint for the hordes of immitators that would follow in Carcass's wake. The vocals of Steer and Walker, likewise, sound fantastic. Walkers's high-register vox are actually intelligable (occasionally), and Steer's brutal low delivery sounds suitably doomy and deranged. The only area where the production falters slightly is the drums, which are mixed a little too low. Its not a problem most of the time, but sometimes the immense guitar sound buries the snare, particularly during blasting parts. Not really a big deal though, as repeated listens will have you familiar with what is being played.
What IS a big deal is the suprisingly advanced and mature songwriting Carcass displays on this album. Considering this only came out a year after the debut, the leaps and bounds the band made in constructing their songs is amazing. All of the ten tracks presented here are all much longer than the band's earlier material, and the riffing and song structures are suitably more complex and technical, while still retaining the great sense of catchiness that set the band apart from many of their peers. All of the songs are simply filled with great hooks; from the eerie main riff and blasting intro of "Reek Of Putrefaction" to the sick breakdown that introduces "Ruptured In Purulence", these are songs that take a few listens to sink in, but once they do, become totally addicting. There's a subtle melodic tint to many of the passages that really gives depth to the compositions; see the bizaare melody that backs Walker's vicious vocal tyrade at the beginning of "Emaciating Abdominal Emanation" and the hauntingly catchy riff to the chorus of "Swarming Mass Of Infected Virulency." But Carcass is adept at balancing the more melodic segments with the brutal ones, and believe me when I say that this album practically seethes with agression and heaviness. The music, and the ridiculous lyrics that accompany it, create such a delightfully evil atmosphere that its hard not to crack a malicious grin when Walker snarls such wonderfully twisted poetry as "Vilely I deflile/Chastise, humiliate/Rithing agonised as I violate to impregnate!" All in all, Carcass pretty much hit the nail on the fucking head when it comes to composing compelling goregrind and death metal music, and the skillfull mix of technicality and melody with sheer unadulterated brutality strikes a perfect balance that few bands have ever achieved.
While the playing on the band's furture material (particulary their next album) would take a jump in technicality, the musicianship on Symphonies of Sickness is stellar nonetheless. Bill Steer's solos have progressed from the mindless noisy shrieking of the first album to skillfully composed, melodic leads that always stand out in the songs, and the riffing played by both axemen is diverse and intelligent. Ken Owen's drumming has also noticeably improved, particularly the new implementation of double bass drums that works effectively. But I'd have to say that my favorite area in terms of member performance would have to be the vocals. Guitarist Steer still had a large role vocally on this album, before being gradually nudged out in favor of the aforementioned Walker ego on future works, and the vocal tagteam of Jeff Walker's vicious high snarl and pitchshifted roar with Steer's unusual yet brilliant brutal death grunts makes for perhaps extreme metal's most successfull dual-vocal effort. Whether the pair is screaming and grunting in tandem for one of the album's fantastic chorus or alternating lyrical passages by themselves, the vocals on this album are not only outstanding in their own right, but would prove to be perhaps the most influential aspect of Carcass's sound, with literally hundreds off band's ripping off the group's trademark high/low approach. In fact, when you consider how complicated the lyrics are, and how technical the music at hand is, the fact that Carcass managed to sing these lyrics WHILE playing their instruments at the same time is pretty damn impressive, and makes you realize how deceptively demanding these songs are.
Basically, if you are a fan of death metal and grindcore and you don't own this album, you are missing out on what I would easily call one of the five most important releases in those fields. From the groundbreaking songwriting to the great production and awesome vocals, this is simply a mandatory own. While Carcass would tread an equally successfull path with their next album, the supreme pure death metal of Necroticism, and later melodic death with Heartwork, the definitive statement of Carcass as a band will, for me, always be Symphonies Of Sickness. A masterpiece that deserves nothing less than a perfect score.