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Usually the terms “death-grind” and “symphonic” don’t exactly go hand in hand, but, surprisingly enough, the collocation makes plenty of sense as pertaining to the second full-length album by the British godfathers of gore-grind-death (yeah, whatever), the incomparable Carcass. I must admit I was initially quite wary of this record after listening to a couple of snippets off the band’s debut Reek of Putrefaction left me less than impressed – that blurry mishmash of indecipherable guitar chugging, completely unintelligible gargles and grunts and seemingly incessant blast beats, with the various ingredients almost impossible to tell apart thanks to the utterly amateurish production, just didn’t sound up to par for a band that would later go on to release one of THE greatest death metal classics of all time in the form of the seminal Necroticism. Sure, Reek of Putrefaction is itself a groundbreaking classic that helped spawn an entire genre, and maybe repeated exposure would sway me to a more favorable assessment, but what I had heard of it left me somewhat undecided as to whether its follow-up was really worth a try.
Well, obviously it’s time once again to help myself to an ample serving of humble pie, as Symphonies of Sickness is not only a quantum leap compared to the band’s debut but even comes surprisingly close in quality to its monolithic successor. Although this is not quite as refined and mature as Necroticism it is still far more musically proficient than one would expect, especially considering that the album was released just a little more than a year after Reek of Putrefaction. Whereas the latter seemed more like a random assortment of half-baked ideas and rushed outbursts of fury, Symphonies of Sickness, while retaining the raw visceral edge of its predecessor, is a collection of ten well thought-out compositions brimming with distinct guitar riffs, variable drumming, blistering solos and even some sparsely yet intelligently employed guitar leads that clearly hint at what the band would later become. There are even a few very discrete keyboard touches that further underline the overall atmosphere, like in the intro to the opening track or in “Swarming Vulgar Mass of Infected Virulency.” These obvious enhancements to the sound of the previous album manifest themselves in songs that are much more diversified than before, deftly alternating frantic blast-beat passages (which are still fairly dominant) with powerful mid-paced sections that are more riff-oriented and help create songs that are both longer (the length of the tracks ranges from a little over three to just under six minutes) and more memorable than before. As a whole this album definitely falls more under the death metal than the grindcore category – another marked departure from the debut, which was decidedly more grind than death.
Make no mistake, though – the gargles and grunts are still there, and they are almost as unintelligible as before, only that this time around the production brings out the best in the band’s patented blend of raspy snarls courtesy of Jeff Walker and Bill Steer’s ultra-deep bellows. Colin Richardson, death metal producer of choice in the nineties, did a truly masterful job here, endowing the band with a sound that’s at the same time primal and raw yet also differentiated enough to render every instrument clearly audible (even the bass has its moments in the spotlight, as in the beginning of “Ruptured in Purulence” or at the end of “Empathological Necroticism”), and it’s the combination of production, vocals and trademark medical-dictionary lyrics recounting tales of decomposition and gore that creates a pervading atmosphere of, for lack of a better term, sickness. Adding to this are the fleeting passages of subtle melody underneath the inferno of blast beats and ultra-heavily distorted guitars, like, for instance, the one which begins at 1:56 into the opener “Reek of Putrefaction” and, after a beautiful solo using the same theme, is repeated again at the 3:39 mark. It is these moments of haunting melody coupled with the intelligently structured songwriting that at times give this album a truly symphonic feel, despite the fact that the music itself remains inherently unmelodic in nature.
In terms of the musical performance on display, special mention has to go to drummer Ken Owen, whose play is both varied and individual – though he constantly pounds his drums like a maniac he never seems to miss a beat, all the while keeping things interesting by providing different textures and rather unique fills.
In all, though it doesn’t quite reach the dizzying heights of the band’s undisputed masterpiece Necroticism, Symphonies of Sickness is an amazing recording in its own right that is leaps and bounds above the efforts of many a lesser band from the death-grind genre. By the way, should you consider purchasing this record, try and get a hold of the reissue that features the original “gore” cover depicting an array of various body parts in varying stages of decomposition (“Pedigree Butchery”, if you will); yes, it’s actually pretty sick, meaning it just fits the music and lyrics a lot better than the medical drawings that adorned the cover of the older CD version. Oh, and for all you politically and ethically correct fellows out there who might feel offended by the lyrical and graphical subject matter: read through the words to some of the songs and maybe you’ll stumble across some subtle hints of humor indicating that the boys had their tongues placed firmly in cheek while writing this …
Choicest cuts: Reek of Putrefaction, Exhume to Consume, Ruptured in Purulence, Embryonic Necropsy and Devourment