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Surgical Strike - 87%

lonerider, May 19th, 2017
Written based on this version: 2013, CD, Nuclear Blast

It was with much fanfare that the legendary Carcass, revered trailblazers of deathgrind and melodic death metal, announced their return a couple of years ago – after all, their first four albums are universally regarded as classics, either because of their pioneering spirit (Reek of Putrefaction), their musical brilliance (Symphonies of Sickness and especially Necroticism) or both (Heartwork). After rotting in peace for nearly twenty years, Carcass weren’t just going to reunite for a bunch of half-assed headliner gigs, hoping to cash in big by regurgitating some of their most popular tracks – no, they were actually going all in by writing new songs and recording a new studio album as well. Obviously such an endeavor was quite risky, to say the least, as they hadn’t put out any new material since Swansong in 1996 and their status as extreme metal legends meant they had some very big shoes to fill (i. e. their own) and huge expectations to meet.

Whether or not Surgical Steel met those lofty expectations depends on what precisely those expectations were. To make a long story short: those who were pining for another Necroticism were left disappointed, while those simply hoping for a collection of tunes that would condense the band’s trademarks into one strong and consistent effort worthy of bearing the name Carcass certainly got what they wanted. Needless to say, the hopes of the former were largely unrealistic to begin with: of course Carcass were never going to churn out "Necroticism 2.0 – Reinventing the Insalubrious", let alone another Reek of Putrefaction or even Symphonies of Sickness, for that matter.

What they did, however, is infuse their new material with elements that are at least slightly reminiscent of Necroticism, which to this day is widely regarded as the band’s monumental release and one of the finest death metal albums of all time. Make no mistake, though: the musical and compositional basis of Surgical Steel, and the record it shares the most similarities with, is definitely Heartwork. Unlike Heartwork, however, which was pretty much melodic death metal 101 and adhered rather strictly to conventional song structures, Surgical Steel reincorporates some of the seemingly uncontrolled chaos, the unpredictability and technicality of Necroticism, along with some of the outbursts of speed and the crushing heaviness of that album.

This is especially obvious on the track "Noncompliance to ASTM F899-12 Standard", which does many of the same things Necroticism did, namely take a boatload of great ideas, bone-crunching riffs, awesome guitar leads, fluent solos and swift tempo changes and morph them into one swirling heck of a song. The same holds true, albeit to a slightly lesser extent, for "The Master Butcher's Apron" and "Cadaver Pouch Conveyor System", whereas "316L Grade Surgical Steel" attempts to do many of the same things but isn’t as much of a success – it sometimes feels like a jumbled mess of different ideas that sound good on their own but don’t always mesh very well, resulting in a rather incoherent whole.

"Captive Bolt Pistol" is a simpler, more concise track offering both brutality and blistering velocity. It takes us right back to the good old days of Heartwork and some of the faster tunes of that time period, namely "Carnal Forge" and "This Mortal Coil". "A Congealed Clot of Blood" and "Unfit for Human Consumption" are also reminiscent of that era, with the former revisiting Heartwork’s slower, less volatile, more restrained side. It occasionally slows down to an almost doom-like pace and unlike some of the slower songs on Heartwork, which tended to get a bit tedious, it stays interesting throughout thanks to some especially tasteful guitar harmonies.

Surgical Steel has some minor surprises up its sleeve as well: "Thrasher's Abattoir", the first proper track following the intro, is a nod to the band’s early influences, a short outburst of primitive, punkish proto-death/thrash. Later on, "The Granulating Dark Satanic Mills" goes full Swansong on us, delivering a galloping, sleazy and insanely catchy death-and-roll smasher that simply works to perfection. It appears there are lots of people who still haven’t made their peace with Swansong, but it’s hard not to acknowledge this tune as one of the highlights on Surgical Steel.

Anyway, if there’s one song on here that’s certain to raise some eyebrows, then it has to be "Mount of Execution", an eight-minute behemoth nearly impossible to categorize. With a bit of sarcasm it could pass off as Carcass doing Arch Enemy for adults (and with decent vocals). The fact of the matter is that apart from Jeff Walker’s growls and snarls, there isn’t very much about "Mount of Execution" that would ordinarily be labeled as death metal, so instead let’s just call it a South American flavored (mainly due to the lyrics), sprawling epic, one that gives the band ample time to demonstrate their keen sense of melody and Bill Steer in particular to show off his marvelous guitar skills. If proof were needed that Carcass can indeed function just as well without second guitarist Michael Amott in the lineup, then this song alone should provide more than enough evidence.

In the production department, there’s bad news for those looking for that slightly moldy Symphonies of Sickness sound, and even when taking Necroticism as a measuring stick, it’s really no comparison: the latter had a rather massive sound itself, but despite a towering wall of guitars and thunderous drums there were still hints of morbidity, grit and dirt as well. Not so on Surgical Steel, which sounds precisely as polished as the name suggests. Even Heartwork wasn’t as crystal-clear as this, and while accentuating the heaviness and brutality of the music, there’s no denying all the extra glitter takes away some of that early-nineties death metal charm.

Despite these and some other minor complaints, Surgical Steel turned out as good and probably even better than anyone could have realistically expected. Carcass are in fine form here, delivering an album which sounds like it could have been released right on the heels of Heartwork instead of twenty years later. It’s also a bit more reckless and aggressive than said classic, and while it may not have as many individual highlights and certainly not the same historical significance, it more than makes up for what deficiencies it has by being consistently good throughout its duration. Welcome back, lads!

Choicest cuts: The Master Butcher's Apron, Noncompliance to ASTM F899-12 Standard, The Granulating Dark Satanic Mills, Captive Bolt Pistol