Death metal heroes Carcass have never made the same album twice. Through six full-length albums and more than 30 years (with a decade-long break in the middle), the Liverpool group have made this constant state of evolution one of their defining traits. Since their beginnings as a raw, explosive grindcore trio, the band seems to have presented a new challenge for themselves each time they return from the studio, transitioning to a death metal band, then a great death metal band, a truly innovative death metal band, and eventually one that simply sounds like they’re having a lot more fun than everyone else. Plenty of bands can coast on the strength of riffs alone, but that’s never been good enough for Carcass—the moment that creative momentum slowed down, they stepped away, not returning to play music together until 2007, but since then they’ve remained active, and kicked off what’s already a strong second round of albums with 2013’s Surgical Steel.
Carcass are planning on releasing their seventh album in the not-too-distant future, and with the Despicable EP due out October 30, it feels only appropriate to take a look back over their catalog thus far. There’s no “worst” in Carcass’ catalog (though some might debate that), so let’s call it Carcass, from adequate to outstanding.
6. Swansong (1996)
Written and recorded as the band was splintering in the mid-’90s (it is called Swansong after all), Carcass’ fifth album occupies something of an awkward position in their discography. It’s not without some absolutely ripping moments, like opening anthem “Keep On Rotting in the Free World” or the jagged grooves of “Black Star,” but while there’s some inevitability that following up the expansive sound of 1993’s Heartwork would be an uphill climb, the resulting death ‘n’ roll groove on the album feels very much like the work of a different band. Or more accurately, a band ready to call it a day. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad album on its own merits—by and large it’s a catchy, melodic set of songs that’s easy to like. The problem is the context of the band’s broader catalog; when you’ve heard them pull off intricate harmonies, time-signature shifts and complex dynamics, all while finding a place for classic heavy metal hooks within an intense death metal sound, well, the end result of Swansong is that it feels too streamlined and straightforward. That it’s still pretty good speaks volumes.
5. Reek of Putrefaction (1988)
Released only one year after Napalm Death’s toxic cloud of a grindcore debut Scum, Carcass’ debut Reek of Putrefaction is a similarly head-spinning experience of extreme metal that only provides a marginal degree of additional clarity. Capturing the band at maximum energy if still some miles to go before reaching the peak of their powers, Putrefaction is still a hell of a lot of fun, never moving at any less than a sprint. Yet what Reek of Putrefaction is lacking in consistently dynamic and memorable songs—and obfuscated production values that the band themselves have described as “awful”—it more than makes up for in the band’s song titles (“Vomited Anal Tract,” “Splattered Cavities,” “Malignant Defecation,” and the most hilarious of all, “Regurgitation of Giblets”). Yet when Carcass break out of total destruction grind mode, as on the death metal standouts “Pyossified (Rotten to the Gore)” and “Oxidized Razor Masticator,” they showcase a strength in songwriting that would only grow more sophisticated in the coming years.
4. Symphonies of Sickness (1989)
It’s hard to overstate the progression that Carcass underwent between 1988’s Reek of Putrefaction and 1989’s Symphonies of Sickness. In the course of just one year, the band had transformed from being purveyors of chaotic grindcore blitzkrieg into a more sharply defined death metal band—one that still indulges in utterly brutal forays into goregrind from time to time. Released the same year as a number of groundbreaking death metal albums from the likes of Morbid Angel and Bolt Thrower, Symphonies more than holds its own. The album finds Bill Steer honing his guitar technique and provides him a showcase for carving out some killer riffs on standout moments such as “Ruptured in Purulence” and “Reek of Putrefaction” (which isn’t on the album of the same name—sneaky!). It’s not the band’s tightest album, and the addition of Michael Amott as second guitarist would open up their sound in a huge way on the albums to come. That said, were this just about any other band’s ranking, Symphonies would easily be near the top.
3. Surgical Steel (2013)
Carcass’ first album after a 17-year split, 2013’s Surgical Steel, found the band returning stronger than where they left off. That’s perhaps not that steep a climb coming off an album that the band members themselves weren’t terribly satisfied with, but then again they took their time to get it right, reforming a full six years before releasing any new music. Surgical Steel is a rare second-act album that pulls off the tightrope walk of being both an extension and expansion of the band’s prior material while sounding contemporary within a new generation of metal. The production is leagues better than their first few albums, which helps, but more than that it’s one of the moments in the band’s career that most strongly blends great songwriting with performances that absolutely smoke. There’s a tug-of-war between lightning riffs and infectious hooks in “Noncompliance to ASTM F 899-12 Standard” (though they seem to have traded the gross medical titles for phrases from technical manuals), and “316L Grade Surgical Steel” is one of the best rock anthems (under the guise of still being death metal) the band’s ever written. Bill Steer has said this is his favorite of the band’s albums and it’s easy to see why—essentially any quality that one would hope to find on a Carcass album (save for the lo-fi goregrind stuff of their youth) is here in spades.
2. Necroticism – Descanting the Insalubrious (1991)
During Carcass’ first decade, they progressed at an alarming clip, always emerging several levels ahead of where we last heard them. You can almost categorize each of their first five albums with a simple phrase simply because of how distinctive each one of them is (the goregrind one, the melodic one, the death ‘n’ roll one), and with Necroticism, it’s the one with the riffs. The band’s first record with second guitarist Michael Amott, Necroticism is a smorgasbord of razor-sharp guitars, made more potent with better production quality and a more pronounced sophistication in songwriting. On songs like “Corporal Jigsore Quandary,” the band embraces melody and immediacy while retaining their intensity, and on “Incarnated Solvent Abuse” they start to show more progressive tendencies, fusing rhythmic and time signature shifts to moments of more direct death metal mayhem. It’s a damn near perfect album, and would be number one, if not for the one that came next.
1. Heartwork (1993)
The sole major label album in Carcass’ catalog—released through Columbia during a brief period in the ‘90s when they inked a partnership with Earache—is the band’s crowning achievement. By this point, the band had already begun to crack mainstream audiences (or at least what passes for “mainstream” in death metal), their 1991 single “Corporal Jigsore Quandary” ending up a Headbanger’s Ball staple on MTV. As a result, Carcass leaned ever more slightly into the lightning melodies of Iron Maiden and rock ‘n’ roll swagger of Thin Lizzy on Heartwork, while holding fast to the crunchy death metal core that remained constant since the more well-defined, fleshed out moments on Reek of Putrefaction. The band’s definition of death metal on Heartwork is one that could fill stadiums, even if that didn’t quite reflect its audience. That doesn’t make it any less heroic, of course—the soaring opening riffs of “Buried Dreams,” the menacing gallop of “Carnal Forge,” the deep grooves of “No Love Lost” and the swagger of “This Mortal Coil” all rank among the band’s most unforgettable moments. At once a portrait of refinement and precision as well as some of the strongest melodies death metal has to offer, Heartwork is a peak that few other bands have even attempted to scale.
Words by Jeff Terich