Musings on music, old, new, popular and obscure. Post punk, metal, hip-hop, funk, and rock in general. A music fan with a desire to lose boundaries on what should and should not be listened to writes about experience in music from a listener's perspective, hopefully unhindered by prior expectation.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Keep on Hoping, Keep on Dreaming, Whilst in the Real World You... -- Carcass

CAVEAT: Metal, especially death metal, and even more especially sub-subgenres like grindcore (or, worse, goregrind) are not everyone's cup of tea. I ask that, dear reader, you willingly submit yourself to some of this and take it as a curiosity or an analysis: it's an emotional and personal writing style I have, it's true, but this is music, despite the claims of some, and there's something in it. I'm not asking you to like it, I'm asking you to listen to it with an open mind, to hear what there is to hear in it--after all, that's my own goal here, and my own approach to music, as best I can manage it. Good luck--this band hit a few different styles, and I urge you to sample each of them as I embed them for the sake of this.  Think of it as an academic exploration in curiosity, if you must.
 Recently, I was out at a local café and started a peculiar run of people across my path. I was served my slice of cake (I actually don't drink coffee, but cafés have the most interesting dessert foods) by a woman in a Satyricon shirt.

"Samael is an excellent album," I say, by way of hoping to skip ahead to actual discussion.
"What?" she says, as we all do when someone makes a non sequitur comment on our shirts. Well, I do it, as well, at least. "Oh!" she says as she realizes my seemingly random comment actually had a sensible origin. "I'm a little bigger on Dark Medieval Times."
"Oh, old school, then. You must be big on Darkthrone, too."

And off it went. Later, I was at CD Alley (as usual) and a fellow shopper was searching for earlier Death albums--earlier, that is, than their very last one, Sound of Perseverance, the only one in stock at the time there--and had a brief conversation. Back again a few days later and I was recommending Kylesa too a woman shopping there at the same time I was.

Now, I live in the Southeastern United States. Metal continues to be a cult-ish thing down here, at least when we're speaking of the subgroup entitled "extreme." Black metal, death metal, grindcore, and the varying derivatives of all of these are unwelcome or wary of entering much of the south. I have an old tour shirt from 2000 of my first death metal band, Morbid Angel, that casually omits the entirety of the southeast, despite the fact that they themselves are actually from Florida--though, as many note: Florida is not always the South.

So it's strange, usually a defiant taste and a spiky, defensive sort of taste. It's clique-ish and reserved and wary of outsiders, as it tends toward opposition to, disregard for, or outright condemnation of religion, especially organized and even more especially Christianity, which tends to be an unpopular sentiment in the Southeast. Consequently, we don't run across each other much, but there tends to be a kind of kinship involved in it all the same--if you see a shirt, you often say something, maybe raise "the horns" (extend the index finger and pinkie vertically, usually facing your palm toward yourself, though both are acceptable) or otherwise acknowledge a fellow fan. Indeed, every one of these people commented on this fact or agreed when I did.

I told the woman in the Satyricon shirt that I had a blog and suggested she drop in here as it would be nice to be reminded to write on a genre I know that most people directly around me have no taste for--hell, even the people I know from metal communities have lost taste for it most of the time. I haven't yet done it, and that was a week ago--though, to be fair, I've started a new graveyard shift job which has mucked up my schedule for the moment while I get used to it, precluding things like writing in a blog with a handful of readers at best.

Still, the mood struck me to pull out some bands not long ago of the more extreme variety, possibly the decision to throw on my shirt for Decapitated's Winds of Creation, as that was the first band I considered writing about. But something nudged me into removing the fourth album from my box set of Carcass' albums and putting Heartwork into my car stereo for listening to on the way to work. I settled rapidly on one of my favourite tracks from that rather landmark--albeit contested--work: "This Mortal Coil."

If I'm honest, that was a trick. Of course, those tricks tend not to work very well when death and black metal have become normal sounds to you--to my ears, "This Mortal Coil" is stunningly catchy and fantastic, with its galloping (Iron Maiden-style) beat and riff leading to the harmonized guitar leads. Hell, I'm still tapping it out to myself I love that riff so much.

But this is latter-day Carcass.

The early Carcass, the one that John Peel, BBC Radio 1 legend and taste-maker loved, is something else entirely. The genre ascribed to the above track is "melodic death metal," often abbreviated "melodeath" (often with a hint of condescension when done). Tracks were titled things like "Genital Grinder," "Carbonized Eyesockets," and "Mucopurulence Excretor." This is the era of Carcass first recommended to me, actually, by someone I once knew who also recommended Pungent Stench (to whom I can't really be caught listening these days, but I smirk fondly if I stumble into their stuff in a store). I do believe he thought--though he would've said it more politely than most--that this later Carcass was soft, boring and not-as-good. What did they sound like? Why, I'm glad you asked. You probably won't be. Try it out anyway.

I'm going to go ahead and note now: I had to dig for that "video." The Heartwork track is shown with its cover art: a sculpture by Swiss macabre artist extraordinaire--and creator of The Alien, as in Alien, Aliens, Alien³, etc--H.R. Giger. But this one, from Reek of Putrefaction, is "backed" by their logo. I'm not going to post the covers of their first two albums, nor their first demo, nor their odds-and-ends compilation. They're all autopsy photos and collages thereof. They're unpleasant to many, and make me feel slightly queasy myself. If you want to see them, go and google them. They are even on the wiki pages for each release. You've been warned. Again.

Now, you might (justifiably) wonder what's interesting about this band. Well, their early work is definitely an acquired taste, as all grindcore is, but it being "goregrind" can make it that much more difficult to stomach. The nature, though, of using low or pitch-shifted vocals in addition to doing so in the death metal vocal style known as "growling" means that, musically, that differentiation isn't huge. Goregrind is, after all, simply indicative of grindcore with a thematic bent toward gore and death. It's not necessarily violence, often relating more to the ideas of death, and cartoonishly gory ways to reach it. And grindcore, the underlying music, is a fusion of hardcore--think really fast punk--and metal: so as fast and heavy as possible, to give a really flawed and simplistic definition.

Carcass, in particular, had a habit on their first two albums--1988's Reek of Putrefaction and 1989's Symphonies of Sickness--of using medical dictionaries to write song titles and lyrics. In addition, they were actually all vegans at the time, bassist/vocalist Jeff Walker having even become known as a hunt saboteur in their home of Liverpool, England. Thus the interest in violence or death as serious or desired is pretty clearly not the case (a comforting thought to me, at least, even if I thought they were not intent on actually rendering any of it true). So even when one reads the lyrics, it comes out gobbledygook unless you know a lot of medical terms, and then cane end up being something like an internet-translated rendition of the idea they're describing. 

Reek of Putrefaction establishes this style, and Peel described it as his favourite album of 1988. No, I'm not kidding. Apparently he agreed they were--allegedly, he'd play the album and laugh hysterically. The album is sloppily produced, the band continuing to be unhappy with this, as it was speed-recorded. It has the shifting tempos, low, burping vocals (courtesy of guitarist Bill Steer, who recorded half of grindcore legends Napalm Death's debut album Scum the year prior) and consistent blast beats (snare-bass-snare-bass-snare-bass) from drummer Ken Owen. It's a bit of a mess, but for a trio of 18-19 year olds, it's inventive and interesting musically. The songs blur together if the album is new to you, but define themselves quite readily on a second or third listen, and have obvious elements of melody and rhythm beyond the simplistic attempts to shock, scare or annoy listeners that were periodically endemic to the scenes they originated from. "Burnt to a Crisp," in particular, manages to shift rhythms and even find a groove--not surprising, as one of the longer songs (2:43) on the album.

Symphonies of Sickness, on the other hand, is the same style--very much grindcore with gore-oriented lyrics (still medical dictionary style, too), and still behind a collage of autopsy photos, but now with quality production and a bit of a lean toward death metal as more songs slowed down and left easily separated guitar notes and riffs. For example, the fourth track, "Ruptured in Purulence":

Note: not the original cover art. These more palatable versions were used for late 90s reissues.

Ken Owen is given a chance to introduce the track alone, with nice, clear hat-riding drums, before the songs kicks into full gear with the rest of the band, Bill alternating his low vocals with Jeff's higher pitched ones.

After this album, though, Carcass gave in and became full-fledged "death metal," no longer slaves to the grind (if you will) via grindcore's demandingly rapid tempos and seemingly impenetrable music. 1991's Necroticism: Descanting the Insalubrious and its follow up EP from 1992, Tools of the Trade established two things: First, a more separated, fully realized sound, and second, cover art I don't have to try to avoid here. Necroticism also contains my favourite Carcass track ever: "Corporal Jigosore Quandary," for which a video was even recorded:

Those paying attention may also notice that there are four people on that stage. The fourth is Swede Michael Amott, who made his debut on this, Carcass's fourth album. Each of the songs is preceded by obscure audio samples from discussions of autopsy or other sources (a favourite: "That's why I find it so amusing that the latter-day saints of our business... one, attribute to me motives that just weren't there, and two, accuse me of corrupting morality, which I wish I had the power to do. Prepare to die," which opens "Symposium of Sickness"). A look at the lyrics will find the band stepping somewhat (though nowhere near completely) away from their lyrical origins, creating more coherent and recognizable sentences and phrases than previously. Song structure becomes more unusual and complicated ("progressive" in the retrospective words of Jeff and Ken). It only hints, though, at the changes to come in albums to follow.

Heartwork was released in 1993 and divided many a Carcass fan--well, so I'm told. I wasn't into metal then, to put it mildly. Just to bring us back into focus here, this is the title track from the album:

The lyrics have now left the gore realm entirely (with two exceptions: "Carnal Forge" and "Arbeit Macht Fleisch") and become--amusingly, as grindcore was originally of this nature--socially conscious, albeit bitter, cynical and condemnatory in large parts. The metal scene, though, is often plagued with a need to remain "scary" or "difficult" to anyone outside of it on the parts of some listeners. Some dedicate themselves to exclusively grindcore bands like Pig Destroyer (when a band probably intentionally brickwalls an album by maxing out the volume all the way across the board, you know it's meant to be inaccessible to most) or insists even extreme metal bands "sell out," a hilarious concept when even Carcass's most accessible works cross the line for the uninitiated listener in most cases. Still, when people suggest that Emperor stopped being black metal after In the Nightside Eclipse, or that Carcass "sold out" with Heartwork (or even Necroticism!) it smacks of defensive elitism: "The bands I like have to terrify/confuse/alienate anyone and everyone possible!"

It's an absurd thought, and is unfair to a fantastic band like Carcass, who continued to make very good music on through their even more denigrated followup, the aptly titled Swansong, which progresses often into the realm called "death 'n' roll" or "deathrock" referencing death metal stylings set to more standard 4/4 rock drumming and tempos. It's a shift of gears again for the band, but that doesn't make it bad--not that change is always good, but when it results in songs like the one I quoted for this post's title (the last word, by the by, is "rot"), "Keep on Rotting in the Free World," I'm not going to complain and don't see much cause for anyone else to either--at least, not more than, "Aw, this isn't my type of music," or similar restrained and respectful sorts of opinions. There's nothing to suggest the music itself has magically become inferior. To prove my point, here's the song I just mentioned:

It's a shame this mentality exists, though a perusal of what is probably the most comprehensive extreme metal site around, The Encyclopaedia Metallum, shows that the averaged review scores tell this exact story: Reek has the second lowest score (due in no small part to the production), then the albums peak with Symphony and theoretically get worse until bottoming out to the worst score with Swansong. Naturally, Heartwork carries the requisite "3/10 - Sellout!" review, which goes so far as to say "Remove every violent, feral and interesting element from the band's classic sound, and replace them with banal borrowings from mainstream bestsellers. Rinse, wash, repeat," and suggesting that the album is, in part, flawed by having a clean cover and a legible logo. This may sound odd, but if you don't know, metal has an amusing history of indiscernible logos. More than once someone has asked "What does your shirt say?" when I think I'm actually wearing a reasonably comprehensible logo.If you don't believe me, read this. It looks like bloody pick-up sticks. Even knowing what it says, I'm hard-pressed to find the letters (though after staring a bit, I can).

But that's the kind of asinine mentality that plagues a lot of the more vocal (especially internet) metal community--something I've had fingers waggled at me for claiming before. But the evidence is out there--Heartwork was Carcass's most successful album, and for a band that was on a small British label and was still playing death metal, that continues to say something, even factoring for "popularity doesn't mean quality," as the availability would have been comparatively restricted. Hell, Morbid Angel had released their first major album only four months earlier (on my birthday, as it happens!). That album, according to some records, is the best selling death metal album of all time. It sold over 127,000 copies in the United States! If the words "gold" and "platinum" mean anything to you in record sales terms: you see what I'm saying here. This isn't a big community. To have massive, successful sales that draw a major label in, you've got to have something sincerely pricking up ears--which isn't an inherently bad thing, or indicative of "selling out" or "declined quality."

In any case, Carcass's legacy was thankfully untarnished, as I saw them, re-formed, a few years back at the only local venue (a relatively new one) to host extreme metal bands. Naturally, this was the show at which I met John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, who are somewhere near as far from death metal as you can get--but John himself is a fan of the stuff, and fawned over openers Suffocation with me. The crowd loved everything Carcass reeled out from across their history, and it was packed for a half-unknown, relatively new metal club in the southeast.

Truly, an innovative band, and worth listening to--if you can just bring yourself to deal with the genres.

1 comment:

  1. What? Where the fuck was my brain? Did I call a Satyricon album Samael?!

    I need to listen to both of them more, so I stop doing stupid shit like that...


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