I was on a message board this evening. I started writing about the band Carcass. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote and, just before I got halfway through, it became more of a blog post than a message board post. I was always selfish like that. Anyway, it’s about Carcass, as I wonder aloud which of their albums is best. And why it’s not Necroticism: Descanting the Insalubrious. And maybe it should be. I also throw in a parallel with Metallica, because we’d been banging on about their similarities on that board. Fun times. Anyway:
In other news, I have been listening to quite a bit of Carcass today. Well, this is a day, and I am me. More on the Necroticism vs. Heartwork ‘thing’. While Heartwork is still my favourite of the two albums, there is something to be said for Necroticism. Quite a lot, in fact. And it’s another parallel with …AJFA.
Both albums are heavier than the records that directly followed, sure. And they’re more complex too. But their appeal goes beyond that, and beyond the ‘they weren’t as popliar’ rationale. AJFA has a coldness to it, a malicious bleakness that is aided by the thin production. It’s as if the lack of bass, the lack of aural warmth is intentional – not to haze the new kid – to make the whole record as inherently unsympathetic and unfeeling as possible.
Necroticism is similar, but in a different way, if that makes sense. It’s nastier, has those 80s posh-voice intro samples, and is less well-produced than the relatively pristine Heartwork. But beyond that, there is a malevolence that is hard to articulate. The riffs and guitar melodies are just imbued with a sordidness that seemed to escape most death metal bands.
I like bands such as Mithras, Nile and At The Gates. But, while they are heavy and ostensibly nasty, the riffs were more about thrashing, grinding or sludging. The actual passage of notes and chords could have varied by some way without unduly hindering the effect of the music.
The melodies on Necroticism, on the other hand, have clearly been selected to unsettle. I don’t just mean the weird syncopations that occasionally rear their (disembodied) heads, but the way the riffs rise over each other in circular fashion like a sea made of blood and vomit. The example that springs to mind is on the album’s quasi-epic ‘Forensic Clinicism, the Sanguine’, about a minute in.
There is some guttural rhythm guitar, chugging along in mud and shit, when a lead guitar line sprouts out of it. But rather than evoking imagery of a sapling struggling through (as heavy metal melodies over chuggerama were often intended), it’s more like the ‘birth scene’ in Alien. The melody is ostensibly more delicate than its host, but when it bursts out into the mix, it’s infinitely more malevolent and changes the entire complexion of the scene.
Another example comes about five minutes into ‘Corporal Jigsore Quandary’. There’s a riff that starts out (and ends up) as typical discordant ‘random notes’ riffing, but the notes at the end of the riff – oddly high notes – just makes it intangibly seedy. And I suppose it’s that very inability to put one’s finger on why that is that makes it so affective (and effective, for that matter). There are similarly exaggerated high notes in an early riff on ‘Symposium of Sickness’. In fact, the first few minutes of the song are spent in that disorientating quease.
‘Pedigree Butchery’ has that fantastic riff that seems like it’s going out of tune, not unlike elements of Loveless, from the same year. But that kind of embellishment is just the icing on a rather gruesome cake, considering how ingrained the rest of the malice is. Ditto the woozy-yet-clean arpeggio that Slayer made famous and Pantera later used to great success.
The album begins as it means to go on, as I think about it. ‘Inpropagation’ (possibly my favourite of all the numerous Jeff Walker puns) has a number of these moments. There’s a regular, albeit fantastic, DM solo from 4:13 to 4:35, at which point (punctuated by a death growl of ‘I propagate!’ that sounds as though it was recorded in a toilet bowl) a dizzying riff lurches into action – accompanied by another high swing. But while we thought the lead guitar was dead, it stirs back into harmonised action like zombie tag team, and widdles over the then-high tech riff with Maiden throwback melody. And a decade before it was en vogue to do so.*
As if that weren’t fantastic enough, the opening couple of minutes is as sublime an example of guitar music as you’ll find anywhere. After an introductory sequence of ominous crashing and booming, and an effects-laden sample of a woman talking about death in documentary format that makes her sound like a gigantic blonde fly, all hell breaks loose with grindcore guitars dancing a frenzied circle-jig over a steroidal machine-gun-drum-fill. A groove-thrash riff provides the foundation for Walker’s vocal, but the transcendent moment is when it all slows down, and the lead guitar takes hold.
Again, it’s completely abnormal. I have plenty of Napalm Death, Morbid Angel and Autopsy, but I have never heard any band articulate their grim themes so well in the instrumental domain. Away from imagery, lyric or title, the music makes you feel that something just isn’t right. That passage of music could be played to a non-metaller, in terms of pure heaviness, but there is an un-nameable subtext, a sociopathic ulterior motive, that only early 1990s Swans has matched, in my experience.
Heartwork may be my favourite Carcass album (though, after all this, I’m not so sure), but despite its superior songwriting, production and arrangement**, it lacks the moments of true musical discomfort abundant above.
Mmmm, I’m in the mood for some more death metal now. Maybe a visit to Heartwork. Or Skullflower, which those good people at the Wire magazine naively believe to be ‘true’ death metal. That has to deserve some kind of response. It just has to…
* And that’s exactly 666 words. Not that I was counting toward it or anything.
** Yep it may not be as complex as Necroticism, but moments like the way the rhythm switches as the lead changes hands in ‘Buried Dreams’ is just pure evidence of a band effortlessly peaking.