Carcass, Crass, Earache Records, Godflesh, Jerry Goldsmith, Meshuggah, Mr. Bungle, Napalm Death, The Metal Apologist

The Metal Apologist (Part IV: Carcass)

{from August 23, 2007}

Well, being bored and wired at work are, I think, optimal conditions for posting a new Apologist. Today we harken back to the late 1980s, to England, to the famed seminal death metal label, Earache Records, and to arguably their flagship band, Carcass.

What a band were Carcass. Representing a significant evolutionary step in metal, they were by rights amongst the first proper death metal bands as well as contributing heavily to the development of grindcore. Hmm…this is as good a time as any to clarify a few things about metal nomenclature. So let’s say metal is at least loud distorted guitars, which are generally leading the proceedings and enhanced by powerful drumming and usually subservient basswork. Vocals vary wildly from singing to screaming to growling. Well then death metal is particular for a lot of really fast picking on the guitar, and a preponderance of double kick drums. The actual tempo of a death metal song is NOT NECESSARILY THAT FAST!!! Speed metal, although ostensibly less extreme of a subgenre, is as one would expect from the name, the characteristically fast one. But listen to any Morbid Angel tune after 1995 and the rapid double kick backdrop is typically offset by a rather midtempo beat. Yeah…and also it gets really fast of course. Further characteristics include (but are not limited to): blast beats (exactly what it sounds like –a sudden blast of rapid drumming that typically animates the song for a moment. It’s auditory smelling salts) growling or shreiked vocals (usually really high or really low in range) atonal or middle eastern melodies in guitar riffs (I am NOT a purist but as long as we’re being specific, if it gets too traditionally melodic and harmonic, it’s becoming not death metal. That’s not to say that it never gets melodic or harmonic in a death metal song. NO WAY! It’s just not continuous or consistent within a piece; a hummable riff or melody needs to be an abberation in the song for it work and be properly brutal. Interestingly, Trey Spruance once considered Mr. Bungle to be a death metal band at heart, basically replacing riff changes with full-on aesthetic sea changes.) and/or odd time signatures (this is actually a necessity come to think of it; if a death metal tune rolls along in 4/4 for too long, it loses that off-putting sea-sick quality that really makes it well…DEATH metal. It didn’t get that name because it was so appealing…)

So what the fuck is grindcore? Being as how this isn’t animal taxonomy, I will just posit my un-Wiki’d definition of grindcore which is death metal crossbred with hardcore punk. Taking everything we know about death metal and just making it less anal and exacting, more dirty and fucked and impassioned and imprecise; a little more “homeless guy ranting on the corner.” Now, the Brits (specifically Napalm Death, Godflesh, and–that’s right–Carcass) were mad into hardcore punk (esp. the deeply influential British collective Crass) and even had a radical political bent to their music. I hear a bunch of dumbasses crying bullshit about music where you can’t make out the vocals marked as radical or revolutionary in some way. Well, the thing about that is that they’re musicians and they evolve the music that they play. Their radicalism lies in synthesizing exclusive styles in music that otherwise would not get to mingle otherwise (punks and heshers are notorious for having little overlap; why? No one ACTUALLY knows. Punk might be more working class and Metal might be more middle-class. Punks might be more informed and heshers might more beer swilling. Whatever. Anybody who’s met someone beholden to a genre of music for their friendships and opinions and general sense of the world knows that as a class of people they are rather fucking mediocre…) and facilitating an aesthetic overhaul of what music was thought to be; advancing our perceptions and creating things that just didn’t exist yet. And making that work…

I haven’t even said anything about Carcass yet…

For the purposes of this blog, I will focus on the album that bridged their grindcore years with their leap into what became the wildly popular subgenre of “melodic death metal.” That would be Necroticism: Descanting the Insalubrious. You will never meet anyone as opinionated as a metal fan, so when I say that this is “widely considered to be their masterpiece,” take it with a grain of salt. It IS, however, an unquestionably special death metal album and a milestone in the genre. Really epic songs, spot-on production, an attention to theme, variation, and development that would make Jerry Goldsmith proud, odd times that would make Meshuggah and many metal bands to follow inspired, and the real tear-jerker? TWO singers–one for growling and one for sounding like an anthropomorphized snake. Twisted riff after twisted riff, it’s like they had multiple generations-worth of frequent flyer miles saved up to the first class section of the Virgin Atlantic airliner of riffs. Let me say something about riffs here: they are the bread and butter of a metal musician’s life. A great riff is something truly religious and communicates something intangible to you–it compresses everything you have learned and known about life up to that point into an elegant series of sonic orbs, angles, twists, and turns. It’s like your favorite inside joke crossed with kissing your darling crossed with a moment of spiritual clarity. How gay is that? OK, replace any of those with “crossed with heaving a broadsword dozens of yards at a great beast breathing fire upon you and generally trying to fucking kill you and marveling as it lands squarely into his heart.” Listen to Dopesmoker (a.k.a. Jerusalem) by Sleep for a fucking exegesis on the holy magnitude of the riff.

I almost forgot; death metal songs often can and do start with samples; from movies, typically ones you have seen or can see. That’s the idea–to reference something. Well, there’s something weird about this Carcass album because NO ONE KNOWS what the really great and unnerving samples (most of which sound like they are from medical symposiums) are originally from. Take this one:

“That’s why I find it so amusing that the latter-day saints of this institution, one, attributed to me motives that just weren’t there and accused me of corrupting morality which I wish I had the power to.

Prepare to die…”

It’s unsettling and righteous at the same time, followed by a fantastically rapid machine gun of a riff. There is something so abstractly satisfying about this record whose lyrical content is largely based on strange gory narratives riddled with willfully obtuse medical school terminology (stories, by the way, range from the gastral consequences of LSD intake to the practicality of using humans as manure–the members of Carcass are vegetarian). From beginning to end this album just owns and speaks volumes about regarding an album as a whole in the process of writing. While not by any stretch of the imagination a crossover record, this is a really dynamically and ambitiously sequenced record, one of the rare metal records that you can and ought to listen to in one sitting (longer too at about 48′). This album just really threw down the gauntlet for the music makers who came across it; those who were thoroughly enthused by metal but who also at times questioned the ambitions of those who created it and were appalled at the reactionary attitudes of its supposed fans. Here was an album that seemed to say, “Metal can and will evolve and crossbreed and progress and do so without compromising or acceding to the whims of the ignorant and static of mind. It is simply assimilating itself into the vast pool of what we know to be music and sound. We understand that and want to convey that to you through the most fucking epic songs we can muster!” At long last, this is a truly progressive piece of music.

So there you have it…Volume 4…hope you enjoyed it. Good day to all!