Rube’s Metal Review: Carcass – Heartwork

Posted: May 29, 2014 in Rube's Metal Review


Welcome to a new weekly column here on Brain Trust Music.  Rube’s Metal Review with S. Douglas Miller.  The premise:  Take a non-metal fan, assign him a classic metal record to listen to, and have him write a review.  With the explanation out of the way, I’ll let S. Douglas take over.

Welcome to the first ever Rube’s Metal Review!

I begin this adventure with a disclaimer: I probably know less about metal, its bands, its history, its subgenres, its hits, its flops, its changes over years, et cetera than my 94-year-old grandmother’s 12-years-since-dead dog. I’m a classic rock and blues fan, and I’m somewhat familiar with punk, so I’m hoping that metal will fit somewhere in some of the negative space in that region of my genre cluster. But who knows. What follows is simply a neophyte’s review of a recommended metal album.

I put the first album Kyle assigned, “Heartwork,” by Carcass, through a rigorous battery of tests: the air-drumming test, during which I play the album over large speakers and flail my arms around; the headphone test, which requires listening to the album through a set of noise-cancelling cans and contemplating its texture (extra credit for chin stroking or steepled fingers during this portion of the pre-review); the family test, in which I play a random track from the album loudly for the nearest family member and time how long it takes for them to tell me to stop. The family test’s involuntary participant (for science!) this time was my mom, and the time was 13 seconds.

Here are my findings:

The first thing I noticed about Heartwork by Carcass was that although the album has songs entitled “No Love Lost” “Embodiment” and “Buried Dreams,” the Heart work in Carcass’s universe is not so much “Heart work” like in the  ‘romantic, emotional, perhaps sensual’ sense, the sense that evokes Senior Prom or a broken relationship or the Romantic Comedy du Jour, but more “heart work” in the ‘Temple of Doom, literally-tear-your-heart-out-in-a-blood-ritual’ sense. The more aptly named songs include “Carnal Forge” and “Death Certificate.”

“Blind Bleeding the Blind” stands out as a humorously gored-up play on the idiom “blind leading the blind” and “Albeit Macht Fleisch” alludes to “Albeit Macht Frei” (Work brings freedom), but “freedom” is replaced by “flesh.” I’m not certain whether “work brings flesh” is an improvement over the original, given that “Albeit Macht Frei” was the inscription at the gate of Auschwitz. Either way, Carcass, perhaps trying to keep their themes consistent with their name, picked some gruesome song titles.

The music is aggressive, the vocals notably in-your-face. Carcass explodes in the opening track like they’ve been shot out of a cannon, and they continue through the album in a constantly evolving, ferocious arc as though their objective was to create as many noises as loudly as possible in the time afforded by an LP. This is not to say it doesn’t span an enormous range of human emotion; quite the contrary: the album ranges from ‘anger’ to ‘blinding rage.’

I did extensive fact-finding on Carcass before I began my review. In a grueling 3 to 4 minutes spent Googling the word “Carcass” and opening the first 3 results in new tabs and reading the top paragraphs of each, I learned that they are an Extreme Metal band from Liverpool that formed in 1985 and disbanded in 1995. I went the extra mile here and clicked the link to Extreme Metal and discovered:

“Extreme metal is a loosely defined umbrella term for a number of related heavy metal music subgenres that have developed since the early 1980s. The term usually refers to a more abrasive, harsher, underground, non-commercialized style or sound nearly always associated with genres like thrash metal, black metal, death metal, and doom metal.”

So that cleared things right up.

The general theme in that definition seems to be violent anger, and that’s Heartwork in a nutshell.

Many of the tracks are unrelenting barrages of musical ideas and textures. Every instrument is fluctuating, entering, or exiting. The songs aren’t build on lone riffs, or unified thematically like Prog–they are pure, energetic, unpredictable musical energy. This is also a con, because Carcass’s original, dynamic sound comes at the expense of stability–I felt bumps during meter and tempo shifts. Similarly, the raw, punk-like (“harsher, underground, non-commercialized”) quality of the music comes with side effects like rushing in sections–a flaw only in the few instances where it is distracting.

There are some more grounded songs, built of what I recognize as metal pieces–riffs, power trio instrumental intros and solos, and vocal verses–but even those are distinct. “No Love Lost,” for instance, alternates time signatures between 4 (as in the intro), backed by a steady rock beat, and 3 (verses, and something that might’ve been the bridge), with the drums trading accents every few bars between the first beat and the third.

Carcass’s unorthodox style should not be misconstrued as unskilled. Heartwork doesn’t reflect classical training, but it shows outstanding performance ability. Even though I never knew where a song was going, the band always did–they stayed together during rapid transitions and stops, and hit their accents together. The instruments all meshed in a way that struck me as very “metal”–fast and heavy drums, riffy, dark, distorted guitar, limited melody, sturdy, anchoring bass–but again, I don’t want to categorize with such limited knowledge of the genre.

The vocals fill out what might have been a thin or incomplete texture–they occupy that space above the guitar, and are just sort of a requirement in all rock-derivatives I’ve heard–but the vocal performance itself didn’t do anything for me. I’ve always disliked heavily autotuned or distorted vocals, but Heartwork’s vocals make me understand the desire for artificial thickening. The lead singer (hang on, let me consult Wikipedia), Jeff Walker, does a great job doing what it seems to be he set out to do–a growling, all-but-unintelligible, mostly amelodic shout–but the vocals sound painful and still can’t compete with the guitar or drums.
My biggest complaint is that Carcass truncated instrumental sections that had a lot of potential; there were numerous guitar solos that came out of nowhere with a sick riff or contrasting idea and then vanished beneath another verse of unintelligible lyrics before I could fully register and appreciate them, and perhaps before they could develop completely.

That said, Walker and the other bandmembers (names unWikied) all play with a cutting, live sound that’s a refreshing departure from a lot of the ‘80s popular filtered, over-mixed rock. They produce the kind of sound that you can’t reproduce in a computer and that is exhausting to play live.I wouldn’t have guessed that Carcass was as young as are, but then again I wasn’t really sure when “metal” happened, much less “extreme metal”.

Even less familiar are the extreme metal subgenres and derivatives and fusions I found at the bottom of the second Wikipedia page, such as “Symphonic black metal,” “Viking metal,” “Traditional doom,” “Funeral Doom,” and let’s not forget “Epic doom,” as well as “Crossover Thrash,” “Technical death metal,” “Melodic Metalcore,” and “Sludge metal.” I’m in for a hell of a ride.

S. Douglas Miller

  1. If this is any indication you’re a pretty good student. We’ll get you learned up in no time.

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