I listened to somewhere between 500 and 600 metal albums in 2013, and for someone who hungers for diversity in a music collection, listening to nothing but extreme metal can get very monotonous, especially when the genre hasn’t experienced a decided sea change in the last 15 years or so. You start to see through the extremity, and become very intolerant of mediocrity. I enjoy death metal, I know what makes a great death metal album, and seeing it played well live can be an exciting, punishing experience, but I am not sentimental about the genre as other writers my age are. I’m much more discerning. A death metal album has to be extraordinary to compel me to review it glowingly, let alone rank it alongside everything else I’ve heard on an all-genre list. 2013 in death metal was better than average, highlighted by excellent releases by Portal, Grave Miasma, and Bölzer, but nothing came close to the first new Carcass album in 18 years.
I can never call myself a proper “fan” of Carcass – I do greatly prefer the classic Heartwork to any other death metal album from the early-1990s – and I approached their comeback album with a great deal of caution and skepticism. So it wasn’t because I was a slavering fan or a nostalgic 43 year-old that I was immediately awestruck by what I heard on Surgical Steel. Instead, it was on a much more visceral level: of all the metal albums I heard in 2013, this was one of only two that innately made me feel like I was 15 or 16 again, a reminder of why heavy metal was my first love to begin with. It’s a ferocious record, by all means, but it is so musically adept, so confident in the way it balances instrumental savagery and genuine hooks that it had me wondering why more death metal bands aren’t making more music as vital-sounding and inspired as this. “Mount of Execution”, “Unfit For Human Consumption”, “The Granulating Dark Satanic Mills”, “Captive Bolt Pistol” highlight an album that prioritizes musicality and songwriting skill more than sounding brutal for the sake of sounding brutal, to the point where it transcends subgenre and becomes a true, honest-to-goodness great heavy metal record. In fact it’s a rather depressing sign that it took a band that was dormant for nearly two decades to come along and shame a scene that has lost its way trying to out-extreme, out-shred, out-blast each other (“Dulled, blunted, low tensile dearth metal,” Jeff Walker sneers sardonically at one point). Power and extremity have been the most crucial elements of heavy metal since day one – all heavy metal, be it melodic or aggressive, has always been extreme in one form or another – but it means nothing, absolutely nothing if whatever music you create doesn’t make an immediate and lasting impression on the listener. Every single song on Surgical Steel does that. While it easily stands out as a defining work of heavy metal in 2013, the fact that it’s one of just a tiny handful albums to do just that, out of hundreds and hundreds, also speaks volumes about the troubling period of stasis metal is in today.