Carcass "Surgical Steel" (Nuclear Blast): Chas & Dave "That's What Happens" (Warner Brothers)
On "Surgical Steel", their first album for 18 years, Carcass sing songs about heartbreak, imperialism, militarism, industrial decline, jihadism, contaminated meat and "dearth metal". It's a record intentionally steeped in the classic rock tradition, and starts with a return to their roots. Although a little flawed in places (and finishing rather flatly!) overall it's something of a triumph.
On "That's What Happens", their first album for 18 years, Chas & Dave sing songs about heartbreak, heartache, life's rich pageant, the American dream and er, Lonnie Donegan. It's a record intentionally steeped in the classic rock n'roll tradition, and starts with a return to their roots. Although a little flawed in places (and finishing rather flatly!) overall it's something of a triumph.
* * * * *
We're well aware that there are almost gung-ho levels of pointlessness in reviewing a record like "Surgical Steel", which will already have been bought by all who care about Liverpool's finest (somewhat extraordinarily, such devotion has already made it a top 50 album in the UK and US, and a top 10 album in Germany), while nobody else is ever likely to be interested. Nevertheless, our mission is to evangelise, and it's not as if we're not used to ridicule.
The LP begins with the deliberately overblown, multi-layered studio crescendo of short instrumental "1985": the title's nod to the past, to the earliest days of Carcass, is emphasised all the more when its yowls and peals subside to be usurped by the blunt, brutal and decidedly unsophisticated "Thrashers Abbatoir". On the one hand, "Abbatoir" is Jeff Walker's evisceration of hipsters (while we are acutely conscious that it has become somewhat hipster-ish to be anti-hipster, Carcass are so obviously not hip that we are entitled to take them, at least, at face value), in which he manages to coin an attractive new word, "poserslaught". On the other hand, it represents something more fundamental: this song - part-grind, part-rock, part-thrash - originally saw daylight as a demo by the original combo back in, yes, 1985, and the band are knowingly drawing a line from those humbler beginnings, reminding us that they *evolved* to the mighty sound which they now have: they never turned "commercial" overnight.
After that refreshing blast from the past, the album moves - to these ears - a little diffidently at first. "Cadaver Pouch Delivery System", "A Congealed Clot Of Blood" and "The Master Butcher's Apron" are suitably substantial barrages of DM, the latter abounding in Bolt Thrower-style infantry mosh, but lack a little in pace, and indeed in the tunes department (not ideal for a band said to have launched "melodic death metal" back in the day). However, the five tracks that follow are a true twenty-minute treat, as the boys hit a stunning run of form, putting ne'er a foot (pedal) wrong.
The fun starts with "Noncompliance To ASTM F899-12 Standard". From its opening bars, "Noncompliance" is calculatingly redolent of "Heartwork" (the song), and like that song, it soon opens into a butterfly of melodious metal. The lyrics lament - not without humour - the parade of rubbish bands who have desecrated the musical template that Carcass once furnished them with. Walker pulls no punches: "Artistically moribund / soulless ghosts of the underground", he mocks. It's a 'notebooks out, plagiarists!' moment, as he excoriates the pretenders' "musical spent blunt force trauma".
Next come perhaps the most enjoyable ditties of all, the all-out rockin' NWOBHM-ics of "The Granulated Dark Satanic Mills" and "Unfit For Human Consumption". Both numbers boast absurdly addictive, killer riffs (the verse hook on "Granulated" makes us want to punch the air until our shoulders ache), and the latter is crammed with lyrical in-jokes into the bargain. In fact, the way Walker relishes singing lines like "Corrosive carcass, rotten and obscene / after all, you are what you eat" may elevate it to being their Unofficial Theme. These songs are not-so-distant cousins of "Swansong" era Carcass, of tunes like "Wake Up And Smell The Carcass" off-cut "Emotional Flatline", but they're executed with a confidence and panache that was largely lacking back then. By now, Bill Steer is also furnishing some frankly towering guitar solos, and while two decades ago we'd have thrown a record out of the window even for having a solo on it, when an album is this entertaining we can even start to love them in small enough doses.
Past ghosts exorcised (theirs and ours), it's time for a love song, or at least a love song of sorts: "316L Grade Surgical Steel" sees Walker follow the emotional flatline theme anew, with a romantic tragedy, a tale of "exile on maim street". It's almost as if the hoary old C&W and blues themes he dusted off on his solo album with die Fluffers have returned to inspire him. And then, in rolls "Captive Bolt Pistol", the taster single, yet another tight, punchy, unashamedly riff-led number with flaming verses, a song that takes us back to the slaughterhouse metaphors of "Unfit For Human Consumption".
A slight shame that the remaining track, "Mount Of Execution", flatters to deceive somewhat. With its eight-minute running time and intricate acoustic intro, it promises to be epic, but in the end simply can't match the frightening consistency of the tracks preceding it. Which means that the album finishes with a highly-embroidered whimper, rather than a bang.
How to sum up? When Carcass moved towards hooks and more traditional song structures on "Necroticism" and "Heartwork", that was a maturing of their sound, but it also moved them in a more traditional 'metal' direction. And the peaks of "Surgical Steel" are built around a well-trodden template: hard rock, thrashing riffs, and any number of spiralling and, um, virtuosic guitar solos. But the historical and political context of the lyrics remains crucial: manufacturing sector eulogy "Granulated Mills" could be a successor to Leatherface's "Dead Industrial Atmosphere", while other songs continue the band's forensic, almost wanton de-construction of the motivations behind human and animal slaughter.
*Plus*, Carcass were absolutely splendid at Defenders Of The Faith, by turn impressing and perplexing those who had come to see the other, inferior, acts. Indeed, we couldn't find it in ourselves to listen to any other band at all for at least a fortnight afterwards, such was our newfound need to immerse ourselves headlong in their complete discography. So, yes: this LP is *great*. You won't like it at all.
* * * * *
Moving diagonally across merrie England, down to the capital city, we come to the return of the most vital ampersand in music, with Chas & Dave's "That's What Happens". Perhaps the starkest difference between this LP and Carcass' equally eagerly related return (yes, we acknowledge that there are a few) is that you could probably listen to it and not even know, at least for a track or two, that it was by Chas & Dave at all: the boys, perhaps conscious that the world has moved on, and sensitive to the fact that this is their first record for aeons as a duo (i.e. without the considerable drumstool talents of their own Jam Master Jay, Mr. Mick "give it some stick" Burt), have decided to leave their patented daytime radio / Rockney blend to wallow in its glorious past. Only on track three, the single "When Two Worlds Collide" - a gutsy, powered-up joanna-led ringer for "Ain't No Pleasing You", the anthemic C&D ballad that stalled at no.2 in the UK charts - do the boys really sound like the same band who enthusiastically clobbered the singles countdown, and the variety circuit, for a few years in the early 1980s.
"That's What Happens" starts to meander its way into your affections from the first bars of first song "Railroad Bill", apparently one of the first tunes that Chas Hodges ever taught himself. And throughout, while there's no escaping the skilled musicianship on display, it also feels that there's a tenderness and fragility on show, an acknowledgement for the first time that these are older men, looking back on their lives and on the songs that inspired their work. The latter point is important here, for "That's What Happens" is essentially an LP of ten, admittedly gorgeous, cover versions (although - presumably because Warners turned around and said that a 30-minute album wasn't quite long enough - there are also two re-takes of Hodges & Peacock originals to make the tracklist up to a round dozen: one is "Lonnie D.", the other is a delectably morose, boogie-woogie free and in all honesty *wondrous* take on "Ain't No Pleasing You").
Whilst the boys' skiffle beginnings are hinted at, not least through that new recording of "Lonnie D." (and it's a worthy tribute: never let it be forgotten that Lonnie's "Cumberland Gap" remains one of the UK's finest ever number one singles), the heart of this album is a pared-down, guitar-led and sensitive blend of country, bluegrass and blues, with just hints of a more combative rock and roll tradition, such as the pummelling piano instrumental hoedown "Rocking Gloworm". We must reserve special mention for the second track, the swimmingly romantic "Can't Give You Anything But Love", and the most bedevillingly seductive songs of all, "Midnight Special" and "Glory Of Love", which form a beautiful late-album triptych with the redux "Ain't No".
It's a smidgeon sad that, like "Surgical Steel", the LP then closes with one of its weaker links. "All By Myself" quickly descends into a bombastic 'piano-off' between Chas and obligatory 'very special guests' Jools Holland and Hugh Laurie. Chas wins this showcase hands down, of course, but the track feels that it's been shaped - if not demeaned a little - by the celebrity hangers-on.
* * * * *
You may mock when we talk - unhesitatingly - of these groups as great British groups, but with one formed in 1975 and one formed in 1985, it's not as if history hasn't given them a stern test. Neither of these LPs necessarily captures these artists at their absolute apex; nor would anyone seriously have expected that. However, these records are far more than curios, and far more than cash-ins: serendipitously, they do a rare justice to two *outstanding* back catalogues.
in love with these times, in spite of these times all-time Carcass top twenty: 1. Heartwork. 2. Buried Dreams. 3. Crepitating Bowel Erosion. 4. Incarnated Solvent Abuse. 5. The Granulated Dark Satanic Mills. 6. Cadaveric Incubator of Endo Parasites. 7. Emotional Flatline. 8. No Love Lost. 9. Reek Of Putrefaction. 10. This Is Your Life. 11. Empathological Necroticism. 12. Symposium of Sickness. 13. Lavaging Expectorate of Lysergide Composition. 14. This Mortal Coil. 15. Unfit For Human Consumption. 16. Embyronic Necropsy and Devourment. 17. Exhume To Consume. 18. Ruptured In Purulence. 19. Tools Of The Trade. 20. Keep On Rotting In The Free World.
in love with these times, in spite of these times all-time Chas & Dave top twenty: here's one we prepared earlier.