It’s one of those albums that is somehow brilliant and teethgrindingly frustrating at the same time.
That’s the result as a listener. It must have been the same for the band, in both the making and dealing with the reception over the years.
Despite it’s obvious brilliance, Carcass had already had enough explaining to do with ‘Heartwork’s departure from native death metal.
Then, in 1996, came this, with it’s overtly hard rocking, waaaaaaay past the underground agenda just basically wanting to swing the hair and generally hang out.
Some of it’s incredible. Some is inspid. There’s little in between. So how should we remember ‘Swansong’?
Basically, like an annoying friend – lots to love, lots to grind your teeth into stumps over? Probably the best way I can think of framing it.
The Best Of Carcass?
So there I was carousing Spotify the other day, and in the usual way, things pop up that you haven’t heard in a while.
‘The Best Of Carcass’ was one of them, with that flight case artwork. I sighed a bit inside. I thought: yes, I have that album, thanks, and it’s actually called ‘Necroticism’. I stuck it on anyway.
‘Keep On Rotting In The Free World’ came on. And I thought: God DAMN THAT TUNE!
Which is basically what you think for most of this album. Except the shit songs. And that’s the crux of it, and why it’s so annoying.
Ken Owen once said he reckoned it was Carcass’ masterpiece.
Of course, few would agree. And yet he has a point in as much as these songs are bona fide dazzlers in any traditional rock or metal sense. True too that they’re not significantly different from Heartwork either, at least in their genesis if not their finessing.
Born In Dissonance
It was a record borne of strife. They’d just moved to a major (Columbia/Sony), got a whopping advance, were clearly done with death metal as a concept and a lifestyle, and had bigger things to achieve.
Only it didnt quite happen that way. And Bill Steer was already thinking way beyond the confines of the straitened metal underground, as very shortly after Carcass’ demise – before this album even got released, in fact – would show.
Such a monumental wall of sound as ‘Heartwork’ was always going to be hard to follow. That album, as we all know, is like a beeswaxed sheen. It is very, very close to some sort of metal perfection, from its rhythmic weight to its impossible mellifluous leads.
Yet straight after, Mike Amott left, meaning ‘Swansong’ was never going to be a continuation.
It is so much rawer, so much more live feeling. No not rawer, actually. Just basic. Stripped. But not raw. Not with Colin Richardson and a $200,000 advance.
Simple And Effective
My own first introduction to it was in my first band, when we covered ‘Polarized’ at several gigs, and practised ‘Room 101’ in jams. Perhaps that says something about the record itself – in a way, it was so everyman, so entry level feeling, that any young oiks could give it a lash, and even succeed at it.
In fact its surprisingly difficult to write music that simple and effective.
So the reason I can empathise with this album is because I know how incredibly satisfying it is to actually play those tunes on stage. The solidity, the musicality of the tracks mean they almost play themselves.
Shit, I’m cracking out ‘Polarized’ now just writing this and I’m smiliing inside remembering the buzz of it.
And that’s what the whole album’s like listening as well.
You might well hate that they moved away from blasts and grinds, but try denying ‘Keep On Rotting’ or ‘Cross My Heart’, ‘Polarized’ or ‘Generation Hexed’. Lets not be silly here. You can’t. They cannot fail to satisfy.
Dont Wantcha Numba
Perhaps the move to straight out death rock would have been more acceptable were all the tracks of that impressive standard. But of course they weren’t. And so for each of the above we had a ‘Black Star’, with it’s rather forced feeling ‘twinkle twinkle’.
The rather dull ‘Firm Hand’, which drags with a hackneyed and overdone kind of riff that even Carcass must have heard twenty times before they wrote it. And wasnt ‘Rock The Vote’ already on Heartwork somewhere under another name? Sure sounds like it.
And as much infuence as this record took from Thin Lizzy – which was alot – calling a song ‘Dont Believe A Word’ had better be pretty fucking awesome. Which this one’s isn’t.
It’s a plodder and a half.
So while Jeff Walker might have been on his most Morrissey-esque with wordplay and wry observation, it’s got to be acknowledged that some of it works brilliantly, and some is so crowbarred in as to feel like a fat man in thin trousers.
Lucky that ‘Go To Hell’ rescues it all with a decent headbang at the back.
Let’s think about the musicianship for a minute, given that as I said earlier, this followed possibly the most musically ‘perfect’ death metal record to that point – ‘Heartwork’ – which was in all senses the death metal equivalent of the technical accomplishment of ‘Countdown To Extinction’ as an apogee of production and technical excellence.
The guitars are so stripped back, and yet crunch so heavily. Carlo Regadas had big shoes to fill with Mike Amott’s departure, and he did it in a way that was rock solid yet absolutely understated.
The leads, no longer dripping with flawless, golden honeyed bends and to die for legato sweeping, are delivered almost fighting the strings and the amps while still achieving the same level of play – a joy to hear, and indicative of Steer as the guitarist’s guitarist – an absolute connoisseur who can dial back the gain, the reverb, and stil outplay anyone with just his fingers.
Ken Owen’s drumming is as redoubtable as ever, and big part of this sound – and the new agenda. Doesn’t the start of ‘Keep On Rotting’ remind you of ‘Jailbreak’?
Then there’s the height of 90s groove that never really gets a mention and yet is one of Carcass’ best ever single riffs: the almost Alice In Chains style ripped jeans sway of ‘Childs Play’.
It’s an absolute monster track, though frustratingly like the the album whole in as much as its let down by a very dull bit here and there that just seems not to fit.
Just Great Fun
Coming back to this nearly twenty years down the line as a grown up (and having listened to barely a note of it in the interim), I have to say I appreciate it more fully than first time round, when I and so many others were still all about ‘Heartwork’, if not what went before it also.
It’s just great fun, at its best. The tone is heavy and groovy in a way practically no bands achieve anymore. The guitar is so bassy, rich and full that it’s hard to get over it. Who does that these days?
So on balace, I’m enjoying it again – and very much enjoying having it out of The Vaults, cobwebs off, and back on the walkman. Or pocket supercomputer these days, innit.
Stick it on. You’ll be surprised how relevant and righteous it feels, no matter how much it might have turned your stomach back in the day.
It’s so flawed, yet so brilliant. To quote this album itself, I guess there’s just such a fine line between love and hate.
– Earl Grey ::: 19/02/17