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From The Vaults #33 | Carcass – ‘Swansong’

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.

Childs Play

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

  1. Great to see a retrospective on this brilliant album. A bit too apologetic for my taste though. There’s a bunch of songs listed as duds that are bloody great tunes. Only truly great bands could evolve and take chances like Carcass did. It’s up there with their best and is possibly my favourite album by them. Tomorrow Belongs to Nobody..what a song.

  2. Martin Wyer Says:

    Nice to see this pop up in the vaults section but I have to disagree lads. I found the album to be a bit of a chore upon it’s release and find that time has not been kind to it when listening to it now.

    I appreciate the record was made under less than ideal circumstances , and to be fair there’s more than a handful of great ideas on there but I find that the elements aligned all too infrequently to deem the album “brilliant”.

    Aside from the pressures highlighted in the piece, musical trends were changing at that time, a lot of bands whether they’ll admit it or not seen this as a time to reinvent or face being left irrelevant and on the scrap heap. Numerous peers were dropped yet Carcass were presented with a major label opportunity. I personally think the band are to be commended for trying to expand their sound further as opposed to delivering a Heartwork II or retread other past glories, but to me anyway the biggest stumbling block is Jeff Walker’s vocals. Fantastic death metal vocalist, zero additional capabilities. A lot of the material on this record just sounds plain silly to me, you’ve got the classic twin guitar metal/rock attack with more than a passing nod to what Megadeth were releasing at the time with standard Carcass vocals. The likes of Rotting in the Free World comes across as a complete and utter gimmick, elsewhere I feel if Jeff had greater capabilities some of the material could’ve been elevated above the bog the stock or plodding categories. Clearly the music had evolved and Jeff hadn’t or couldn’t or maybe a bit of both.

    Carcass weren’t the only band to attempt to attempt this. Cancer found themselves in a similar position in and around the same time (inexplicable really as they had released three entertaining but hardly groundbreaking albums at that point) and they delivered the painful and largely forgotten “Black Faith” record. That saw the band strip their sound right down and in some ways like Carcass deliver a simpler tighter package. The difference here was that the material was excrutiatingly dull, the band had gone for a more industrial tinged sound. Again though, the vocals were a huge contributing factor, the bands music had changed/evolved but John Walker delivered everything in the same fashion, utterly robotic.

    It came as no surprise that when Surgical Steel was released that the band returned to a more extreme sound and delivered a strong record, there’s a few bits here and there on that album that bear releation to Swansong, that fit better in that overall framework. Swansong is no doubt an important record in the Carcass discography and one that they simply had to make, but despite it’s promise I don’t think it’s full potential was even nearly executed.

  3. My initial introduction to Carcass was through Heartwork, so perhaps Swansong seemed like a logical progression to me. I could certainly appreciate that it might have been a step too far to their older fanbase. Completely take the point above re the vocals, I also think Walker was a fantastic death metal vocalist but on this release they seemed a bit at odds with the style of music. Incidentally, can any of the older heads remember the uproar over Carcass in this country during the early nineties? There was a campaign to have Symphonies of Sickness banned on the strength of its artwork. I have it in my head that it was Jim Kemmy TD who tried to get it banned but can’t be sure.

  4. If they’d ditched the crap and kept the tunes that made it onto Wake Up and Smell it would have been a belter of an album. Edge of Darkness, Corporate Rock Sucks, Blood Spattered Banner all better than tunes that made the cut and I’m not really sure why they were left out.

  5. Think there’s a line somewhere where Steer said it always should have been a double album, and that the stuff left off was better than stuff on the album. I definitely dont think it would have sustained a double at all.

  6. Listening to Come and Smell the Carcass, first time in years. Catchy as all hell. Had Edge of Darkness on a tape recorded from the Metal Show on Sunday nights…as real smell of Danzig off it. When they were good they were very good. Also, in reference to a point above about them having to change I think it´s a bit of both. The tide had turned and bands were looking for something new and it says a lot about a band that they can shift so effortlessly into a new style.

  7. Martin Wyer Says:

    Except it wasn’t as effortless as you make out Pedro? Musically yes, though not without it’s awkward moments and struggles for identity but vocally there was no shift and I reiterate my point that it’s a fundamental flaw with the record.

  8. pentagrimes Says:

    “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.”

    Oh I can deny all of these turds til the cows come home Ciaran. Don’t worry about that.

  9. greaterfool Says:

    Always struggled personally with the cleanliness of Heartwork. This sounds better.

  10. massiveTractor Says:

    that cowbell is fucking awful though

  11. RisePantheonDreams Says:

    @John Kimble. The late Jim Kemmy did call for a ban. It even made the front of the Sunday World as I recall.

  12. Always confused by Carcass. Guitar work and sound was sublime but the drumming always felt wrong or off or something. Fills a bit gross, kicks a bit bunched or something. The same thing that you get with Lars live. Just chancing fancy stuff rather than being on the ball and nailing something simpler. Anyway fair fucks etc

  13. I admire your stance on this EG and I certainly like the IDEA of this record (death/grind pioneers cutting loose and channelling their inner rawk), but… it’s just a bit crap really isn’t it? Plodding, chugging, dry, directionless, it really doesn’t know what it wants to do with itself and ends up coming across as a bit of a half-baked stodge of under-written, chewy ‘death ‘n’ roll’. There’s a real lack of energy about the production as well which doesn’t help.

    Hadn’t listened to it for many years and this recent revisit would suggest this has probably been for the best.

  14. This album was my introduction to Carcass and would have been amongst the first handful of albums which I would have listened to and/or owned that were heavier than Metallica/Megadeth/Slayer etc. and I was absolutely floored by it and loved it. In retrospect I can understand why Carcass fans who had been following the band previously would have been miffed at Swansong but having nothing to compare it to other than the aforementioned bands and the likes of Chaos A.D., State of The World Address, etc. this was a gateway album to a whole other side of the broader metal genre for me. I don’t feel guilty about it either – it’ a great album as far as I’m concerned. And one of those “time and a place” albums for me and my formative years.

  15. Kieronunsilence Says:

    There is some good material on this album. But one of the things I liked about their early albums was the quality and distinction of their riffs. Many of the riffs on this album are just ordinary.

    I so feel quite a flat vibe to it, which given the internal problems at that time is no surprise. I much prefer the Blackstar album which Jeff, Ken and Carlo, along with ex-Cathedral/Year Zero member Griff did a few years later. It’s the album this could have been, probably because they severed the link with Carcass.

  16. wobblechops Says:

    When I was a teenager I hated heartwork, I thought it was weak, trendy shit. I remember listening to it a bit later on and getting a chill up my spine, it just made sense all of a sudden, those frigging licks, those vocals. Its a killer. It is still one of my favourite albums (along with reek and necroticism.) Carcass are probably the band who have had the biggest, overall influence on my musical tastes, but fuck I hate swansong. It sounds forced, the elements don’t gel well, even within individual songs, and the album itself is left as a horrendous hotch-potch. A mismatched, inbred child that would be best left locked in the attic. Back to the vaults with it.

  17. Swansong is not the faster album but it has the bests riffs from Carcass.
    ‘Tomorrow belongs to nobody’, ‘generation hexed’ or ‘Firm hand’ are excelent Thrash songs. Exodus or Megadeth would give a hand by songs like these in their career.
    Carcass are genious and one the of the most importants metal bands. I enjoy Swansong at the same level than Necroticism or SoS

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