A Hard Day’s Night Writing Symphonies of Sickness – How the Fab Four Tell the Tale of Extreme Metal

When four young lads first got together in Liverpool, they had no idea that some enthusiastic yelping and screaming, two guitars, bass and drums could spark a revolution. They didn’t suspect that four working class chaps could form a rock ‘n’ roll band and make a set of records that would influence countless bands and encompass multiple styles, and write songs that people would still be enjoying decades later. This band, of course, is Carcass. Yes, there was that OTHER band, The Beatles, who did all those things, too. But this is an extreme metal blog, and in this existentially hellish alternate universe, Carcass may well be The Beatles.

As Carcass prepares to undertake a tour with “love ‘em or hate ‘em” blackgaze critical darlings Deafheaven, some of you may be wondering how we got here. Well, keep in mind that The Beatles’ own John Lennon spent a lot of time with more out-there avantish types in the 70s, too. He cranked out some borderline unlistenable noise with Yoko Ono which is, frankly, far less palatable than Deafheaven; but there’s admittedly a lot of screeching in both. If you’re surprised that Carcass made this choice, well, shows how much you know about Carcass.

Wait—John Lennon and Deafheaven what?

History is Always Written by the Victors

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It is said that history is written by the victors. This statement is intriguing not because it states the relatively obvious fact that if you win, you write the story. Instead, it’s a reminder that we love stories and stories define the way things are remembered. For me, there’s always been a question hovering around extreme metal: how will this music age? It’s not just presidents that consider their legacy. Will people identify with the breakneck tempos and death growls of their youth as they trudge into middle age? Maybe—look how The Misfits’ reunion was greeted. Decades from now, will people be pouring over special editions of Blackwater Park or Jane Doe or The Way Of All Flesh? Perhaps, at least; maybe it’s even likely.

We are getting things like anniversary editions of Emperor’s In The Nightside Eclipse, a record which is infinitely more popular now than it was upon its release. And there was that spiffy re-release of Opeth’s twin towers, Deliverance and Damnation. Carcass may provide an answer for the legacy question and a way for extreme metal to age, as all music must. Carcass has even hit the 30-year mark, an age that firmly places them in the classic rock age group. And, in fact, Carcass’s earliest records have already been reissued, with the inevitable bonus tracks. Death metal, including Carcass, has at least some genetic linkage to punk and hardcore. Punk rock has always had a live fast, die young mentality, going all the way back to the Sex Pistols and the Ramones. Everyone knew the Sex Pistols would NOT be reuniting for a tour when they were 40, right?

People have a tendency to learn or remember the stories of bands in a narrative arc made obvious by VH1’s classic docu-series Behind The Music. We know the story well: struggling band succeeds, and somehow breaks nationally or even globally; they explode on the scene with a variation on their earlier fledgling material and travel to the top of the world; the endless tours, fame and/or drugs tear them apart; they return in a redemptive third act, though aren’t quite the same and aren’t really as good. If you think extreme metal will never be on VH1, you may be wrong. Sam Dunn’s Metal Evolution didn’t have the funding to make an extreme metal episode for the series, unfortunately, but they crowd funded it later and it is available on YouTube, a stone’s throw short of VH1. The episode is strong and easily stands by the episodes that did air on VH1. And Metal Evolution devoted an hour to progressive metal—a far cry from neon-hued hair metal which is some viewers’ idea of “metal” on VH1 Classic, and which earned its own hour.

Many bands’ stories fit the basic plotline of virtually every Behind The Music, though The Beatles may have missed that third act due to Lennon’s untimely passing (more on that later). Carcass, perhaps most among the early legends of extreme metal, fit it too. Death? They developed, but in a gradual fashion with all their albums advancing in a paced, not-too-fast method. They had drama with lineup changes, but the band got better and better and then Chuck Schulinder up and died. Napalm Death? Absurdly humorous lineup changes aside, they started off grind and stayed that way. They had that experimental phase where they changed their logo just to make sure everyone was clued in, but all of their well-known stuff is generally in the AC/DC and Slayer school of “don’t fix what ain’t broke.” Cannibal Corpse? They absolutely got better when Corpsegrinder came on board, but again, stayed the course. These bands are not the stuff of Behind The Music: Extreme Metal Edition. But Carcass…? Bassist/vocalist Jeff Walker, guitarist Bill Steer, drummer Ken Owen and classic lineup guitarist Michael Amott have lived a story for the ages.

Tempus Fugit

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What is it that has made The Beatles age so well? The songs are timeless. Of course. But they became the gold standard for how a rock band could be a collaboration; not just one guy backed by a bunch of faceless no-names. Early in their career, weasely record execs tried to get The Beatles to focus on either John Lennon or Paul McCartney as the frontman, even suggesting that Lennon be the frontman and the band be called Long John and the Silver Beatles. “Look at Buddy Holly and The Crickets!” they said. Thankfully, this suggestion was relegated to the scrap heap of history. So The Beatles were a band, and everyone contributed. Different members of Carcass contributed at different times, which is partly what changed their sound and made their albums such a study in contrast. But The Beatles became archetypes as well, which is where the Carcass parallels begin. Carcass also features the input of multiple members. The songwriting credits show a remarkable diversity.

Carcass doesn’t have a “cute one,” that’s for sure (hey Jeff Walker, no offense, dude). But they do have a pile of albums that, like The Beatles’ albums, point the way for the future of their style of music. The Beatles, while being born in Liverpool, came of age in Hamburg and benefitted immensely from peers that took the journey to Germany with them. Amongst the notables were (note the names) Gerry and the Pacemakers, as well as Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, the latter being the outfit from which The Beatles later poached Ringo Starr. By the time The Beatles got back to Liverpool they were steeped in the contemporary music of the age and had learned the tricks of keeping an audience entertained, which they implemented fully as they took over the Cavern Club.

Carcass was similarly surrounded by peers, like any new band; their most notable contemporaries were likely the equally seminal Napalm Death. Carcass’s first album, Reek of Putrefaction, is a low-tech total assault. The music of today is recorded on technology that dwarfs the capabilities of what both The Beatles and Carcass used to record their early work. Much like With The Beatles or A Hard Day’s Night, a youthful enthusiasm is pervasive on Reek. The band followed up Reek with the not-entirely-dissimilar Symphonies of Sickness. The first two Carcass albums are the most similar, as the following three would each differ in marked ways. Symphonies slowed down the tempo at places and found the band writing something approaching more conventional rock songs rather than grindcore blasts. The vocals were still not as realized as they would be on later releases, though they were a vast improvement over the bowels of Hell groans and grunts of Reek.

Carcass were not content to simply sit back and crank out the same album for the rest of their careers—they were too ambitious for that; or, at least, scattered. Up next was an album that set the bar much higher. The intricate Necroticism: Descanting The Lugubrious (a collaborative title, as noted by Bill Steer in the interview accompanying the record’s induction to the Decibel Hall of Fame; “mine was poor grammar—it should have been ‘Necrotica’ or something”) was a notable departure from the first two albums. Light years ahead of Reek and strikingly different from Symphonies, Necroticism seemingly packed more riffs per song than either of the first two albums had in total.

This was a remarkable turning point for the band, in the same way that Revolver and Rubber Soul were a turning point for The Beatles. In the same Decibel interview Jeff Walker compares the album to Metallica’s …And Justice For All, calling it the calm before the storm, though the comparison is more apt when considering that it is each band’s most complex album and contains their longest songs. Neither The Beatles nor Carcass had reached the glories they would eventually reach, but both had learned the tricks of the studio and the ins and outs of making an album. Carcass adopted a kitchen sink approach, throwing in riffs and time signature changes as well as grisly samples. The Beatles used an array of effects and relied more on producer George Martin than ever, especially on Lennon’s ode to LSD, “I’m Only Sleeping.” At this time, in another weird parallel, The Beatles released an American and Canadian compilation, Yesterday And Today, which contained music from Help!, Rubber Soul and Revolver. The album included the controversial “Butcher cover” which showed The Beatles surrounded by baby parts and slabs of meat, a more palatable version of the gross-out cover image that adorned Symphony of Sickness.

Apex Predators

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And, finally, both bands reached their apex. The Beatles retired from the road after the difficult 1966 tour, deciding that their work would be studio-only going forward. They cranked out one of their finest albums with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, arguably the first concept album as well as the first progressive rock album. Carcass’s landmark Heartwork isn’t quite that legendary or influential, but it is certainly seminal in its own way. The band had gone big time, releasing Heartwork on Earache Records, who at the time had a distribution deal with major label Columbia Records. This period marked death metal’s first brush with mainstream success. Though MTV mega-success was not in the cards for our heroes from Liverpool, Heartwork cemented their place as one of the most important bands in the emerging extreme metal scene. It would go on to be regarded as one of the finest in the genre. Heartwork combines the spectacular riffs of Necroticism with the brutality of the earlier records (if not the grinding intensity). It was the culmination of their career and is, without a doubt, their finest moment. Heartwork also has some badass cover art, a cut above the disturbing and shocking (for the time) cut-and-paste collages of their first three records.

Of course, Heartwork was not without its detractors. Some compared it with Metallica’s dreaded self-titled, the so-called Black Album. While it is correct that both albums have a stripped-down, focuses quality, Carcass’s vocal style does not really change. In addition, there is still a copious supply of blast beats. It’s difficult to imagine that Columbia thought one of the tracks here was the next “Enter Sandman,” though album opener “Buried Dreams” has a Hammett-esque wah-wah solo, so there is that. Who the hell knows, I guess? It was a heady time when major labels had no idea what to sell, when Nirvana and the other neighborhood kids from Seattle had torn apart the hair metal they spend the 80s marketing and everyone needed a new trick. “These death metal cats are gonna be the new Nirvana or Metallica or, you know, something. I’m telling you…!”

After these peak eras, both bands of Liverpudlians were feeling the strain. This was reflected in their next works. The Beatles treaded water a bit with Magical Mystery Tour, before emerging with their self-titled LP, commonly known as The White Album. Very little of the White Album was recorded as a group. Gone are the trademark vocal harmonies. Instead we hear the band in small combos. For example, one of my favorite Beatles’ songs, “Dear Prudence,” features McCartney on drums(!). No blast beats, though, unfortunately. It is, in short, the sound of a band falling apart, but producing an album that foretold the future of rock ‘n’ roll across its sprawling 30 tracks. “Rocky Racoon” hints at the alt-country movement that would emerge in the 90s (Wilco, Whiskeytown, etc., took note). “Helter Skelter”? You got yourself some proto-metal right there—even down to inspiring some psycho cult murders. It’s true cvlt Beatles! Even “Piggies” foretells the coming of angry, anti-authority punk rock. And so forth.

When Carcass released their next album, Swan Song, the title pointed out exactly where they were headed: breakup. While their first four albums were almost universally regarded (minor grousing about Heartwork being a “sellout” at the time of its release aside), the same cannot be said of the largely reviled Swan Song. There is lots on the album to recommend it, especially twenty years later. Though the unfortunately titled “Rock The Vote” shares a cornball title with MTV’s political segments circa ‘92, it’s a great tune with a great chorus that still rings true all these years later and is my favorite single Carcass track, though their best work as a whole is undoubtedly Heartwork. In fact, the entire Swan Song album has a sense of fun, in sharp contrast with whole sections of the White Album. Swan Song also introduced a new style to the world: death ‘n’ roll, an apt description of the songs groovy, classic-rock vibing tracks.

The Beatles finished their career with Abbey Road, despite their fake out farewell, the uneven and scattered Let It Be, which was promoted by the iconic rooftop concert. Abbey Road, in fact largely recorded after Let It Be, is also an undisputed masterpiece. If Sgt. Pepper isn’t the first prog album, Abbey Road most certainly is. The suite that makes up the second side stacks up against any Yes or Genesis multi-movement epic and is the blueprint for any number of Spock’s Beard’s longer compositions. And Carcass? Uh, yeah, they were still done after Swan Song….

Float Like a Swan, Sting Like a Phoenix

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…until they reunited for Surgical Steel! Truthfully, they reunited for some touring in 2007, prior to returning to the studio. And the band wasn’t entirely intact as Amott departed after the 2007 reunion and Ken Owen’s health problems precluded his future involvement, save a guest vocal appearance. Surgical Steel serves as a bit of an anthology of their whole career, opening with the intro instrumental “1985” (get it?) and some short, to the point songs. It also moves through some more complex numbers, reminiscent of Necroticism and Heartwork and, at moments, even invokes Swan Song’s slightly more classic rock, death ‘n’ roll vibe. If you throw on the outtakes EP Surgical Remission/Surplus Steel right after it, the whole shebang even wraps up with a reprise of “1985” and the whole thing can begin again if played in repeat mode, kinda like Slayer’s Hell Awaits. Neat trick, dudes. As reunion albums go, Surgical Steel is pretty damn good. It may lack the thrill of discovery that marked their original run of albums, but it’s a nice summation.

The Beatles, well, they never reunited. Lennon’s murder at the hands of a deranged fan killed whatever chance there was of that. And even though some folks wanted them to tour with Julian Lennon on the “old” John songs and Sean Lennon on the “new,” that never happened and then George Harrison died, too. That’s it. But they did reunite, at least in the studio, for two “new” songs that were actually solo Lennon songs with the other Beatles overdubbing their bits later. And they were…well, kinda OKish. They were tacked onto the first two volumes of the Beatles Anthology series, a retrospective look at their career, chock full of alternate takes and witty, precocious radio banter. Hard to imagine anyone would listen to Anthology without being familiar with the preceding albums.

And, thus the stories have ended. The Beatles, yeah, they’re done. The Love soundtrack was pretty hip, a modern spin, but that was something they put a stamp on, as it was put together by Beatles’ producer George Martin’s son, Giles Martin. Their story, at a glance may be missing the third act “redemption” piece, though one could argue not just for Anthology, but also point out that Harrison’s All Things Must Pass is undoubtedly the strongest Beatles solo project and that McCartney has had a solo career that anyone would envy, as did Lennon prior to his death. And Carcass is still touring in support of Surgical Steel, currently with support from the aforementioned Deafheaven.

They’ve publicly kicked around the idea of another record, and let’s hope they do it. But this is still well into the third act of their story. Hard to imagine they’ll break up for a while and come back with another redemption episode. So, as extreme metal ages, hopefully the story of Carcass will live on. The Carcass story fits the Behind The Music mold, though I haven’t touched on the personal drama in both bands that is a hallmark of the series. The story here is one of progression, and in this aspect Carcass’s story does parallel that of The Beatles. Reruns of this theoretical Behind The Music: Carcass can air endlessly on retro cable channels and YouTube just in time for everyone to switch to virtual reality programming and stop caring. Only they won’t… because we all love a good story, and a good story has a narrative arc, a fact that has been recognized going back at least to the time of Aristotle. It’s the way history is passed down, and the way extreme metal will become canon in the storied history of rock ‘n’ roll.

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