19 January 2009

Heartwork vs. Necroticism

I was on a message board this evening. I started writing about the band Carcass. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote and, just before I got halfway through, it became more of a blog post than a message board post. I was always selfish like that. Anyway, it's about Carcass, as I wonder aloud which of their albums is best. And why it's not Necroticism: Descanting the Insalubrious. And maybe it should be. I also throw in a parallel with Metallica, because we'd been banging on about their similarities on that board. Fun times. Anyway:

In other news, I have been listening to quite a bit of Carcass today. Well, this is a day, and I am me. More on the Necroticism vs. Heartwork 'thing'. While Heartwork is still my favourite of the two albums, there is something to be said for Necroticism. Quite a lot, in fact. And it's another parallel with ...AJFA.

Both albums are heavier than the records that directly followed, sure. And they're more complex too. But their appeal goes beyond that, and beyond the 'they weren't as popliar' rationale. AJFA has a coldness to it, a malicious bleakness that is aided by the thin production. It's as if the lack of bass, the lack of aural warmth is intentional - not to haze the new kid - to make the whole record as inherently unsympathetic and unfeeling as possible.

Necroticism is similar, but in a different way, if that makes sense. It's nastier, has those 80s posh-voice intro samples, and is less well-produced than the relatively pristine Heartwork. But beyond that, there is a malevolence that is hard to articulate. The riffs and guitar melodies are just imbued with a sordidness that seemed to escape most death metal bands.

I like bands such as Mithras, Nile and At The Gates. But, while they are heavy and ostensibly nasty, the riffs were more about thrashing, grinding or sludging. The actual passage of notes and chords could have varied by some way without unduly hindering the effect of the music.

The melodies on Necroticism, on the other hand, have clearly been selected to unsettle. I don't just mean the weird syncopations that occasionally rear their (disembodied) heads, but the way the riffs rise over each other in circular fashion like a sea made of blood and vomit. The example that springs to mind is on the album's quasi-epic 'Forensic Clinicism, the Sanguine', about a minute in.

There is some guttural rhythm guitar, chugging along in mud and shit, when a lead guitar line sprouts out of it. But rather than evoking imagery of a sapling struggling through (as heavy metal melodies over chuggerama were often intended), it's more like the 'birth scene' in Alien. The melody is ostensibly more delicate than its host, but when it bursts out into the mix, it's infinitely more malevolent and changes the entire complexion of the scene.

Another example comes about five minutes into 'Corporal Jigsore Quandary'. There's a riff that starts out (and ends up) as typical discordant 'random notes' riffing, but the notes at the end of the riff - oddly high notes - just makes it intangibly seedy. And I suppose it's that very inability to put one's finger on why that is that makes it so affective (and effective, for that matter). There are similarly exaggerated high notes in an early riff on 'Symposium of Sickness'. In fact, the first few minutes of the song are spent in that disorientating quease.

'Pedigree Butchery' has that fantastic riff that seems like it's going out of tune, not unlike elements of Loveless, from the same year. But that kind of embellishment is just the icing on a rather gruesome cake, considering how ingrained the rest of the malice is. Ditto the woozy-yet-clean arpeggio that Slayer made famous and Pantera later used to great success.

The album begins as it means to go on, as I think about it. 'Inpropagation' (possibly my favourite of all the numerous Jeff Walker puns) has a number of these moments. There's a regular, albeit fantastic, DM solo from 4:13 to 4:35, at which point (punctuated by a death growl of 'I propagate!' that sounds as though it was recorded in a toilet bowl) a dizzying riff lurches into action - accompanied by another high swing. But while we thought the lead guitar was dead, it stirs back into harmonised action like zombie tag team, and widdles over the then-high tech riff with Maiden throwback melody. And a decade before it was en vogue to do so.*

As if that weren't fantastic enough, the opening couple of minutes is as sublime an example of guitar music as you'll find anywhere. After an introductory sequence of ominous crashing and booming, and an effects-laden sample of a woman talking about death in documentary format that makes her sound like a gigantic blonde fly, all hell breaks loose with grindcore guitars dancing a frenzied circle-jig over a steroidal machine-gun-drum-fill. A groove-thrash riff provides the foundation for Walker's vocal, but the transcendent moment is when it all slows down, and the lead guitar takes hold.

Again, it's completely abnormal. I have plenty of Napalm Death, Morbid Angel and Autopsy, but I have never heard any band articulate their grim themes so well in the instrumental domain. Away from imagery, lyric or title, the music makes you feel that something just isn't right. That passage of music could be played to a non-metaller, in terms of pure heaviness, but there is an un-nameable subtext, a sociopathic ulterior motive, that only early 1990s Swans has matched, in my experience.

Heartwork may be my favourite Carcass album (though, after all this, I'm not so sure), but despite its superior songwriting, production and arrangement**, it lacks the moments of true musical discomfort abundant above.

Mmmm, I'm in the mood for some more death metal now. Maybe a visit to Heartwork. Or Skullflower, which those good people at the Wire magazine naively believe to be 'true' death metal. That has to deserve some kind of response. It just has to...

* And that’s exactly 666 words. Not that I was counting toward it or anything.

** Yep it may not be as complex as Necroticism, but moments like the way the rhythm switches as the lead changes hands in 'Buried Dreams' is just pure evidence of a band effortlessly peaking.


  1. Anonymous2:38 am

    you're almost there. come over the the dark side.
    i've always thought heartwork ranked well below the gallery, slaughter of the soul, north from here and even the jester race as far as melodic metal goes.
    keep it up and we'll get you hopelessly addicted to symphonies next.

  2. Interesting! I actually bought Jester Race and The Gallery quite recently, after realising a few months ago how much I loved Heartwork and Slaughter of the Soul. I've not heard that Sentenced one, but I'll be sure to check it out. I have Down, but it was a bit too Moonspell-ish for my liking.

    I've got Reek... on vinyl; need to get Symphonies in!

    I really dig Grind and Punishment, by the way. That guide to the 'baker's dozen' is great.

  3. Anonymous1:33 pm

    Very good write-up on the superior Necroticism. I never hear other fans of the album comment on my favorite track, the closing Forensic Cynicsm / Sanguine Article. Besides it being a special track that is full of dynamics, it really points to Heartwork in the last 4 minutes or so and it's kind of like Heartwork is an extension of that track. I love it, luv it when two albums just seem like a proper extension / progression. While I love Heartwork, and the highs of the album are something else...Necroticism has no lows. It is tied with Death's Human for the best Death Metal album of all time for me. As you say, it has that extra-sensory malevolence, while still having a ton of melody and dynamics going on that you can appreciate and enjoy. Human also has that malevolent power, coupled with technical appreciation and even beauty (Cosmic Sea, solos elsewhere). From the moment the thunderous drums of Sean Reinert fade in on Lack of Comprehension, the album does not let up. Human is very similar to Necroticism, in fact, in that the follow up(s) is/are more refined (Individual, Symbolic, Perseverance) but that particular album just 'gets' that perfect blend of darkness and light, as does Necroticism. It does not get much angrier / intense than Human.

  4. Mmm, thanks Mag7! I always meant to get more into Death. I recently picked up Scream Bloody Gore and Spiritual Healing on vinyl, but I haven't got round to listening to them yet.

    I went through a big thrash phase when I first got my turntable, the other year, and I'm moving onto DM and grindcore now. Death is one of the bands I really want to hit hard. Ordering Human... now! I plan on posting more about thrash and DM in the future. I'll keep you abreast of developments.

    I wanna get some more Morbid Angel too, but they did quite a few albums that Terrorizer magazine likes.

  5. Anonymous2:51 pm

    Spiritual Healing begins to incorporate some aspects of latter day Death, but Human is THE bridge album for them, much like I view Necroticism as Carcass's bridge album. I'm trying to think of other bands bridge albums that achieve the perfection between their prior and future sounds as well as Necroticism and Human do. But I can't just now.

    Reading your Akimbo review (see your Carcass sucked me in to reading your blog on this Sunday morning) I think you'll like Death's lyrical content moreso than most DM bands. Not in the concept vein, but just actually caring about lyrical content. Chuck actually wrote about real-life issues, and the idea of a top DM band singing / warning about altering the future through abortion, for example, without sounding like a Christian metal joke, is pretty damn unique in the extreme metal genre.

    When you eventually get to Individual Thought Patterns,Symbolic and The Sound of Perseverance, and see the potential of the death metal genre to move beyond the limitations that most of our fanbase hold it to, it's kind of depressing to sit through another gore-infested Cannibal Corpse set of lyrics. Time to move on, I say.

    And now I segue into Morbid Angel. I'm a huge death metal fan, but they do absolutely nothing for me. They bore me to tears and I always get puzzled looks from other DM folks when they look at the stuff I do like. It's like I 'should' like them, but I can't help it. It's almost, too me, that in their perennial quest to be darker, nastier, eviller, fouler, what have you in sound, that any joy possibly derived is absent from their sound. I don't even think their that heavy because of that aspect. All power is lost because they are monotonely boring in their quest for utter darkness.

    One more recommendation (I thought of another bridge album). See if you can track down Odium, by Morgoth. On the first few listens way back when I didn't appreciate the direction there. It's now one of my favorite DM releases ever. While not quite as good as the bridge albums of the aforementioned, the industrial tinged work is a far cry from The Eternal Fall and Cursed, and not as wacky as Feel Sorry For the Fanatic. Underrated band, criminally overlooked death metal album, Odium.

    Let me know if you post about Human, I wish I could go back in time to listen to it afresh on a high volume as those drums faded in and the wall of Chuck's XN7 fused sound clobbered me in the head from beginning to end.

  6. Anonymous2:53 pm

    Oh, and I'm an idiot. It's Flattening of Emotions, the first track, not Lack of Comprehension. I'm getting confused in my old age.


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