To put it mildly, bass player Jeff Walker and guitarist Bill Steer of the legendary Liverpool, U.K., band Carcass have been influential figures in the world of extreme metal over the past quarter-century. Along with fellow founding Carcass drummer Ken Owen, the group's 1988 debut LP, Reek of Putrefaction, laid the foundation for a particularly ominous metal subgenre that would come to be known as goregrind — and the rumbling, stomach-churning name says it all.
Five years later, Carcass crystallized melodic death metal with its landmark LP Heartwork, and in 2005, nearly a full decade after the band called it quits, metal bible Decibel magazine published an examination of "Carcass clones" — a generation of copycats dedicated to emulating every facet of the group's maximal metal existence.
Walker and Steer's pioneering past provides context for their scalpel-sharp present, which culminates on 2013's Surgical Steel, the first Carcass album to be released in 17 years. In a year packed with fruitful comebacks (Black Sabbath, Gorguts), genre-flouting breakthroughs (Deafheaven, Kvelertak), and a torrent of terrific heavy records, Surgical Steel's arrival was perhaps metal's most compelling story of 2013 — a triumphant return that proved one of the most revered metal acts in history hadn't lost its edge.
When Walker and Steer gathered in 2012 to begin working on the new record, they did so with a simple plan that belies their massive standing in metal: Let the riffs light the way. "Neither Jeff nor myself are the kind of person to really overanalyze things, or plan methodically for something," Steer says. "It was just understood between us that it would be a case of getting to the rehearsal room with a load of riffs and working on songs, and that's what we did."
Moreover, they did so unbeknownst to the legions of Carcass fans, who had been pining for new material since the band reunited for live shows in 2008 — without Owen, who had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in 1999 that left him unable to perform. "We were just in our own little bubble. Nobody knew we were writing material," Steer says. "Nobody knew we were recording until somebody kindly leaked the info for us. It was a very good vibe, and we didn't spend any time dwelling on what the outer world might think about it."
Fast-forward several months later, and it's safe to say the outer world is impressed; Decibel magazine, for one, named Surgical Steel the best album of 2013. At 11 tracks coming in at just over 47 minutes, the album is efficiently brutal, driven by the mind-bending blast beats of new drummer Daniel Wilding (Trigger the Bloodshed, the Soulless, the Order of Apollyon). Walker's bass anchors the songs as he dishes up vicious, ultra-vivid lyrics that read like a medieval medical text book on how to treat heartsickness and misanthropy. "Tenderized 12 ounces of flesh," Walker snarls on the title track. "Love is a void, a wound in the chest."
But the most powerful performance comes from Steer, whose thunderous riffs and laser-guided leads showcase why he is one of heavy music's greatest guitarists. Throughout, Surgical Steel reveals the current incarnation of Carcass as tremendously greater than the sum of its parts.
The album has exceeded expectations critically and commercially, and Steer goes on to add that the group's current record label, Nuclear Blast, told the band that Surgical Steel has recouped its costs. In 2014, that's a success story. "Albums are, more or less, an opportunity to make some kind of artistic statement for the people who care," Steer says. "Aside from that, it's a way to validate being out there and playing shows, because you want to prove that you have something to bring to the table."
After five years of playing the old "hits," it was, perhaps, time to give the reanimated Carcass the teeth of new material. But Surgical Steel is much more than validation for continued touring. It's a return to form in a world where that term is vastly overused. "People are making comparisons between this album, stylistically, and our previous work," Steer says. "There are moments on the record that remind them of that old stuff we did. I don't think it sounds exactly like it. In fact, I know it doesn't."
Two decades later, the band's pre-hiatus records are still brutally heavy. Surgical Steel builds on that legacy with a sound that is more dynamic, more musical, and complete. The fact that these two eras stand comfortably shoulder to shoulder is perhaps Carcass's greatest triumph of all.