The blades are rusty
Reunion albums are never an easy thing to pull off; there’s a lot of expectation riding on them especially when they’re from a much loved artist, and they can go one of a few ways. Sometimes you get an actual improvement due to experience taken from the intervening years like Black Gives Way to Blue, producing something fresh and new. Sometimes you get something totally and completely removed from the past that can lead to mixed results, and other times you get albums like this. Surgical Steel represents probably the most disappointing route a reunion album can take, a safe and inoffensive rehash of past material that amounts to a career summary by a decent tribute band.
The sound displayed on this album is derived almost directly from Heartwork, with some nods to Necroticism and Swansong. Much like Heartwork the album is very riff-driven, with it being full of grooving, mid-paced to fast and chunky melodic riffs, generally a small handful per song, that proceed to work their way into your head and become the principle motif of the track. The songs are largely simple in construction as is the way on that album, having distinctly rock-based structuring. The hints of the more progressive Necroticism only really shine through during a contrasting bridge section that mixes up the basic formula at work here, while Swansong is audible during some of the more rock-infused stop-start riffing and indeed the more rockish lead work. The vocals are the same hoarse rasps of their ’90s albums and are executed well; I’d say the vocals are the best thing about the album because they actually measure up well to their classic albums.
The problem I have with albums like this is not that they don’t expand their sound, but more that they seek to emulate their classic albums while not doing as good a job. This album pretty much emulates Heartwork, and it does sound a lot like that album, but without any of the memorability and impact. The guitar tone isn’t as slick and heavy as it was on that album but more importantly the riffs simply aren’t as good. None of the riffs here stick in my mind like the riffs to ‘Heartwork’ or ‘Carnal Forge’. One problem is that the band now sounds like an imitator of that specific sound rather than the trendsetter. The riffs sound stale and rather weak in their delivery, in fact this whole album does. The blasting sections are similarly lifeless, for instance, and the drums themselves don’t feel nearly as energetic or hammering as they did before, despite playing a similar sort of straight beat. It feels like that the band only play this sort of stuff to please the fans, because at no stage does this album strike me as especially inspired or passionate.
And then there are the general problems this album has. The extended and unusual bridges inherited from Necroticism feel totally unnecessary and shoehorned in. The lyrics, which are the surgical themes of their gore era, similarly feel completely out of place amongst the melodic riffs and the rock bounce some songs exhibit. I’m not the biggest fan of death’n’roll, but the rock influence at least makes sense on a purely death’n’roll effort like Swansong, however the cheesy rock noodling on this album feels really inappropriate given the mostly groovy and modern melodeath riffing and the general aggression. All this said though, the songs are fine while they’re on and the album remains of a consistent quality throughout. Barring these blemishes there’s nothing wrong here at all. The songs are constructed well for the most part, the riffs are decent and the vocals are good – but that’s it.
The point I’m trying to make here is that it’s one thing for an album not to blaze new trails, but it’s another for it to go along old trails while not blazing at all. Everything on this album feels like it’s there only to please a certain portion of the fan base, not because they wanted to play stuff like this or write lyrics like them. And for all I know maybe they did want to play this sort of stuff, but if so they’re being lazy about it and should try harder. If they did something to progress their sound then at least they wouldn’t be able to look entirely to the past and have to provide a fresh spin on their sound and challenge themselves. As it stands however, like At the Gates on At War With Reality Carcass here have run out of ideas, and created a skippable, disposable album unworthy of their career.