Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Lasting Ironic Influence of Carcass

If the spirit of the age is irony, or an overwhelming self-consciousness of the same, then can there be any more representative body of work left to us, at this time, than the albums that Carcass brought out during the early '90s? Is there any other band that had both the audacity to lead the progression of a musical genre, while, at the same time, deriding it effusively and, in the end, representing its downfall in the inevitable conflict with commercialism? I can't think of a better example of the postmodern ethos than Carcass, and I'll endeavor here to explain why.

At first Carcass subscribed fitfully to the philosophy of extremity for extremity's sake that Earache Records spread throughout the metal underground in the first years of this decade. The avenue that Napalm Death opened for other bands by their kamikaze concentration on pushing aside all the limits that conservatism had set for metal bands had an immediate effect in flooding the world scene with bands that were intent in a singular fashion on defining a new 'extremity' in metal aesthetics - by deconstructing the normal elements of metal composition and bringing a whole new level of experimentation to the music. Of course this was directly responsible for allowing the breathing space that Carcass needed to develop - and Carcass in turn developed along with the extreme metal scene that opened up after Napalm's first forays (the recent Earache ad that claimed that Napalm Death was 'the most influential metal band since Black Sabbath' is of course an overstatement, but not that far from the truth. 'From Enslavement to Obliteration' is a work of inspiration and still holds a steady place in my collection).

If the postmodern approach in music can be defined as the awareness of one's position at all times (a knowledge taken from History of the inevitable progression and dilution of a musical style), and the strained self-consciousness of intent (political, aesthetic, or otherwise) outside of the main message of the music itself, then Carcass, even at this early time, was distinctly sure of their place in the developing scene. Their tongue-in-cheek humor can be discerned from the very beginning - although it is, of course, a very black reflection of reality. From the start they were deliberately as extreme as possible - with their music (which at this time was a warping of the Napalm aesthetic - faster, harder, noisier, uglier), their artwork (which made them famous) and their lyrics, which took the ultra noir 'realism' of death metal descriptive imagery to new heights of perverse ecstasy - but more on that later.

Following the release of their second album, 'Symphonies of Sickness', I think Carcass began to progress in a very sure direction: they were moving towards a technical version of death metal as they became increasingly sure of their capabilities. This album, however, is one of the few masterpieces of death metal because its sound blends the incredibly eerie and bizarre progressive instinct they were forming with the extremism of old. This formula of melodic conception reached its peak on the next album (their best): 'Necroticism'. On their third release, I feel, Carcass pushed their heaviness and clinical brutality to the ultimate limit. The first song on this album is a clinic in progressive death metal - it's like a mission statement for the place that Carcass was claiming in the scene. The heavy-handed ethic of extremity for extremity's sake has been tempered, controlled, and pressed to yield their most pathologically savage moments under the guise of calm, level-headed mastery. Here again is the rise of the postmodern in the seamless combination of two apparently disparate abilities - the paradox between unrelenting bloody carnage and the cool gaze of the examiner, the coroner: the will to inflict massive trauma, the crushing and vicious rhythms, the bowel-churning downtuned guitars, the stop-and-start car wreck breaks in the songs...and then the sneer of their lyrics, the chilling irony, the effortless and arrogant technical witchery of the riffing, the overall poise of the band as being distanced the entire time from what they are so fervently portraying, cocooned in their atmosphere of ironic detachment.

I feel that Carcass had, at this point, a completely original melodic sense and an unmatched style. In the years since, their albums have spawned a massive breed of copycat bands - the sign of a true originator. Not one of these bands, however, can say that they understood the final ultimate joke of Carcass's existence, and one of their most salient points as a spreader of messages in the underground scene: the fact that with Carcass, the mockery had become music itself. Carcass always had a special relationship with the Earache scene because they, better than all the others, understood the absurdities of writing self-conscously extreme music. The fact that they even existed is a testament to this fact. At that point, in the early 90's, naming your band 'Carcass' was the height of horrible bad taste - it immediately labeled you as a proponent of the Earache ethic, of course, and also categorized your music ahead of time. By calling themselves 'Carcass', the band was in effect saying: 'we know what you are expecting, we are all that and more' and never, in their first period of existence, did they ever derivate from their message that they were the living essence of the death metal scene and that musical genre's obsessions - abstracted, made concrete, pushed to the limit, brought to hideous life. Carcass took a long and lingering (or loving) look at what the term 'death metal' really meant: a pathological fascination with death. Where the bands that had come before were content to revel in lyrics and imagery that were taken from the pathetically romantic view of death that horror movies give us, or the ideas on death that are espoused in our culture (urban myths, sociological dogma, the fairy tale mentality that we all assume in relation to our own deaths) Carcass looked into the abyss of the self, of the body: the Erebus of opened wounds, autopsies, abcesses, abnormalities, defects, the terrifying prison of flesh that we all inhabit. It was, from the very first, a new ethic of presentation - death under the microscope, under the bright lights of an emergency room or morgue, but most of all: death in reality, death as it is not how it appears. This is what makes Carcass one of the most horrifying of all death metal bands: they reflect the reality of our own bodies - the strange and mysterious processes of our own digestion, life, and decay. Memento Mori is the message intertwined in every song like a subtle virus or a bludgeoning reminder of mortality: remember, you will die. It is fate made eloquent, again and again. The fact that Carcass could take this realization as a fount of inspiration and make beautiful music out of it is of course the mark of their genius.

I had promised in an earlier articles to take a closer look at their lyrics. What strikes me now more than ever is Carcass's completely novel approach to reflecting reality, as I said earlier, and finding new levels of meaning there.What do I refer to by this? Simply that Carcass reveal, once again, another characteristic of our time: the will to self-consciousness, the introverted inspection of reality from the inside out, the application of internal reality and personal judgements to our understanding of our environment. Carcass naturally take this to extremes, in a mockery of their surroundings. In order to peer beneath the surface, Carcass employ a scalpel: in order to look inside, they bring the 'insides' out of the body and display them in the full light of day. In fact you could say that their introversion is in fact an ethic of inversion: the body (and thus the body politic) is turned inside out. Reality is brought down to the level of the processes of the human organs, the basic (but hidden - all truth is hidden) nature of our day-to-day existence that is only revealed when something goes horribly wrong with it (exceptions are almost examples of the rule: this paradox is why inquisitive minds curious about the nature of reality or the hidden alchemy of the world are almost always connected in their history to accidents of birth, freaks, abominations - the Frankenstein effect). It is in this method that I believe Carcass is as much a 'political' entity as any of the other bands in their scene - they take the search for truth to new extremes. And in any case, what could be more universal that death? It transcends all racial, nationalistic, and sexual barriers - it is the great equalizer. Death, it can be said, is the catalyst behind all political discussions, but also the best cure for them.

U. Amtey
December 2, 1999