Carcass - Necroticism – Descanting the Insalubrious (Cover Artwork)


Necroticism – Descanting the Insalubrious (1991)


Like many newcomers to the metal underground, I first perceived Carcass as a novelty act on the level of Anal Cunt. Before metalcore's mid-2000s ascendancy inspired a popular reevaluation of many such bands, they were far more famous for gratuitously gory-yet-erudite lyrics and imagery than for musical innovation. Who wouldn't laugh at a song called "Crepitating Bowel Erosion" or roll their eyes at an unpronounceable album moniker like "Necroticism - Descanting the Insalubrious"? When I sat down with a decent pair of headphones and first actually listened to this release, however, I was hooked. Far from a novelty, it's an enduring masterpiece of "extreme" music.

Necroticism, Carcass' third proper full-length, is one of those rare records so good and so original it defies easy classification. Is it grindcore? Certainly not; the songs are too long, ornate and restrained. It's not death or thrash metal either, though the complex composition and aggressive riffing wouldn't seem out of place on a Cannibal Corpse or even Megadeth release. There are touches of crust punk as well, courtesy of guitarist Bill Steer and his Napalm Death pedigree; proto-groove metal, squealing pinch harmonics and all; bits of acoustic guitar; and even a couple of sweep-picked arpeggios reminiscent of contemporaneous neoclassical wank-rock. It's a lot to take in at first. But while the moderate tempos and showy guitar work might send lice-infested grindcore purists running to the hills, most normal humans with an ear for well-produced, well-conceived rock will love this record given time to appreciate its breadth and depth.

One of Necroticism's first apparent differences from Carcass' previous output is a huge leap forward in audio quality. Frankly, it sounds fucking great. Colin Richardson's engineering prowess has dramatically increased in the two years since Symphonies of Sickness. Gone is that album's bone-dry sonic murk, overridden by the same rich bottom-heaviness that later propelled him to celebrity producer status in mainstream metal. The guitar and drum tracks are gorgeously clear, with every riff and fill distinct. At the same time, a satisfying rawness gives depth and subtlety to the sonic assault, somehow combining the ear-bleeding compression of Richardson's later work with a rich analog sound any hard rock audiophile can appreciate.

This marked audio improvement occurs in parallel with a similar maturation within the band as musicians. Drummer Ken Owen, who sometimes sounded clumsy and imprecise on previous recordings, is perhaps the most improved. He may still strain on longer blast-beat passages (of which there are precious few, fans of early Carcass will complain), but his consistently excellent work here should quiet critical metal elitists. Electronic triggering has become such an idiomatic norm, it's easy to forget that playing BOTH hard and fast--accurately--was once required of metal drummers. The decreasingly complex thrash of Carcass' later recordings unfortunately make this his de facto career best, as medical problems will likely prevent him from ever returning to the kit professionally. But 20 years later, Owen's work on Necroticism holds up, to the extent it's still often plagiarized by melodic death revivalists.

One of two albums featuring Carcass' unquestionably definitive lineup, this is the first to include on second guitar Michael Amott, now better known as founder of Arch Enemy. His clinical precision melds perfectly with Steer's thick bluesy shuffle, and Amott's contributions now seem indispensable--though on Necroticism, most of the writing and all the rhythm tracks are still Steer's. Thankfully, this is one of those times heavy metal excess comes in handy, as each guitar solo is identified in notes both by player name and a tongue-in-cheek subtitle (my favorite of Amott's is "Viscous residue snorting"), so it's easy to pick out who did what.

The lyrics are the only thing about Carcass that didn't change substantially for Necroticism, which, considering the tepid social commentary on their final two albums, is a good thing. There's somewhat less reliance on arcane medical terminology here than in the past, but the band sticks to the familiar territory of clinically dispassionate body horror. Thus, the subject matter includes such diverse topics as fertilizing crops with dead people ("Inpropagation"), feeding dead people to household pets ("Pedigree Butchery"), mutilating dead and/or still-living people (pretty much every song) and, of course, human putrefaction in general. It's no surprise that Carcass are vegetarians, or that their output continues to influence misanthropic vegan deathgrind practitioners like Cattle Decapitation.

While Necroticism is a step up from past Carcass releases in most respects, guitarist Bill Steer's permanent switch from co-lead vocalist to occasional background work comes at a detriment to the band's sound. His phlegmatic grunting always works well in timbral contrast with Jeff Walker's breathless rasp, and its underrepresentation here (and on releases to come) leaves the vocals sounding flat. My pointing this out, though, is really just an attempt to find something--anything--wrong with the album. Stepping back from the mic actually frees Steer up for the intricate riffing the band is now legendary for, and as Carcass themselves have pointed out in interviews, this is first and foremost a "guitar album." Dwelling on any other aspect misses the point. Whether or not it was a bad decision vocally, Steer's new singular focus on guitar parts is a tremendous success instrumentally.

In fact, Necroticism isn't just "a" guitar album--it's one of the best guitar albums of the 1990s. Eight tracks spanning 50 minutes are densely packed with creative, memorable riffs, judicious use of guitar harmonies (as atonal as they often skew) and ripping solos, all with relatively little repetition. Symphonies of Sickness would be a more appropriate title for this album than the last, as some tracks are so long (four are roughly seven minutes) and ornate as to risk venturing into the progressive metal realm. It works, though, and especially when contrasted with the AOR-thrash drudgery of final Carcass album Swansong, Necroticism perfectly balances youthful energy and experimentation with thoughtful, seasoned composition.

Aside from the "creepy" introductory samples on most tracks, Necroticism has no filler or downtime either. It's impossible to pick exemplary tracks from such a consistently great record. I have my personal favorites ("Inpropagation," "Symposium of Sickness" and "Incarnated Solvent Abuse"), but their selection is essentially random. This is Carcass' Reign in Blood, where members finally take themselves and their craft seriously in building a genre paramount, aided by a rising production wizard and a congealed band modus operandi. Murder-obsessed deathgrind tends to become tiresome and irritating quickly, but nearly an hour of Necroticism flies by in a single sitting, especially on repeat listens. Hell, I could've gone for a double LP. Heartwork might be Carcass' crowd-pleaser, but this is their opus.