The short burst of creamy harmonized guitar lines that opens the first new Carcass album in 17 years is called “1985,” and it’s aptly dubbed. It sounds like a transmission from those more bombastic days of metal when the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and thrash hadn’t yet completely overtaken the mainstream, back when then-teenage Bill Steer and Jeff Walker first scrambled out of Liverpool to help pioneer grindcore and seal the deal for extreme metal. But as the counter clicks over to track two, “Thrasher’s Abbatoir,” Surgical Steel (Nuclear Blast) should blow anyone expecting a nostalgic reverie back about five steps. In fact, it’s soon clear that a coupla dudes on the far side of 40 went and waxed one of the best, most vital metal albums of the year.
The creamy guitar harmonies reappear throughout Surgical Steel, and why not? They were a key feature of Heartwork, Carcass’ 1993 melodic death ’n’ roll masterpiece. If Surgical Steel sounds at times like tapes cut a year after Heartwork and left languishing in a vault after the band’s 1996 breakup, well, there are plenty of ’heads who aren’t gonna be mad at that. But Steer, Walker, and new blood Daniel Wilding and Ben Ash sound energized, bursting with awesome moves and impatient to beat you over the head with them. And while Wilding’s new-school double kicks drive tracks like “Thrasher’s Abbatoir,” his flexible flow also makes the striated alloy of death-metal pummel and old-school breakdown on cuts like “The Master Butcher’s Apron” conjure visions of heaving circle pits. If you need reminding of how relentlessly exciting good metal can be, look no further.
The real secret weapon here, though, is perhaps to be expected from a band with a thing for medical gore: hooks, hooks, hooks. Whether it’s due to Walker’s articulate gargle on the choruses or Steer’s insane fusillades of riffs slamming into riffs slamming into riffs on cuts on like “316L Grade Surgical Steel” or “Captive Bolt Pistol,” you will wear Surgical Steel’s marks.
If Surgical Steel seems to have picked up more or less right where Carcass left off nearly two decades before, Gorguts’ Colored Sands (Seasons of Mist) sounds like a band not at all interested in revisiting where it’s been. The Quebecois death-metal crew had already broken with DM orthodoxy through the arcane harmonies and spazzy rhythms of 1998’s Obscura (a gateway drug for a generation of hipster metal adopters) before its own temporary break-up in 2005. Colored Sands pushes out into a landscape that is, for lack of a better word, orchestral.
You’d be forgiven for equating “orchestral” with “cheesy synth interludes,” because that’s how it usually goes in metal. But frontman/guiding light/lone original member Luc LeMay doesn’t add orchestral touches so much as he writes and arranges Colored Sands’ nine lengthy tracks in a way that expands beyond the usual riff/blastbeat binary. He’s not afraid to drop a genuine break—a delicate hushed verse, not just a slowed-down pit-stoking section—amid the churning chords of opener “Le Toit du Monde.” Tunes like the title track, with its slippery guitar harmonics, and the lurching “Enemies of Compassion,” with its faux tribal pound and slashing chords, sound concrete dense without ever bogging down in mere featureless din. Things do get literally orchestral at one point, thanks to the LeMay-penned string piece, “Battle of Chandos,” but it’s rather impressive, a bowed evocation of metal’s minor-key fraughtness and chugging rhythms. Not so much a soundtrack for the home pit, then, but powerful, ambitious music not to be discounted by the open-eared.
The Dead C is not a metal band, and though it also dates from the late ’80s, it has never broken up. It has tended not to do expected things as a matter of course, really. Instead, the New Zealand trio comes together every few years (or not so few years) to bang together some of the tropes associated with rock music—loud guitars from Bruce Russell and Michael Morley, a more or less rhythmic pulse from drummer Robbie Yeats—into improvised music that might mimic a grayed-out form of psychedelia one moment and chartless noise the next.
Patience, from 2010, sounded like the work of nominal rock band. Armed Courage (Ba Da Bing!), its 15th album or so, not so much. “Armed,” the first of two LP-side-long excursions, coruscates with sustained acidic guitar wash, animated by occasional chord clangs and Yeats’ pre-nimble “beat.” Intentionally or not, it constitutes a rainy-day zone-out epic of the first water. “Courage” features a frequent deal-breaker for casual fans—Morley’s vocal moans—amid a more spacious, deliberate exploration of idle moments passed while plugged in to an amp. It’s the kind of thing you can imagine unfolding on one of their earlier albums. Or one another 15 years from now.