Retrospective: Carcass – “Heartwork”

carcass heartwork

For today’s retrospective we leap all the way back to October 1993 to discuss Carcass‘ masterpiece in composition, Heartwork. The album saw a massive shift in sound that was more melodic and moderately paced than their previous work. Heartwork would prove to be bittersweet for the band as it brought them success but with that success came pain, demise and eventually a breakup. While it might not be fair to say that success tore Carcass apart, the pressure from Columbia records certainly didn’t make their ascension any easier. Despite their breakup, Heartwork remains a cataclysmic work of melodic death metal. And, for fans of the heavy stuff, a staple in every record collection.

After their formation in 1985, Carcass put out exactly three full-length releases before their masterpiece. First was Reek of Putrefaction in 1988 followed by Symphonies of Sickness in 1989 and then Necroticism – Descanting the Insalubrious in 1991. These albums were all fast-paced, full of gory imagery and likely the foundations of the grind genre (including goregrind). Over that time the band recorded a Peel Session, Michael Amott joined the band, their production value increased and so did their musicianship. Carcass began adding slower, more melodic passages to their songs. On their third work the guitars even exploded with some elaborate and melodic soloing. But Carcass as we know it today wasn’t yet truly formed or even born.

For their fourth album, the band remained with fellow Brits Earache Records. But their sound blossomed in ways that no one expected. The band even kept Colin Richardson on board to handle the production. But the gore based imagery was gone. The focus on grind was gone. Essentially, the band came to a fork in the road and took it. Carcass headed down the mountain and into the valley of melody. Sure, it’s still death metal, and maybe only fans of death metal will understand why Heartwork is an album of excessive melody for Carcass. It is, also, a work of monumental genius and a turning point in the lives of many metal heads.

So now let’s spin from the facts and take the album on as a listener. In 1993 metal was, at least for me, largely a feathered hair affair. The heavy music I was listening to was Metallica, Megadeth, Iron Maiden, Helmet and a whole bunch of goth. So Carcass, with their pacing on Heartwork and their straight forward, punchy rhythms snapped my entire world into focus. Some of the techniques, particularly the work of cymbal work of Ken Owen and the harmonizing guitars of Michael Amott and Bill Steer sound fresh today. That’s probably why, when Earache reissued Heartwork in 2008 (and again in 2013), little needed to change to make the album exciting.

In fact, when Carcass finally reformed, forgot about Swansong and finished releasing best of albums, they got together to release Surgical Steel. Which revealed just how much of a shame it was that Carcass took so much time off. Surgical Steel was such a logical follow up to Heartwork that it easily could have been recorded by the band in the mid 1990’s saving metal fans nearly fifteen years of waiting. Thus, metal fans, and the world at large, missed out on so much of what could have been.

But, who can really blame Carcass? When a major label steps in with their checkbook the pressure begin to mount. After signing with Columbia records immediately following the release of Heartwork, the band faced the fact that a mainstream label would seek to change their sound. Columbia even had the nerve to suggest that Jeff Walker take singing lessons to develop a more radio-friendly voice. (We can only assume that the label wanted Carcass to take on Alice in Chains and the like in a record sales competition.) It was at this time that Michael Amott left the band. Rather, the band wrote seventeen songs and headed into the studio to burn through their two-hundred thousand dollar advance. The label told them they weren’t ready yet Carcass forged ahead taking a path of a more classic rock, Thin Lizzy-style to songwriting. (Interestingly, you can hear some of that influence bleed through on “This is Your Life” which is a bonus track off the 2013 reissue & remaster.) Sadly, by the time Swansong was released, Carcass had moved back to Earache and ended, at least for the time being, their existence as a band. The mounting pressure, tension, argumentative nature and the general struggle for control caused Bill Steer to lose faith and interest in the metal genre.

Heartwork will forever be one of the best metal albums of all time. In addition to that, it’s possibly one of the best albums ever recorded (even when other genres are included). It’s a super fun album because all sorts of metalheads can come together to appreciate it. Sure, many of us diverted off to harsher death metal, or took off to the Scandinavian black metal scene, but regardless, all of us have metal roots in work like Carcass’ 1993 release Heartwork. So go find a pal and ask them when the first time they heard Heartwork was and what their impressions were. I can promise you will be better friends for it.

– Manny-O-War

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