Sunday, September 22nd, marked the official Autumnal equinox, and even though the temperatures here in Houston will still reach the 90s this week, there were signs in the air that the seasons had truly changed. It was in the sounds of an NFL Sunday escaping from the television, the outdoor smells of burning wood and grilling meats, the sights of a grey, overcast sky, and of course, the feel of much cooler breezes. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m pretty big on this time of the year, and of course I tend to gravitate to listening to those bands that tend to provide a suitable Fall soundtrack. One of these bands is Insomnium, whom I began to get into heavily last year around this same time after years of seeing their name pop-up repeatedly. This surging interest perfectly coincided with the chance to see them live in November supporting their One For Sorrow album, and I still remember the anticipation of the drive to the venue, the electricity of one of the most intense performances I’ve ever seen, and the shaking exuberance of the drive back home in the chilly late night air.
So perhaps my perception of time is distorted a bit, in terms of gauging my stunned surprise to the fact that four days ago on Thursday, September 19th the band released their new single “Ephemeral”. Seeing that One For Sorrow was released in 2011, a full year prior to my becoming a die hard fan, I might be projecting my personal timeline with the band over their working, reality based timeline. But it seems to have come as a welcome surprise to most of their fans, as the band had been recently posting cryptic Facebook posts for awhile hinting at something coming down the pike, only for it to end up being the release of a rather absorbing documentary on the making of One For Sorrow. So when another of these cryptic hint posts showed up on my Facebook feed, I figured it would be another retrospective based release, certainly not new music. That it actually ended up being so capped off what was the best week of the year for metal releases. And I can’t think of a better way to usher in the Fall than with new Insomnium music.
This single release is actually an EP to be precise, a collection of four tracks, the aforementioned “Ephemeral” and three acoustic based instrumental tracks. The title track kicks us off; a just under four minute slice of tempered Insomnium styled melo-death and its our first taste of the band’s slightly different take on their sound. Noticeably there is a lack of the band’s usual penchant for a slower, lengthy musical intro —- before we know it we’re launching headlong into a twice repeating up tempo verse section that accelerates into a nicely worked bridge, before exploding with a gush of ultra melodic guitars in the chorus. Whats striking here is the interesting tempo progression, a rhythmically uptempo verse to be sure, followed by an even faster bridge, and finally the guitars take the lead in the chorus to push the song to the speed limit. As usual for a band of their songwriting talent, Insomnium’s keen ear at layer separation between instruments is the key attribute at work here —- notice that the vocals continue from section to section at their own pace, never feeling the need to match the rhythm section or guitar leads. This song is catchy as hell. Probably more than any other melo-death band, Insomnium seems to have a never ending supply of ear worms that they liberally sprinkle all throughout their songwriting.
I want to point out the exceptional lyrics here as well. As lyricists, Insomnium have tended to lean towards the bleak, morose, and often flat out depressing —- but they always temper that approach with an underlying layer of optimism, or for lack of a better term, hope. On “Ephemeral”, verse lyrics speak to us of the grimness of living: “For this life will break you / Years will wear you down / And every day you die a little / Until the shadows will take you”, a plainly laid out sentiment that no one has managed to express as well since Sentenced. But the refrain that follows in the chorus is one of Insomnium’s best moments lyrically, a Norse mythological ethos steeped expression of sheer will: “Dying doesn’t make this world dead to us / Breathing doesn’t keep the flame alive in us / Dreaming doesn’t make time less real for us / One life, one chance, all ephemeral”. In my experience with Insomnium, its the melodies that draw me in first, but vocalist Niilo Sevänen’s perfect blend of harsh vocals with clear enunciation prevent these lyrics from just melting into the background. This song’s been on a regular rotation for the past few days and will probably stay there for weeks more at least.
There are three other cuts on this EP, as mentioned before, they are short atmospheric, acoustic instrumentals that actually served as the soundtrack to their One For Sorrow documentary. And before you yawn, let me assure you that they work within the context of this release. I suppose the obvious thing would be to say they were soothing, and at times they were, but “The Swarm” kicks off with a Jester Race sounding acoustic strum that is almost waltz-like in its tempo, bringing to mind the best era of that famed Gothenburg sound. They’re all good pieces, and nice to have in addition to the main attraction, but I think it would have been far more interesting had they re-recorded a few tracks from their back catalog in an acoustic format, perhaps with clean vocals over them? Ah can’t win them all. Regarding the documentary, I loved every minute of it, and its starkness in tone matched the band’s musical qualities, right down to the directorial decisions —- its worth checking out on YouTube. That coupled with the new single has me more anticipatory than ever, could a new album possibly arrive before year’s end? If not at least Autumn is finally here.
Well its finally here. Years after I first saw Carcass in 2007 at a dingy downtown Houston club playing the headlining slot of a godawful Texas Death Metal Fest and wondered if they were going to attempt to follow up… erm, Swansong, they have returned with a new album at last. And the thing is, my anticipation for it all those years ago when I relished the opportunity to hear “No Love Lost” live has gradually diminished over the years —- I think in part because I wondered what was taking them so long, and that maybe their return was really just about unleashing the classics night after night and making a living off it. Hey, that’s fair enough, they’d have all right to do so if its all they were content with. But noise was made by both Bill Steer and Jeff Walker that they were interested in the idea of doing a new record. So for years we’d read this stuff, doled out in Blabbermouth-sized bites with hopes raised that it could be soon, only to have soon pass by with nothing to show for it. I think that if many of us are totally honest, we all probably stopped caring after awhile.
So it was with great surprise and not a little trepidation that I read the band were actually recording this thing in 2012 on their own dime, and planning to shop it around to labels once it was finished. Nuclear Blast are no dummies, they know that a Carcass record will be at the very least a talking point among metalheads the world over. Most of those fans will open their wallets. And perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that this is a post-reunion album actually worth opening those wallets for. This is perhaps the most enjoyable album in the Carcass discography, and I say that as someone who has an unabashed love for Heartwork. which served as my introduction to the band (yes I know of and have enjoyed Necroticism, Symphonies, and Reek —- calm down). The irritable bowel inducing Pitchfork Media reviewed this album in a surprisingly insightful manner, and remarked that “Surgical Steel is a nostalgic statement, seemingly designed to trigger a Pavlovian response in fans”. At first this irked me, but they present a good case. This is Carcass going back to their first four albums and pulling everything deemed great and defining about them and deciding that these will be the only tools used for the creation of a new album. There’s a huge danger in doing that, most bands that have tried end up sounding flat, but Carcass seems to sidestep this common trip up by focusing squarely on really excellent songwriting.
Bill Steer turns in an all around excellent performance, as expected, his guitars sound as sharp as ever and riffs and solos abound. There are few guitarists in extreme metal that can make you feel like their riffs could actually peel your skin off like Steer (okay maybe Schuldiner as well). He is drawing upon Heatwrork era melodicism here, solos are wild and Iron Maiden-esque, and his riffs often echo motifs of the past yet manage to avoid sounding like retreads. They’ve picked up an excellent drummer in Daniel Wilding, whose percussion is actually able to keep step with Steer’s playing in fluid and unexpected ways. Walker sounds ageless here, and far better than his lackluster performance on Swansong, his vocals raw and feral yet kept purposefully in front of the mix by veteran Carcass producer Colin Richardson. Speaking of which, the production is highly polished, immaculately clean and tight —- lovers of Symphonies era Carcass might find it too clean, but it does work for the rest of us (particular for an album called Surgical Steel).
Highlights abound, the much praised “Captive Bolt Pistol” turns in one of Steers more memorable series of solos —- strings of tornadic like fret patterns over a bed of thrash riffing that recalls Megadeth’s Rust In Peace era. Speaking of which, I get a Deth like vibe on the album closer “Mount of Execution”, which starts off with a memorable slow melodic bend before it launches into a midtempo-ed gallop for the majority of the track, Walker spitting out Mustaine laden vocals that actually do approximate melodic singing at various points. It sorta feels like 1992. “A Congealed Clot of Blood” storms along until the end of the song where we’re treated to a classic tri-tone laden symphony of guitars, capped off by an amazing middle solo… its a rare moment of quiet in an album that is 95% blistering attack. I love “The Master Butcher’s Apron” which is about exactly what the title suggests —- this might feature the best riff on the album, a slow, almost Metallica “Sad But True” echo to the tempo and rhythm guitar pattern (anyone else hearing that?). Wilding’s fills are incredibly complex, the kind of satisfying metal drumming that seems to be all too rare. My favorite moment on the record comes at the end of the best song on offer here, “316 L Grade Surgical Steel”, a perfect Carcass song in every way: Tremendously catchy main riff, Walker’s strategically paced vocals with lyrics turned dark and reflective —- the awesome ending section is worth pointing out alone, Walker barks against stop-start fire of riffs and percussion: “Don’t tell me that you want / Don’t tell me that you need / Don’t tell me that you love / Don’t tell me that you care / Don’t fool yourself”.
So I’ve come away pleasantly surprised. This isn’t changing my metal perspective like Heartwork did all those years ago (along with many other classic records of that era), but its incredibly enjoyable and satisfying to hear new music in the style that Carcass trademarked. Its nice when these things work out.