appearing: Carcass, The Black Dahlia Murder, Gorguts, Noisem Newport Music Hall, Columbus, Ohio – April 6, 2014
“Are you ready to rock?” deadpanned Carcass front man Jeff Walker, addressing the audience almost accusatorily with his bass guitar suspended from his neck and dangling like a fallen mountain climber wriggling at the end of his tether. The first live note had yet to be struck and the Newport Music Hall was still awash in the strains of “1985”, the majestic instrumental opening to Carcass’ magnificent 2013 comeback album Surgical Steel. Here was a band, so influential and loved in its time, that had with startling force and command improbably returned to form well over fifteen years after disbanding, and were now headlining one of North America’s premier metal tours, soaking in the audience’s adulation and anticipation. It didn’t quite play like the triumphant moment it should have. I saw Carcass on its 2009 reunion tour, at a time when no one in his right mind could have imagined Surgical Steel and the crowd was primed (and content) instead for a by-the-numbers recitation of all the “hits”. The band was ferocious that night, alive and energized on a primal level. In a way, it played like a stinging and purposeful rebuke to conventional wisdom. The new millennium has proven Carcass most adept at that sort of thing.
Tonight, though, something seemed amiss early. The famously sharp-tongued Walker’s surely ironic question (Carcass is known for its pioneering contributions to the subgenres of melodic death metal and grind but surely not straight rock and roll, a descriptor which, when they do invoke it, tongue firmly in cheek, they tend to pervert into “rot and roll”) had no real oomph behind it, no knowing grin, no hint of a wink or a sneer. The band then tore into set opener “Buried Dreams”, one of the evening’s four songs from one of my ten favorite metal albums ever, 1994’s Heartwork, and all was momentarily forgotten. The opening salvos also included Necroticism classic “Incarnated Solvent Abuse”, Surgical Steel’s disarming melodic trip wire “Cadaver Pouch Conveyor System” and circled back to Heartwork for “Carnal Forge”, though the players on stage never appeared quite the equal of the vicious, brilliant music pouring out of them. Then Walker let the crowd in on a poorly kept secret: the band, it seemed, were all walking wounded in one manner or another. “William Geoffrey Steer” (as he was introduced by Walker, but known to all of us as founding guitar hero Bill Steer) had banged his head in the bad way crawling into his bunk on the tour bus. Second guitarist Ben Ash had been stricken with a nasty flu bug that made him leave stage momentarily in the early going and later saw him crossing himself after the end of each song with a half-grin/half-grimace as the crowd cheered his heroic efforts. Walker himself claimed to be suffering from shingles, and even pulled aside the collar of his t-shirt to show off his raw and discolored neck, this time with an actual smile.
Carcass made its bones, so to speak, in the weird, gloriously unhinged environment of late ‘80s/early ‘90s death metal, where insanely talented bands clamored over one another in search of gimmickry (or at least a topical niche) with staying power. Carcass parlayed its knowledge of obtuse medical terminology into a band identity, melding together taboo-embracing subject matter with bouncy, intricate, grimy sounding but impeccably played music and a sly but wicked sense of humor. That sense of humor served them well at the Newport (“We are Carcass from Liverpool, England. No subtitles!”), and Walker’s admission to the crowd subtly shifted audience expectations while seeming to galvanize the band itself. Unlike other bands, whose energy can often seem to wane as a concert progresses, Carcass started listlessly then began to steadily climb. I found myself thinking I was in for a short night, unfortunate but understandable, and that any number of songs in the wake of the announcement might in fact be the band’s last. I kept waiting for the show to end while hoping against hope that it wouldn’t, and having my hopes answered in kind.
I would have treated each of those songs like events in any case, because they are all so infectious and fun to people of the proper disposition. Heartwork, which I memorized in college and still listen to with some regularly today, would have been my favorite metal album of the nineties if I didn’t include 1990 in the criteria, and it’s clear the band loves Surgical Steel with the same kind of passion. I can identify. Walker, who jabbed at the crowd all night in his own loving but prickly manner, chided them for not treating selections from Surgical Steel with the same passion evoked by Heartwork’s title track, Necroticism’s “Corporal Jigsore Quandary” (the band’s acknowledged “hit”, assuming one exists), or a delightful 6-minute mid-set medley of songs from even earlier albums. It’s a shame, this lack of familiarity, because Steel-forged songs like “Captive Bolt Pistol” and the marvelous “Unfit for Human Consumption” were among the set’s highlights, and a healthy (relatively speaking, since this is Carcass) dose of them pushed a show I once worried would end prematurely right up to the 90-minute mark. Walker even introduced a medley of 2 of the 4 useful songs (“Black Star” and “Keep on Rotting in the Free World”) off the band’s much-derided late period commercialized train wreck Swan Song by saying, “everyone needs to leave with a smile on their face.” My smile, for one, was permanent, and the band, when they finally did leave the stage, seemed to me like they could’ve played even longer. Always leave ‘em wanting more, I guess…this time, for the right reasons.
Package tours sponsored by established metal magazines and websites (my clear preference over, say, energy drinks) are back in vogue lately, and Decibel Magazine’s 2014 lineup was every bit as heavy hitting on stage as it is on paper. When the top two supporting acts are both bands I saw headline their own club shows within the last half a year, you know you’re talking about something potentially very special. As expected, direct support The Black Dahlia Murder delivered a blistering set, shredding the crowd and its collective eardrums with their trademark destructive zeal and populist aplomb, which have helped make them one of the most popular and reliable bands in extreme metal. Nocturnal, my favorite album of any genre in 2007, remains the band’s high water mark, and jackhammer diatribes “Everything Went Black” and “What a Horrible Night to Have a Curse” were, predictably, crowd pleasers of the highest order. Quebec’s Gorguts opened my evening (I sadly arrived too late to catch a glimpse of fast-rising death/thrash hybrid Noisem) with their dense, angular, jazz-influenced, at times crushingly heavy technical death metal explorations, and mesmerized then swallowed whole the largely unsuspecting crowd. Gorguts requires even more room to breathe than most of its tech-death contemporaries, so many of whom it directly inspired with its 1998 opus Obscura, but it made the most of its 35 minutes on stage. Last year’s Colored Sands, which ran neck and neck with Carcass for my comeback album of the year, among other personal honors, will doubtless inspire many more. Gorguts mastermind Luc Lemay remains the nicest person and most potentially crippling handshake in all of metal. It was a true delight to get to meet him again at the merchandise counter on our way out, emblematic of a fairly delightful night overall.