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How is it that such disparate forms of self-expression as music and writing can have such integral influence on each other? Beyond their commonality as being forms of expression they very often do not, or at least that has been my experience when engaging with both of these methods of personal savior-faire. Yet in reflection on my past musical influences as well as sating a need for writing more musical criticism, I realized that there was such an example within my musical canons. When exploring the depths of the artistic underground, hopefully you will come across the musical genius and literary originality of the Liverpool based grindcore/death metal band Carcass whose main output was between the years 1985-1996. Through the quality of their musical brilliance and recondite nature along with their equally confounding lyrics (containing a heavy use of medical patois), they were and are one of the few bands to have generated a sub-genre of music; in this case the very unoriginal music styling of Carcass Worship which simply was a facile replication of the sound of the band’s first two albums. So what is it about this band that was so ripe for musical plagiarism? Interestingly enough, the first glimpse of their quiddity was a quality which could be and was heavily scrutinized and criticized without even listening to their albums. This quality was evinced in their cover art.
Due to being issued during the reactionary Thatcherite years of Britain, it is not at all surprising the amount of controversy promulgated within the musical media over this band’s cover art, particularly on their first two LP’s Reek Of Putrefaction and Symphonies of Sickness; both issued by the seminal underground label Earache Records UK. There had never been such album covers which utilized explicit photographic images of both human and other animal’s pathological states and death. This was in part simply another addition in the long historical tradition of thanatotic exploration in art. Yet there also was a conscious asserting of vegetarian principles with the choice of images and their juxtaposition—clearly illustrating that there is no difference between a human carcass and any other animal corpse. If you find repulsion to one, how can you eat the other? But to overly focus on this superficial albeit influential aspect of the band is to abjure the much more impressive and awe inspiring musicianship of these men, which had a very interesting evolution.
When their first album was released in 1988, lovers of heavy and extreme music were instantly captivated at this band’s aurally devastating and plangent sound. This quality of the music and more importantly its production is what garnered this group so much prompt attention and praise. Despite this though, this is a somewhat ironic contingency as this album is their least favorite due to its inept production. Guitarist and chief song-writer Bill Steer often complained about the disastrous recording of their first LP as it masked the intricacies of the songs themselves, yet this very poorly produced and stentorian sound is what gave them their popularity. Even today, I am amazed at how wonderfully extreme and brutalizing Reek of Putrefaction still is twenty three years later. Nonetheless, when they delivered their second album Symphonies of Sickness in 1989, the much improved production began to clearly showcase this band’s amazing song writing abilities.
Their musical acumen reached a staggering apotheosis with their third album, Necroticism: Descanting the Insalubrious released in 1991. I feel this way I am sure due to the fact that this was the first album of theirs that I transcribed, which by the way took the entirety of my high school years to complete and perfect but it was well worth the frustration and angst of voluminous playbacks. When one also considers that these men did not have any musical education of any kind, the technical merits of this album become all the more daedal and enviable. For those readers who do not possess any musical knowledge you may want to skip the next paragraph. But for those readers with some musical background I feel that I must share some of the melodious qualities of which I am adulating so unabashedly.
The first talent obvious in the musicianship of this band is in the arrangement of the songs. Very quickly it becomes apparent that the riffs used to construct the songs are quite intricate and to be able to piece them together so seamlessly into melodic coherence is astounding. In this regard, they definetly are contributors to the great English progressive rock tradition and admittedly so. A rather conspicuous quality of 70’s progressive rock which this band so masterfully employed is in the use of time signature changes. Any musician who plays with others knows all too well that timing is everything. In the occidental tradition this is so due in large part to the employment of harmony, which is a quality bereft in Eastern music theory. So a skill which prominently illustrates one’s musical aptitude is in the ability to abruptly change time signatures, especially if they are in striking relief to one another. Even more impressive is to be able to accomplish these changes in one riff, never mind one song. On this album, these musicians accomplish this feat many times over. A salient example of this skill can be found in the song Pedigree Butchery (a rather darkly comic song about rendering human corpses into pet food). There is a eight measure bridge riff which employs a different time signature in each bar, and the time choices are 4/4, 6/4, 7/8, and 12/8! To write a riff like this and to have it musically work is amazing for a trained musician let alone a self-taught one. More influential to my own guitar musicianship though is the brilliant use of techniques such as staccato and legato which in the solos are so technically and melodically eclat that they still fill me up with jealousy in their being able to write such music.
So what of the literary influence you say? When it comes to the lyrics of these albums, the syntax matches the music in complexity and originality. Bassist and main vocalist Jeff Walker was interviewed once and asked about the nature of the lyrics which he was the sole writer of. He rather glibly retorted that he reads a lot of weird books. I think his use of language is far more original than his rather opaque adumbration would lead one to believe. Firstly, he tackled culturally verboten topics involving death and the macabre with an acute and comically attuned eye. Not only did he go into graphic detail about the processes of disease, death, and psychopathology but he managed to maintain a sick humor while doing so. I always found this kind of language usage entertaining and this is probably one of the ways in which such sardonic musings found their way into my own prose. But ultimately the most acute literary influence I culled from this band’s lyrics was a use of medical terminology for metaphorical and literal description as well as for fodder for plays on words.
If even casually explored, it can be easily found through out my writing I am sure, that I have a love of using medical argot within my prose. It may garner me some criticism for being too pedantic or esoteric, but I just can not manage to care about such paltry criticisms. I write how I write just as in equal ways in conversation, I talk the way that I talk. But I thought that an examination of this particular band should be of interest because I can not think of any other musical group or individual musician who has had such a dual influence on my approaches to the aesthetic. Of course I realize that this kind of music is not for everyone (this music does generally garner a decidedly male audience devoted to musical aggression) but I never miss and never shall miss a opportunity to exemplify and tout artistic resplendence and musical sagacity of plangent forcefulness. What else is there to do when accosted with such irrefragable talent?