Carcass’ Swansong: A Newbie’s Retrospective Review
When I recently reviewed Carcass’ latest record, Surgical Steel, I mentioned openly that I’ve never listened to its predecessor, the oft-maligned Swansong. This is because when I was a teenager getting into death metal, Swansong was considered musical AIDS; it was so hated that even tracking down the CD to hear it (this was pre-Internet, or at least pre-my-understanding-of-the-Internet, so I would actually have had to get a physical copy) was seen as false in the highest. Along with Cold Lake, Wolverine Blues, Crytpic Writings, and, of course, Load, Carcass’ Swansong was so bad it wasn’t worth the time it took to hear and hate it.
Much was my surprise, then, when readers voiced their ire at my announcement in the comments section of my Surgical Steel review. How could I properly judge this new record, they said, without having heard the “milestone” that was Swansong? Not that they liked Swansong. I mean, come on. But it was idiocy on MetalSucks’s part to assign an album this important to someone who didn’t have the proper context to review it. Which got me thinking: maybe I was missing out. Maybe hearing Swansong would open my eyes to Surgical Steel’s brilliance as a return to form, or would show me how the band’s progression post-Heartwork was vastly important to my understanding of Carcass as a cultural force. I decided it was time. I would listen to Swansong.
The first reaction the album causes is a sneer—if Swansong’s seemingly precognitive title isn’t bad enough (for the record, the ancient Greeks believed that the swan, just before it died, sang a beautiful song as a last effort at passion, which is where the term comes from), then the title of the opening track, “Keep On Rotting In The Free World,” is truly some lame-ass shit. The lyrics themselves sound overly positive and literal, urging the listener to keep chasing their dreams. From there on out, things continue into mediocrity. “Black Star” sounds oddly glam, while “Cross My Heart” is just straight-up annoying (“Be my bloody Valentine”—this lyric basically tells me that Carcass think I’m an asshole). “Child’s Play” is old by a minute in; “Room 101” sounds almost exactly like “Child’s Play.” The lyrics of “Polarized” are like some kind of half-brained version of “Peace Sells…”. “Generation Hexed” and “Firm Hand” are the best songs so far—the latter even has real double bass drumming during its intro part—but they’re still a one-note tracks. “Rock The Vote” is an eh song with obnoxiously on-point lyrics, “Don’t Believe A Word” is pretty uninteresting, and “Go To Hell” isn’t the Motörhead cover I was hoping for.
What’s omnipresent on the album is a sense of exhaustion—gone are the speedy, engrossing riffs and crushing drums of old. There are no more uses of anatomy as metaphor for humanity, but instead straight-forward on-the-nose lyrics about the state of society or rock and roll. For some death metal bands, such a lyrical shift might be interesting, but we always sort of knew that Carcass were political, and anyway, there’s something to be said for showing rather than telling. In general, this record feels extremely lazy—toned down, uninteresting, simplistically-organized, and poorly balanced. Swansong isn’t a travesty, a band giving up on their music, but it definitely feels like twelve tracks of filler. Nothing on here is vital listening.
Which leads me to my final, self-serving point: no one needs to hear Swansong. It will not give you greater insight into Carcass’ career; at best, it will show you how the early ‘90s death metal boom had begun to grow bloated and slide to a halt. It’s not so drastically different from Heartwork as to be comical (as opposed to the previously mentioned Cold Lake, which is just an absolute shitshow compared to any other Celtic Frost release), but it’s also just different enough to feel unattached to the rest of the band’s career. Swansong is the ultimate nonessential—a career-damning record that even fails to amaze or fascinate the listener.