- Story by Matthew Widener
Despite disbanding a decade ago, no death metal or grindcore band is more revered today than Carcass. Want proof? Just witness an actual sub-genre of extreme metal dedicated to emulating every facet of the band. Decibel presents a dissection of the Carcass clone phenomenon.
Long before stem cell research shanghaied the word from the annals of science fiction, there was the first Carcass clone band, embryonic in the late ‘80s and foundering in the goop of its own afterbirth. Underground death metalheads recognize the type—they’re the ones dressed like blood-spattered doctors; the bands with verbose medical missives on all things autopsied; those albums with the authentic, sanguine and putrescent green morgue photos you stashed from your snooping mother as a kid. Carcass’ indelible stamp has imprinted the evolution of extreme metal so utterly that when uprooting their influence, the challenge is to not find a band touched in some subtle way by the legendary Liverpudlians’ pathological grind.
But this isn’t about bands with subtle influences. This isn’t about subtlety at all—it’s about the diehards who wag pride at the moniker “clone” and count themselves emissaries of a tradition, who’ve given this subgenre legs over the past 15 years and carried the torch Carcass set down. Most—like Exhumed and Dead Infection—begin their careers in emulation before ripening into full-fledged originality. Others—like General Surgery and Haemorrhage—heel closer to the ethos epitomized by Carcass’ early Reek of Putrefaction and Symphonies of Sickness death grind benchmarks. And extremists—like the County Medical Examiners and Pathologist—have turned mimesis into a disciplined philosophy. Love it or hate it, this resilient style isn’t going anywhere. So just what keeps this curious genre sustained? And why Carcass?
“Don’t ask me,” says massively-bearded Jocke Carlsson, guitar veteran for Sweden’s Carcass clone progenitors, General Surgery. “I was really just drafted into a project that Matti [Kärki, of Dismember] wanted to start up. He called me one night, and he was really worked up about this band he wanted to get going that were supposed to sound more like Carcass than Carcass themselves.”
“They were Matti’s and my favorite band, so it was just that we wanted to play the same music as them,” vocalist Grant McWilliams explains in a drunken Scottish accent. “Then again, it wasn’t just the music, it was the entire package—the imagery, lyrics and general feeling of it—that was so enticing back then.” General Surgery’s Erosive Offals demo outlined what their EP Necrology later proselytized: that the irony of adulation might legitimize the wholesale adoption of medical lyrics and Reek of Putrefaction riffs. In other words, the copycat gauntlet was thrown.
“I remember us writing riffs,” Carlsson says, “that were pretty much straight ripped-off from various Carcass songs, and then altering them just slightly.” Those dyslexic, recycled riffs on Necrology resonated, as did morbidly mordant song titles such as “The Succulent Aftermath of a Subdural Hemorrhage.” Soon the Swedish-British grind hybrid was the hot underground curio, stirring a host of imitators who adopted the genre and sustained it over General Surgery’s ten-year hiatus, keeping the morgue slab warm for their return in 2003. And like deadbeat dads, they couldn’t be more proud.
“I would hope it’s because there’s no greater music to play if you want to get into extreme metal,” Carlsson beams. “The first Carcass records will always stand as the pinnacle of extreme music for me, and it seems that many bands younger than ourselves share that opinion.” It’s an inbred heritage rooted in compartmentalization and elitism, and—like the doctors they guise—these gore hounds seek to specialize. “Death metal in itself has a wider spectrum of silly things to sing about,” McWilliams says, expounding on pathogrind’s niche attraction, “whereas Carcass-inspired music has a narrower, albeit fitting, subject matter. An obvious comparison can be found in the horror movie genre and the subgenre of splatter films. Think of H.G. Lewis as the equivalent of Carcass in that world.”
Vesa Litti, bassist for Finnish grinders Xysma—who released one of the first Carcass-themed demos—Swarming of the Maggots—agrees. “Carcass’ appeal back then was probably due to the new concept of music that they created,” he says. “To those who enjoyed more extreme forms of metal, hardcore, and gore movies, Carcass just crystallized several elements in a brilliant new way.”
Still, Sweden proved the most fertile ground for Carcass worship. In General Surgery’s wake, Necrony and Regurgitate formed, spewing a second wave of anatomical hijinks. Anders Jakobson, guitarist for Necrony (and drummer for Nasum), cites his first encounter with “Exhume to Consume”—the Carcass song responsible for more converts than any other—from the legendary Earache Records Grindcrusher compilation as an epiphany. “That one gives me the shivers,” he reminisces. “Imagine a whole Carcass album with that sound and that spirit.” Although Necrony’s sound was different (“I think an early source of inspiration was Norway’s Cadaver,” Jakobson says, “and also Bolt Thrower.”) their avid dedication to pathology put them in the same dissection ward as Carcass, though they would’ve liked to have gotten closer. “I guess the whole concept of Necrony came from Carcass,” Jakobson admits. “The lyrics and titles, the mixture of slow, fast, and mid-paced stuff, the vocals to some parts—but we were never good enough to be as much Carcass as we wanted.” That hardly stopped Necrony from trying. In 1994 they released the Necronycism: Distorting the Originals EP—originally titled Flesh Ripping Carcass Rip-off—which featured a parodied Carcass album cover. “The title change and our very primitive take on the Necroticism cover was a total homage, no question about it. We even got an angry letter from a Dutch girl, yelling, ‘The guy who pretends to be Bill Steer [Jakobson] isn’t half as good looking as Bill!’”
Fellow Swedes Regurgitate, however, are a band that believes Carcass had it all—except, of course, for d-beats. “D-beats together with grind parts are what make Napalm Death so great,” explains Urban Skytt, axe-man for Regurgitate. “Our music has more in common with grindcore in the Napalm Death vein, but we definitely stole the gore thing from Carcass.” That, along with the Reek production value (“The worst lo-fi, down-tuned, sloppily played noise ever carved into vinyl—of course I loved it!” Skytt eulogizes), spawned Regurgitate’s Effortless Regurgitation of Bright Red Blood. “Copying art is the best way to learn,” Skytt says. “Copy the old masters until you feel that you can master the art yourself and want to go your own way—or just keep copying for the fun of it.”
The ‘90s saw enough morgue-photo covers to gratify a Vegas medical examiner convention. But for the astute Carcass aficionado, the pixilated Internet death jpeg alone lacked pathological grind’s drama. Carcass set their songs on the stainless-steel stage of the morgue; they cast their episodes with gloved protagonists—mad doctors—and their abused cadaveric subjects; these are perverse passion plays that evoke pity and fear (and a healthy amount of humor), and, like all existential allegory, fascinate. To the studious Carcass devotee, the specificity of the autopsy mythos is the thrill: doctor paces morgue; doctor eviscerates corpse; we’re reminded of our own mortality and learn anatomy. When done poorly, it’s cloying. When done well, it’s like crack for the metal illuminati.
With Scandinavia’s early cloning success, the rest of Europe poured over forensic tomes and armed themselves with instruments. Each country propped at least one ascendant to the medical metal throne. The Czech Republic’s Pathologist represented Central Europe. And with 1992’s Putrefactive and Cadaverous Odes about Necroticism they dared tinker with Carcass’ hallmark album cover collages. Poland’s native vivisectionists, Dead Infection—before releasing the blueprint of latter-day goregrind, A Chapter of Accidents—reconnoitered operating theaters in 1993’s Surgical Disembowelment. Spain’s surgical grinders Haemorrhage donned doctor scrubs after guitarist Luisma discovered Reek of Putrefaction in a Madrid record shop and decided to forge a band in the early Earache image. “When I played Reek, I was totally blown apart,” Luisma recounts. “I had never listened to anything like that.” Emetic Cult, Haemorrhage’s 1994 debut, stunned the underground with its disgusting imagery and similarity to the genre’s godfathers.
“I think the grind gore/gore metal/Carcass style, or whatever you call it, has a big space for making different things,” Luisma explains. “The first album of Carcass has grind, blast beats, hardcore beats, death metal riffs, slow parts, thrashy parts—even some Celtic Frost-inspired riffs. I also think that the bands people call ‘Carcass clones’ have developed a very personal style. It’s not hard to differentiate Exhumed from Regurgitate, Haemorrhage from Dead Infection, General Surgery from Impaled, Necrony from Xysma.”
The California Bay Area is the epicenter of Stateside Carcass influence. When Carcass hit the area on 1990’s Nauseating North America tour, an impressionable gang of youngsters was floored by the gore slide show backdrop and sonic sludge spilling from the cheap house P.A. That experience forged the longest-running US pathological metal band, Exhumed—so impressed that they subsumed their handle from the Carcass tune “Exhume to Consume.” Guitarist/vocalist Matt Harvey recalls the revelation: “When you’re starting a band as a kid, you’ve got to start somewhere, so doing the same thing as the bands that got you inspired to pick up an instrument makes perfect sense.” Exhumed combined Carcass with heavies Suffocation and Entombed, infesting the underground with a myriad of demos, until Relapse released the full-length Gore Metal (1998), followed by Slaughtercult (2000), and their latest Anatomy Is Destiny (2003). One wonders why 50-square miles would nurture such Carcass-inspired acts as Exhumed, Impaled and the County Medical Examiners. “I think that Carcass has a really sarcastic and intelligent edge that kind of fits with the general attitude of a lot of folks out here,” Harvey says. “There’s definitely a kind of intellectual superiority that a lot of Bay Area people enjoy, which probably isn’t a good thing, but it’s definitely noticeable out here. I think the fact that the only signed band from the Bay Area was [legendary death metal group] Autopsy, made it kind of a vacuum of immediate influence.” If the Nor Cal scene lacked a presence, Exhumed more than filled it. Fifteen grinding years later, they’ve firmly planted the Carcass banner on this side of the pond. This, mind you, comes at a cost.
“I think that people really key in on a band sounding like Carcass for some reason. I have never seen as many disparaging ‘clone’ comments in reviews as I’ve seen for Carcass-influenced bands,” Harvey explains. “I think that it’s a question of sales equaling legitimacy, and since the market for extreme goregrind just isn’t that big, those bands get more shit for it.”
“I guess with Carcass it’s so obvious,” Necrony’s Jakobson adds, “since the copycats go all the way—the sound, the lyrics, the artwork, the dual vocals, the titles, the whatever—so it’s easier to spot a Carcass clone than a Death clone today.”
Still, several bands that borrow Carcass elements shy away from association with the genre. Cattle Decapitation share Carcass’ vegetarianism and verbosity, but little else. Belgian death metal outfit Aborted do the doctor thing, but sound worlds apart—polysyllabic prose and latex gloves do not a clone band make. Bay Area home surgery fans Impaled—saddled with the clone stigma despite musical dissimilarity—is gasping for distance, too. Though declining an interview for this story, guitarist Sean McGrath did say this: “Obviously we have lyrical/vocal connections to Carcass, but I honestly don’t even listen to them anymore, I haven’t in years, and when I write music they’re pretty much the last band I think of.”
On the other end of the spectrum lie the extremists who hope to wear Carcass’ skin like a suit. Like the “Uncanny Valley” theory—where we’re unsettled by creepy humanoid robots the closer they look to human—there’s a zone of similarity where a clone band disturbs the listener by coming too close. The County Medical Examiners might very well define that penumbra. Dr. Morton Fairbanks, the brains behind TCME, has elevated the copycat game into a bizarre, impenitent art; and the trio of actual medical examiners (a 62-year-old rumored to be among them) has upped the ante in each of their releases. Forensic Fugues and Medicolegal Medleys unveiled their doppelgänger M.O—to sound and look exactly like pre ‘90s Carcass—and on their split album with General Surgery they inched closer to that baffling mark. If anything, their ambitious goal reveals a logical—and ruinous—consummation to the clone genre. “We’re testing the breaking point, sure,” Fairbanks admits. “I think part of me wants to pound the last nail into the Carcass clone coffin, to be that instrument; but a bigger part of me just wants to make Symphonies over and over again. It’s like a love letter. They say most baby animals, upon having outlived its mother, will remain with her corpse and futilely suckle until it starves. That’s my band.” TCME have crossed every taboo—from parroted collage covers to lyrical bites and anagrammatic replicated riffs—resulting in the closest assimilation to ‘80s Carcass as you’re bound to hear. But has the line finally been crossed? “I consider it a different type of art form,” explains Fairbanks. “When you push tribute past the bounds of good taste, you’re squarely in the domain of ‘idea’ music, like [John] Cage’s work; and in this postmodern era of death metal, the emulation itself is a statement—about the nature of originality and its worth.”
When Carcass first set the bar, no one could predict that a breed of bands would emulate the bar itself instead of chinning above it. But it’s really not a bad place to be. “I think the Carcass clones of 2005 are a lot more fun than fifteen years ago,” Jakobson says. “Now they fill some kind of void, they bring us the songs Carcass never did, and that’s great!”