Modern Heartwork

With the reborn Carcass and the release of their new album, Surgical Steel, next Tuesday, I thought it would be a good time to take a look back at their classic 1993 release, Heartwork. Carcass began their career in the mid ’80s, and with the release of Reek Of Putrefaction in 1988, and Symphonies Of Sickness a year later, they quickly became one of the defining bands in British grindcore along with fellow countrymen Napalm Death. Guitarist and backing vocalist Bill Steer was actually a member of both bands until 1989, when he left Napalm Death to concentrate fully on Carcass.

Guitarist Michael Amott joined in 1990, and his addition brought a change in style away from pure grindcore and into the realm of death metal, which culminated in 1991’s incomparable Necroticism: Descanting The Insalubrious. Carcass was by no means finished evolving their sound however, and two years later they followed up with Heartwork, which was as different from Necroticism as it was from the band’s first two albums. While the Swedes are generally given credit for creating melodic death metal, Heartwork was considerably more cohesive and certainly more polished than the earliest efforts that At The Gates and Dark Tranquillity released around the same time.

The lyrics (mostly) moved away from the rotting corpses, burnt flesh, and dismemberment of the early albums to larger themes of pain and loss, delivered with vocalist and bassist Jeff Walker’s trademark roars. The riffs and solos from Steer and Amott are simply brilliant, particularly on “Buried Dreams.” The thundering guitars on “Embodiment” are also weapons-grade headbanging material.

Heartwork was recorded and mixed at Parr Street Studios, and produced by Colin Richardson. It was engineered by Keith Andrews, with assistance from Dave Buchanan and Andrea Wright. The original CD was an early casualty of the loudness war, measuring DR8. It’s extremely bass heavy, which causes the kick drum to dominate the rest of the kit, and leaves the guitars sounding muddy and unrefined. The UK first press vinyl measures DR14 and is vastly superior, with much better balance and loads more detail from the cymbals.

The album was remastered in ’04 as part of a special CD reissue, and was further crushed down to DR6, basically bringing the guitars up to the level of the over-loud bass from the original, and obliterating any detail that was left. The ’04 remaster was again used for the ’08 double CD and DVD special edition, and as part of The Pathologist’s Report box set.

In our Classic Wax series, this is normally the part where I tell you to suck it up and pay $120-140 for either an original ’93 vinyl first press or ’02 vinyl reissue. There’s also the Toy’s Factory (TFCK-88644) original Japanese CD, which like the Toshiba-EMI “black triangle” releases seems to be a near direct adaptation of the vinyl master, given its dynamic range. That version however is even rarer than the original vinyl, and will still cost you a good $50 should you happen to find one for sale.

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Fortunately for Heartwork fans, those are no longer your only options. Earache recently reissued the album as part of their fantastic FDR (Full Dynamic Range) series remastered by Noel Summerville, and not just on vinyl. You can also get the FDR version on CD or as a digital download. Yes, you read that correctly. Earache released a metal album in 2013, on CD, that measures DR14. The sky didn’t explode, and demons didn’t start climbing out of massive fissures in the Earth’s crust. All you have to do is turn your volume control up a bit. Imagine!

The new FDR CD simply obliterates both the original CD and the brickwalled ’04 remaster, it’s not even a contest. The more interesting question is how does the FDR CD compare to the new FDR vinyl press, and how do those compare to my ’93 original vinyl?

Starting with the new FDR CD vs. the original vinyl, the differences are rather surprising. The guitars are much more upfront on the FDR CD, with more weight behind them. There’s also more impact from the kick, toms, and snare. The original vinyl counters with highs that are definitely more present, making it the more detailed of the two, though it’s bit light on the bass. What it proves is that you can release a very “modern” sounding metal CD with thundering guitars and drums without smashing it to death.

So how about the FDR CD vs. the FDR vinyl? If there is a difference, I’m not hearing it. I didn’t do a completely exhaustive A/B test, but from the listening I did of both live vinyl playback as well as my digital rip of the vinyl vs. the CD, they sounded exactly the same. So for once, I’m very happy to report that CD listeners are losing absolutely nothing in terms of sound compared to the FDR vinyl. Copies of the FDR vinyl are still available should you want it in that format, but you certainly don’t need to buy the vinyl to enjoy everything the FDR version has to offer.

The question of the FDR vs. the original vinyl is a bit trickier. Both versions sound very good, but on balance, I think the FDR version is the more enjoyable of the two. The fact that it’s also readily available and affordable is just the icing on the cake. Well done Earache!