Justify Your Shitty Taste: Blackstar’s “Barbed Wire Soul”

You know the deal: Carcass rule. I mean, Carcass are one of the greatest metal bands—so, one of the greatest bands—of all time. We love ’em, we can’t get enough of ’em, we’re even bringing them over to headline December’s Decibel Magazine Metal & Beer Fest in Los Angeles. We’ve inducted, like, most of their records into our Hall of Fame. But one that won’t make it in is Swansong. That one, we instead featured in Justify Your Shitty Taste. Not exactly everyone’s fave Carcass platter of splatter, Swansong.

Which leads us to Blackstar‘s only album, 1997’s Barbed Wire Soul. You might remember them as later being called Blackstar Rising, you may find it kinda awesome they’re named after a Swansong tune, and you might remember that their lineup featured Jeff Walker, Ken Owen and Carlo Regadas from Carcass as well as Mark Griffiths from Cathedral. What you might not remember is the killer riff after killer riff on Barbed Wire Soul, the way the band uses huge rock constructs to flirt with sludgey sounds, and the fact that there’s goddamn horns on the album.

What does it all add up to? A gloriously good time, one that is probably not paying the bills with the royalty cheques these days and one that people don’t really want to admit is good (if they even remember the damn thing at all). But we’re here today to remind you that Barbed Wire Soul is good. It’s actually really good. I hate it when people say things like “If not for the Carcass connection it would be good.” No: this is a good record. The Carcass connection kinda gives me something to chuckle about as the good-time riffs pour beer down my throat; it provides for a fun talking point, but when I crank up Barbed Wire Soul I’m not comparing it to Heartwork. I’m just thinking about how great the riffs are, mainly.

So, pour yourself something tall and strong and get ready to remember just how good this record is, and how great these riffs are.

“Game Over” starts things off admirably enough, the song a mid-paced rocker that works to get the troops charged up, or at least rouse them out of bed with a tea in one hand, the band making it immediately clear that, yes, this is the record after Swansong by 3/4s of the same band with a different name, and things have gotten even more laid back and rawkin’ rockin’, the song being unbearably catchy, well structured, tons of great riffs, and rock cockiness to spare.

“Smile” starts off with a “let’s rock!” from Walker the rocker here, and it’s either ironic or it’s not but we love it either way. This song has so much bar-rock swagger to it it’s unreal, the riffs just absolutely smoking, the shuffle-step verses completely undeniable. Look, if you sit around comparing this to early Carcass records, it’s going to sound crappy because every record sounds crappy compared to early Carcass records. But if you put it on as a chaser for that big Deliverance/Wiseblood double header listening party you’re having later (please invite me), it rules.

“Sound of Silence” features some of Walker’s most left-field vocal work, a killer chorus, and a solid but remarkable drum performance from Owen, who on this album actually lays down some of his smoothest playing; sure, maybe he’s trying to keep things simple and rock out, but in doing so he abandons some of the stuttering personality that he always had during Carcass’ initial run, a sound I love but isn’t without its frustrations sometimes (like when I’m trying to air drum along to it and can never quite figure out some of those weird fills).

“Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus” totally rules. Remember those parts of Swansong that kinda were amazing because they dug into some deep Pepper-era COC riffing and held things back to a sound-appropriate mid tempo? And the lyrics are Walker cutting hard and deep into the industry he so loathes, even as he does so via one of his most Black Album songs ever. Totally love this song, its sludgey beats battling the good-time riffs in an uncomfortable fight to the death. Plus, first of two songs to feature saxophone!

I hate it when bands call songs “New Song” but here we have it, with one of the album’s most upbeat tunes, cowbell raging (courtesy of engineer Dave Buchanan, who also plays tambourine on the album!), riffs for miles, the band sounding downright confident, cocky, pure rock swagger. I dunno man, metalheads jerk off over Clutch tossing off stuff with way less personality than this constantly. Great song, an undeniable catchiness to it, but not in a cloying way, just in a way that makes you think, man, these guys know their rock.

“Give Up the Ghost” kinda cracks me up because I’m not entirely sure what our favorite goregrind vocalist is really up to there, but, grudgingly, it works. I absolutely love songs like this because they take easy rock structures and deliver them with an extreme metal sensibility; part of me thinks this whole two-album suite was Walker making fun of rock music, but a larger part of me knows it’s because he knows the power of a great, simple rock riff and a huge rock song. Musically, this is first-album Guns N’ Roses, which is nothin’ but a good time, if I may mix my metallic metaphors.

“Revolution of the Heart” is one of a few songs on here that is just kinda there, no fault of the riffs, which try valiantly to keep things rolling along, and the song does indeed roll, and rock, along. Sure, it’s not exactly “Keep on Rotting in the Free World,” but it’s better than whatever southern stoner doom band you downloaded last month and never listen to. Admittedly, the album does lose steam a little around this point, although each song individually is still pretty damn good.

“Waste of Space” gives you the answer to the question “What would it sound like if Carcass hired on the horn section from that super weird Raven album?” and I’ve got PTSD from typing that, but I must admit, this is an outrageously fun song, combining Swansong melodies with horns both conventional and skronky to create a subversive sound that—get ready for this and really take a minute to let it sink in—has never been recreated since this song, another reason this record is worth another listen. Please, someone, yell this one out at Walker during beer fest and report back to me.

Like “Revolution of the Heart,” “Deep Wound” just kinda reminds me that this album loses some steam in the final third (also a problem of Swansong), although taken on its own, it shreds plenty hard, Walker and crew in full four-on-the-floor mode, laying down what is, really, when it all comes down to it, an alarmingly traditional rock song here, and doing an alarmingly good job of it.

“Better the Devil” has an amazing guitar solo that makes me feel like I’m listening to Warrant, and it makes me feel good, as do Walker’s vocal lines and the song’s bright, upbeat melody and tempo. (LOL at this being a description of a band made up of dudes from Carcass and Cathedral.) One of the shinier rockers here on an album that is basically overflowing with party favors.

Also hate it when bands call instrumentals “Instrumental” but I do like it when bands call a non-instrumental song “Instrumental,” which Blackstar did here, closing off the album with this song, again, not one of the strongest, the album pretty front-loaded, but this one still featuring tons of good—great, even—riffs, something this album will be—well, should be—remembered for.

About every second Carcass fan I’ve ever met half-heartedly defends Swansong, although usually with the “it’s good, just not for a Carcass album” qualifier, which kinda reminds me of how annoying it is when people say Load and Reload have “an album’s worth of decent material between them.” Stop beating around the bush: those aren’t good records, Swansong is. Now, about half of the Swansong defenders will sort of half-heartedly defend this album, but, man, Barbed Wire Soul kinda kills it, and if you listen to it today, and listen to it loud and let the glory of the riffs wash over you, you will no doubt agree that this is some rockin’ rot ‘n’ roll, heavy on the roll and light on the rot, but every once in a while that’s exactly what even the most hardened of crusty gore-grinders needs.