It’s a new year, so here at Decibel we figured it was time to try out a few new things, such as Fight Fire with Fire, a new ongoing series on our site where we’ll pit two classic genre albums against each other to definitively figure out which one is better.
“But they’re both great!” you’ll say. Yes, these albums are the best of the best. But one is always better. Plus, we love these sort of exercises, and also love watching you battle each other to the death in the comments, so how could this possibly end poorly?
Now, it’s no secret that we think very highly of Carcass around these parts. It’s also no secret that we love banging heads to At the Gates. The two bands are about as good as melodic death metal can get. In fact, they’ve both put out genre cornerstones: Carcass’ 1993 major-label debut Heartwork and At the Gates’ genre-rejigging Slaughter of the Soul from 1995.
These are two of the most exciting albums in the history of death metal (and they both, rightfully, ended up in our Hall of Fame). They both show bands at the height of their powers, crafting incredible songs but never sacrificing the heavy elements of death metal that we all live and die for. It’s a fool’s game to try to pick a winner, but we here at Decibel are never afraid to play the fool, so, let’s get rotting.
Carcass – Heartwork
This album is an almost perfect distillation of how great death metal can be. As we all know, the band shed their more extreme and gory skin by this point and wrote songs that more or less stuck to rock-song structures. I mean, is it just Megadeth heavied up? Kinda, but isn’t that a great proposition? Sure it is, and without even putting the songs on, you can imagine how “No Love Lost” or the title track go, even if you haven’t spun them in years (which is your loss). That just shows how well-written the material on this album is.
I’ve spent 27 years thinking about Heartwork (it’s been a good life), and my complaints held fast over the years. First off, I’m aware that I’m fully in the minority here, but I always wished Colin Richardson’s production was just a touch rawer; granted, it sounds huge, it sounds great. I just find that if it was a bit less stiff the energy of the songs would connect a sliver more. I’m so alone here it hurts—Colin Richardson is Colin Richardson, after all—but I just find myself wanting a bit more His Hero is Gone in the kick drum, you know?
I also find the album to be maybe a song too long; none of the songs are expendable, and they’re all great, but when I look at the track listing, I do tend to squint my eyes at a couple of the late-album titles as I try to remember exactly what they are. Now, aside from thinking of this album in particular, I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to figure out what the perfect runtime is for an extreme metal record. I’ve created spreadsheets, run algorithms, held double-blind controlled experiments with peer-approved results, and I’m still baffled. All I know is this is some of the best music in the world and the records are usually too long for the sort of emotional and physical commitment the greatest extreme music truly requires, and demands, of the listener. At 41:55, Heartwork is just a few minutes over that ratio.
The guitar work on this album is unreal: it has all the smooth flow of the true rock gods but all the bite of trve DM lifers. The riffs on this album are some of the greatest in death metal history, and the songs are too. The title track still makes my adrenaline pump every single time I hear it. Literally, every time I’ve ever listened to this song it has caused a chemical reaction in my body. Or, take the dramatic opening of first cut “Buried Dreams.” The band guide the listener into the album perfectly; when the drums kick in, it’s impossible to not be sucked in, to play along, to immediately embrace this album as your own. When Jeff Walker growls out “Welcome/to a world of hate,” he probably didn’t realize that he was laying down a legendary vocal line, but he most certainly was. And when he repeats the line as the glory-ride guitar solo comes to a close? Forget about it.
Those moments of triumph are all over the place on this album, such as when the band pulls back the tempo in the triumphant guitar solo just before the three-minute mark of “No Love Lost.” They’re found in the groove and dynamics of “Embodiment”’s verse riff, and they’re in the stunning chorus to the title track, one of the most memorable death metal vocal lines of all time.
There’s “This Mortal Coil”’s breakdown and grinding. There’s the quick melodic guitar break that first appears at 1:18 of “Arbeit Macht Fleisch” that leads into a short burst of grind. There’s “Blind Bleeding the Blind”’s almost absurd mastery of groove and guitar interplay.
So, almost perfect. Really close to perfect. Not sure any other melodic death metal record is this perfect. There’s just one that is neck and neck with Heartwork, so it’s time to deal with that.
At the Gates – Slaughter of the Soul
Who could forget the first time they spun this record? It was like metal had sprung to life again, At the Gates absolutely pulling up their sleeves after a few records that were great but lacking that certain something. Slaughter of the Soul had it. Big time.
This is actually the more important record of the two; it doesn’t impact our final decision about which record is better, but we’d be remiss to not consider context here: when Slaughter dropped, extreme metal was at a low point. The band took thrash conciseness to DM and brought an energy that even hardcore bands could appreciate. And they did: as someone who interviewed a ton of “hardcore bands influenced by Swedish death metal” in the early 2000s, I can attest to the fact that this record made a huge impact on a ton of band’s careers, moreso than Heartwork. Slaughter is an immensely important record in DM history and a huge gateway record in extreme music.
Like Carcass two years before them, At the Gates took everything they learned on their first three records, shed some of it, got down to the business of writing really good songs and emerged with a record that had everyone talking, a record that was regarded as a classic almost instantly. That’s not hyperbole, that’s how excited people were—rightfully so—when this one dropped.
And, much like Heartwork, a huge part of that is the songs. First off, let’s have a moment to recognize that the intro to opening cut “Blinded by Fear” is one of the best intros on a death metal album, ever. And then let’s realize that song is one of the best death metal songs ever, taking a Slayer-on-speed tempo, killer vocal lines, and spot-on playing from everyone to create a song arguably as good as any on Heartwork. When the guitar solo drops after the final “the face of all your fears” is screamed out around 2:15, it’s a classic moment in genre history.
This album has so many classic moments: the “go!” that kicks off the title track; the chord changes that get that same song’s verse going; the ride cymbal carrying the beat in the quick breaks in “Cold.” Indeed, those first three songs are drop-dead DM classics, stunners that are incredibly energetic, very well-written and packed with memorable melodies. The band emerged from death metal’s caves with a bright, “accessible” album that showcased their strengths: the heavy yet melodic guitar work, the screamed vocals, and the laser-sharp songwriting focus.
“Suicide Nation” lays down smart, almost-nodding-to-Pantera groove before dropping into a double-time sprint with riffs for miles; “Under a Serpent Sun”’s opening near-black riff is one for the ages.
And, really, it’s all about the riffs: like their competitors here, this is a guitar album. But while Heartwork has guitar-god qualities to it, Slaughter of the Soul doesn’t quite go there, the band leaning a bit more aggressive-thrash than pure-metal-glory. Both albums are incredible examples of death metal guitar work, but Heartwork‘s soaring six-string majesty is just impossible to deny, even while being hammered hard by Slaughter‘s melodic Slayer-on-Earache riffs (or, the excellent, almost-southern riffing that closes “World of Lies”).
However, I can warm up to Slaughter’s production a hair more than I can to Heartwork’s; it pulls me in and makes the songs connect with me, whereas Heartwork’s sound has a bit more of a clinical distance to them. Slaughter‘s runtime is a spot-on 34:08, which I’ve always appreciated and thought was perfect for this album’s intensity.
“Unto Others” ushers in late-album ennui, though, and there are a couple moments on Slaughter that don’t feel completely essential. Heartwork, however, contains, by virtue of the strength of the songwriting, some of the anthems of my life, the music I’ve lived to, and with, since the day it came out.
The coroner’s report: Slaughter has a few less-life-changing moments on it than Heartwork does, despite coming out ahead with a slightly more inviting production and runtime. Heartwork, on the other hand, is a timeless victory of death metal, an album that harnesses all the, uh, heart and soul of what makes metal great and spits it out through a barbed-wire extreme metal framework. The songs are constructed with a level of detail rarely seen in death metal and connect in a way that few manage to. Bloody hands never wash clean: Heartwork is the better album.