Carcass Wrote the Blueprint for Death-Metal Extremity. Now They Just Want to Write a Great Song

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Ester Segarra - Credit: Ester Segarra*
Ester Segarra - Credit: Ester Segarra*

When the British metal band Carcass formed more than three decades ago, its members had a fairly straightforward aim.

“We were just three teenagers that wanted to cause havoc,” guitarist Bill Steer says, looking back on the group’s 1988 debut, Reek of Putrefaction. “We were priding ourselves on having made a very offensive album. We wanted everything about it to be unpalatable: music, lyrics, cover. I guess we achieved it.”

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Most would agree. To label Reek “unpalatable” is like calling ABBA Gold “mildly catchy.” Carcass’ first album was a blur of frantic drum blasts, subhuman grunts, and downtuned-beyond-recognition riffs, all adding up to a sound that suggested hardcore punk as played by a band of flesh-hungry zombies. Complementing the unsparing sonics were lyrics chronicling all manner of grievous bodily harm (sample song titles: ”Carbonized Eye Sockets,” “Vomited Anal Tract”) and, on the cover, a stomach-turning photo-collage of cadavers in various states of distress.

“That first album, we thought, ‘We’ll be a one-album band. Hopefully this record will get censored, so we’ll have this cool, credible, underground album,’ ” bassist and lead vocalist Jeff Walker says. “Unfortunately, it backfired and we were taken seriously, and we’ve managed to make a career.”

And a pretty damn respectable one at that. During their initial mid-Eighties–to–mid-Nineties run, the band progressed from Reek’s fetid expulsion to a vastly tighter, more polished sound. They even landed on a major label in the U.S. with 1993’s stunning Heartwork, an LP that reconciled their signature speed and ferocity with high-gloss hard-rock majesty. (In 2017, Rolling Stone named it the 51st-greatest metal album of all time.) Meanwhile, fans would learn that Walker, Steer, and original drummer Ken Owen’s fascination with violence was purely conceptual; in interviews, they revealed themselves to be articulate, pacifist-minded vegetarians.

Carcass’ upcoming album, Torn Arteries — its seventh LP overall, and second since Walker and Steer rebooted the project in 2007 — marks another evolutionary step, blending the prog-like ambition the band flaunted on 1991’s Necroticism — Descanting the Insalubrious with the midtempo swagger it honed on Heartwork and 1996’s Swansong. Fully tracked by summer 2019 and originally scheduled for release last year but temporarily shelved due to the pandemic, the album is finally due on September 17th. Maybe the most varied and unpredictable set of Carcass songs yet, it’s a surprising twist after their more straight-for-the-throat 2013 comeback album, Surgical Steel.

“I’d describe this album as dad rock,” quips Walker in his thick Scouse accent during a Skype call from his Liverpool home.

“It’s probably not going to grab the average fan of the Eagles, but it’s got a slightly rock & roll element to it,” says the more reserved Steer, calling from London. “But I think anything other than that would have been really dishonest, because that is kind of where we’re at. You’ve got to bring yourself to the music. Sure, you’re going to be playing up certain elements of yourself more than others, but it’s got to be real; it’s got to be sincere. People sense that if it’s not.”

Carcass initially grew out of the teenage friendship of Steer and Owen. They launched a band with the same name in 1985, but soon got sidetracked with other projects. A year later, they regrouped and roped in Walker, who’d been railing against societal ills and the evils of the meat industry in the punk band Electro Hippies. The trio took cues from bands like Death and Repulsion, who, with their relentless aggression and horror-movie-style imagery, were spearheading the nascent death-metal underground. Owen wrote the band’s early lyrics, favoring gory, fantasy-oriented themes. At first, the more political-minded Walker was skeptical of that direction, until he found a way to make it his own.

“We were doing a gig and I saw the lyric sheets, and I started chuckling. I thought, this is so absurd and so funny. This is something I should really get behind,” Walker recalls. “And that’s what I did.”

Aiming to ground the band’s lyrics more in reality, Walker turned to a source that was close at hand: an old medical dictionary borrowed from his sister, then a nurse-in-training, which he mined for arcane terminology. (“I’m looking at the book on the shelf now — it’s all tattered and water-damaged,” he says.) What resulted were likely the wordiest and most disgustingly florid descriptions ever found on a lyric sheet up to that point. “Fomentatious perflation hydrogenates your foetal cisterna/Coagulating haemorrhage and your congenital hernia,” begins Reek of Putrefaction track “Microwaved Uterogestation.”

Carcass’ early lineup: from left, Steer, Walker, and Ken Owen. “We were just three teenagers that wanted to cause havoc,” Steer says. - Credit: Courtesy of Earache
Carcass’ early lineup: from left, Steer, Walker, and Ken Owen. “We were just three teenagers that wanted to cause havoc,” Steer says. - Credit: Courtesy of Earache

Courtesy of Earache

These unsavory themes gave the band an identity distinct from British contemporaries like Napalm Death — a more political-minded outfit credited with inventing the chaotic punk-metal offshoot of grindcore — which Steer also played in for a couple years in the late Eighties. Carcass’ sheer gross-out gall won them fans from legendary BBC DJ John Peel, who named Reek as his favorite album of 1988 in The Guardian, to Faith No More, whose members proudly sported Carcass T-shirts at a 1992 London gig. And in the metal underground, the blueprint that Carcass laid out on Reek and its more refined but still monstrous ’89 follow-up Symphonies of Sickness would gradually give rise to an entire subgenre, a vast, still-thriving international movement colorfully known as goregrind.

But musical and lyrical evolution quickly took precedence over shock value. On Necroticism, the first of two Carcass albums to feature the formidable twin-guitar team of Steer and future Arch Enemy co-founder Michael Amott, the band seamlessly integrated key elements of its early sound — a distinctive dual-vocal approach, for example, in which Steer’s guttural growls punctuated Walker’s venomous rasp — with audaciously brainy arrangements and tongue-twisting, pun-filled words. One track, about putting back together a dismembered body for purposes of identification, labeled that task as a “Corporal Jigsore Quandary.” Heartwork and Swansong — the latter released after the band had already broken up — found Carcass sounding not just streamlined but downright classy.

“By the time you hit your mid-twenties, some of those impulses have gone,” says Steer, reflecting on the band’s startling progression from Reek’s grisly attack through its mature early-to-mid-Nineties phase. “Maybe you’re just not quite as angry at the world.”

Since their 2007 reunion, Carcass have explored an interesting alternate timeline. Surgical Steel — released after they’d toured for a few years playing their Eighties and Nineties material — revived the breakneck tempos and unhinged dual-vocal approach of the Reek and Symphonies era while retaining Heartwork’s triumphant gleam. (It also introduced a new drummer in place of Owen, who suffered a brain hemorrhage in 1999 and no longer performs: Dan Wilding, who was born the year Symphonies came out.)

Torn Arteries ventures even more confidently across the Carcass palette, while throwing in new elements. For every white-knuckle thrash-meets-death-metal rager like the title track or “Under the Scalpel Blade,” there’s a left-field detour, like album centerpiece “Flesh Ripping Sonic Torment Limited,” which features a moody acoustic intro and a downtempo power-ballad-like Steer solo within its roomy yet gripping 10-plus-minute run time; “Wake Up and Smell the Carcass / Caveat Emptor,” built around a sly, decidedly swinging main riff; or “In God We Trust,” which features a peppy, FM-ready bridge complete with punctuating handclaps.

“There was no way on earth we were going to make a similar album to the previous one,” Steer says. “We’ve always tended to avoid that with this group anyway. It felt very important to bring something new and fresh because if Jeff or I are involved, given our history, and the way Dan approaches drumming, in my view, it’s always going to sound like Carcass. So you don’t need to be too neurotic about trying to repeat certain key elements of your style.”

He adds, “To me, ideally, I wanted every track to have something in it that hadn’t been heard in a Carcass song before.”

“I think it would have been shameful to come out with a record that just played it safe with nothing but blastbeats.” —Bill Steer

Case in point: The guitarist, a Seventies-rock aficionado who launched his own retro-styled power trio, Firebird, during Carcass’ dormant years, says that the rhythmic feel for chugging, midtempo Torn Arteries anthem “The Devil Rides Out” grew out of his admiration for Nazareth’s 1975 FM-radio staple “Hair of the Dog.”

Ironically, at this point in Carcass’ evolution, pursuing extremity for extremity’s sake would be the least challenging path they could explore. “I think it would have been shameful to come out with a record that just played it safe with nothing but blastbeats, and everything super atonal,” Steer says.

Lyrically, Walker has found ways to nod to the band’s history while expanding its thematic scope. In spots, he references elements of what he calls the “Carcass mythos”: The album title comes from a home-recorded one-man-band project that Owen launched in the Eighties, “Flesh Ripping Sonic Torment Limited” calls back to Carcass’ own first demo, and “Wake Up and Smell the Carcass” borrows its title from the band’s ’96 rarities comp. But many of the album’s lyrics branch off from chronicling literal injuries and incisions to touch on more metaphorical ones. “Dance of Ixtab (Psychopomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in B),” premiering above, is named after a Mayan goddess associated with suicide by hanging, and riffs on both the word game Hangman and the idea of gallows humor. “In God We Trust” deals with environmental ruin (“The earth dies screaming/There will be blood … ”), and several songs, including “The Scythe’s Remorseless Swing” — which makes brilliant reference to “having daddy issues with Father Time” — chronicle the mercilessness of aging.

“That song’s just kind of the result of me being at the age I am,” Walker says of the latter track. “The thing is, when I started recording this album, I was 49; I’m 52 now. … The older you get, time travels faster, distances get shorter, the planet gets smaller. It’s just insane.”

The album art, a heart made out of vegetable parts, set against a stark white background, sums up how Carcass has gradually traded overt gore for a more thought-provoking presentation. Walker got the idea for the image from a similar mini sculpture he saw, made for a competition in a Canadian hospital, and brought it to Polish artist Zbigniew Bielak. “It’s vegetables and all that, so people are going to moan, ‘Oh, God, they’re on some vegan bloody crusade,’ ” Walker says. “But what I like about it is, how many times have we done the whole corpse-collage thing? … It’s nice to be a bit more symbolic.”

He pauses, then deadpans: “Or maybe it’s just an homage to Ween, and their White Pepper album. That’s one of my go-to albums when I’m high.”

Around 35 years after starting Carcass, both Walker and Steer seem fully content in having set aside their early mission of assaulting eardrums, eyeballs, and all notions of common decency — and leaving that to the hundreds, if not thousands, of younger bands who now wave the goregrind banner. “There are so many bands doing extreme music now,” Steer says. “If somebody doesn’t get what they want from a Carcass album, they will easily find it elsewhere.”

Reflecting on the decades-long evolution that has led Carcass to Torn Arteries, and the career that the band stumbled into by accident, Walker sounds humble and charmingly conservative for a guy often credited with raising the bar of extremity in metal. At this point, it’s clear that old-fashioned songcraft is what interests him most. The band’s symphonies of sickness have given way to something like death-metal earworms.

“We haven’t took the easiest path from A to B with a song, but we are definitely trying to embed hooks in there, or memorable things, or things that please people,” Walker says of the band’s latest batch. “We want people to hear it and want to listen to it again. There’s got to be some kind of long-term value listening to this record.”

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