Rank Your Records: Bill Steer Looks Back at Carcass’s Six Studio Albums
The founding guitarist looks back at the pioneering metal band's three decades of output.
Like a proud parent asked to play favorites among his kiddos, Carcass guitarist Bill Steer started our interview with a disclaimer: "I should state that I don't necessarily favor any one album over another in the grand scheme of things, because I think they all represent something in our past," he said.
If you're a metal fan, Carcass likely represents something in your past as well. The band, which formed outside of Liverpool in 1985, helped lay the groundwork for grindcore (see also: Bill's time in Napalm Death over its first two albums), death metal, and the use of gore as a lyrical and artistic motif, which means that even if you don't know their music, the bulk of the metal bands you love certainly do. Following an early demo, Flesh Ripping Sonic Torment, Carcass made their full-length debut in 1988 with Reek of Putrefaction, an album recorded so hurriedly that the band was openly unhappy with its rough and muddied sounds. Not everyone shared that opinion, most notably the legendary BBC DJ John Peel, who declared it his favorite album of 1988.
From there, Carcass grew as musicians and songwriters, and, over their next several albums, took their style beyond the grind into new complexities, experimentations, and melody, with bassist/vocalist Jeff Walker's vivid medical terminology-laced lyrics adding to the fun. Carcass' staggering 1993 album, Heartwork, is commonly hailed as a landmark in extreme metal, bringing the band new crossover success, and with it, new label pressures. After recording the drolly-titled Swansong in 1995, the members went their separate ways.
For many years, Carcass was dead as one of the mutilated corpses depicted in its songs but in 2007 a reunited version of the band featuring Michael Amott and Daniel Erlandsson of Arch Enemy began making their rounds on the festival circuit (founding drummer Ken Owen suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in 1999 and was unable to tour). Eventually, the band got the recording bug again and, after enlisting drummer Dan Wilding, released Surgical Steel, an album that seemed less like a comeback and more like the next logical step in their brutal trajectory. Surgical Steel received near-universal acclaim from critics, rising to the Top 50 album charts in the UK and the Billboard 200 in the States.
At the tail-end of last year, Carcass announced plans to release a new record by the end of 2017. "I'm sure each one of us has his own idea of how we'd like things to go, but personally, I think we have to go forward," Steer said. "There's no other way. We couldn't possibly try and recreate the formula that made Surgical successful… It's going to have to be a different beast, otherwise there's just no reason to do another record. We've got a sizable catalog as it is. For a band of this—whatever you want to call it—this 'vintage,' you've got to have something to offer if you're going to waste your time and other people's time with a new album."
Maybe we'll have a cause to revisit the topic once the new record is out, but in the meantime here's Bill's list of his least-to-most-favorite Carcass albums.
6. Reek of Putrefaction (1988)
Noisey: This album was your breakout and it was John Peel's favorite record of the year, but even back then you guys didn't like how it sounded. Do you have more of a fondness for it now, even though it's at the bottom of the list?
Bill Steer: We all have a fondness for it because it's more or less where we started out, if you ignore our first demo tape. It's just the case of—and it's not unusual—a very young, naive band going to a studio and not getting what they wanted. We just weren't ready, but sometimes you just have to throw yourself in there and do things, and somewhere along the line you learn a few tricks. I do have a fondness for that record, it's just bizarre to me. It's a very odd recording for a number of reasons. Obviously, our ineptitude is a big factor and the way that it was recorded is downright awful, but I think that accidentally gave the album a certain kind of charm for some people. It verges on pure noise in places but there are enough moments where a decipherable riff or something pokes through the mess. I think the people that rate it highly just find it intriguing. There aren't many things that sound like that record.
In that case, do you think it was the sound that really struck people, or the songwriting?
Maybe a little bit of both. The music is pretty extreme. Certainly at that time it was. We were embarking on a mission to play as heavy and as fast as we could. We didn't necessarily have the [skill] to do it, but we just went ahead and had a go. The only reason that I placed it at the bottom of the list is purely because out of every recording we've done, I'd say that's the one where we didn't really get even close to what we were hoping to achieve. We took the tunes down, but they weren't played particularly well. They recorded it in such an appealing fashion that I can remember very clearly us all coming home with the cassettes, and the excitement you'd expect to feel with your first album just wasn't there.
What was it like to have this thing you had such mixed feelings about and have people be blown away by it?
To be honest, I don't remember it that way. In the context of this scene that we were involved in, that British thing where you had this collision between the hardcore scene and the underground metal scene, you already had the first Napalm Death album, Scum. That really made waves and a lot of people seemed to be excited by it. The Carcass record was a much smaller thing. I definitely remember people in the scene having a chuckle about the production and so forth. It wasn't really rated highly by anybody.
I think John Peel selected that album because it was the most unlistenable thing he could think of all year. He loved stuff that was confrontational and difficult. Plus, at that time, Ken and myself were living in this small town in the Wirral, which is the other side of the Merseyside from Liverpool. Wirral is a peninsula that's surrounded by north Wales, Chester and Liverpool and it has elements of all those cultures, or whatever you want to call them. It's a very unusual place to be from. John Peel is from that town. If he'd looked in the sleeve he would have seen one our addresses on there, and he probably would have been very surprised. I think that may have been another element. Today, it's very conservative, but in the 80s if you were wandering around with long hair and a denim jacket as I was, people basically thought you were a complete freak and a loser. It would be standard to be walking down the road and people would be rolling their car windows down and yelling at you. Having said all that, I'm very fond of that record. I don't want to be running it down too much.
5. Swansong (1996)
Let's move on to, I guess, your second-to-least favorite.
It's quite well documented that at that time the band was on its last legs, and the atmosphere in the group wasn't great. In fact, the atmosphere in the music scene in the metal world wasn't great for us, either. We were very aware that all of a sudden we were doing something that wasn't really particularly [popular]. There's this black cloud hanging over the band where you're kind of aware that this is probably the end. We managed to complete the record, but we didn't stay together long enough to see it released. The album that emerged, the title, the song selection, and all of that really had to be left up to Jeff. I'd been the one to bail out of the band first, so he handled dealing with Earache and so on. If I remember correctly, it came out maybe a year after we broke up.
And then came out on Earache instead of Columbia.
Exactly. We were supposed to be recording that album exclusively for Columbia, but that went to shit very rapidly. On that record, there are some tunes I'm very fond of, even though the vibes around the recording are way worse than anything else we did. Our first album, like I said, is a crazy sounding record and not what we wanted, but we were young people having a lot of fun. With Swansong, that period was just a bit less fun.
I loved the record as a whole, but there are certain things on there that don't really make sense to me. It's just a time and a place, and the further down the line you're going, "What the hell was I thinking? That was really inappropriate."
Do you think the combination of the pressure that you guys were under had anything to do with that?
I think it was just a number of factors that happened to coagulate around the same time. First and foremost, the musical content. Over the previous couple of records I had been introducing more traditional heavy metal elements to the band, but because we're tuned really low and using loads of distortion and we have an extreme approach, it was absorbed really nicely. It wasn't to everybody's taste, but I think for the most part, people in the scene accepted what we were doing. Around the period of Swansong, I was bringing stuff in that was maybe just a bit too far. It wasn't the kind of band where you could have long sections of just straight 4/4. Ken wasn't the kind of drummer who wanted to play that way. He liked to play in a busy style, and if I was asking him to play several bars without any fills, it was very frustrating to him.
Also, I tried to strip it down, I was just really sick of stacking guitars where you've got a minimum of two in the left channel, and another two in the right channel so at any point you've got four rhythm guitars happening. Then you stick solos and whatever on top of that. I had this obsession at that time that the more you stack guitars, the less people can hear the player. At that time, as I am now, I was a big fan of Johnny Winter. His stuff is incredibly raw and honest and I thought it would be fun to apply some of that, which looking back is a tad naïve. I just wanted to try it.
4. Symphonies of Sickness (1989)
I'm still very fond of that album. We were delighted just at how it turned out. That, to me, was when the band really started. We actually found a focus and we came away with a recording that we were happy with. The production certainly sounds a little rough and ready now, but at the time it was quite impressive for a band of our ilk. We started getting encouraging comments from our peers. Like I said, with the first album people were just mocking it, if I'm really honest. Symphonies... was just good vibes all round really. The reason why I have to put it there is simply because I think the following two records were more significant for us, you know?
At that point was it, "this is a true representation of what we can do and where we're going?"
Yeah. Looking back, there are a couple of little things that made a tremendous difference. One was we demoed several of those tunes prior to doing the album. That's a good way to craft a song and get it the way you want it, so you're not wasting unnecessary time in the studio debating whether you do this or that.
Another thing was using that studio, Slaughterhouse, in Yorkshire. Colin Richardson, the house engineer at that time, was the first person we'd worked with who actually had patience for what we were doing. In those days it was common for any band of our style to be a real nuisance or inconvenience to the house engineer. They didn't hear any musical merit in what any of us were doing. It's stressful. How on earth are you supposed to record this guy playing blast-beats and a guitar that is seriously low tuned? These things are standard now, but at that point in the 80s, I'd say the years '87 to '90, it was really vexing for these people.
It was probably stressful on the other side, too.
You'd have all kinds of crazy stuff. I remember some other bands on the Earache label in that era being persuaded to use an electronic kit that they had in the studio [because] the engineer thought it sounded better. Luckily, we managed to avoid all that. It was uncharted territory. None of us really knew how to go about it and the engineers certainly didn't. I suppose, as an unexpected effect, you have some very unique recordings from that era. You can't recreate that kind of thing now, people have learned how to record this music and it's almost like there's a rule book now.
I always laugh to myself anyway, when people say, "Do you think you'd ever do another record like the first two?" You just can't recreate those circumstances. Obviously, you can't become that young again, but you also—I mean this in a nice way—you can't be as clueless again, either. Then how you're going to find an engineer? You can't recreate those circumstances.
3. Necroticism: Descanting the Insalubrious (1991)
That was a very ambitious record for us. We were determined to... it sounds too grandiose, but I was about to say, "make a statement." Over the previous couple of years we'd picked up that we were far from being alone playing in this style. There were a number of bands coming up and doing stuff that stylistically wasn't too far off what we had done on the first two albums, and they were using some of the same imagery, lyrically. Without even discussing it, we all knew we had forge ahead and make a different album. Not radically different, because obviously it sounds like a Carcass record.
In terms of the narrow genre that we're a part of, we did take quite a few big steps between those two records. We pushed ourselves to the limits of whatever ability we had as players on that record. Ken, particularly, was extremely ambitious, and some of the drum parts that he'd worked out were quite hard for him to pull off in the studio, but he was just determined. By that point Jeff had completely taken over the lyrics side of the band and the visuals. He had his own agenda there, conceptually with how that record rolled out. It was fun to do.
Again we didn't get exactly what we wanted to get, sonically, but it was a step in the right direction. We realized maybe the band has got a future beyond the next six months. If we just stayed in the extreme—the purest extreme bubble—there would have been no future for the band. If you don't allow yourself any kind of scope for development, I don't see how you can have a career. I don't mean a career in a job sense, just are you going to be able to continue making records in a valid way or are you just repeating yourselves?
2. Heartwork (1993)
For the final two albums, it's like, "drum roll, please." For a lot of Carcass fans, this is the big question because so many people were so attached to Heartwork, which became this classic record over 20 years. And then you came back with Surgical Steel.
It's probably predictable, but if I'm truly honest here, I would say as much as I love Heartwork, I would favor Surgical Steel for a number of reasons. First, it's a lot more recent, so it's easier to relate to the guy that played on that record and remember how and why we put the tunes together. There are things that Heartwork has that Surgical... definitely does not have. One thing is this lovely, rich, warm, analog sound. Surgical, was the first time we recorded using a digital setup, which is fairly standard these days.
When we did Heartwork... God, I was pleased with that record. I think we all were, to a degree. Ken and I were living together at that time and I remember taking the tapes back from the studio and it was really exciting. By this point, we naturally gravitated towards writing material that was a little bit more direct. It's not that every song is simple—there's some pretty twisted stuff on there—but compared to Necroticism, it's way less angular. I think that subconsciously crept in. Playing some of the really tricky stuff, the really spiky, weird, atonal shit night after night in a club, you become aware that it's not necessarily reaching the back of the room. You're only talking about 300 people, so that's quite significant.
With Heartwork, the material started to go in a slightly more straight-ahead way. Again, that's part of what we're listening to in our private lives anyway. Between all of us, we listen to a lot of the classic era of rock and earlier heavy metal. If you've been listening to AC/DC or Thin Lizzy, you're very aware of the power of having a strong musical motif, the right amount of repetition, and so forth. We could never do anything as stripped down as that but I think we learned to get some of that into our music while keeping it kind of weird.
With Swansong, you were stripped it down even further. I imagine a couple of years in between that and Necroticism, it might have been a refreshing change of pace, in a way.
Definitely. With the Heartwork material, there's a reason why there's more of that in our set than anything else. It just lends itself to the stage better. There were just good vibes surrounding that period. We always talked about having a really thick guitar tone, but this is the first time we really got it. Obviously the drum sounds huge. Jeff's vocal really came into its own on that record too. Out of the original bunch of albums we did, that was easily my favorite.
1. Surgical Steel (2013)
But I still have to be honest and say my favorite is Surgical Steel, because there was much more at stake with that. We'd done this thing secretly. We got together over a period of time and written a bunch of tunes and embarked on recording the album. At this point, nobody knew. It wasn't leaked until I think the last day we were in the studio—we heard it appeared on Blabbermouth somehow. Up until that point, we were very focused and insular, and we didn't necessarily care what other people thought. We just really wanted to do ourselves justice. I guess we worked quite hard on the thing.
You'd been playing together again live for a couple of years at that point. Is that how the idea to do a new record kind of came up? Did it impact how you decided to write at that time?
Strangely enough, not really, because we were in an awkward situation where we first reformed. That lineup involved Michael Amott and Daniel Erlandsson from Arch Enemy. As great as they are as people and players, they sort of made it clear that they wouldn't be up for any new Carcass material. They knew this as a very brief reunion thing, "let's go out and play some shows but then we're going to go back to our main thing—our day jobs." Which is understandable. They'd spent years building up Arch Enemy. When it all sort of tapered off, Jeff and I had a breather of, I don't know, a couple of months or longer. I can't recall.
I do remember telling Jeff on the phone at some point that I'd been coming up with riffs that to me sounded like Carcass riffs, rather than something that would suit the other band that I was playing in at the time. That's where it began. Then it was a case of finding the right drummer, and that guy was Dan Wilding, somebody I had stored in the back of my brain for a while. He'd been playing with a Belgian band on one of the tours we did in the US, and it was very impressive. Once we got in the rehearsal room, the ideas were just flowing.
I had a tape left from the 90s of a bunch of stuff that I hadn't been able to use, so we had that to draw from, but more of the album is newer stuff and things that I'd been jamming at home. Once I knew we were doing it, there was just a tremendous flow through the whole thing. I hadn't really played, or rather, I hadn't created any new music in that style for so long. It was super exciting and every time you picked up that guitar and played in that way, you found something new coming through. It wasn't difficult to write the material, it was almost a case of, "when do we stop?" We got to about 15 songs and we thought, "let's focus on those because this could go on for a long time."
You were excited to write it, and I think one of the things that makes it so powerful is that it's exciting to listen to, even though it's been out a few years now. When you guys are playing the material now that you're on tour again, is that excitement still in the music for you?
Speaking for myself, I would say on a typical night, those tunes are the most fun to play. I think because there's a freshness that's still there. The other thing is again there was still some of that Heartwork sense of having a part of your brain that's writing for the stage. We've done our share of awkward angular music, but I don't think that's the essence of this band. If I was to try and write stuff like that now, it simply wouldn't be honest, because I don't tend to get into music like that.
Jamie Ludwig is on Twitter.