Carcass guitarist Bill Steer talks the meticulous creation period of their highly anticipated album ‘Torn Arteries’.
After completing the mother of all extreme metal comebacks with 2013’s Surgical Steel, Carcass rather than rushing into another record in an attempt to chase momentum decided to play the long game. It turned out longer than even they’d have liked, courtesy of a pandemic, but every year that fans continued waiting for its eventually almost mythical follow-up was a year that the band toured, tightened, and built their resolve.
Along with its sister EP Despicable, the result of this hard work Torn Arteries is a record that has delighted death metal lovers in rewarding their patience while being subtly deviant in showing a band who continue to make brutal music with a flair for classy songwriting and a wry sense of humour unmatched.
Guitarist Bill Steer, forming along with bassist/vocalist Jeff Walker and reunion-era drummer Dan Wilding the central nucleus of the re-energised Carcass, feels every second of its creation in its details.
Unbelievably it’s been eight years since Surgical Steel which of course has become a classic Carcass album in its own right, and sometimes the follow-up to the comeback is actually the harder thing to piece together. Was that length of time for Torn Arteries something you really needed and benefited from?
STEER – That’s tricky. Did we need it? Not necessarily, I think that one or two of us in the band would have preferred to make a move earlier in putting this thing together, but did we benefit from it, yes, we certainly did. If I’d had my way and we’d attacked the album a couple of years previous, it wouldn’t have had quite the same depth of material so in the end it was for the best.
Did you ever feel like you wouldn’t even follow Surgical Steel up?
STEER – Not personally but it was something that we didn’t really discuss in the band. I’m guessing there was some kind of unspoken assumption that we would one day do another record, especially when it got to about half a decade of touring behind Surgical Steel, you can either just fizzle out there or take a break and do a new record. Fortunately, there wasn’t really much of a debate on that one, we just kinda implicitly understood. It was one hell of a long gap between the two records but that was only exacerbated by the pandemic because the album had been completed several months before this all kicked off. Now that it’s out, it’s probably been about two years since we wrapped up the final mixes on the thing, so it’s just a relief now. You have people asking “Are you looking forward to seeing the reviews?”, and the answer is no, I know we’re gonna get some good ones and some bad ones and that’s kinda how it is. I don’t recall such a sense of relief though and I guess it’s because I’ve never sat on an album for this long before.
Something that’s really striking about Carcass right now is that as much as this would sound mad to anyone who is not an extreme metal fan because obviously the album is full of growls and blast beats and all your usual death metal tricks, the vibe of this album doesn’t feel like one that’s too bothered with being super extreme and aggressive and instead you and Jeff have been jokingly referring this as your dad rock album where it’s almost laid-back and quite assured of itself in a classic rock songwriting way. How are you finding that dynamic within the framework of still writing and playing as a death metal band and is that how you see a band like Carcass continuing?
STEER – Jeff said that, not me, I didn’t use that terminology! A few of people have made similar observations and I think that there is some of that going on, but it wasn’t really analysed. We just had a bunch of material that we went to work on. The energy in the room when we did Surgical was frantic and slightly unfocused. We’d never played a gig with that line-up. We’d got together with Dan and he was evidently a fantastic drummer, very skilled, but we didn’t have that experience under our belts of touring. Five years of that stuff is quite a different proposition. You’re dead right about not trying to chase the holy grail of extremity. That kind of thing is just so far in the past for us. Those elements are still there, so seeing the album described as some kind of soft rock showcase would just be hysterical to me because it’s got blast beats and I’ve not really heard any melodic singing on it either, but I get where people are coming from in the sense that there are bands that are way more extreme than we are who have pushed that stuff way further, but of course they are because they didn’t start in the 80s. Some of these bands didn’t even start in the 90s so they haven’t had the same trajectory.
It’s an endearing and warming thing in the record, and you have outside of Carcass history of playing classic and blues rock guitar. How much does that feed into Carcass, even going back to the Heartwork days because that sense of melody and those arena rock style grooves are only becoming more prevalent and not at all antithetical to being an extreme metal band?
STEER – No, I mean this is just a personal opinion and I know it’s not shared perhaps, but I do feel like there’s no harm in letting a little bit of fresh air flow through this little musical subculture that we’re a part of. If you are only influenced by a narrow band of contemporaries or just one tiny scene, it’s unlikely that your musical output is gonna have a very large dynamic range. It doesn’t give you the greatest perspective if you only listen to one style of music, so I guess that’s what you’re touching on if you go back to something like Heartwork or even Necroticism, we’re starting to bring some of those things that we were listening to in the van or at home into the music, and it couldn’t help but become twisted and corrupted because that’s the kind of band that this is. It’s nice if someone says “that sounds like Thin Lizzy”, but you play them back to back and the closest you get is “that’s a harmony part played in thirds”. The guitar tone and whole feel behind the music is radically different.
The Swansong record has had a divisive place among fans but do you feel like some of the more rock n roll things that you were doing there and getting stick for at the time are a bit cooler and more palatable to people now, because Torn Arteries like Swansong is a slower, groovier, rockier record than its predecessor. Do you feel like some of that album’s DNA is picked up in this one?
Yeah but unintentionally. Put it this way, I don’t think any of us listen to our own recordings for inspiration. That’s a very weird way to go when you start to self-plagiarise. But yeah, Swansong has come up over the weeks talking to different journalists and at first I was a little bit taken aback, but on reflection I can see what people are talking about because that is the most overt example of rock influences coming into Carcass’ music. As you said, it wasn’t received particularly well at the time. There wasn’t a band to take note of this because we’d disintegrated months before the thing came out, but you would still hear from other sources how badly it was going down. Over the years I guess it’s started to pick up a following of its own, to the extent where you even meet people who take that over any of the other records.
It feels like some of the playful vibe of it is in Torn Arteries, in something like Wake Up and Smell the Carcass or the hand claps in In God We Trust which sound like you guys are having such fun putting these things down in the studio. Even some of the Carcass-isms in wording of stuff like Psychopomp & Circumstance March No. 1 or Flesh Ripping Sonic Torment Limited, is there a knowing playing up of some of the fun factor of these ideas and tricks within what Carcass is?
Well we certainly did have fun with that kind of stuff, because it was clear that we were developing that kind of album, something where you would have to embellish more parts and craft more hooks. There’s just a bit more space in the music. Last time around, there was a limit to how far we could go with the production values because a lot of the music was just so relentless, just heads down from start to finish, blasts beats and Slayer beats in a back and forth. The way this stuff started developing from the off we could see that it was just going to take longer to put down and longer to craft before we were satisfied with it, and doing the percussion things in particular was just loads of fun. It’s just a really great way to break up a session after days and weeks of drums, guitars and screaming.
Under the Scalpel Blade has obviously been around and found its way onto a number of different releases from the original Decibel single to the Despicable EP. Is the fact that it’s found its way onto Torn Arteries again after that reflective of your affection for the song?
It’s really simply the fact that we finished the album so long ago and we finished the running order with it on there, and it was a little bit later that the label asked for it to be the first thing that came out. It’s almost created the illusion that that song was ahead of the album when all of the album and all of the EP that preceded it were done in the same sessions. We always wanted it on the album but now it’s been put out there in so many different forms.
The other songs that found their way onto some of these releases such as The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue were also incredibly well received, so are these other songs going to have much shelf life in things like live shows beyond this point as well?
I’d love to think so but it’s just too early to say what the vibe in the band would be, because there are three of us involved in those decision-making processes and it can get complicated, ideally you’d want three people in agreement but that’s rare. I’d like to have more new songs in the set but that’s quite idealistic and it might be that the others feel slightly differently. We don’t really know if or when we’ll be touring, we have a couple of festival dates in the diary and I really hope they come to pass, but it’s just too early to get ahead of yourself and talk about tours. With the Despicable songs, it hadn’t really occurred to me. I’ve always been a little bit partial to albums so for me the tracks that make it onto the album are slightly elevated compared to whatever’s on the EP. As with Surgical, the EP is comprised of things that if you want to be unkind are leftovers. It’s not that we think they’re crap because if we did think that we wouldn’t put them out, but they just didn’t find their place onto the album. For me personally I’d definitely be favouring tunes that are on the album itself, but again that’s just me and the others might feel differently. I think it’s quite cool to be up for things like that, not getting too hung up about playing absolutely the most obvious stuff. There’s no harm in throwing a couple of wild cards out there. We certainly spent just as long on those as we did anything on the album, because it was all done together and those choices were made as the final mixes were being completed, so right up until the end we were treating everything very equally.
Flesh Ripping Sonic Torment Limited is the longest song in Carcass history. What led to you pushing that side of things in the arrangements?
It was always going to be a long song. That much was clear because when I brought in that initial chunk of music it was already kind of lengthy and it took a long time before a section of music was repeated. It was clear we’re working with something that’s got a slightly different scale to what is let’s say a normal album track for us which would be four to five minutes. That came with a change of pace because we realised we were gonna have to spend a lot longer with this track and be even more vigilant for things that might need editing. If you do a long song there is a very obvious risk of bloating people, so you wanna trim the fat off the thing, but also let it stand on its own merit. I mean it’s a hell of a lot of music compacted into that nine minutes fourty-five or whatever it is, and it was a very enjoyable challenge for us I think just to step outside of the usual song format. Mount of Execution on the previous record is something like eight minutes, so this is another step on from that kind of thing and it’s definitely more ambitious because it goes through more phases and feels within the tune.
Dan was born the year Symphonies of Sickness came out, and joined Carcass when he was not yet 25. What was that like when you started working with him and in the decade now of playing and writing with him, how has that relationship advanced?
He’s one of those people who is very balanced and very well-adjusted, and he can hold his own in a conversation with pretty much anybody. That was a good starting point and of course the main reason we approached him initially was on the basis of his drumming skills. I think he’d been playing with the Belgian group Aborted on one of those US tours we did and I just happened to wander over to the side of the stage as they were starting one evening, and he really made an impression. There’s zillions of technically accomplished drummers in this style of music now but he seemed like he had something extra going on. There was a lot of flow and musicality, and then lovely for us he turned out to be a cool human being. He’s brought everything he knows to the table which is great, but he’s also sensitive enough musically to understand the history of what we’ve done in the past and the drumming style of Ken Owen which is very individual. He’s somehow managed to be himself which you must do as a musician in any situation, but also respectfully have some of those elements of Ken’s style in what he does.
With those handful of festival dates you mentioned, in the UK you’ll be playing some of this stuff for the first time at Damnation Festival and there was the Behemoth and Arch Enemy tour which has currently been postponed. Is that something that you are still looking to be on when that eventually comes around?
I feel as if a lot could happen between now and then. As far as I recall it was a four band package, so it wouldn’t be unheard of for at least one of those bands to suddenly be unavailable for when the agents and promoters get their heads together and try and set the wheels in motion. There’s every chance that we might end up doing the rescheduled version but equally it might not come together. That’s not our tour really, it’s two larger acts in Behemoth and Arch Enemy with special guests, so if we don’t end up being part of the package it’s not going to derail them. Let’s just wait and see. Damnation we’re very excited for, as that feels like a nice way to start to kick some of the rust off. Way back when we were first doing the reunion phase of the band Damnation was one of the best shows I thought. It’s quite an intense room vibe because yeah it’s a hall but the stage itself isn’t that big. Someone did tell me that this is going to be the last year in that venue for the festival, and I’m sure they’ve got one eye on the rest of how this pandemic situation could roll out and are looking to be covered for any kind of situation. In all honesty we’re quite nervous because it’s been such a long time since we’ve played but it’s a great reason for us to get back together in the rehearsal room, try and get back into shape, and then essentially just go down the road for us rather than flying into some location for your first gig in two years.
Whose idea was the plate and cutlery set? How d’you feel about that?
Yeah, I only learned of this when I started doing press for this album a few weeks back! I guess I’m not on social media so some of these things go past me. I thought it was funny, I really don’t know who is behind it whether it was purely the label or if Jeff had a hand in it, but either way it seems to have gotten people talking which is quite nice. I haven’t seen the finished artefact to be honest with you, I don’t even own a copy of the album yet, but hopefully it’s in the post.
Torn Arteries from Carcass is currently available via Nuclear Blast Records – HERE