With song titles like Swarming Vulgar Mass Of Infected Virulency and Corporal Jigsore Quandary, it was clear Carcass were never going to be your more straightforward of bands. And indeed in a mere decade this Liverpool-based quartet rose to become, alongside Napalm Death, one of the most influential grindcore bands the world has ever seen.
Formed by ex-Napalm Death guitarist Bill Steer and drummer Ken Owen in 1985, the band’s original Bomb Drops… demo featured a vocalist by the name of Sanjiv (none of the band actually recall his surname), who had been replaced by Electro Hippies man Jeff Walker (also bass) in time for 1987?s Flesh Ripping Sonic Torment demo, which helped secure the band a deal with burgeoning Nottingham-based metal independent Earache. Their debut album, Reek Of Putrefaction, appeared a year later and set about earning Carcass a reputation they’d merely hinted at on demos.
Lyrically their attention had shifted away from early slasher material to more technically observed medical themes which led some to suggest they were actually medical students. In truth, drummer Owen studied biology at school and the band sought inspiration from Walker’s sister’s nurse’s dictionary, for lyrical content, and medical textbooks for album artwork, blending gruesome reality with their own blackened humour.
Symphonies Of Sickness appeared in 1989, with the band securing the patronage of DJ John Peel, helping to further their appeal beyond mere metal audiences, and by the time Swedish guitarist Michael Amott, a tape-trading pal of Steer’s, had joined the ranks, they were ready to make their boldest step yet.
Necroticism – Descanting The Insalubrious (1991) adopted a more death-metal sound, helping lay down much of the foundations for that particular genre for years to come, and headlined the Gods Of Grind tour, a package that also included Entombed, Cathedral and Confessor, to much acclaim.
A stateside deal between Earache and Sony resulted in better promotion and the rare chance for such an extreme band to make some mainstream headway. They responded by releasing their masterwork, Heartwork, in 1993. Yet with a shift away from the flesh-rotting approach to a cleaner, more accessible sound, the ‘sell-out’ arguments from hardcore fans started to appear.
Amott left, initially replaced Mike Hickey, and later Carlos Regedas, yet Carcass continued to make headway. But by the time the more melodic Swansong arrived in 1995, it’d all got a little too much for many fans.
Steer left. Owen, Walker and Regedas continued as Blackstar, with Cathedral’s Mark Griffiths, taking the Swansong sound further, much to the dismay of Carcass’s original fanbase. Things were brought to an unhappy conclusion when Owen suffered a brain haemorrhage in 1999, from which he is still recuperating.
Amott resurfaced in the excellent Spiritual Beggars and Arch Enemy, while Steer ploughed a bluesier furrow, much to the abject horror of some Carcass fans, with the equally excellent Firebird. Walker went to work for the civil service, but has kept his musical hand in, most recently with the country-rock Jeff Walker Und Die Fluffers, a more than worthwhile project. The occasional rumour about a reunion surfaces, yet without the services of Owen for the foreseeable future it seems highly unlikely.
SWANSONG (EARACHE, 1995)
A fitting end?
Listened to with open ears, Swansong proves itself to be a fine metal album. The band had evolved as pioneers of both grindcore and melodic death metal, yet on Carcass’s final album, the increasingly technical and melodic direction they began to take with Heartwork comes to the fore on this record. Yet if some of the band’s frighteningly narrow-minded fanbase found the brutal riffage of Heartwork hard to stomach, they turned their backs in droves on Swansong, proving metal fans fear change as much as the comedy film Wayne’s World once predicted. In truth, it’s about as laughable as that film was, for Swansong might be accessible, but it could have opened a whole new chapter in the illustrious career of Carcass. But on the whole, it’s pretty difficult to argue with people who’d stubbornly rather have no Carcass at all than one constantly redefining their sound. Oh well, theirs and metal’s loss!
CHOICE CUTS (EARACHE, 2004)
Again, for a band with a set of fans notoriously dismissive of anything approaching commercial accessibility, the idea of anything like a Carcass greatest hits set is likely to stick in the throat. However, almost a decade had passed since the band’s demise and Choice Cuts’ arrival in 2004 allowed the listener to chart Carcass’s progress from youthful exponents of grindcore to the mature yet still brutal metal band who rounded off their career with Swansong. True, 1996’s Wake Up And Smell The… Carcass might have featured rare and previously unheard tracks but Choice Cuts gets the nod over it by also featuring the groundbreaking John Peel Sessions from 1989 and 1990. And with a main tracklisting beginning with Genital Grinder from Reek Of Putrefaction and ending with R**k The Vote from Swansong, this serves as an ideal primer for anyone wishing to take their first steps into Carcass’s world.
Of the music made by Carcass’s core members since their demise, perhaps Michael Amott’s Arch Enemy comes closest to the brutal Carcass sound. But the most interesting, in as much as it offered a glimpse of where Carcass might have been heading had they not called things to a halt after 1995’s Swansong, is Blackstar. Retaining a core of Jeff Walker and Ken Owen, as well as later Carcass guitarist Carlo Regadas, Blackstar also recruited onetime Cathedral bassist Mark Griffiths and were a vastly different animal to early Carcass but a natural progression from Swansong’s Megadeth-style metal. Freed from any remaining constraints held by the Carcass name, the band went even further down a melodic metal route, building on those traditional song structures Carcass used to employ but adding such diverse elements as saxophone and a surprisingly effective vocal performance from Walker. “We just didn’t want to sound like Carcass any more,” Owen explained of their only album, 1997’s Barbed Wire Soul.
With song titles like Genital Grinder, Maggot Colony, Carbonized Eyesockets and Manifestation Of Verrucose Urethra, it wasn’t always that easy to take Carcass seriously when it came to their lyrical content and song titles. But then again, if you had done, you’d have been missing the underlying humour always evident in much of their early work. What you couldn’t ignore, however, was the music. Bold and unfettered grindcore, not a million miles away from Napalm Death’s early work yet still sounding vastly different, the youthful Carcass weren’t always easy on the ear, but then that’s just how the fans liked it. Housed in a sleeve that equalled the lyrical content for shock value, the combination of brutal assault and a measured maturity set in stone the Carcass sound of the next few years at least. Even in the three-way guttural vocal attack there was something that helped set the band apart.
Does what it says on the tin.
“We used actual forensic science books as sources for artwork, as opposed to having crappy zombies that looked like they were drawn by a five-year-old!” Carcass bassist Jeff Walker recently told us when discussing their artwork. And Carcass reached a creative high/low (depending on your point of view) with their second long player, housed in a collage of gruesome body parts, cadavers and bodies in various states of disrepair. Equally as brutal was the music, although this time the band were already beginning to stretch themselves with slightly longer material and more complex arrangements. It’s still earthy grindcore of course, and with song titles like Cadaveric Incubator Of Endo Parasites or Swarming Vulgar Mass Of Infected Virulency their humour shone through, their shock value unabated. And on Exhume To Consume they went way beyond the bounds of taste.
Death to false metal.
One look at the sleeve of this told you something had changed within Carcass. Not just that they’d bolstered their line-up with the addition of Swedish guitarist Michael Amott, but four images of the members, albeit blood spattered, on a surgeon’s trolley was almost an exercise in decent taste for the band. Musically though, they’d moved on apace. The addition of Amott helped solidify the sound in a more brutal death-metal direction, also allowing Steer’s natural virtuosity to shine through. Much longer songs too – nothing clocks in under four minutes – although titles like Symposium Of Sickness proved that Carcass’s passion for stomach-churning imagery remained unabated. Not the best album, Necroticism… is perhaps their most pivotal effort, the point where they evolved as genuine contenders on a bigger stage.
Two EPs stand out amongst Carcass’s body of work that collectors will no doubt wish to find. 1992’s Tools Of The Trade EP followed the groundbreaking Necroticism – Descanting The Insalubrious and showed the band continuing to redefine their sound, moving ever closer to the slower tempo of Heartwork.
It’s very hard to find now, but the tracks are available on an early CD reissue of Necroticism… (note: not the 2004 version). 1994’s Heartwork EP featured three tracks, two from Heartwork and Rot’N’Roll, but track down the Japanese version – which also featured an extra three tracks – Tools Of The Trade, Pyosisified (Still Rotten To The Gore) and Hepatic Tissue Fermentation II. They’re very hard to find these days, but definitely worth hunting around on eBay for.
Given the gory nature of Carcass’s muse, certainly in the early years, and coupled with the metal genre’s desire to constantly shock, the medium of the t-shirt was always something that would offer endless opportunities for this band to raise eyebrows. Taking its cue from the title of the band’s second demo, Flesh Ripping Sonic Torment, this delightful item featured a fetid corpse on the front above a statement reading: “I like doing autopsies on festering carcasses, I get high on sniffing all of the fumes.” Nice. Bettered only by the back which read: “I like to slide my hand inside your stomach and rip out the putrid remains.” Not a band to take home to meet the folks then.
1 GENITAL GRINDER -
REEK OF PUTREFACTION (1988)
SYMPHONIES OF SICKNESS (1989)
3 SWARMING VULGAR MASS OF INFECTED VIRULENCY -
SYMPHONIES OF SICKNESS (1989)
NECROTICISM - DESCANTING THE INSALUBRIOUS (1990)
5 SYMPOSIUM OF SICKNESS -
NECROTICISM - DESCANTING THE INSALUBRIOUS (1990)
TOOLS OF THE TRADE EP (1992)
8 HEARTWORK -
9 NO LOVE LOST -
HEARTWORK EP (1993)
11 KEEP ON ROTTING IN THE FREE WORLD -
12 BLACK STAR LIVE -
1986 – A Bomb Drops (demo)
1987 – Flesh Ripping Sonic Torment (demo)
1988 – Reek Of Putrefaction (Earache)
1989 – Symphonies Of Sickness (Earache)
1989 – The Peel Sessions (Strange Fruit)
1990 – Necroticism – Descanting The Insalubrious (Earache)
1992 – Tools Of The Trade EP (Earache)
1993 – Heartwork (Earache)
1993 – The Heartwork EP (Earache)
1995 – Swansong (Earache)
1996 – Wake Up And Smell The… Carcass (Earache)
2004 – Choice Cuts (Earache)
From the heart.
One thing that was always apparent throughout Carcass’s career was no matter how brutal and extreme they chose to be, the majority of their songs remained structured around an almost old-school approach. No doubt learnt from the original metal that initially inspired the band members to pick up instruments themselves. And although peppered with later influences like punk, hardcore and thrash, for a band as extreme as Carcass could be, their music has always been largely accessible too – providing you neither turned your stomach at their album sleeves or ignored their strident sense of humour.
Heartwork arrived at a time of flux for the band. The addition of Michael Amott on guitar had added dimension to their sound and had also seen them evolve into more of a death metal band. Their label Earache was also in the process of securing a deal with major label Sony in America. Carcass duly responded with their finest moment, a superb heavy metal album that lost nothing in terms of brutality and heaviosity despite adding an even more tuneful approach than ever before. Even the song titles – Buried Dreams, No Love Lost, This Mortal Coil – showed a more developed approach, while the album sleeve artwork is the band’s classiest ever.
And yet just as Carcass took the steps needed to prove that from their almost humble beginnings they were always destined for metal greatness, grumbles began with the stylistic shift towards death metal of Necroticism… that the band were selling out. Unhappy at reports of the Sony deal, and irate that Carcass had the temerity to develop, accusing fingers were pointed with the retardation that comes from someone who’d rather cut off his nose to spite his face. Heartwork rightly stands as the jewel in Carcass’s crown. A feat of which they should rightly be proud.
This was published in Metal Hammer issue 161
Carcass play on the Ronnie James Dio Stage at the Bloodstock Open Air Festival on August 9