"I AM THE GOD OF HELLFIRE!" screams Jeff Walker once he answers the telephone, so I know from the get-go this isn't going to be a rational conversation. Well, to be honest, the bassist/vocalist hasn't actually picked up the receiver yet, but I'm imagining that's what he'll say. But can you blame me? He is, after all, the frontman and lyricist for a band whose three prior albums (Reek Of Putrefaction, Symphonies of Sickness and Necroticism: Descanting The Insalubrious) each utilized the same modus operandi: draw the curious in with some puzzling titles, stun them with the subject matter, and then attack with their musical arsenal (a blend of seminal grindcore-cum-thrash) until that e.k.g. has smoothed out completely.
The band, currently (de)composed of Walker (ex-Electro Hippies), guitarists Bill Steer (ex-Napalm Death) and Mike Hickey (ex-Cronos), and drummer Ken Owen (he of the short hair) have just released their most rewarding album to date, simply entitled Heartwork. Yet this is a band whose subject matter has centered around one central theme--corpses. As in chopping them up, eating them, using them as fertilizer, and so on. Their tongue-in-cheek lyrics run the gamut from hilarious ("Exhume To Consume") to ridiculous ("Cadaveric Incubator Of Endoparasites"), and their lyrics are vexing sonnets bloated with mordant puns and surprisingly deft humor. For instance, let us recall an infamous stanza from "Pedigree Butchery," in which the afterlife very much resembled a Gainesburger: "Ghastly I slake / Bestial appetites to sate / As flesh and steel I mate / To fill the lower species' plate / ...Rheological, twisted nursery chymes / The fluxing of the defleshed / Paedophilosophical, carnage knowledge / As the illigitimeat to the domesticated is fed." So you see that we're dealing with a lunatic savant here, right? So how could I possibly be prepared for the full greeting which followed?
"Hullo?" came a somewhat meek voice in British brogue. "This is Jeff, how are you?" Fine, I told him. Didn't want to reveal too much, after all. These types, you tell them enough and they get inside your head. Then it's lights out, baby. So to turn the tables, I thought, it would benefit me to ask the questions and see what lurked within the shadowy confines of his mind. Before he had time to plot some acrimonious assault on my psyche, I inquired as to Heartwork's simplified lyrical content. Unable to seize the momentum, the diminutive growler saw little choice but to grant me an answer. Speaking of their former fixation on 50-cent words, he says, "It just seemed to become redundant. It's nothing any of the band was into anymore. I always thought it was done in a mature way, but it's always easy to trivialize and turn it into this childish nonsense and that's what always irritated me. What I wanted to do was combine the macabre and dark aspects of what people think Carcass is about with more thought and maturity."
The latest album sees the living dead still ambling about, but now used as instructional aids to help them make a point. Indeed, it's clear the thought process behind songs such as "Carnal Forge" was considerable, as evidenced by their topical relevance. ("Meritorious horror / Perspicuous onslaught / Dehumanized--cannon fodder / Killing sanitized / Slaughter sanctified / Desensitized--to genocide.") Such a shift was necessary, though, if Carcass ever hoped to prevent their lyrics from overshadowing their music altogether. "Yeah, that's always been a problem," he sighs. "People always picked up on these perceptions of what they think Carcass' lyrics are about, and what they've read in magazines. And of course, it's always been wrong. The lyrics on the last album and Symphonies... There's a lot of things going on in there that directly relate to the lyrics on our new album. It's just that for the first time it's a bit more simplistic and a bit more focused and straight ahead. Not as abstract, and not fixed in this fictional little world anymore like Edgar Allan Poe."
Although their streamlined musings have forced critics to focus on the music (something every critic is loath to do), the result still aggravates the band. Apparently they're keen to peg Carcass as direct descendants of traditional metal. "In Europe and Britain they're making too much of a big deal about this New Wave Of British Heavy Metal nonsense. As far as I'm concerned, there's a lot of post-hardcore stuff going on there, a lot of what people consider--I use this word very loosely--industrial. But we don't stick our favorite bands all over our guitars and so people presume that just because we've got long hair that we're just into Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, and that really isn't the influence at all. This music is the result of growing up in a time when bands like that were pop music, and we went for things that were more underground and obscure, be it hardcore punk or extreme death metal or whatever. But people definitely pay more attention to the music, and it's very strange that no one really has picked up on the lyrics!"
The Priest/Maiden comparisons obviously draw from the plentiful melodies that abound on Heartwork, as in the soaring leads and twisting harmonies that circumvent some truly ominous riffs. While Walker sees the reasoning, he disagrees with their timing. "They seem to be giving more credence than what's necessary to saying it's more melodic but if you ask me, our first album Reek Of Putrefaction is very melodic. But it's not traditional melody and the production sucks and it's terribly played. It depends on what your perception of melody is--you can have traditional scales or things that are kind of off-the-wall. I think in the past we always went against the grain. We weren't into writing pop songs so we avoided it like the plague and went for things that weren't pleasant on the ear, shall we say." Still, he adds, "It's not like we ever played white noise or just plugged into the radio and played static!"
While seemingly defensive about their instrumental prowess, he's quick to point out that Carcass aren't exactly a musician's band. "The bottom line is we're not classically-trained musicians. Basically, we're a bunch of kids that grew up playing our instruments and we've learned it over the years. I still can't play bass guitar for toffee," he says with a chuckle, "but then again Bill's a really killer guitar player and Ken's a brilliant drummer so they deserve a lot of credit. I think Heartwork is a brilliant album--that's not arrogance, it's just pure logic, because we've got very high standards about what we listen to and where we've come from. We've figured out that people should sit up and pay attention to it, basically. We haven't been doing this for six years for nothing... or maybe we have!" he muses, breaking once more into laughter.
Several other bands, in an effort to solidify their ranking alongside Carcass, have gone to great pains to be more lyrically explicit than the British quartet. Yet each of the challengers misses that one crucial aspect--that being the band's dark, wicked humor--and thus each one eventually resorts to a desperate competition of outright obscenity, something Walker never bothered with. "It's explicit if you understand what's being said, but at the same time we've never been profane or used a lot of expletives. We've always been mature about what we're doing, anyway, because it's very easy to be sick. You could just start singing right-wing bullshit and sing about raping women if you want to be extreme. It's very easy to play on people's hatreds or fears or morality. You could be a satanic black metal band and sing of burning churches down and you'd have half of America up in arms, but we're not into that anyway. Christ, I think being censored has got to be the most boring thing about rock music, anyway. It's the easiest thing to do, and so many bands have done it.
"I mean, no offense to those bands, but the reason we started doing all that stuff was because when we were into underground death metal it was so childish and stupid, we just wanted to make something a bit more mature. They're all doing what we did five years ago so it really doesn't matter. Like next year, bands will be trying to do what we did on Heartwork. We set trends, we don't follow them, ha-ha-ha."
The writing process, something which the band has excelled at of late, is surprisingly not a regulated process. "I think me and Bill can probably agree to agree, but most of the time it's like four chefs cooking." On Heartwork, he says, "The main songwriting was done by me, Bill and Ken, although Mike Amott wrote a lot of riffs. But there's a big difference between writing riffs and actually getting the song together. The main actual cooking was done by me, Bill and Ken. See, it was done over two years anyway. I mean, songs like "Carnal Forge" and "Arbeit Macht Fleisch" were done straight after the last album, and I think we wrote like half the album sitting in my front room with a drum computer and a four-track. It was very quick, very easy, very simple. I think whether Ken likes it or not, he fell into line with what me and Bill were agreeing on. Ken, as a drummer, doesn't want to make it too technical, but to play a simple 4/4 beat, he feels, is boring. But I think me and Bill are going towards trying to keep it a bit more simple. In the past, there's been too many rhythm changes, and it's just a bit too over people's heads. I think we've proven we can play now, and we don't have to do that anymore. The next song we write, it will probably just be a case of Bill writing the riff and me, Bill and Ken writing the music, and I'll probably write lyrics and keep it as simple as possible. We've discovered that too many riffs spoil the broth, basically. We've always been so much against the grain that we want to keep it more direct and more enjoyable... more rocking," he exclaims, before getting carried away, "... accessible... commercial!"
On the topic of mainstream marketability, one has to wonder just how far Carcass can push their popularity on a country as apprehensive as America, considering Walker's scraping vocals. Given the recent success of some uncompromising bands, he doesn't see any reason why they can't utilize their link with a major label to achieve the success level of a Sepultura without making any compromises. "We don't have the media circus they've got, but I don't see why not. Marx hasn't toned down his vocal style, and I don't see any reason for me to. I still think there's a long way to go for aggressive music. I'm not going to start trying to sing just to please someone and sell records, because it wouldn't work anyway. I can't imagine anything worse than Belladonna, the old Anthrax vocalist, with Carcass! Especially the way we tune, it's just in a completely different key from traditional music anyway. It's always the stumbling block, of course, but it's always different for bands like us. The first thing that someone hears who doesn't know anything about playing the guitar or drums is the vocals, and they listen to the lyrics, not the riffs in the song. I guess what it boils down to is as to whether we think the world will catch up with Carcass. Personally, if you ask me, I don't think we're ever going to be in a situation where we're going to be the most commercially viable thing. But having said that, the sales are pretty good, and I don't see a problem with it selling 300,000 copies in America. That's not asking too much, I don't think. We sold like 60 [thousand] on Relativity, but they didn't really promote us. With Columbia and Sony behind us... that isn't much out of a population of 200 million."
Adamant as he is about not buckling to consumer pressures, he isn't too proud to admit that lateral gains must be made in terms of sales if Carcass hopes to maintain their interest level and enjoyment. "I mean, not deliberately chasing the carrot in front of the donkey, but it would get boring. I want to just keep moving up, because I don't want to be an old man just going through the rounds. I want to experience new things. It would be nice for us to get on a support slot with a bigger band, just for the hell of it. I don't care if it doesn't work out and we don't break, I just want to experience that for my own sake. The day it starts turning into a job, I might as well just go and work in a sheet metal factory. That's what happens with most bands, they just end up doing the same thing, day in, day out--touring, playing, concerts, and where's the fun anymore? You've got to keep things interesting for yourself. It's just not fair to the people who come out to see you play."