While the Maniacs readers are likely to be familiar with Carcass' first and second records, Reek of Putrefaction and Symphonies of Sickness (the titles of which vaguely illustrate the gist of the lyrics), the vast majority of the rock public is quite unaware of this extreme group from Liverpool. With their third record, Descanting the Insalubrious, their extremity is given a new base of clarity, with well formed, sometimes almost diatonic musical ideas which bring them out of the melange of low-tuned, death-growling grindspeed bands, some of which owe part of their technique to Carcass in the first place.
Four things come to mind immediately for those acquainted with Carcass, namely low-B tuning (considerably lower than ordinary tuning), harmonized vocals (electronically altered to sound lower), phenomenally complex lyrics comprised largely of medical terms, and vegetarianism. Five things, if you include the grotesque cover collages on the first two albums, showing things like mutilated body parts, etc. However spokesman/guitarist/lower death-voice Bill Steer disputes the association with harmonized vocals: "Well, we decided to avoid them on this album, because we wanted to prove that we could do it without them. They were never that prominent, actually. We used them a fair amount on the first album, on the second album they were there in a few places, but people tend to exaggerate the use of them, you know. There were people talking about us as if we used them all the time, which is nonsense. The majority of our vocals were always clean, so that started to really annoy us, so we thought, 'Well, we won't use any of this harmonizer effect this time and that way we can get that whole issue thrown out the window.' I think there's one section on one song, Carneous Cacoffiny, where there's a really low amount of harmonizer, and it's used in a fairly subtle way, and that's just in one place which we felt needed it, but otherwise we just don't bother with it because it was becoming a really stale effect. I mean there are some bands who are just over-using it, beyond a joke, really." It's used on some of the clinician's voices between songs.
Another topic of dispute is the association with vegetarianism. As a vegetarian, I like the idea of such an intense, truly hard band with a seemingly morose platform as a harbinger of fleshless nutrition, yet in things I'd read, Bill avoided the issue. "I haven't tried to distance myself from it, certainly. It's not that at all. This is what we find annoying, really, because it's just impossible to get the matter straight. I mean, no one in the band eats meat, and it's to different degrees. In Mike's case he merely doesn't eat meat, he still has seafood and all that other stuff, the other two guys in the band are merely vegetarian, and then I have vegan eating habits, but the point is these are just personal choices and we don't want to ram it down anyone's throats. I really don't subscribe to that ram it down people's throats kind of thing where people who do eat meat are made to feel guilty. I personally can't understand why anyone would want to eat it, but fine, I'm not going to preach to anyone because I can remember years ago when I did eat meat if there's one thing I didn't appreciate it was someone trying to tell me how to live my life or whatever."
Not that Carcass is annoyed about everything. For example, their new record has been denoted with the dreaded "accessible" word. "I think they're mainly saying it because of the production. I think that immediately they notice that the whole thing sounds more palatable, and that makes a big difference. Secondly, they are noticing an improvement in the playing, and then there's the fact that the actual song writing is improved. We're probably using more variation and just trying to expand as much as possible without actually losing the heaviness. I think it's probably those three main factors, really, that makes people see it as more accessible. I mean, we have a reluctance to use that word ourselves, because if you use that too frequently people take that as meaning that you really want to reach a wider audience and you're doing your best to achieve that, and with us that's simply not the case. We know what we're capable of and we just think that if we tried to 'dolly' what we do, it would just disappoint everyone including ourselves."
The improved production may change the opinion of those who wrote off the first two records as noise. What were the difficulties in making the improvement so conspicuous? "We didn't really see any problems as such. It was just in planning the record there were some things that became obvious, like we would need a reasonably long amount of time in the studio, or long by our standards, which turned out to be close to four weeks, which is including recording and mixing. I mean, that is absolutely nothing compared to what a rock band spends, but for a band of our stature, that's quite a lot of time and quite a lot of money, especially as we were using a pretty expensive recording studio. So those are the sorts of conditions we felt we needed to record with, and aside from that our whole approach to the record was simply to get in there and do the songs as much justice as we could."
Of particular note, in my opinion, is the improved drumming of Ken Owen, which on the previous releases was depreciated by inconsistencies. "He's just improved a lot. I feel that we all have, because there were two years between Symphonies of Sickness and the new album. If you can't improve in the space of two years, that doesn't really say much for the potential of the band, so we did improve a bit, and the studio time was kind of to do with that." I also noticed a reduction in the hyper kick-snare-kick-snare beat frequently abused in the genre: "It's still very prominent for us, but we like to be more sparing with it because we're a little bit worried that some people are just going to become desensitized to it and just... 'Oh no, here comes another fast bit.' When we introduce those parts we want them to have an impact, and so that's why we're more sparing this time." I find this attitude to dynamic construction encouraging, reflecting an overall trend toward more creativity instead of a reliance on "proven" arrangements. Bill? "I think that's fair to say. Bands in general are looking a little further afield for ideas, which is on the whole definitely a good thing."
When it comes to Carcass recording, "... we're not afraid of making changes in the studio, but we like to have everything as clear cut as possible before we go in." How is it that the bassist doesn't have music credits but the drummer does? "One thing we have to bear in mind is that Jeff is involved with the arrangements. All the actual music is written by myself, Ken, and Mike. Ken doesn't play guitar as in it's a hobby of his or anything, but he sometimes sits around and he just comes up with these really bizarre note sequences, and I learn these sequences from him and I change the phrasing or whatever, do something with the arrangment. Often once I've done a preliminary arrangement, Jeff comes along with the lyrics and says 'Look, if we shorten this verse or shorten this section then this will flow better.' So it is quite a collaborative process, really, and just because Jeff doesn't write any actual music doesn't mean he's not involved with it." Also, has the addition of Amott changed things? "In a sense, no, because, really, we didn't have to change for him and he didn't have to change for us, so we're really fortunate just to meet someone who is so ideally suited to the band. He just slotted right in. He's managed to add to the band without taking anything away, really, which is the ideal situation for us."
Everyone wonders about Jeff's lyrics... "I don't know quite exactly what his intentions are. I think he just writes them to entertain himself first and foremost, and I think he's just happy if anyone else can appreciate them. The humor is in there somewhere, but I think he deliberately likes to keep things obscure. He gets a kick out of the fact that there'll always be things in the lyrics that people won't pick up on, and when someone occasionally does come out of the blue having noticed some particular quirk in one of the songs, that makes it all the better. We generally just like to let people interpret whatever they want to. Some of the new lyrics... they definitely show progress. It's definitely a case of reaching new topics and so on. I don't know if he could ever write something that isn't unpleasant in some way or other because that might be too far away from what we've established in the past. I think we're just generally going to keep expanding musically and lyrically, but do it in a way that makes sense to us. We're never going to experiment merely for the sake of it; we're very conscious of what we think actually suits us."
Sure you death metalheads will readily accept this new record into your stereos, but what about the vast, new metal legions who don't like death vocals? Will they? "We certainly hope so. We feel what we do is capable of being liked by a lot of people who enjoy things like Metallica. I mean, I know people who until maybe two years ago would only listen to Slayer and Metallica, and nothing beyond that, and gradually they opened themselves up a bit more and now would just as easily listen to a Carcass record. Make no mistake about it, we don't think what we do is commercially viable. We don't think this is really Top 40 material, even in Top 40 album charts or whatever, but we do see it as deserving a wider audience than the one is has at the moment. Overall we've been pretty lucky with the response we've had so far for the new album. Just the fact that we're getting interviews at all is a big breakthrough for us because two years ago, Symphonies of Sickness, there was very little coverage, and for a variety of reasons it seems people are actually interested in this album." You might also be interested in a new EP, Tools of the Trade, out in "a few months" (according to Jim Welch, Earache U.S.), and a video for Incarnate Solvent Abuse.
Well, what does Carcass listen to? "I think all of us listen to a lot of different things. For example, in Jeff or Mike's CD collection you'll see a lot of different things from pop music through to hard rock. Ken listens to a lot of rap and techno house kind of things, you know, that kind of music. I listen to a lot of classical from different periods. I listen to some fusion. The common thread running through everyone in the band is we all enjoy a lot of just really powerful mainstream metal, like Vicious Rumors or middle period Judas Priest or Queensryche, you know, that kind of thing. King Diamond." So brutal bands aren't necessarily brutal listeners? "At the end of the day those are all just words and people see things differently. As far as what brutality is, to me... I listen to a lot of different kinds of music, and each thing I hear is for a different reason. If I'm in a certain kind of mood I might want to hear something very soulful, or sometimes I might want to hear something very bombastic, or whatever. I don't know if it's possible to be heavy without being aggressive, but that depends on what your concept of heaviness is. I mean, I've heard people describe Pink Floyd as heavy, as in mentally heavy. To be honest these are all just terms, and at the end of the day people just listen to what intrigues them. We've never really thought of a suitable term for what we do, so we just leave it up to other people. We've always made it clear that we're not happy being labeled death metal or grindcore or whatever. On the other hand, we can't deny that we have several things in common with those terms, so it's inevitable that we're going to find ourselves in that area somewhere. Really we just like to do what we can do, and we hope that our music can actually transcend categorization to some extent."