Carcass' Bill Steer: 5 Criminally Underrated Guitar Heroes You Need to Know | Revolver

Carcass' Bill Steer: 5 Criminally Underrated Guitar Heroes You Need to Know

Extreme-metal icon talks influence of "monster" Chicago bluesmen, 70s metal "bone crunchers," more
carcass-bill-steer-by-jimmyhubbard-web-crop.jpg, Jimmy Hubbard
Bill Steer performing with Carcass
photograph by Jimmy Hubbard

Revolver has a limited-edition white vinyl variant of Carcass' new record Torn Arteries plus an exclusive gold version Bill Steer's final album with grindcore pioneers Napalm Death, From Enslavement to Obliteration. Get yours before they're gone!

It's late August in East London and Bill Steer is feeling "cautiously optimistic."

"It seems to be going in the right direction," says the Carcass guitarist about the turbulent COVID era we've all been living through. "But we've seen a few U-turns from the government before. So you have a part of yourself ready for that kind of thing to happen again. But right now, on a day-by-day basis, it's looking okay. Live music is back, in a very small way. Just this past weekend the park next to me had a huge festival lasting three days. So it's coming back. I'm not sure about venues, as such, that's a bit slower. But it does give you hope."

When Revolver catches up with Steer, Carcass are just weeks away from dropping their first new studio record in eight years, Torn Arteries. The British crew's latest effort — which follows their stunning 2013 comeback album Surgical Steel — is an undeniable powerhouse that adds another vicious layer to the band's influential extreme-metal "multi-verse." But Steer, much like his musical partner Jeff Walker, is also cautiously optimistic about how fans are going to respond to Torn Arteries. So, what's fueling the uncertainty?

"I feel like this record is superior to Surgical Steel, but equally I'm fully prepared to receive more flak this time around," says Steer. "There's no way that we can surprise people like we did previously. [Back in 2013], after such a long-time off, people heard we were doing a record and, understandably, there was a load of grumbling going on, like, 'Oh that's going to be crap.' So when Surgical Steel turned out to be relatively strong it was a kind of shock for lots of folk. But we don't get to do that again, you know?"

Torn Arteries was originally slated for release last year, but was delayed because of the coronavirus. Steer, like the rest of the world, rode out the lockdowns and restrictions the best he could. Often, that meant spending a lot of time at home with his guitar.

"I've played more acoustic than electric," he says. "I think part of that was maybe because I was, on some level, associating electric with reaching an audience. That's what the thing was invented for, right? So, picking up the little parlor guitar made more sense. It's just me and a couple of small rooms here. I would say for the duration of the deep lockdown that was my instrument of choice. It's only been lately that I've started to pick up the electric again. It feels extremely fresh. There's so many things you can do with that that you can't do with an acoustic."

Steer is no stranger to pushing his guitar playing into fresh new areas. His guitar skills have turned heads since he first emerged in the mid-Eighties: from his early work with grindcore pioneers Napalm Death and ongoing impressive Carcass output to his stoner, riff-rock and classic-metal expressions with Firebird, Gentlemans Pistols and Angel Witch.

Ahead of Torn Arteries' release, we caught up with Steer for a chat about some of the guitarists that most influenced his own distinct playing style. But he has one caveat before we begin.

"I'm going to favor people that aren't quite in the obvious category of guitar heroes," says Steer. "Obviously there are certain people I've spoken about a lot — it wouldn't be hard for me to give you 30 names. I like Eric Clapton and Hendrix as much as the next guy. [Laughs] But I'm not going to mention them because they always get mentioned. But there are equally talented guitar heroes out there who maybe you're not going to see on a magazine cover very often. These guys are successful, but maybe aren't spoken about enough."

Read the stories behind his unsung guitar-hero picks below.

W.G. Snuffy Walden (Stray Dog)

The first person I thought of was an American soundtrack artist called Snuffy Walden. He's a big name in that world. I don't watch much television, but I guess he got awards for doing things like The West Wing or whatever. He's made this massive career as a composer and performer of soundtracks for high-quality television. He's an acoustic artist as far as most people are concerned. But the way I got to know him was through this very nasty power trio in the Seventies called Stray Dog. I think I was in my 20s when I friend introduced me to that [self-titled 1973] record. And it's never grown stale. It's one of those albums I just keep going back to. In that era, he was a full-tilt macho Les Paul player with the most insanely cranked tone. Very rude phrasing. It's bluesy as hell but he's taken it further somehow. And creatively that band was awesome. They covered a lot of ground. It wasn't just your standard 1, 4, 5 blues-rock [chord progression]. Although they could certainly do that beautifully. There's almost progressive elements happening at times and more reflective moments. Essentially, he was just a monster on guitar. It's an insanely fat tone. Even now it's something we'd all envy.

Ollie Halsall (Patto, Boxer)

Ollie Halsall is known for his work in Patto and also Boxer. But he was also a very in-demand session player. He came out around the same time as Allan Holdsworth and before they even met each other they were both playing this insanely rapid legato style. I wouldn't want to compare the two because the legato thing aside they're quite different beasts. Halsall has this kind of air of unpredictability. There's a real danger when he plays, you don't know what's going to come next. Sometimes the solo will be really sedate and just follow the changes beautifully. And then just as it's ending there's this insane run that drifts into the next verse. Besides his incredible skill, the tone is really nice because it's very transparent. It's not overcooked so you hear every nuance of his playing. He's very exposed — and if you sound good like that, you just sound good. Full stop.

The most obvious album that most of us would talk about would be the [1971] Patto album Hold Your Fire. On the outro of that [title-track], that lead break is pretty nuts. But there are so many. He plays on this album [Fatsticks] by a guy called Terry Stamp, which is another mid-Seventies record. There's a song on the end called "Itchy Feet" and the song grinds to a halt — because it's obviously the first take. They get through the song but it falls to pieces right at the end. Then you hear Tony Newman the drummer pick it up again and Halsall goes completely to town. It's one of the best lead solos I've ever heard.

Tony Bourge (Budgie)

Tony Bourge played guitar in the original incarnation of Budgie, the Welsh band. The reason I pick him is because often when you get asked about favorite guitarists, or guitar heroes, it's natural to go toward the lead players. It's completely understandable because a lot of magic happens there, and they catch your attention. Tony Bourge is perfectly capable of throwing out some crazy licks, but essentially he's more of a dyed-in-the-wool rhythm guitarist. He's just insanely creative. At every stage of that original phase of the band he's doing something that's just vital and purely him. Initially it's bone-crunching riffs that maybe a Sabbath fan could get into. Then there's another phase of the band where he's really pushing it; there's some very odd phrasing. I'm loathe to use the word progressive, but it touches on that in a kind of gutsy blue-collar way. Then the very last phase of Tony Bourge's work with Budgie, he brings in some really twisted funk influences, which you think wouldn't really work but they're just brilliant. He's the guy that's definitely affected the way I play riffs, no two ways about it.

Magic Sam

Chicago blues recording artist Magic Sam plied his trade in the Sixties. Well, I guess there's recordings before that. But he came to prominence in the Sixties and died very young. He's one of those people that was the full package. He was an incredible singer, but then when it came to playing a lead break he was a complete monster there, too. He's very much the thumb-and-fingers player with minimal amplification. You are beyond exposed in that situation. If you can't cut it like that, you probably can't really cut it, you know?

What I find with his recordings is that the studio stuff is great; there's some gems on those records. But he's been severely curtailed, presumably by producers. It's astounding how many tracks don't even have lead breaks. To get the full picture of Magic Sam I think you need to go to the live recordings. He really stretches out — you get to hear somebody lost in the moment. There's a couple of semi-authorized live recordings that are out there. But there's also a bootleg; it's on vinyl, but I'm guessing it's on CD at this point. It's not very hard to find, but it's Magic Sam with Shakey Jake at Silvio's in 1968, it's called Magic Touch. That's always been my favorite record of his. It's vibey and he has great phrasing: he's there 100 percent for the whole thing.

John Martyn

Last one is the Scottish singer-songwriter John Martyn. The reason I pick him … again it's easy to gravitate towards people who do incredibly flashy things with lead work, but to me this is — at the very least — equally impressive. It's just a fella with a guitar. He's always using exotic tunings. There's an incredible intensity to what he does, bordering on aggression, really. That kind of thumb-snapping thing he does on the bottom string … Even though he's considered a folkie it sounds a little bit more like a Delta blues artist, like Willie Brown doing "Future Blues." Also, it's very hard to separate the man's singing from his playing, because they just meld together to beautifully. For me, the era that's just special would be that string of albums: [1971's] Bless the Weather, [1973's] Solid Air and [1973's] Inside Out. The latter of which is my absolute favorite. At that point I think he was defying every label you could put on him. It's a little bit folk, a little jazz, there's some soul music happening. He was definitely fearless in those days.