For the last decade, Carnation has been at the forefront of reviving old school death metal. There’s something to be said about the artfulness of taking something so primitive and walking that fine line between keeping its classic authenticity without sounding tired or dated. Carnation has always teetered this line, injecting a fresh and contemporary approach without losing the genre’s time-honored traditions. However, the band’s third endeavor sees Carnation erasing those boundaries entirely and abandoning any and all conventions as they traverse into daring new territory. ‘Cursed Mortality’ pulls the Belgian death dealers deeper into experimental new waters, taking risks as the band steps out of the shadows of its predecessors and comes into its own identity. ‘Cursed Mortality’s’ statement is clear: This is no longer simply a revival; this is Carnation’s rebirth.
“We still play death metal and we still identify as such” explains frontman Simon Duson. “But we know that this is also our second decade performing it. And while it is very important for us to stay true to the old-school style, we know we had to open things up a bit and reach out to those who might be interested in extreme metal, but aren’t that much into the old aspect of it. It also feels fresher to us because we’ve decided to change our visual approach, with a new logo, a new look on stage and so on. In a way, it really feels like the beginning of a new chapter for Carnation.”
Album number three is much more than just a new chapter, but rather feels like a sequel to an already storied career, punctuated by press accolades, an impressive history of live performances, and a lauded discography consisting of several EPs, splits, and two critically acclaimed full-length albums.
Carnation was formed in 2013 by vocalist Simon Duson, bassist Yarne Heylen, guitarist Bert Vervoort, and brothers Jonathan Verstrepen (guitars) and Vincent Verstrepen (drums). While many bands endure lineup changes over the years, Carnation stands as it did 10 years ago, growing tighter and stronger along the way. They are a brotherhood, both literally and figuratively, as they celebrate their silver anniversary. As familial ties can sometimes create challenges, it only empowers the Verstrepen duo. “My brother and I grew up together listening to the same music. I think we even have a 95% match on the music we listen to,” explains Jonahan about his relationship with his sibling. “Back when we were kids we already used to make ‘music’ together and we kind of understand each other when making music. When I write a song, I always send it to my brother first and he then records some drum ideas for it. Most of the time it’s exactly what I had in mind for the song!”
Vincent adds, “My brother has been a huge influence for me since a very young age. He taught me about so many bands and such. We started listening to metal from a very young age. It all happened when we found some vinyls from our uncle who was moving out and left some Iron Maiden LP’s that made us very curious. There certainly is a connection and sense of feeling between us which I do not have with anyone else. A good example from the past was writing the song ‘Sepulcher of Alteration.’ This song came together when my brother and I were jamming, as we do since we were kids.”
With the debut of its first EP in 2015, Carnation quickly garnered the attention of fans, media, and most notably of all, record label Season of Mist, who quickly noticed the band’s potential and picked them up without hesitation. Upon forming this union, the band dropped its first full-length, ‘Chapel of Abhorrance,’ in 2018. Angry Metal Guy astutely noted that the Belgians’ debut album was “one of the best death metal debuts of the year, and Carnation have earned their place as one of the most promising new bands in the genre” while Distorted Sound Magazine echoed these remarks, calling ‘Chapel of Abborhance’ “one of most brutalizing, well executed and, above all, fun, death metal releases of 2018” in its 9/10 review of the album.
Carnation’s momentum only seemed to pick up from there. The band kept busy on the road, performing a variety of tours with their death metal brethren in Deserted Fear, Schirenc Plays, Pungent Stench, and Pestilence, while headlining stages in Japan and Brazil. Upon conquering the live circuit and laying waste to audiences across three different continents, the band unleashed its 2020 opus, ‘Where Death Lies,’ which broke them out from the underground with the kind of seismic force that most bands can only dream of. If the critics liked ‘Chapel of Abhorrance,’ ‘Where Death Lies’ was the moment they fell in love, enamored by Carnation’s relentless brutality and crushing precision.
While touring had been halted that year, Carnation never stagnated nor waivered. The band’s tenacity paid off with their sophomore effort being named among one of the best records of the year by The Pit, Chicago Music Guide, Pandemonium Metal, and many more, while the single “Iron Discipline” was singled out by Loudwire as one of the best songs of 2020. Legacy outlet Kerrang! also took notice, ranking the band among the “50 Greatest Death Metal Bands Right Now,” cracking the top 20 picks.
While others succumbed to the unprecedented circumstances of 2020-2021, Carnation took the wheel. Rather than wait for the world to give them the signal of when they could return to the stage, the band recorded a furious live session at Galaxy Studios in their home country and broadcasted their fierce, uncompromising, and annihilating live set to households across the world, making fans even hungrier for the real thing. Such was evident when Carnation took the stage at the end of 2022 during the return of the legendary Eindhoven Metal Meeting festival in The Netherlands. The room was already nearly packed to its capacity of 1200, with Carnation holding the audience from the first note to the last – another testament to the Belgians’ growing legacy.
The release of ‘Cursed Mortality’ is adding kindling to this growing fire, from which Carnation is re-emerging like a phoenix. Written almost entirely by guitarist Jonathan “Johnny” Verstrepen, the album is not necessarily what fans might expect. “Johnny has always been like an old-school magnet, but he made it clear that he didn’t want to get stuck in that corner and he wanted to challenge himself to come up with more modern material,” says Yarne Heylen. “Half of the album is performed with a Drop A tuning, in order to add some extra heaviness, whereas we originally used to play in B standard tuning. On a sonic level, everything has been upgraded too. We had a very natural sound but now it’s all pumped on steroids and in your face. Overall, I think we’ve reached a point where we want to mature and transcend the boundaries.”
“This album is a lot more open-minded than the previous ones,” adds Jonathan Verstrepen. “We included other styles of music and went into a different direction of songwriting. Of course, we did not want to lose the old Carnation sound too much, so the old fans can also still find more ‘classic’ Carnation songs on the album as well. But in our opinion, this album is more mature than what we ever did before!”
Even lyrically, Carnation strays away from themes of torture, cults, and rituals, and instead, Duson takes a more relatable approach. “Some of the lyrics have a more personal touch on this album. For example, Duson had a really rough time with his previous job that sucked a lot of energy out of him. Thinking about that time of his life has also been an influence for him while writing lyrics,” says Verstrepen. Even songs such as “Metropolis” might seem fantastical on the surface, as it’s actually inspired by the 1927 Fritz Lang classic movie of the same name, but rather, it actually deals with “what’s hidden behind the glamorous and all too-perfect society we live in and how it has been eating people.”
“The title track mainly focuses on reflecting back on decisions that were made during one’s life,” Duson adds about his writing approach. “It’s about how a person will view himself after all the achievements and failures that they had to go through. It’s about realizing who you have become, and accepting or regretting the things that lead to becoming this person. This line from the song sums up the meaning perfectly: ‘And when death takes me, will I accept the end I am to receive? Will I feel fulfilled? Or bear resentment for the choices I have made?’ It’s definitely a lot more personal and humane compared to other lyrics that I’ve written. The inspiration stems from my own thoughts and feelings about myself and about other people in my life.
“Even though several songs on the new album were inspired by fictional stories, I did try to connect them to our reality and to make them topical as much as possible. To give an example, ‘Replicant’ was inspired by a character from the movie ‘Blade Runner,’ and it felt like the perfect way to portray the intended theme for this song, which is about the finiteness of our existence.”
While the Belgian slayers still stay true to their roots, they step outside of their comfort zone with more groove, melody, and progression, showcasing their versatility as musicians and clearly defining their own unique sound. ‘Cursed Mortality’ sounds darker, with passages of melancholic melodies that compliment the heaviness. In addition to adding clean vocals, Carnation also beefed up the guitar sound. “The one thing I surely wanted to add to our sound were more lead guitars,” Verstrepen continues. “One of my all time favorite Iron Maiden albums, ‘Somewhere In Time,’ was the main influence for that. I even went so far that I bought the hard to find guitar amp that was used on that album, to include it to our lead sound on the new album!”
While Iron Maiden might have had an indirect influence on ‘Cursed Mortality’s’ structure, another legacy artist had a much more direct impact, as King Diamond guitarist Andy LaRocque lent his talents to the opening track, ‘‘Herald of Demise.” LaRocque’s presence is not just one hell of a way to open up a record, but also a clever reminder of another legendary death metal band who dared to abandon its original sound and reinvented an entire genre in the process – Death. “Death definitely inspired us a lot,” says Verstrepen. “I think they inspired almost every death metal band on the globe. For me, Andy LaRocque is one of my all-time favorite guitar players. I remember buying my first real vinyl record, ‘Abigail,’ by King Diamond at the flea market, and I was blown away by the compositions of those songs. I think that’s the reason why I wanted Andy on one of our songs!”
Carnation honors another death metal legend de facto with ‘Cursed Mortality’s’ cover art, which was created by the late Mariusz Lewandowski (Obituary, Lorna Shore, Abigail Williams, etc.) “We already were aware of some of his artworks and his style fitted perfectly with our new album. Luckily, he already had a couple of artworks ready, and one of them directly caught our attention. If we had asked him to paint a new one, we would maybe never have had an original Lewandowski…” laments Verstrepen.
Most bands might feel anxious about making such dramatic changes, especially to incorporate clean vocals within such extreme music, Carnation embraces the unknown and does not fall victim to fear or monotony. “As artists, it’s something natural,” explains Verstrepen about why the band has shifted direction. “Doing the same thing over and over again doesn’t inspire us. We love to create and we love to explore new paths. We knew some people wouldn’t like clean vocals in death metal, but we don’t want to think of that too much. We stand 100% behind our music and we really like what we did here. Some people will drop out, but there will definitely be others joining! As Lemmy would say, ‘You win some, you lose some.’”
Indeed, a personal metamorphosis is always a risk, but one that historically has paid off. The first records of bands like Black Sabbath, Carcass, Death, or even Bathory sound nothing like the mid-late era offerings of those very same artists, and yet, those records that strayed off the beaten path are regarded as some of the most seminal albums in the history of metal. Playing it safe sounds easy, but it isn’t always a part of a legend’s origin story. And Carnation isn’t here to play by the rules; the band is ready to take a leap of faith and redefine an era.
Simon Duson: Vocals
Jonathan Verstrepen: Lead Guitar
Bert Vervoort: Rhythm Guitar
Yarne Heylen: Bass Guitar
Vincent Verstrepen: Drums
Bio by Katy Irizarry (Suspiria PR)