Every discerning death metal fan on the planet was thrilled when Obituary resurfaced a few years back with Frozen In Time, a comeback album that more than lived up to expectations. Three years on, the Floridian destroyers are back with an even better collection of skull-flattening anti-hymns. Entitled Xecutioner's Return, it's easily the band's best album to date; a terrifying onslaught of grim and punishing death metal and an exhilarating update of a truly legendary sound. I spoke to frontman John Tardy, one of the most distinctive voices in metal history, about what it's like to come back from the dead, the new album, the band's new lead guitarist and much, much more.

What's been happening since Frozen In Time?
JT: We've been just about as busy as we've ever been since that record came out. We've been playing lots and lots of shows and getting back into the whole swing of things with touring and meeting all our fans and friends that we haven't seen in a long time. It's been an absolute blast. We seem to be getting bigger and better offers than we've ever gotten before, so we've been super busy, literally full-time doing Obituary and it's been a lot of fun.

There was a lot of excitement when you reunited. Did that surprise you?
JT: It was surprising, but it also felt really good. It seemed like our time away happened at a really good time. During the break the whole metal scene got quiet. I think it got a little over-saturated, but then I think that all different kinds of music do the same thing. Country music gets popular and then dies back down again. So I think the time we decided to take a little break, it worked out good for us, and now we're coming back again, it seems like the scene's picking up a bit and there's a lot of other bands that have been around for a while enjoying a bit of success too, so it's been good to see the scene have some fresh blood pumped back into it.

The '90s were a weird time for metal bands. How did you feel about that?
JT: Well, it happens. The whole Seattle scene came and went. People always go back, and younger kids get a bit older and get a bit tired of death metal and listen to other stuff. Now you've got a generation of younger kids again and they're starting to listen to it more and more and they're looking for the heaviest stuff they can find and I think that's how the scene rolls along.

Was Frozen In Time the comeback album you needed to make?
JT: I love it. I'm totally happy with that album. I thought it was a great record and exactly what we needed to do, even though I didn't want to release it with Roadrunner. It got released with Roadrunner and stuck in a pile, just like we anticipated. Roadrunner did absolutely nothing for us which really took the air out of our tyres, because we thought we did a really good job with 'Frozen In Time'. If you go back and read the reviews of the album, everybody liked the record and we had no negative feedback about the whole thing. It really went over well and it made the statement we wanted to make, that we're back and we're still doing what we do, in the style we've always done. With this new record, it's like a blanket's been taken off of us. The foot that was sitting on our back got taken off and we're rising up and feeling rejuvenated, being with a new record label and everything else. I think the scene is ready for it. It's a great record and I hope that there's a wider audience than just death metal fans that might hear it and get into it.

So was Frozen In Time a contractual obligation between you and Roadrunner?
JT: Yeah. That was the last record on our contract, so our contract was fulfilled. I think that put us with Roadrunner for longer than any other band they've had, I think. I may be wrong, but there are not many bands that have been with a record company for that long. It was definitely good to move on, that's for sure.

So why did you decide to sign with Candlelight?
JT: There was a whole long list of reasons. We had a list written up, and he had a business advisor called Stan Vincent, and we sat down with him for a long time and we came up with a whole long list of things that we did and did not want. Stan spoke to anybody and everybody that would listen to him and any record company that would remotely consider a band like us, and it just seemed that Candlelight met or exceeded any of the things that we asked for or wanted. It was as simple as that. There were a couple of labels where Stan said 'If you guys want to talk to this label then go ahead, but I would not recommend it!', so we steered away from those, but there was still a handful of big labels that we spoke to, but Candlelight made us feel like they'd be prepared to stick their necks out for us a little bit more than anyone else. So even though they're not the biggest record company, they've got great distribution, they've got enough money to spend and enough resources to get out there and get some interviews and press for us. It just seemed to work out well and everything's been good with them so far.

A lot of people are saying this is your best album for a long, long time. How do you explain that?
JT: I don't know. I don't know if you can tell from my voice, but the hair on my arms stands up when we start talking about the new record. I can't exactly explain why it's so good. I think it's maybe because there are so many songs on there that you start to enjoy more and more. When Candlelight first got the masters sent to them and they listened to them in the office, they called us up and said 'Look, we need a single, we think songs one, three, five, seven, nine and eleven would work out okay!' and that was the response we wanted. One of the things that makes it so good is that there's not many songs that you'll want to fast forward through. Every song hits you, in the way that 'Reign In Blood' did. Every song keeps pounding and pounding at you. There's some different stuff on there. It's probably closer to 'Frozen In Time' than anything, but there's some faster stuff where I'm singing faster than I ever have before. I was sitting there mouthing things as I was writing the lyrics, and the others were like 'How are you going to sing that kind of stuff?', because I've never done it before. It was a mouthful, but it was awesome stuff to work with.

Even with 'Frozen' I think you can find songs that could have been on other records of ours. Through the years, what we get better and better at is the production. Once again, we actually built our own studio this time and recorded it there. We knew the sound we'd get in our room. We had a little digital recorder that you can hit 'record' and it records what's going through the mics, and we instantly heard that the room sounds great. So as soon as we started recording we knew it was going to work out so great. Not to mention, I can walk out of my house, walk across the field and I'm in our studio and I can set up and sing half a song if I feel like it, or sing three or four songs if I feel like it. It was really cool. We should've built a studio a long time ago. It was such fun to work with.

How's the voice?
JT: Actually, the voice is doing pretty good. Other parts of the body are starting to feel a little bit older now, but as a whole, we're all doing pretty good. I thought my voice came out really good on the new record. When we go out on the road, I hit grooves when I can hit anything I want to hit with my voice and then there are certain times when your low end goes a little bit or your high end goes a little bit, because they get a little worn on the road, but I haven't had any problems and I've been fortunate.

Why did you choose the title Xecutioner's Return?
JT: It's a celebration of the past. It's a look back. I look at all our CDs lined up here, and it reminds me of all the time and effort we put into those things, and being with a new record label, it felt like a new time and a new era for us, a change in our career, and it just felt good to pick that title, especially working with Andreas and the artwork he does. It's just a cool idea and a cool meaning.

The artwork's amazing. It doesn't get much more death metal than that!
JT: It's pretty much right out of the death metal handbook, right there. We work really well with Andreas. He's a really sick painter, to start with, but he's also really good at listening to some of the ideas we come up with and then just taking them a step further. All you have to do is give him a little bit and he'll come up with a whole lot more for you. I'm sitting here looking at our albums right now. He's done four album covers for us now. Frozen In Time was great too. They look so small on CDs, but we have 20 foot backdrops made for festivals, and then you can sit back and look at them and say 'Yeah, that's pretty firkin' badass!' (laughs) When we hung the new album cover backdrop up at Walrock I thought it looked really fuckin' good, that's for sure.

How did Ralph Santolla become involved with Obituary?
JT: We were extremely happy and extremely fortunate to come across Ralph when we did. I think his leads add a whole new aspect to our records, and it was almost a necessary step we needed to take to change that record to a different level. He can play anything he wants, but the best thing about it was he was so willing to sit down and listen to us, what we wanted. Not to take anything away from James Murphy, but when Allen (West) bailed on us during 'Cause Of Death', James came in, literally right into the studio. Scott Burns said 'Hey, you guys should have James do some stuff!', so he sat down, listened to the songs and played some leads, but the leads do sound like they were just put on top of music that was already there, but Ralph's leads, because he had much longer to work with it and he was so patient with us and he's more melodic, a more 'Kill 'Em All' kind of feel to it, his leads just seem to fit and flow with the music so good. It's really cool to have such good leads on one of our records. He's amazing. Mention any song and he can play it. He's an old rock 'n' roller, Deep Purple kind of guy at heart, but his eyes have just been wide open when we've been jamming, and it was really cool seeing him on stage with us the first couple of times. He was like a kid in a candy store up there. We have a lot lined up and a lot planned, so Ralph has a lot of work to do with us, and we'll see what the future holds as far as what happens with lead guitar players.

Can you foresee a time when Allen West might come back again or have you reached the end of the road with him?
JT: I don't really know, but I will tell you that he's been a handful over the years. The last couple of years have been particularly hard. You know, you sit there and you beg and plead with someone who's a grown man, and you have to beg somebody and explain how important this whole thing is right now, and then again he's just falling on his face drunk on stage and showing up to practice and he can't even play because he's so wrecked and it's?11 o'clock in the morning and it wasn't fun at all. It's not just when we're on the road. He has just many problems when we're at home, and that's reflected in the trouble that he now finds himself in. We kept quiet about it for a while because we were anticipating him getting out of jail, but then when he finally went in front of a judge, the judge laid down a hard sentence and he was sent to prison, so he's going to be in there until next year sometime, and we have a lot lined up right now. It's so hard for me to talk about right now. I don't know what prison's going to do to him. It may straighten him up, but he might come out and not have much will to do anything. I haven't even talked to him because of where he's at, so we'll have to see what happens. We're just so excited to have Ralph and we get along great. He lives a few miles from here and he comes over nearly every day and we're just messing around and writing all kinds of stuff. DT and me have been writing some songs, and Ralph's been writing some material, so we've been living out here and jamming. It's been fun.

The chemistry between yourself and the rest of the band seems to have survived really well over the years.
JT: I know all the bands that I enjoy, and mostly they're bands that have the same band members from the beginning. How nice is it to see Slayer with the full line-up? When they tried to replace Dave Lombardo it just had something missing about it. I took a lot of pride in the fact that we've been the same band, pretty much from day one. Frank didn't play on the first record, but he played every single show we've ever played, even before that album came out. Al had a little hiccup on 'Cause Of Death' and took a nosedive, but otherwise it's nice to have that consistency. Fans appreciate that. Right now, there's nothing we can do. We have to move on so we have to find someone to take Allen's spot.

What are your plans for the next year or two?
JT: We've got a full US tour coming up in September through October, and then we've got a small break in November when we may be going over to Japan. Then in December and January we're going to Europe. After that's over, we may get to do some shows in, like, March with Ministry in the US. One of the things this band really needs, especially in the US, would be to get on a bill with a bigger band like Ministry, get into bigger venues with a bigger production and maybe get in front of some kids that normally wouldn't see us and see whether we can turn them onto some of our music.

It's two decades since death metal exploded, and yourselves, Morbid Angel, Deicide, Cannibal Corpse, Suffocation and many others are still around. Did you ever expect that would happen when you started doing this??
JT: It's strange, because not only was it strange back in the late '80s when all these bands started coming out of this era especially, there's so many of them that are still hanging in there and doing so well in the scene. It is good to see. There are still bands like Celtic Frost that are still together enjoying some success. It's super cool.