April 9, 2011

Death - A Musical Legacy Part 1

"Sense of feeling soon to be gone, Life will never last"
- Leprosy (1988)

On December 13th 2001 Death singer, songwriter and musician extraordinaire Chuck Schuldiner passed away . With his passing the world lost a true musical pioneer. With his band Death, and it was his band, he unintentionally helped give birth to the Death Metal genre. Death though were more than just a Death Metal band, they were far more than that. Whereas some bands suffer through line-up changes Death seemed to thrive, this was in no doubt down to Chuck's songwriting skills and musicianship. With each album they progressed, both musically and lyrically, they matured creating a musical monster whilst still managing to remain true to their roots.

Scream Bloody Gore (1987)

Previous to the release over their debut album, Scream Bloody Gore, Death had released the Mutilation demo amongst others. It was Scream Bloody Gore that drew me in though. The title alone just screamed out to a teenager obsessed with gory horror movies. Everything from the band's logo to the wonderful artwork from Edward Repka (more on Repka a little later) just clicked with me. I made the journey in London to Shades, which was the metal store, located just off Wardour Street and got my grubby little hands on the album. Of course it was vinyl at the time, as were all my Death purchases, so I got to marvel at the artwork in all its glory. Cassettes and CD's just don't seem to ever do artwork justice. I believe I also bought some other albums at the same time, although I can't remember what they were.

Listening to Scream Bloody Gore for the first time was an overwhelming experience, with songs such as Zombie Ritual, Baptized in Blood and Evil Dead I just knew I would love it. I wasn't quite expecting the musical onslaught that followed though. There were no lyrics printed on the sleeve, so I really didn't have much of an idea what was being sung until I trained my ears to this style of music. What I did know though was that I loved it, from the opening strains of Infernal Death I was hooked. 

This was, and still is, a brutal album. The songs still stand up today. Many Death Metal bands seem to be stuck in their rut lyrically and with their image. Some are Satanic or obsessed with gore-drenched lyrics and visuals, and still stick with this years and albums later, this was Death's only album that really fell into the now cliched image of Death Metal. It was all zombies, blood, guts and gore. Death were a young band and Chuck was around 20 when this was released, but throughout its lyrical brutality you could hear the musical craft behind it all. Scream Bloody Gore was an immense debut but this was just the appetizer in an incredible banquet.

On a side note, drummer Chris Reifert who played drums on this album went on to co-form Autopsy who gave us the slab of bloody vinyl entitled Severed Survival.

Leprosy (1988)

With Leprosy Death returned with a full band, Schuldiner did pretty much everything on Scream Bloody Gore, and was produced at Morrisound studio. Morrisound was the studio when it came to Death Metal, but it was with Leprosy that this relationship started. Once again the album featured wonderful artwork from the prolific Edward Repka.

If Scream Bloody Gore was the snarling, angry young child all full of venom and bile then Leprosy was its equally pissed off older brother. Still a vicious album but far more restrained in its approach. Gone were the gory imagery, instead replaced my a more mature approach to the subject of death. Don't get me wrong, this is no stroll in the park but it is much more than zombies and the hack and slash approach of the debut album.

Musically Leprosy was a huge step forward as well, even on just their second album Death were pushing the genre forward. Schuldiner's vocals were more refined, you didn't need to follow the lyric sheet to know what he was singing about!

Personally speaking this is my favorite Death album, it never seemed to leave my turntable as a teenager. Songs like Born Dead, Pull the Plug and Open Casket were, and still are, just incredibly good tunes and unlike many albums of the time, and since, there is not one weak track. Every one stands on its own as a prime example of Death Metal. Combined though they are an almost perfect collection of pure ferocity. Sure, there are faster, angrier and uglier bands out there but none ever have come close to Leprosy in all its splendor.

Bassist Terry Butler, who is credited with playing bass here although Schuldiner claims he played as Butler couldn't perform the songs, later went on to play for Death Metal giants Massacre, Six Feet Under and Obituary.

Spiritual Healing (1990)

Spiritual Healing was release in February 1990 and was the first Death album that I purchased on the day of its release. I remember being one excited little fucker that could not wait to get the vinyl home and give it a blast. For the last time the artwork was a Repka piece.Repka is probably most famous for his Megadeth art but also did album covers for bands like Evil Dead, Vio-lence and Atheist. It seemed every other Death or Thrash metal album of the late 80's and early 90's featured his work.

With Spiritual Healing Death returned with yet another line-up which included the excellent guitarist James Murphy, who has also played with, and on, numerous other bands albums including Cancer, Obituary and Testament. This was possibly their best line-up with most of the band contributing to the songwriting. Once again recorded at Morrisound Studio, this time produced by the producer of the day Scott Burns who delivered an album that sounds incredible. 

Once again Death pushed the bar forward in terms of their music and lyrics, the title song being about the religious belief of some preachers of letting God sort out the sick. In essence if God wants a sickness to be cured it would cure itself, no medicine required. Although another step forward in terms of lyrics, music and quality I personally believe it lacked the punch of Leprosy. That being said it is still an incredible album with a deceptive amount of depth, the title track almost pushes 8 minutes in length! Again it stands the test of time with songs that stick in the mind with intelligent lyrics and technical, yet catchy in a Death Metal kind of way, music.

With these three albums Death really stamped their name over the genre they helped create. All pushed forward in leaps and bounds, but Schuldiner and his band were far from finished. In my next piece I will cover the albums Human, Individual Thought Patterns and Symbolic. I will finish off my look back at Death with a final piece that will cover The Sound of Perseverance as well The Fragile Art of Existence which Schuldiner recorded with his band Control Denied, which he formed after disbanding Death.

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