Death released their seminal Human album on 22 October 1991, but Chuck Schuldiner and Sean Reinert are no longer with us to see its continued influence on metal. In honour of the band’s legacy, we decided that the record’s thirtieth anniversary was the perfect opportunity to appraise the back catalogue of the greatest death metal band of all time.
Matt Davidson of Repulsive Vision and Wombbath joins SBR’s Jack Von Bismarck in reviewing the seven studio LPs in Death’s canon. Few artists and musicians have had a bigger impact on the entire spectrum of metal than Chuck Schuldiner, and one can only speculate what accolades he’d be receiving if he were still alive today. It’s clear Death were the most consistent artist in extreme metal, but were they also the greatest metal band of all time?
In honour of the Floridian masters, we give you the SBR guide to the music of Death…
Scream Bloody Gore (1987)
Possessed created the term ‘death metal’ on their 1984 demo and even influenced a young Chuck Schuldiner in his first band, Mantas, but the Bay Area quartet were a raw thrash group dressed up as Venom. Death metal as we know it begins in 1987 with Chuck’s grimy guitars and agonising screams of “Die!” at the beginning of ‘Infernal Death’. No other artists sounded as macabre or as claustrophobic as this.
True, the influences are visible. Celtic Frost’s Morbid Tales can be discerned in the intro to ‘Sacrificial’ and Slayer’s Hell Awaits informs the core of ‘Denial of Life’, but the guitar tone is harsher and Chuck’s screams unlike anything heard before in metal. At times, his throat abrasions resemble a junior cop puking his guts up at a gruesome murder scene, on other occasions he conjures up images of a man being disembowelled. You might call Scream Bloody Gore an attempt to soundtrack the underground video nasties doing the rounds at the time, but there is much more to this record than gratuitous violence and torture. ‘Zombie Ritual’ is one of the first songs in metal to make effective use of the E-harmonic minor scale, and the modulation to a circular mid-tempo riff at the two-minute mark of ‘Mutilation’ is one of the greatest moments in the history of extreme metal.
Scream Bloody Gore shocked and seduced metalheads upon release. The guitar solos sound like the early Sodom records, and ‘Regurgitated Guts’ flirts with a vintage Metallica/Megadeth lick. Yet the title track showcases an early hint of tech-death, and ‘Baptised in Blood’ is grindcore without the crowning blast beats. Few debut records can claim to be as influential as this on the evolution of multiple sub-genres, never mind create a whole new one in the process.
Influenced: Sepultura, Napalm Death, Morbid Angel, Obituary, the entire Florida death metal scene, all thrash bands starting out from 1987 onwards, every death metal band in the period 1987-1991, and the gore-grind sub-genre. Like Slayer, Death’s Scream Bloody Gore also had a major impact on metallic hardcore, especially the modern hardcore bands that embrace death metal.
Immediately redefining the sub-genre that he helped to create with Scream Bloody Gore, Chuck Schuldiner took little time to expand upon his visions of what extreme music could be with his sophomore opus. Aiming to evolve and adapt his sound in creative new ways to avoid getting lost amongst his imitators, Chuck decided to take the raw chaos of death metal into a more mature and ambitious direction. Experimenting with a whole new line-up, progressive song structures, unusual time signatures and intricate guitar work, Leprosy presented a level of careful thought in its aggression, changing with great dynamism from the archetypal thrash assault to slow grooves, to Rush-esque harmonies with finesse (and not a hint of pretentiousness).
The album flows effortlessly through a selection of death metal’s most revered and long-standing tracks including ‘Open Casket’, ‘Left to Die’, ‘Born Dead’ and the hook-laden masterpiece, ‘Pull the Plug’, emphasising not only the range in instrumental prowess but also a growth in the song-writing.
Despite its strong points, it’s arguable that the production (engineered by DM innovator Scott Burns in his first appearance) takes some outdated approaches (e.g. THAT snare) that are charming at best but can be accredited to a style in its infancy. Above all, Leprosy proved that death metal, despite its perceived brutality, need not be devoid of artistic merit or hooks.
Influenced: Gruesome, Exhumed, Malevolent Creation, Go Ahead and Die, Atheist, Pestilence, the entire first wave of death metal, the entire roster of French death metal label, XenoKorp Records.
Spiritual Healing (1990)
Unlike the first two records, Spiritual Healing is the first Death album to enhance the razor-sharp palm-muted guitar tone and represents another evolution in the audio engineering of Scott Burns, who would go on to capture the true efficacy of the double-kick drum in extreme metal a year later. It’s easy to overlook this album when analysing the Death discography, but it’s one of the most important transition records in the band’s career.
Here, the lyrical themes are now free from gore and more fascinated with human depravity, mendacious televangelism, degeneration, and the social ills of the modern age. ‘Living Monstrosity’ is worthy of the best tracks on Leprosy, and ‘Within the Mind’ is an excellent mix of marauding doom and thrash with a superb solo from James Murphy, but it’s clear that Chuck already knew where he’d be taking death metal over the next few years with this release. ‘Altering the Future’ is the prototype sound for what would become the Human album, while ‘Defensive Personalities’ showcases the band’s trademark modulations into different tempos at the flick of a switch – a signature feature of what would become tech death. Gone are the simple song structures and raw edge of Scream Bloody Gore in favour of a complex Megadeth approach to song-writing. The guitar leads are expressive and offer a scintillating range of melodic shredding on the likes of ‘Killing Spree’, yet the vocals are as harsh as ever, with Chuck’s wild screams on ‘Low Life’ terrifying the listener into submission.
As one of the first to take metal into the depraved caverns of gore and human filth, it’s ironic that Chuck should also be the first to map out the mature template for death metal to evolve into a technical genre of music with progressive musical tendencies and cynical metaphors for the decline of western civilisation. Listen to the sludgy guitar tone of the title track – Chuck had already abandoned the speed race in extreme metal on this album. In hindsight, Spiritual Healing is an important segue between the grimy shock metal of Leprosy and the progressive death metal incredulity of Human.
Influenced: The Necroticism album by Carcass, Opeth, the entire sub-genre of technical death metal before the blast beats and down-tuned guitars took over.
From the opening seconds of ‘Flattening of Emotions’, it’s clear that Human is a very different animal to its predecessors. This time joined by what would now be considered a supergroup, Chuck assembled a backing band made up of bass virtuoso, Steve DiGiorgio, and two members of fellow Floridian tech-death innovators, Cynic (Sean Reinert and Paul Masvidal), to push the boundaries of his own sound further than ever before. No stranger to complex structures or unusual time signatures on previous records, Chuck embraced the progressive ethos and instrumental prowess of his new line up with accentuated Maiden-esque harmonies, prominent fretless bass work, and drum patterns that provided aggression and intellect in equal measures.
Not only was Human a leap in musical virtuosity, but it also saw Death rise to a greater commercial height than before with debut single, ‘Lack of Comprehension’, becoming one of their first forays into mainstream success thanks to regular airplay on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball and worldwide metal press coverage.
Despite the newfound jazzy interludes and irregular patterns, Human is very much an obvious product of Death with its thrashy energy emanating with great power in tracks like ‘Sea of Dreams’, ‘Together as One’ and the devastating ‘Suicide Machine’. On the other end of the scale, ‘Vacant Planets’ and the spellbinding instrumental, ‘Cosmic Sea’, offer a chance to step outside the confines of what was death metal of its era into another world. Memorable in its mesmerising intricacy, this album captures Chuck’s sense of ambition in an addictive and palatable way and ensures that his legacy endures way beyond his lifetime. This is not just one of the best death metal albums of all time – this is a top ten album in the entire canon of heavy guitar music.
Influenced: Meshuggah, Decapitated, Gorguts, Obscura, Necrophagist, Martyr, Quo Vadis, any band that infused jazz into extreme metal.
Individual Thought Patterns (1993)
Sean Reinert and Paul Masvidal departed after the Human world tour to write and record Cynic’s debut album, but their exquisite musical ability left a huge void to fill for their replacements. Human received rave reviews and gained the band MTV airplay, but the 1992-93 aftermath was the height of grunge and the most critical of heavy metal cliches. Thrash metal was already in decline amid an identity crisis, but Obituary, Morbid Angel and Deicide were shifting serious units in the death metal scene. In Europe, the likes of Carcass, Entombed and Napalm Death were garnering major label support. It was a strange and exciting time for heavy music, but Chuck showed no trepidation in releasing a technical and progressive death metal record in the middle of a punk rock resurgence.
Individual Thought Patterns is the most overlooked record in the Death repertoire. Bringing in Gene Hoglan (Dark Angel) on drums and retaining the services of Steve DiGiorgio were masterstrokes for the band, just as recruiting King Diamond’s Andy LaRocque as lead guitarist added a melodic edge to the shredding. You’ll find plenty of fan favourites here from the vicious death-thrash of ‘Overactive Imagination’ to the Phrygian-dominant brilliance of ‘Jealousy’ and ‘Trapped in a Corner’ through to the video single for ‘The Philosopher’. Unlike Human, the guitar tone dwells in a mid-range frequency with a distinct lack of bottom-end, and Steve DiGiorgio’s fretless bass is often the loudest instrument in the mix. It was still controversial for a death metal band in 1993 to include an acoustic guitar and exotic choir keyboards in a song like ‘Destiny’, but this LP is way ahead of its time when you listen to it three decades later. Most metal bands were down-tuning and easing off the accelerator, yet Chuck’s obsession with Metallica’s breakdown riff in ‘One’ comes to the surface on more than one occasion, as does his alternation between heavy syncopation and fast alt-picking rhythms.
Individual Thought Patterns is an attack on the shallow money-makers, conspirators and rumourmongers polluting the music industry. On an individual level Chuck’s lyrics take aim at the spiteful nature and self-serving egotism of those that double-crossed him in this era. In some ways, it feels like a miracle Death were able to release a new album with so much backstabbing and parasitic behaviour going on around them.
Influenced: 1993 was the year of Sepultura and the height of the Pantera and Helmet influence on metal. Individual Thought Patterns slipped by unnoticed outside of the death metal underground, but you can hear its influence on many of today’s progressive death metal bands.
Where does an innovator go when they can’t push the extremes any further? They push in the other direction. Such is the case with Death’s 1995 opus, Symbolic, which injects the surreal jazz influenced odysseys of their previous works with a hefty dose of anthemic catchiness akin to the power metal bands of the time (i.e. Helloween, Blind Guardian, King Diamond). Chuck presents this seemingly conflicted amalgamation in a fashion that exacerbates both characteristics, individually, while striving to combine the two throughout the composition. In comparison to Individual Thought Patterns, Symbolic feels modern for its time, thanks to its clean production (once again by Scott Burns) and its not-so-subtle nod to the mainstream metal scene at the time (Pantera style grooves in ‘Misanthrope’ for example). However, the roots of their back catalogue are noticeably prominent in parts, with hints of neo-classical shred and jazz littered throughout.
Unlike the intertwined melodies and mind-bending irregularity of before, Symbolic’s songs feel more streamlined and considered, favouring the essence of songwriting over virtuoso overindulgence. Fan favourites like ‘Zero Tolerance’, ‘Crystal Mountain’ and the superb eponymous opener seem restrained yet unpredictable, taking a more mid-paced approach that offers the listener space to appreciate the dynamic range of each piece. An ideal starting point for anyone new to Death and a possible contender for the greatest death metal album of all time.
Influenced: Children of Bodom, Nevermore, all bands post-1995 that mix melodic death metal with progressive metal.
The Sound of Perseverance (1998)
The question of whether this is a true Death album, or a compromise agreed to by Chuck to appease his new label, Nuclear Blast, should not diminish the importance of this record in the band’s discography. The Sound of Perseverance is a masterpiece of late 90s metal in a strange era for the genre. Yes, Chuck had been talking about his Control Denied project for two years and even recruited the personnel ready to unleash his progressive power metal on to the world. Shannon Hamm (guitars) and Richard Christie (drums) appear here and on the 1999 Control Denied album, but the technical thrash riffing, angular bass fills, and exquisite drum work make this a Death album. You might even call The Sound of Perseverance Chuck’s Rust in Peace LP – the guitar shredding and song-writing come together in an effortless way that few bands can achieve. Another description would be Individual Thought Patterns, Mark II without the cloudy production, fretless bass dominance, or internal politics tearing them apart.
The depth of musicianship here is equal to Human. Listen how Richard Christie teases the listener on ‘Scavenger of Sorrow’ with a Sean Reinert intro passage and gives Chuck a platform to enter the mix with an exquisite lead guitar fill. Chuck’s decision to tune up his voice by a few semitones is the most noticeable change to the sound, but the sorrowful quality of the music on ‘Bite the Pain’ and ‘A Moment of Clarity’ deserves the highest praise. The Phrygian melodies and swirling guitar harmonies weep like aching angels on ‘To Forgive is to Suffer’.
Kerrang! magazine awarded it a derisory 2 out of 5 Ks on release and complained about the self-indulgence, but they were busy endorsing Korn, Limp Bizkit and the wider rap metal scene to understand the genius of songs like ‘Spirit Crusher’. Chuck’s t-shirts around this time tell you everything about the aim of this record – Manowar, Helloween, King Diamond and Iron Maiden were his go-to bands, but the technical death-thrash element is always at the core of The Sound of Perseverance. This is a wonderful swansong and an important album in the later development of progressive death metal.
Influenced: Gojira, Blood Incantation, Fractal Universe, The Faceless, Interloper, Fallujah, Slugdge, Beyond Creation.
***Repulsive Vision released their latest album, Necrovictology, via Emanzipation Productions on 21 August 2020. You can purchase the album from Bandcamp here and stream it on all good platforms.