WORDS : ROB KENT
Sometimes getting the recognition and true status you deserve does not happen in the moment when it is deserved. It occurs after events have unfolded. This can be a shame as recognition in the relevant moment could have provided a rocket of success. But earning the respect and devotion of a loyal lifelong fan base years after the band has their final note? Well, that is also a very satisfying way to carve a name into the history books. Death did exactly that.
Although their music opened so many doors for death metal -and heavy music in general- their true fame came after the band’s final chapter. While it’s true that this band could have been so much bigger than they were in the mid-nineties if things had been different and timings had aligned better, even still Death is the greatest heavy music outfit of the nineties and late eighties by a mile. Earning their stripes and honour slowly over time has meant that in the bands’ afterlife the award and status they deserve has been distributed with justice. Death are legends and will always remain an enduring influence on heavy music.
By performing their music, Death allowed for a new scene to start to grow with a Black Flag D.I.Y ethic blooming in the fans and musicians
Founded in 1983, the band began combining an influence of traditional metal from the seventies and the aspiring Thrash sounds of the eighties with gore and horror influenced lyrics as one of the pioneering bands of the death metal genre. By performing their music, Death allowed for a new scene to start to grow with a Black Flag D.I.Y ethic blooming in the fans and musicians, thus planting the roots of the Tampa Death Metal scene.
Possessed also played their part, almost mirroring Death, the debut record Seven Churches, being monumental for the genre and their live performances becoming key to the growth of death metal in the eighties, but Death overtook them and for good reason. However, Death was slow to really find their feet as a band being comfortable challenging their new creative vision into appropriate songs symbolizing what they were trying to achieve. After all, this whole death metal approach had not been done before so the band was already defying heavy music while still trying to perfect their debut record. Bringing new ideas to life can be tough, especially when they are nothing really to compare yourself to. But Death did it anyway, showing how confident the band was in their vision and showing true art in everything they did, even in the early days when it could have been so easy to be overwhelmed.
The band plowed forward and after several demos of multiple lineups in differing states and even a stint in Canada, vocalist and visionary Chuck Schuldiner found solace in a young local drummer and together they made one final demo which led Death to score themselves a record deal.
Scream Bloody Gore was released on May 25th, 1987. Again, some will say Seven Churches which was released in 1985 is the first death metal record, and they may be correct. But Death’s debut made them champions. Chuck’s musical excellence on the record made sure they would be around for fourteen more years after this album. The album, which featured classic cover art by Ed Repka, was full of blast beats, venomous riffs, incisive hooks, fiery leads, and roaring vocals, all of which became early trademarks of the genre. Chuck wrote all the tracks on this album and performs everything but the drums. He is the hero of the genre.
Soon after the release of the record, the duo split and began living on separate sides of America. But instead of quitting, Chuck formed a full new line up in Florida, and in the sweaty condensed Tampa practice rooms, the band’s second effort Leprosy was crafted and then recorded. The members seemed to be a solid unit at the time and the record was toured extensively in North America and the band even made it to Europe for a short tour. Leprosy was a defining moment for the band. Following on from their abrasive, game-changing debut, Leprosy saw Death refine the manic approach of their first outing: the musical content was far more skilled in balancing pure, rampant heaviness with Chuck Schuldiner’s incomparable guitar work. The lyrical content had also matured somewhat, shying away from the graphic horror and murder inspired content of Scream Bloody Gore in favor of more psychologically unnerving territory.
Death metal was no longer associated with blood and violence, although this band pioneered the genre and the roots they planted contained that, they evolved it into so much more
This was the beginning of the all-important shift for the band. They had taken everything Chuck had created in the debut and added a more mature melodic based approach. The next three records Spiritual Healing, Individual Thought Patterns and Human, were ironed out with military precision timing, complex songwriting, content touring and a still developing fan base. They had taken so many elements that were fresh and stunning ideas for the time and showed those who paid attention just how far heavy songwriting could go.
Death metal was no longer associated with blood and violence, although this band pioneered the genre and the roots they planted contained that, they evolved it into so much more. The technical ability of the guitars, the ridiculous drum patterns, and the vocals taking their time to seal themselves into the listeners’ mind and Chuck was truly taking the time to express himself with social and personal topics on each record in an overly aggressive manner which was so tasteful on each song. Death had become a force that could not be stopped and Chuck had not given up. His consistent precision for music had led the band to this point. Death metal had a bar set so high that only the band was capable of reaching. This band paved the way for many to start playing death metal. But they didn’t just go down as the genre’s founding fathers. They took the genre by the horns and grew it continuously ; death metal is forever theirs .
However, these three records were maybe three too many and 1995 saw time not play to the band’s side. Symbolic is the death metal’s finest achievement. But had this record came two years prior to its release, it would have been much a different story for the heights this band reached in terms of commercial success. It’s a shame because Individual Thought Patterns is a genuinely excellent record and Symbolic would not have been possible without it. However, switching the release dates of these two albums would have been key to the band’s popularity taking off further. Thrash was really hitting its peak and Symbolic was everything a fan of Trash wanted to hear in a death metal record. But by 1995 the genre had once again become associated with gore thanks to Cannibal Corpse and interest from newcomers had become diluted. With its clean production and improved technical ability of the guitar, Symbolic could have opened the door for people to discover more Florida-based bands and Death could have caught the attention of so many Thrash fans in a time where showing an interest in death metal was popular, but by 1995 times had moved on and heavy music was changing so rapidly, Nu Metal and Black Metal was taking off and the band had almost, sadly, fallen behind.
Death metal reached its commercial peak of its potential growth in 1994. From Cannibal Corpse legendary appearing in the Jim Carey film – Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, as well as Beavis and Butt-Head mocking Morbid Angels music video for the song “God Of Emptiness”, mainstream exposure introduced millions to the existence of the genre. Also, in 1994, Morbid Angel, who had been making progressive moves into a more extreme sound in the late eighties, released the best selling death metal record to date with their album Covenant selling 150,000 copies.
However, it takes one to listen to Symbolic to release why it is a masterpiece. This album is accessible and far from commercial. It adds such a wide variety of aggressive textures but does it tastefully. Symbolic, amongst all its technical madness is an album that is laced with heartfelt lyrics that brings out such strong emotion. Those who have spent time with this album, know just how perfect it is. It expands on Thrash while at the same time borders on being a progressive record. Engaging, emotional, glorious, and flawless from the first second to the last, Symbolic was a death metal record representing the genre’s finest hour and the body of work that established Death as key figures in musical history.
Death is undeniably one of the most influential forces in music history. Their debut record shaped a whole genre and they took what was theirs in the palm of their band propelled it to new heights. The band is art. It is how music should be made
Although Symbolic was intended to be the band’s last record, one more gem was given to the world before vocalist, founding member and godfather of death metal Chuck Schuldiner, tragically passed away in 2001 from brain cancer. The Sound of Perseverance was released August 31st, 1998. This album again was a huge achievement, combining elements of prog to form an ideal melting pot of technical and melodic death metal; an outstanding record that was a fitting finale for the band.
On the record, is also the first display of the “Progressive Death Metal” sub genre. Taking a huge influence from jazz, the musicianship is outstanding. The rhythm guitar developments on each song are breathtaking, the bass is thunderous for the entirety of the record and the drums pound consistently – to the untrained ear they sound all over the place, but not a single beat is missed. The machine gun riffing from Chuck- who was still evolving a genre eleven years after creating it- is also monstrous and effortlessly vicious, giving him the crown, before the band’s last bow.
It is also interesting to note just how many people actually played in this band! Yes, Chuck was the founding member and the only original member. But during this band’s lifespan a grand total of twenty-four musicians were a member of this band alongside Chuck. Meaning that every death record had an almost completely different line up on each record, bringing an immense diversity to the sound presented. Each record may be an evolution of Chuck, but each of the twenty-four members who played a part in Death’s music is insanely talented,having shown their true skill during their respective chapter of the band.
Death is undeniably one of the most influential forces in music history. Their debut record shaped a whole genre and they took what was theirs in the palm of their band propelled it to new heights. The band is art. It is how music should be made. They never slowed down and always strived for improvement and every record is laced with flawless creativity. They are some of the prime instigators in the movement of heavy music. So many modern bands and sub-genres have so much to thank them for. Death are one of the greatest heavy bands of all time and one of music history finest outfits. The band’s discography is timeless ; they are one of music history’s unsung heroes and legends forever.