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Death Is Never Finished: Remembering Death Metal Pioneer Chuck Schuldiner

Chuck Schuldiner, of Death, in 1995. Schuldiner died of a brain tumor on December 13, 2001. i i

Chuck Schuldiner, of Death, in 1995. Schuldiner died of a brain tumor on December 13, 2001. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the artist
Chuck Schuldiner, of Death, in 1995. Schuldiner died of a brain tumor on December 13, 2001.

Chuck Schuldiner, of Death, in 1995. Schuldiner died of a brain tumor on December 13, 2001.

Courtesy of the artist

[Chuck Schuldiner] showed the foresight and courage to not only help create the rules of death metal, but to demonstrate how to break them. — Arthur von Nagel (Cormorant)

There's something to be said for the visionary who dismantles the very movement he's created or pioneered. John Coltrane left behind hard bop to scatter sheets of sound, always knowing there was something more to explore. After joining the Communist Party, composer Cornelius Cardew rejected his prominent role in the English Avant-Garde to protect populist folk music. For a humble guitarist from Florida named Chuck Schuldiner, his metal band Death (not to be confused with the proto-punk band of the same name) was a mere instrument. Along with the Bay Area's Possessed, Death not only helped spawn an entire extreme genre around gore and technical guitar wizardry, but like horror movies sometimes do, Death also challenged our notions of life.

From the 1983 Death by Metal demo by a pre-Death band called Mantas to the hollering banshee wail of Scream Bloody Gore to the early jazz-metal fusions of Human to the glorious 1998 swansong, The Sound of Perseverance, Schuldiner lived the Leonardo da Vinci creed: "Art is never finished, only abandoned." Not one Death album was the same, but they were very much all connected; the non-linear narrative continued through Schuldiner's formation of the scream-less progressive heavy metal band Control Denied.

Ten years ago this week, Schuldiner died after a two-year battle with brain cancer. To honor his legacy as a death metal pioneer, an inimitable vocalist and, frankly, one of the best guitarists to thoughtfully shred the six-string, I've asked eleven metal musicians to pick their favorite Death song, and write what it and Schuldiner has meant to them. And from gushing memories to what could be standalone essays (see the brilliant deconstruction of "Left to Die" by Matt Harvey of Exhumed), it's quite evident that Death was more than an influence for these musicians. Death was a personal revelation. For Paul Masvidal (Cynic), Gene Hoglan (Fear Factory) and Richard Christy (Charred Walls of the Damned) — all former members of Death (and there have been a lot) — it's telling that all three chose songs from 1991's watershed album, Human. In the modern metal scene, younger musicians like Arthur von Nagel (Cormorant), Elizabeth Schall (Dreaming Dead) and John Dyer Baizley (Baroness) all grew up with the legend of Death and have taken its heavy lessons to heart.

If you want more, I strongly recommend tracking down Decibel magazine's oral history of Death published this past year in Issue No. 77. Relapse Records is also in the midst of an extensive reissue campaign that includes more demos and live tracks than you can shred a B.C. Rich at. And if you're curious, my personal favorite Death song is "To Forgive is to Suffer" from The Sound of Perseverance, but, really, you should read on.

Remembering Death Metal Pioneer Chuck Schuldiner

Cover for Scream Bloody Gore

Arthur von Nagel (Cormorant)

  • Artist: Death
  • Album: Scream Bloody Gore
  • Song: Zombie Ritual

I feel Chuck Schuldiner looked back on his '80s albums with embarrassment. In interviews he dismissed the words to Scream Bloody Gore as childish blood 'n' guts fantasies, and the music as sloppy and poorly performed. He was right: The album's lyrics are rife with slasher flick violence, misogyny, homophobia, and sexual aggression, traits which clashed with the narrative of self-discovery and acceptance he crafted around his later, more sophisticated works. The music, as exemplified by the pummeling "Zombie Ritual," is gloriously raw, fast, and primitive (and ridiculously catchy). But for all the song's Beavis and Butt-head-grade lyrics and flailing rhythms, Schuldiner had penned a powerful mission statement for all future death metal bands to follow. Chuck's adolescent rage proved infectious, and perhaps in spite of themselves, Death and contemporaries Possessed spawned legions of imitators who solidified and improved upon the genre's tropes.

But by the release of Human, Schuldiner wasn't that angry teenager anymore. The most blatant evidence of his philosophical shift was Death's logo, as Chuck famously cleaned up its cobwebs, mopped its the blood, banished the Reaper and righted the inverted crucifix. Some in the metal underground still view his embrace of progressive values (both musical and social) as a betrayal, a cop-out to political correctness and the same dreaded "artistic maturation" that had claimed Metallica. I can't speak for Schuldiner's motives for evolving his sound and image, but he placed himself in a unique historical position by having been one of the earliest codifiers of an orthodox death metal style, and then sacrilegiously expanding that very genre's vocabulary by integrating elements of jazz fusion and progressive rock. Despite Chuck's rug sweeping of his pubescent albums, to progress artistically demands a starting point to progress from. I firmly believe that every new Death album was a reaction to the last, and without a song like "Zombie Ritual" there could be no "The Philosopher." It is precisely Schuldiner's development as both a person and a musician that makes him so fascinating and divisive. He showed the foresight and courage to not only help create the rules of death metal, but to demonstrate how to break them. And there's no shame in that.

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Zombie Ritual
Album
Scream Bloody Gore
Artist
Death
Label
Back On Black
Released
1987

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Cover for Scream Bloody Gore

Stephan Gebédi (Hail Of Bullets)

  • Artist: Death
  • Album: Scream Bloody Gore
  • Song: Infernal Death

At the age of 15, I got heavily into the tape trading thing. I was about to form my first band (Thanatos) and me and the drummer-to-be in that band were trading tapes with people all over the world. Most of those people were 15-16 years old as well and some of them had also just formed or were about to form bands of their own. Among our pen pals were people like Killjoy (Necrophagia), Ken Owen and Bill Steer (Carcass) and guys from Florida called Kam Lee and Chuck Schuldiner. They had this band called Mantas going, but were about to change their name to Death. We traded demo tapes and live tapes and even recordings of rehearsals. I clearly remember a rather f---- up recording of a song called "Rigor Mortis" done with a microphone and a tape recorder, which was obviously about to die any day now. You could hear the microphone falling over and being put back again ... hilarious! But the music itself wasn't hilarious at all! When their new three-song demo tape arrived in the mail one day, we all knew we were listening to something special; the first power chords of the opening track, "Infernal Death," sounded so brutal, raw and evil that we stared at each other in disbelief. It was unlike anything we've ever heard before. Right there we witnessed the birth of death metal. Death went on and became a more technical band and broadened their horizon. I pretty much like all the albums they've made, but the sheer intensity of Scream Bloody Gore, which featured the aforementioned track in its full glory, has never been matched again.

"Death by Metal!"

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Infernal Death
Album
Scream Bloody Gore
Artist
Death
Label
Back On Black
Released
1987

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Cover for Leprosy

Matt Harvey (Exhumed)

  • Artist: Death
  • Album: Leprosy
  • Song: Left to Die

Picking a favourite Death song is pretty tough. When I was first starting to play guitar, I learned the Scream Bloody Gore album from front to back and played along with it religiously. Once I heard Leprosy later that same year (I believe it was 1988, but it may have been early '89), it was clear that the ante had been upped, not just in terms of Death's catalog, but for the entire fledgling genre of death metal. I truly believe that Leprosy is the album that ushered in the genre as we recognize it today and as such, may be the most important album in death metal altogether. It was the first album to feature the distinct sonic components of what we now recognize as death metal. From the triggered drum sounds to the technical (especially for the time) minor/harmonic minor riffs, the tremolo picking, tapping parts, marginal presence of the bass guitar in the mix, and somewhat baroque arrangements, Leprosy has everything that defines the genre to this day. Where Scream Bloody Gore got by on attitude and rawness, Leprosy was a brilliant balance of sheer power and revealing detail. I devoured the songs on the record, and within a few weeks was playing along to it in its entirety as well. My favorite song tends to change depending on my mood (or how many beers I've had — give me a 12 pack and I'll swear that "Beyond the Unholy Grave" is the best song ever), but if I had to pick one, I guess it would have to be "Left to Die."

It is just chock-full of great riffs from beginning to end and features some of Chuck's most inspired vocals. The opening scream at 0:24 oozes brutality, the seemingly off-the-cuff ejaculation of "On this f------ earth" at 2:04 gives the song a great dash of snarling attitude, and the grunt at 2:54 when the beat turns around personally synthesizes my own transformation from a thrash metaller to a death metal devotee. But there are still more vocal highlights: the scream at 3:13 may be the best death metal vocal ever recorded, surpassing even Jeff Becerra's scream at the end of Possessed's song, "Death Metal." The final touch is the emphasis of the word "death" in the lyrics at 3:30, providing a nice, knowing wink at the audience. Again, the brilliance of this album is as much in its nuance as it is in its brute force.

As with most songs on the record, there are a lot of different riffs and tempos going on, presaging the hyper-ADD style arrangements that would become the norm in the genre in years to come. Luckily for a simple guy like me, the song still has a distinct structure — the same arrangement that figures heavily in most of Chuck's songs: intro – verse – pre-chorus – chorus – bridge – lead – bridge –verse – pre-chorus – chorus – outro. Of course, some parts feature multiple riffs and time changes, but there is still a very coherent, recognizable structure to cling to in this song. The strangely modal intro riff is a harbinger of the scalar workouts that would figure so heavily in death metal's transformation from a grime-covered sub-genre to a style obsessed with pushing the limits of instrumental technique, but the verse riff is the one that gets me. It's a bludgeoning, hulking menace that throws its weight around with no regard for the listeners neck, which should immediately start whiplashing upon hearing it. The tremolo-picked chorus riff is also a bit more dissonant than most Death riffs, leaning heavily on a diminished pattern of D, F, A-flat, (which features prominently in about 99 percent of Exhumed songs) which is why it's a favorite of mine. Chuck's lead is, of course, tastefully dark with his trademark nervous vibrato heavily featured throughout, but in this song, I actually prefer the outro solo, a nice parting shot delivered by Rick "Rozz" Delilo, whose frenetic whammy bar abuse keeps the entire album from ever getting too melodic or anywhere near "pretty." This is a truly great song on a truly classic, groundbreaking album. In fact, I'm almost convinced after writing this that it's my all-time favorite Death song, but who knows, ask me again next week, and I may come up with 500 words describing why "Mutilation," "Back from the Dead" or "Forgotten Past" is my favourite.

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Left to Die
Album
Leprosy
Artist
Death
Label
Relativity
Released
1988

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Cover for Human

Paul Masvidal (Cynic)

  • Artist: Death
  • Album: Human
  • Song: Cosmic Sea

It's difficult trying to articulate what it is about this instrumental Death song off Human — essentially arranged and written in the studio — that speaks to me. It doesn't have Chuck's voice in the literal sense, but it contains all the vital harmonic, melodic and rhythmic components that branded Death's sound. But it also has something else. It's reaching for truth, and it holds a majestic beauty that gave Death's songs their greatest potency. What I'm remembering is the beginner mind approach in which this song took shape in the studio. It was driven by instinct and spontaneous creative freedom. Our collective energies united and we swam into the "Cosmic Sea," trusting we wouldn't need a life raft. Chuck's story was liberated without words. "Cosmic Sea" is a journey straight into the heart of Death and, for me, an auditory memory of what an old friend felt like at his best.

Human is available as a deluxe reissue from Relapse Records.

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Cosmic Sea
Album
Human
Artist
Death
Label
Relativity
Released
1991

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Cover for Human

Gene Hoglan (Fear Factory)

  • Artist: Death
  • Album: Human
  • Song: Flattening of Emotions

"Flattening of Emotions" from Human is an absolute masterpiece. From the "Hot for Teacher"-esque drum intro to the progressive approach of the opening bars of the song to the blistering salvos of double bass that pervade the entire composition, this tune achieves greatness as well as lays down the foundation for every Death song to have followed it. "Flattening of Emotions" is a benchmark, a performance pinnacle and furious mission statement; that death metal will no longer be relegated to mere brute strength, but will evolve past troglodytism into sublime art, where precision and passion will triumph over perfunctory extremism. With "Flattening of Emotions," Death imposed its will on death metal, and secured its evolution. Death metal was given a choice: Adapt or Die. Adapt it did.

Human is available as a deluxe reissue from Relapse Records.

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Song
Flattening of Emotions
Album
Human
Artist
Death
Label
Relativity
Released
1991

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Cover for Human

Richard Christy (Charred Walls Of The Damned)

  • Artist: Death
  • Album: Human
  • Song: Lack of Comprehension

I spent many Saturday nights in grade school and high school watching MTV's Headbanger's Ball. I was very fortunate that my parents had one of those old, massive, ugly giant satellite dishes that took up half our front yard and also made a great bird's nest and lightning rod. Because we had MTV and also Canada's Much Music channel since the early 1980s, I was able to discover many of my favorite bands through these TV channels, including Death. I remember the first time I saw the video for "Lack of Comprehension" and I was completely blown away. This song was the perfect mix of brutality and melody. Sean Reinert's drumming also blew my mind. As a drummer, I was fascinated by his playing and I immediately wanted to learn more about Death. I also couldn't believe that this song had brutal, guttural vocals, but was also very melodic and catchy — to me it sounded like the perfect mix of a band like Iron Maiden, and a band like Possessed. I immediately tried to learn the drum parts for this song and I have to humbly say that it took me about three years to do so.

Almost every day from the time I purchased the Human album in 1992 until I joined Death in 1997, I practiced drums to the Human album because I loved the music and drumming so much. Fortunately, when I auditioned for Death in July of 1997 I knew the Human album like the back of my hand and the first song Chuck Schuldiner and I played together was "Lack of Comprehension." Chuck was very impressed that I knew the whole Human album and many other Death songs and this led to me joining my favorite band in the world and making friends with the most talented musician I've ever met and one of my heroes, Chuck Schuldiner. I miss Chuck so much and think of him every day and pretty much still listen to Death every day. When fans ask what drumming performance of mine that I'm most proud of, I always say The Sound of Perseverance album by Death. It is the highest honor as a metal fan and a dear friend of Chuck's Schuldiner's to say that I got to be in Death, my favorite band in the world.

Human is available as a deluxe reissue from Relapse Records.

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Lack of Comprehension
Album
Human
Artist
Death
Label
Relativity
Released
1991

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Cover for Individual Thought Patterns [Remixed, Remastered, Repackaged & Expanded]

John Dyer Baizley (Baroness)

  • Artist: Death
  • Album: Individual Thought Patterns [Remixed, Remastered, Repackaged & Expanded]
  • Song: Philosopher

Individual Thought Patterns is the masterpiece Death record for me. It's the record where songwriting, production, lyrics, musicianship and hooks all converge to form a classic album. I remember being stuck in a tour van on some rural Eastern European road, and someone put the CD in the stereo. You can deny neither the skills nor the cohesion of the players on this record. Each musician is an institution unto himself, and this album goes right where so many sum-of-parts records go wrong. [Guitarist] Andy LaRoque's surprising inclusion is a true stroke of genius. The real treat is that after an initial listen to such a progressive and technical record, I actually remembered most of the songs, most notably "The Philospher." This was a death metal song that was instantly stuck in my head.

From the iconic opening guitar arpeggios, to the audible (!) groove of the bass line and one of the heaviest and most memorable choruses in the Death canon, this song hits every nail on the head. The guitar soloing is effortlessly fluid and melodic; and nothing negative ever needs to be said about Gene Hoglan's acumen behind the kit.

Too often, the best you can hope for in metal lyricism is base comedy and adolescent sloganeering. Chuck stands apart as a lyricist in that he brazenly and unapologetically writes personal and insightful lyrics. While they may adhere to the tried-and-true vocal cadence of his peers, there is an openness and candor to them that is hard to deny. In "The Philosopher" he tackles subjects that fly in the face of the knuckle-dragging-Metal-orthodoxy, as he discusses and condemns narrow-minded bigotry and undue sexual judgementalism. His message, unlike so many of his contemporaries, is a universal and human message of tolerance, unadorned with the ignoble trappings generally associated with the genre.

Individual Thought Patterns is available as a deluxe reissue from Relapse Records.

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Song
Philosopher
Album
Individual Thought Patterns [Remixed, Remastered, Repackaged & Expanded]
Artist
Death
Label
Relapse Records
Released
1993

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Cover for Individual Thought Patterns [Remixed, Remastered, Repackaged & Expanded]

Kevin Conway (East Of The Wall)

  • Artist: Death
  • Album: Individual Thought Patterns [Remixed, Remastered, Repackaged & Expanded]
  • Song: Overactive Imagination

As a middle-schooler who was acquainted with only the most obvious and basic metal staples, I had absolutely no frame of reference for what I was hearing the first time I heard Death's "Overactive Imagination." The level of technical precision was beyond anything I had ever heard, but the technicality wasn't the entire story. The songs were structured in a way that was compelling, yet totally natural. It was everything I ever wanted to hear, but never knew existed. I would only get about six years of Death fandom before Chuck's untimely demise. I would never get to see them live either. In spite of all that, there are very few bands that have shaped me as much as Death did, both as a musician and as a listener.

Individual Thought Patterns is available as a deluxe reissue from Relapse Records.

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Song
Overactive Imagination
Album
Individual Thought Patterns [Remixed, Remastered, Repackaged & Expanded]
Artist
Death
Label
Relapse Records
Released
1993

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Cover for Symbolic

Elizabeth Schall (Dreaming Dead)

  • Artist: Death
  • Album: Symbolic
  • Song: Crystal Mountain

Symbolic is by far my most favorite Death album; mainly because of the higher pitched growls and the guitars having a more progressive approach than in previous releases. And 10 years after Chuck Schuldiner's death, it is easy to say the legacy he left behind continues to influence musicians all over the world. But it wasn't until the summer of 2009 when my appreciation of this album came full circle, when I met [former Death bassist] Kelly Conlon on tour with Monstrosity. We spoke of many things such as life and music; I shared pictures of my cats and he of his dog back on the East Coast that he missed and loved so much. Death not only left their music and a lasting impression on me, but also a great friend.

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Cover for Symbolic

Anthony Buda (Revocation)

  • Artist: Death
  • Album: Symbolic
  • Song: Without Judgement

After first hearing the music of Death in my mid-teens, it didn't take long for me to identify Chuck Shuldiner as a primary musical and creative role model. Touched by the power, energy and uniqueness of Death's music in a way that I had never before experienced, it seemed an obvious and foregone conclusion to idolize "Evil" Chuck. And unlike the vast majority of his early death metal peers, Chuck was unafraid to go beyond the lyrical comfort zone of terror and malevolence.

The song "Without Judgment," from Death's masterful Symbolic, resonated strongly with me as a teenager not only for its awesome composition, arrangement and performances, but also because the lyrics stimulated my imagination and my desire to understand and integrate with the world around me. In the decade or so since first falling in love with the song, I have realized that its most significant impact has been to plant this seed of desire for understanding: "Without judgment what would we do? / Perception would increase a million times." By accessing the non-judgmental, integrative awareness of our creative minds, temporarily silencing the persistent self-definition and differentiation of the ego, we gain a sense of the beautiful unity of existence. But, Chuck warns, the path to this level of awareness is not without its pitfalls: The only way out is down: "When pain is acknowledged, frivolous calculations will be abolished."

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Cover for Sound of Perseverance

Steffen Kummerer (Obscura)

  • Artist: Death
  • Album: Sound of Perseverance
  • Song: Flesh and the Power It Holds

"Flesh and the Power it Holds" was one of the first tracks I discovered of Death and actually the first song I was able to play on guitar. Pretty good choice, great songwriting and fantastic riffs that itches under your skin. While the whole last album is a classic, the earlier material such as Human got me and since the first listen I have been a fan. "Flesh and the Power it Holds" is a pretty long song, but it never gets boring; it keeps you listening from the first to the last note. Still one of my all time favourites.

The Sound of Perseverance is available as a deluxe reissue from Relapse Records.

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Song
Flesh and the Power It Holds
Album
Sound of Perseverance
Artist
Death
Label
Nuclear Blast Records
Released
1998

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