One of the pioneers of the 80's death metal scene, the band simply named Death was not the band who invented the genre, although the genre was named after them by music journalists who felt that yet another subgenre of metal was necessary to describe this strange new music. Formed by guitarist, vocalist, composer and songwriter Chuck Schuldiner in 1984 (he was 16 years old at the time), Death was originally a continuation of the band Mantas (a simple two-guitars-and-drummer metal band in which Chuck was a guitarist), and originally consisted of Chuck Schuldiner and his old Mantas bandmates Rick Rozz (guitars) and Kam Lee (drums). The band's first release was the demo tape Death By Metal, which was recorded on an old tape recorder in Schuldiner's mother's garage. At this point of time, it would have seemed ridiculous to think that this tiny project would eventually become one of the most influential metal bands of all time.
Scream Bloody Gore
From 1984 to 1987, the band underwent a number of lineup changes because Schuldiner wasn't getting along with his old bandmates, although Death kept a steady stream of demo tapes coming out. One of these demo tapes was Mutilation, recorded while Chuck briefly lived in Toronto, Canada, where he had access to a decent studio. It was there he first met bassist Steve DiGiorgio, who would become a close friend of his, and would later be featured on two Death records. A small record label (Combat Records) eventually got hold of Mutilation, and offered Schuldiner a deal. He eagerly accepted, and in March 1987, Death released its first album, Scream Bloody Gore. SBG featured a two-man lineup consisting of Chuck Schuldiner on guitars, vocal and bass and Chris Reifert on drums and a crude, enormously heavy sound. Schuldiner's vocal style, the characteristic "death grunt" for which he became famous, took its form on this album. The lyrics were excessively morbid and brutal (and highly politically incorrect), and were based on bad 80's gore flicks the two young men had seen. The two parted ways on friendly terms shortly afterwards, and Reifert went on to form his own band, Autopsy.
In 1988, Death released its second album, Leprosy. Leprosy featured a full lineup (Chuck Schuldiner on vocals and guitar, Rick Rozz on guitar, Bill Andrews on drums and Terry Butler on bass). It contained some of the songs that would develop into Death classics, notably including "Pull The Plug" which would become the song Death would end every single one of its later concerts with. Unfortunately, Rick Rozz and Chuck Schuldiner still had a strained relationship, and Rozz was kicked out of Death shortly after the end of the Leprosy tour. The sound on the album was less primitive than the Scream Bloody Gore one, although it has often been criticized because Rick Rozz apparently can't leave his guitar's whammy bar alone. The drums appear to be heavily inspired from early 80's heavy metal, while the bass follows the formula used by Schuldiner himself on Scream Bloody Gore.
The next album of the band, 1990's Spiritual Healing, saw the debut of lead guitarist James Murphy, who would later become famous for his melodic and technically advanced soloing style. The lineup for Spiritual Healing consisted of Chuck Schuldiner, James Murphy and the rhythm section featured on Leprosy. The sound of the album differed much from the two earlier releases in that it was the first Death album to feature clean production, as well as a marked increase in musical complexity. It is also the first Death album where it is possible to hear the hyperspeed soloing style that became Schuldiner's trademark taking form. James Murphy didn't last long in Death, leaving the band shortly before it was scheduled to go on a US tour. Personal struggles followed, as the other band members decided to go on a tour of Europe against Schuldiner's wishes. Schuldiner was kicked out of the band that he himself had formed, and replaced with former Devastation drummer Louie Carrisalez for vocals and Walter Trachsler for guitar. During their Europe tour (in which they played as a support act for German thrash legends Kreator), his former bandmates started spreading a number of false rumours about him. Some claimed he had started a glam poodle rock band, others claimed he was in a mental asylum. When they returned, Schuldiner took legal action to get his band name back. He won the case, but by 1991, he was left with a band with no members. Bill Andrews faded into obscurity, Terry Butler would go on to play the bass in Six Feet Under, and James Murphy would end up becoming a very succesful session musician, playing guitars for Obituary, Testament, Konkhra, Cancer and a moderately successful solo project.
Determined to rise again, Chuck Schuldiner decided that he would only recruit band members who he also trusted on a personal level. Contacting his friends Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert (who played guitars and drums in the bizarre death metal/jazz-fusion cross-over band Cynic) and his old studio mate and close friend Steve DiGiorgio (who played the bass in Sadus), Schuldiner put together an entirely new Death lineup which was considerably more technically gifted than the former ones. In mid-1991, the band releases an album named Human (released by Sony-owned Relativity Records), which featured a completely different sound than its predecessors. The guitar work by both Schuldiner and Masvidal was nothing short of stellar, and drummer Sean Reinert was the first Death drummer to bring extremely fast-paced double bass drum work to the band. Unfortunately, bad production led to DiGiorgio's bass lines being drowned out in most of the album. The morbid lyrics had largely been replaced with social commentary. Following the Human tour "The Inhuman Tour Of The World", the band parted ways on good terms. Reinert and Masvidal returned to Cynic, although DiGiorgio would stay with Schuldiner for one more album. Death's first video, "Lack of Comprehension", was produced for the Human album.
Individual Thought Patterns
Finding musicians to replace the talents of the likes of Sean Reinert and Paul Masvidal is not an easy task, but the eventual result of Schuldiner's long search for their replacements led to Death's first and only "all stars" release, 1993's Individual Thought Patterns. On second guitar, he recruited King Diamond's guitarist Andy LaRocque, as well as Dark Angel drummer Gene Hoglan to pound the skins. Individual Thought Patterns is by many fans regarded to be the peak of Death: The drumming performance was nothing short of excellent, both guitars pumped out enormously complex riffs and solos, and Steve DiGiorgio's five thick strings rang out loud and clear. It was the first death metal album ever to feature a fretless bass, an instrument more commonly associated with jazz. Lyrically, the album followed in the footsteps of Human, consisting largely of philosophical and social commentary.
After the Individual Thought Patterns tour, the band once again broke up, also on good terms. Hoglan stayed with Death for one more recording, but Andy LaRocque and Steve DiGiorgio had commitments with their other bands. Both would become highly influential session musicians, LaRocque (who was also a producer who practically lived in his studio) being featured on a large number of Swedish death metal albums. DiGiorgio would go on to play bass in Testament, Autopsy, Control Denied, Vintersorg, Dragonlord, Iced Earth and many others.
Recruiting his old high school friend, the jazz-fusion and heavy metal guitarist Bobby Koelble for guitars, as well as Kelly Conlon (yet another male metalhead with a girl's name) on the bass, Death's 1995 release Symbolic was nothing short of a total redefinition of the death metal genre. Intensely melodic and technical, it can basically be described as some strange form of progressive jazz-fusion played through distortion and with the speed of death metal. Schuldiner's vocal style changed from the low, guttural "death grunt" to a somewhat higher, more hiss-like voice. More importantly, Death left Relativity Records and Sony Music behind, because Schuldiner said that the recording industry was intent on controlling his music. Symbolic was released by the less-traditional label Roadrunner Records (which is, however, an RIAA member). After the release of Symbolic, the lineup broke up, since all members had responsibilities elsewhere. I don't know what Conlon and Koelble have been doing since then, but Hoglan has been a very successful drummer and has performed in Testament as well as some of Devin Townsend's projects, notably including the maniacal hybrid metal band Strapping Young Lad.
The Sound of Perseverence
The last Death studio album, 1998's "The Sound of Perseverence" was released by the independent label Nuclear Blast Records. The lineup consisted of Schuldiner on vocals and guitars, Scott Clendenin on bass, Shannon Hamm on guitar and Richard Christy on drums. Also going in more progressive directions, the compositional style of The Sound of Perseverance is highly symphonic, and it is obvious that classical music had the same influence on this album as jazz had on Symbolic. While the three other members were more or less completely unknown, the TSoP lineup nevertheless managed to pump out some of the most advanced music Death ever created. Richard Christy's drumming performance was easily as fast as both Hoglan's and Reinert's, and while his style was different (characterized as it is by very heavy use of cymbals), he certainly wasn't worse. As a side project, Chuck Schuldiner had formed a progressive metal band named Control Denied (in which he played the guitar), and both Hamm and Christy would also perform in that band (the Control Denied bass was handled by Steve DiGiorgio, although Scott Clendenin had composed some of it). The TSoP lineup did several tours and played at several metal festivals, and was possibly the most stable of all the Death lineups.
The end of Death
In 1999, Chuck Schuldiner left a jam session with a bad pain in the upper part of his neck. Believing he had strained a muscle, he visited a doctor and was diagnosed with a severe tumor in his brain stem. Financially ruined because of legal battles with the recording industry after he left the RIAA labels behind, he was unable to afford treatments for his disease. In 2001, Nuclear Blast Records started the Charles Schuldiner Medical Trust Fund, an attempt to rake in enough cash for Schuldiner to have the medical treatment he needed, and the label released two live albums ("Live in L.A.: Death and Raw" and "Live in Eindhoven"), both of which saw the profit donated to the fund. In late november 2001, the fund finally managed to raise enough money for Schuldiner to have his surgery, but by then, it was already too late. He died in his bed on December 13th 2001, two weeks after undergoing attempted treatment. Death was no more, although the band left a musical legacy that can't be denied. Their influence can be heard in just about every single band in the harder end of heavy metal.
- Scream Bloody Gore (1987)
- Leprosy (1988)
- Spiritual Healing (1990)
- Human (1991)
- Fate (compilation, 1992)
- Individual Thought Patterns (1993)
- Symbolic (1995)
- The Sound of Perseverance (1998)
- Live in L.A.: Death and Raw (2001)
- Live in Eindhoven (2001)