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Over the course of more than a decade and seven increasingly accomplished albums, Chuck Schuldiner, the architect behind the ubiquitous Death, became a bona fide heavy metal icon. Now widely recognized as the father of death metal (if a single candidate must be chosen, his résumé is about as good as it gets), Schuldiner's singular drive and ruthless creative vision guaranteed that Death would ever represent the cutting edge of the style's development. Indeed, while the savagely raw aggression contained in Death's first three albums proved crucial to spearheading the first generation of death metal bands, the astounding musicianship and increasingly sophisticated songwriting found on their later-day efforts surely influenced even more groups to explore the limits of extreme metal's most progressive outposts. By all accounts a force to be reckoned with on-stage, Death also logged more frequent flier miles than perhaps any other band of their ilk, undertaking numerous far-reaching tours despite suffering from continuous and often acrimonious musician turnover within their ranks. Throughout this long journey and drastic evolutionary curve, Schuldiner was to be the only constant, the effective mastermind behind Death's continually groundbreaking career, and, as proven by his near-canonization at the time of his untimely passing, arguably unequalled in stature within one of rock's most uncompromising style.
The story of Death begins near Orlando, Florida, circa 1984, when vocalist/guitarist Schuldiner formed a band named Mantas with guitarist Rick Rozz and drummer Kam Lee. Although they'd yet to finish high school, the eager teens quickly set about trying to replicate the most excessive heavy metal sounds imaginable, which they often heard on demos obtained via the bustling underground tape-trading circuit existent at the time. Many of these heavy metal sounds originated in the U.K., where bands like Iron Maiden, Angel Witch, and Venom were riding high on the New Wave of British Heavy Metal; others in continental Europe, where diabolical agents like Mercyful Fate, Hellhammer, and Bathory were sowing the seeds of black metal; and others still in the American West Coast, where young bands like Metallica, Slayer, and Exodus were redefining the genre by injecting it with unprecedented speed and energy, thus giving birth to thrash metal. All of these developments converged to spark the young Floridian's excitement, and the soon-to-be rechristened Death spent the next few years refining their chops through endless, arduous rehearsals and sporadic live performances. Their hard work and perseverance finally paid off when a three-song demo tape called "Mutilation" began drawing rave reviews in the metal underground, soon convincing Bay Area-based thrash specialists Combat Records to sign the group.
When his bandmates balked at leaving Florida to record, Schuldiner simply left them all behind (they would form a group called Massacre in his absence) and relocated to San Francisco to team up with drummer Chris Reifert (later of Autopsy infamy) and record Death's now legendary debut album, Scream Bloody Gore. Released in 1987, the LP is considered death metal's first archetypal document; Possessed's proto-death classic Seven Churches may have predated it by almost two years, but the fact of the matter is that both were concurrent works from a demo perspective, and Scream Bloody Gore merely arrived later. Also, while Seven Churches represented something of an unplanned transition between thrash and death metal, Scream Bloody Gore more clearly defined the new offshoot's true essence for the first time. Boiled down to the most basic terms, this transition simply entailed propelling thrash metal's sheer speed and ferocious execution into further inaccessibility with the addition of gore-obsessed lyrics delivered via often indecipherably growled vocals. Needless to say, this unprecedented level of sonic hatred went down a storm with thousands of angry metal-loving teenagers across the world.
Having set his metallic dreams (or nightmares, as it were) into motion, Schuldiner returned to Florida, where he reunited with his old chum Rick Rozz and drafted bassist Terry Butler and drummer Bill Andrews to integrate Death's first touring lineup. The quartet was also soon ensconced in Tampa's imminently famous Morrisound Studios with future premier death metal producer Scott Burns (lots of firsts in this story, huh?) and working on 1988's sophomore Leprosy, which reprised much of the debut's successful tricks without taking Death's sound much farther, due in part to Rozz's disinterest in doing so and his increasingly mismatched guitar style. He was soon unceremoniously ejected for his shortcomings and replaced by the far more gifted James Murphy, who would barely last a year himself before embarking on a journeyman existence that would take him to Obituary, Testament, and beyond, but nevertheless contributed stellar fretwork to 1990's transitional Spiritual Healing. This album found Death beginning to relinquish some of the unrelenting velocity, mindless ferocity, and often trite blood and gore lyrics which characterized death metal's infancy (grindcore's fast-rising legions, led by Napalm Death and Carcass would take it from here), before diving headlong into its understandably experimental pubescent phase. In practice, this meant introducing slower rhythms, increasingly complex dynamic tempo changes, insidious melodies, and somewhat more enlightened and introspective, if no less dark and cynical, subject matter, commenting on society's ills and injustices.
All of these exciting developments would come to greater fruition on 1991's pivotal Human LP, but, given the acrimonious conditions that had plagued the Spiritual Healing tour (Schuldiner literally went AOWL, leaving Butler and Andrews to fulfill the band's extensive European engagements with the help of their roadies!), it's a wonder Death survived long enough to record it. In his obsessive quest for perfection and constant evolution, the obstinate Schuldiner had once again pushed his bandmembers as far as their musical abilities could take them, thus mandating that an entirely new group of players be cast to enact the next chapter in his grand scheme. Sure enough, the sessions for Human convened a super-gifted ensemble for the ages, namely guitarist Paul Masvidal and drummer Sean Reinert of then still unsigned death/fusion sensations Cynic, and fretless Bay Area bass wonder Steve DiGiorgio, who was borrowed from Sadus for recording purposes only. This release, along with the even more commercially successful Arise by Brazilians Sepultura helped ensure that 1991 should go down as year one of death metal's world saturation. At least in its original form, as hordes of gifted new upstarts such as the aforementioned Cynic and Obituary, technical demons Morbid Angel and Deicide, death/jazz experimentalists Atheist, Long Island natives Suffocation, and an entire horde of burgeoning Swedish upstarts, were even then undertaking to rewrite the rule book and challenge elder statesmen like Death for genre supremacy.
Not to be outdone, Schuldiner simply upped the ante yet again, continually re-inventing his sound time and time again, even as he refused to compromise its brutal core values. As proof, both 1993's Individual Thought Patterns and 1995's Symbolic would continue to introduce staggering advancements into the group's sound. The first took Human's blinding technicality to the next level, while benefiting from the distinctive fretwork of ex-King Diamond guitarist Andy LaRocque, whose six-string duels with Schuldiner rank among the most exciting of Death's long career. The second simplified song structures somewhat, but benefited from dense harmonies contributed by the less flashy, but equally effective Bobby Koelble, resulting in Death's most infectiously melodic album ever. And perhaps best of all for extreme metal fans, former Dark Angel behemoth Gene Hoglan lent his inimitable percussive talents to both LP's, forging an unlikely pairing with Schuldiner that remains the stuff of death metal dreams come true. Not surprisingly, this trio of albums continues to vie for fans and critics' hearts as Death's greatest achievements. How ironic then that Schuldiner himself was beginning to grow tired of death metal's much expanded framework.
But that was exactly the case come 1996, by which time Death's chief architect was hungry for a creative outlet in which to express his more mainstream heavy metal songwriting. Claiming his own voice as too limited for what he had in mind, Schuldiner shocked the heavy metal community by disbanding Death and announcing his plans for an entirely new band, to be named Control Denied. But the new project took longer than expected to get off the ground, so Schuldiner decided to backtrack and record one final envelope-pushing album under the Death franchise, resulting in 1998's quite stellar The Sound of Perseverance. As might have been expected, he was once again backed up by an entirely new band, this time consisting of relative unknowns like guitarist Shannon Hamm, bassist Scott Clendenin, and drummer Richard Christy (later of Howard Stern fame). Following this release, Schuldiner finally felt ready to move forward with the Control Denied concept in earnest, and the new quintet (featuring many old accomplices and a full-time lead vocalist in Tim Aymar) unleashed their The Fragile Art of Existence debut in the fall of 1999. The music was certainly a departure for Death's orphaned fan base, but, at least in Schuldiner's eyes, everything was going to plan…until tragic fate intervened.
In early 2000, Schuldiner was diagnosed with a malignant brain-stem tumor and immediately underwent emergency surgery to remove it. All musical plans were put on hold as Death's mastermind fought for his life amid ever-mounting medical bills (like most professional musicians, he had no health insurance), some of which were luckily alleviated by the heavy metal community's outpouring of support by way of numerous benefit concerts. Over the ensuing two years, the true state of his health was often mired in mystery, and, even though he was occasionally rumored to be on the path to recovery, all hopes were ultimately and cruelly dashed on December 13, 2001, when Chuck Schuldiner succumbed to cancer at the age of 33. Like any headstrong leader, Schuldiner's tyrannical monopoly over Death's brilliant career is forever guaranteed to evoke adverse opinions about his character, ranging from the resentful accusations of disgruntled former employees, to the words of loving praise of willing collaborators. But, now that the dust has settled, neither point of view matters nearly as much as Chuck Schuldiner and Death's enduring recorded legacy, which will doubtless forever remain inextricably linked, synonymous even, with the death metal genre.
1983 in Orlando, FL
'80s, '90s, '00s