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 resumé is about as good as it gets), Schuldiner's singular drive and ruthless creative vision guaranteed that Death retain a pole position at the forefront 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, and subsequently grindcore bands, the astounding musicianship and increasingly sophisticated songwriting found on their later-day efforts may have influenced even more groups exploring the limits of extreme metal's 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 extreme metal ilk, undertaking numerous far-reaching tours despite suffering from continuous and acrimonious turnover within their ranks. Throughout this long journey and drastic evolutionary curve, Chuck Schuldiner was the only constant, the effective mastermind behind Death's continually groundbreaking career, and his near-canonization at the time of his untimely passing only confirmed his unequaled stature at the top of rock's most uncompromising style.
The story of Death begins in Florida, around 1983, when vocalist/guitarist Chuck 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 tapes obtained via the bustling underground tape-trading circuit existent at the time. Many of these hailed from the U.K., where bands like Iron Maiden, Angel Witch, and Venom were riding high on the New Wave of British Heavy Metal; others arrived from the West Coast, where young bands like Metallica, Slayer, and Exodus were redefining the genre by injecting it with unprecedented doses of speed and energy, thus giving birth to thrash metal. All of these developments converged to spark the young Floridian's excitement, and the newly 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.
Leaving his bandmates behind (they would form a band called Massacre in his absence), Schuldiner relocated to San Francisco and teamed up with drummer Chris Reifert (later of Autopsy infamy) to record Death's now legendary Scream Bloody Gore LP. Released in 1987, the album 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 while Seven Churches represented something of a unplanned transition between thrash and death metal, Scream Bloody Gore 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 upon thousands of angry 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. Between ever-increasing touring commitments, they were soon ensconced in Tampa's soon-to-be famed Morrisound Studios with soon-to-be premier death metal producer Scott Burns (a lot of "firsts" in this story) and working on 1988's Leprosy follow-up, which reprised much of the debut's successful tricks, but was somewhat marred by Rozz's subpar technical skills. He was soon unceremoniously ejected for his shortcomings (the first victim of a Spinal Tap-like game of musical chairs) 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) and diving headlong into its understandably experimental pubescent phase. In practice, this meant introducing slower rhythms, complex dynamic tempo changes, insidious melodies, and more enlightened, if no less dark and cynical subject matter that commented 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 various organizational problems and unsatisfactory performances that had plagued the Spiritual Healing tour, it's a wonder Death survived long enough to record it. In his obsessive quest for perfection and constant evolution, Schuldiner had once again pushed his bandmembers as far as their musical abilities could take them, 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 supra-technical ensemble for the ages, namely guitarist Paul Masvidal and drummer Sean Reinert of unsigned death/fusion sensations Cynic, and fretless 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 the absolute apex of death metal's world domination. At least in its original form, as hordes of gifted new upstarts such as the aforementioned Cynic and the death/jazz experimentalists Atheist, to name but a few, 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, repeatedly reinventing his band time and time again, even as he refused to compromise its brutal core values one iota. As proof, both 1993's Individual Thought Patterns and 1995's Symbolic introduced staggering advancements into the group's sound. The first exploded with the brilliant fretwork of ex-King Diamond guitarist Andy LaRocque, whose six-string duels with Schuldiner rank among the most exciting of Death's long career; while the second benefited from the dense harmonies contributed by the less flashy, but equally effective Bobby Koelble, resulting in Death's most consistently 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 LPs, forging an unlikely pairing with Chuck that remains the stuff of death metal dreams to this day. Not surprisingly, this trio of albums continue to vie for fans and critics' hearts as Death's greatest achievements -- how ironic then that Schuldiner himself was beginning to grow tired of his life's work.
But come 1996, Death's chief architect was hungry for a creative outlet with which to express his more mainstream heavy metal songwriting, and citing 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 album under the Death franchise, resulting in 1998's quite stellar The Sound of Perseverance. As was to be 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. Following this release, Schuldiner finally felt ready to move forward with the Control Denied concept in earnest, and the new quintet (featuring many of Chuck's old accomplices and a full-time lead vocalist in Tim Aymar) unleashed their The Fragile Art of Existence debut in the fall of 1999. Everything seemed to be going according to plan, but then tragic fate intervened.
Schuldiner was diagnosed with a malignant brain-stem tumor and immediately underwent emergency surgery in early 2000 to remove it. All musical plans were brought to a standstill as Chuck fought for his life amid ever-mounting medical bills (like most professional musicians, he had no health insurance), only a small portion of which were 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 finally 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. It hardly matters, since whichever reputation people eventually choose to believe in, Schuldiner's recorded legacy will forever remain inextricably linked, synonymous even, with the death metal genre. ~ Eduardo Rivadavia