Saturday 1 July 2017

METAL HISTORY / OPINION: Chuck Schuldiner and the Perennial Quest, 23 June 2017

“Won't you join me on the perennial quest
Reaching into the dark, retrieving light
Search for answers on the perennial quest
Where dreams are followed, and time is a test”

'Perennial Quest' from the Death album Symbolic

Death: stronger than hope, stronger than love, stronger than life. Chuck Schuldiner was Death. Death was an anti-band, unable and unwilling to sustain a stable line-up. Schuldiner enlisted some of the most talented musicians of his generation and through them he refracted his musical vision. He was the Miles Davis of metal. But the reaper likewise was fascinated by him, and Schuldiner succumbed after a two year fight with brain cancer in December 2001, aged 34.

May 2017 would have seen Schuldiner turn fifty, but instead it sees Death’s debut album, Scream Bloody Gore, turn thirty. It is a juvenile work in every sense of the word. Recorded when Schuldiner was in his late teens with drummer Chris Reifert, it represents the first step from blood-soaked innocence to experience, out of which he attained his reputation as The Philosopher Of Death Metal.

As his career progressed, Schuldiner’s music became more complex, his lyrics more reflective and nuanced, his concepts more bold, to the point where he had almost departed the genre he had helped create by the time of final album The Sound Of Perseverance (1998). But it was still all shot through with the killer instinct and sense of violence that suffuses Scream Bloody Gore.

His mother Jane has said Chuck took the name Death in the wake of his older brother dying young in an accident. The resulting inchoate rage and a desire to shock fuels Scream Bloody Gore. Unable to copyright his original band name (Mantas), Death is as absolute and final a moniker he could have chosen. It immediately put Schuldiner in contention, and often conspiracy, with The End itself.

At the beginning of Scream Bloody Gore, the crashing power chords of ‘Infernal Death’ herald the gates of Hell yawning open, and Schuldiner’s raw-throated screams and gnarled vocals bombard us with images of bodily immolation: “Human coals are burning”. As with much of the album, the song soon speeds up and the overall impression is of striating flurries and lacerating guitar lines. ‘Zombie Ritual’ follows and survived in their live set for many years. With an Egyptian guitar melody that summons images of ancient evil in the sarcophagi of the moon-dappled pyramids, it shows Schuldiner’s already burgeoning melodic instincts.

Schuldiner was not trained in music and could not tell you the Phrygian from the Ionian mode, but with the deftness of the gifted natural he worked new and unknowable sounds from his BC Rich Stealth guitar and Marshall valvestate amp, with just a little chorus effect on the solos (or so he claimed). Here his lead work is more frenzy than flair but considering for how long he had been playing the guitar (only a couple of years), it’s full of rough electricity.

‘Denial Of Life’ shows how this early incarnation of death metal, and the way its chord progressions move through the barrage, owed much to Slayer’s Reign In Blood, released the previous year. It raises questions about what musically distinguishes proto-death metal and thrash metal, apart from its more unintelligible vocals (some of the fanzines called the band “deaththrashers” early on). What is more interesting is how Schuldiner’s trademarks are developing: particularly how he carves out little harmonic passages in the slipstream of the overall assault.

It is with ‘Sacrificial’ that we run into problems. It is hard to re-appraise Scream Bloody Gore in 2017 and gloss over how problematic the lyrics are on this album. This song was originally called ‘Sacrificial Cunt’ and though they excised the offending word from the title, its content is still basic and unsavoury when Schuldiner vows to “ram an axe/ into your mound” and “shit onto your guts” as “a stupid cunt we sacrifice”.

In ‘Torn To Pieces’ (musically even by these standards outstandingly savage) this lyrical misogyny surfaces again, depicting an Umberto Lenzi-inspired Cannibal Ferox scenario meriting “a hook right through your tits” for a “pathetic rancid cunt”. Though for balance Schuldiner depicts a similar violation on the male of the species: “Trying to escape/ They torture you by/ Cutting off your cock”. Equal opportunities torture maybe, but then he really lets the side down on ‘Mutilation’ with this slice of homophobia: “I celebrate a faggot’s death, human disgrace”.

Schuldiner spent a lot of his later career distancing himself from this period of the band on the grounds of being young, naive, musically unsophisticated. This is often depicted as the “brutal” era of Death which he later transcended. I would argue that what makes Death such a compelling project is that the throbbing heart of brutality remained beating throughout the progress of his music. That makes it more complicated to uncouple these issues with the first album from his later efforts.

Should we forgive the teenage Schuldiner this unnecessary homophobia in light of the fact that he made some of the most groundbreaking music in Death with two gay musicians, Sean Reinert and Paul Masvidal, on 1991’s Human? Is it unfair to hone in on these lyrics on an album that flails wildly in all directions, picking its way through dismembered limbs, regurgitated guts, lobotomized corpses, and any available bodily desecration that comes to a teenage male when constructing their sonic portraits of pain? This is the genre of Cannibal Corpse is it not, so when Schuldiner shrieks about “Decapitated head licking your cunt” (on the title track) is it not merely apposite for the lurid dreams of violence that death metal communicates? Better out than in, right? For me it is relatively harmless but that doesn’t make it less objectionable.

The most vulnerable Schuldiner’s lyrics get is on ‘Evil Dead’: “Trapped Inside a life which is not yours/ Spirits within causing terror, fear and darkness.” It starts with a sparkling, almost synthesized melody (a processed, tube-filtered sound he nurtured) that seems to rearrange some of the bare-bones piano motifs from the soundtrack of the original Evil Dead movie, directed by Sam Raimi in 1982. It’s useful to compare Death’s shock-and-gore mistakes to those made by Raimi in his lo-fi cabin-in-the-woods video nasty. The film garnered most controversy for its “Rape of the Vines” sequence, where a female protagonist is sexually assaulted by a tree.

In its aim to shock and transgress, Evil Dead crossed a line which Raimi later wished it had not. As if to make amends, he remade the film in a much more focused and violently funny mode in Evil Dead 2, also released in 1987. Death’s second album, Leprosy (1988), similarly honed its attack line, and its most famous song ‘Pull The Plug’, sees Schuldiner take the lyrical perspective of a patient on life support, a position which is at once more empathetic and darkly humorous than anything on Scream Bloody Gore. It also saw him tackle his brother’s death head-on with ‘Open Casket’. Death had started to part ways with morbid fantasy and that is when the music got much heavier.

Like an element that needs to form a compound, Schuldiner was drawn to other musicians to spur him onwards in service to the development of his art. When they failed to live up to his standards, he could be cruel and damning, such as in interviews he gave about the lack of professionalism of Rick Rozz, second guitarist on Leprosy. For Schuldiner, lack of preparedness live and slow improvements in musical proficiency amounted to an insult. In reality, there was a callous, Darwinistic streak to Schuldiner – it was survival of the fittest musicians for the sake of Death’s evolution.

On Spiritual Healing (1990), Schuldiner plays out an electrifying duelling-guitarists battle with James Murphy, who had not previously played in such an extreme band. Murphy’s style is very distinctive, favouring weird chromatic patterns and sudden, often very graceful leaps across the fretboard which drove Schuldiner’s squalling soloing style to adopt its own internal logic and character. The title track is like a death metal symphony of multiple movements that encompasses grandstanding theatrics, venomous speed and its repeating “Practise What You Preach” hardcore groove. Its righteous fury at the religious neglect of the sick and dying relocates Death’s music to a vivid “real-life hell”.

The cover art by Ed Repka depicts a bald, almost ghoulish patient in a wheelchair wearing a hospital gown, more disturbing now considering Schuldiner’s future terminal illness. He stares out with vacant, red-rimmed eyes as a cowboy preacher puts his hand on the patient’s head, with the other extended in a kind of blessing. The crowd, as Repka’s sketchnotes state, are “forcing sick guy to submit to preacher’s healing”. In the final version the middle-aged woman to the preacher’s left and man to the right bear a startling resemblance to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

Sadly, Schuldiner dropped Repka from future album covers, tending towards abstract stylisations as his music matured. This development reached its apogee with 1995’s Symbolic, an album that begins with the lines “I don’t mean to dwell/ But I can’t help myself”. This reflection situates it as far away from Scream Bloody Gore’s viscerality as possible: “Do you remember when/ Things seemed so eternal?”

The opening three tracks of Symbolic – ‘Symbolic’, ‘Zero Tolerance’ and ‘Empty Words’ – represent a high water mark in all of metal. A lot of this comes from Schuldiner’s at-this-point masterly songwriting. The choruses of the latter two songs particularly reach for loftier heights. But a huge amount also comes from drummer Gene Hoglan as creative foil. Simply a revelation of a drummer, from the opening bars of ‘Symbolic’ Hoglan twists and wraps Schuldiner’s strident opening riff like a snake charmer manipulating a cobra. His thrashing runs are peppered with astonishing cymbal work and fills. His double bass drum work during the song’s chug-out is monstrous. Schuldiner’s instructions to him when he sent the songs-in-progress was simply to “go sick”.

When it comes to Hoglan and Schuldiner it is fire meeting fire. They were not without their history. Death had bitched extensively about Hoglan’s Dark Angel when they had been treated poorly on a co-headlining tour after the release of Leprosy. Unlike Schuldiner, who used Death as a vehicle for his questing, Hoglan was a traveller between bands, his work with Death only perhaps surpassed on his boundary-breaking albums with the similarly mercurial Devin Townsend and Strapping Young Lad. Hoglan was a very big man and used a walking stick because of back problems from losing some weight around the time of Symbolic. He could also drink heavily and perform godly miracles behind the kit without remembering a thing about the gig in the question.

Even now Hoglan is posting clips of himself playing Death material like ‘The Philosopher’ (from 1993’s Individual Thought Patterns), claiming that he didn’t even rehearse it before playing it through in one take. Of the numerous collaborators that became part of Death they all served to define Schuldiner’s journey deeper into the ‘Crystal Mountain’. They helped him understand himself and the nature of his being in all its good and bad aspects.

Death successfully encased and contorted a brutal sound into new progressive shapes; Schuldiner did not split the two streams. The most successful and interesting death metal bands today do the same. It is understandable that Schuldiner recognised Bill Steer of Carcass as a kindred spirit, fusing melody and aggression, when he praised Steer’s guitar work on 1993’s Heartwork: “That playing had that magic rarely heard anymore.” Steer has spoken recently about consciously “writing for the stage” on Heartwork, which is certainly the mindset that would have appealed to the Kiss fan and showman in Schuldiner. In the video tribute his family created for his memorial, there is a telling transition between home-filmed footage from a Kiss concert and Death onstage in their prime.

Ultimately, there is death metal, and then there is Death metal. How much did Death nurture the genre’s trademark sounds, really?

Didn’t Cannibal Corpse perfect cookie monster vocals? Didn't Morbid Angel master slow riffs and atonal solos over thunderous double bass drums? Didn't Entombed pioneer the buzzsaw mid-range guitar attack?

In fact, Death can sound not much like classic death metal at all. Like some of the most pioneering bands, they are an outlier, bursting with creativity, innovation and growth (and their attendant difficulties under a bloody minded owner-driver). Bands since have borrowed and stolen small elements of their sound and blown them up to define a genre.

In this way, Death are beyond their own boundaries and created their own mini-history of outstanding music. It was made by a cast of characters that constitute a rock family tree unto itself, fathered and orchestrated by Schuldiner. Scream Bloody Gore is the first step on an epic journey and for that reason (though it is certainly not his best) it is his most important work.

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