Formation and Early History of Death
Death is an iconic name in the realm of death metal, a subgenre of heavy metal music. The band was originally formed in 1983 in Altamonte Springs, Florida, by guitarist and vocalist Chuck Schuldiner. Born on May 13, 1967, Schuldiner is often revered as a pioneer of the death metal genre. Death’s inception was marked by the disbanding of Mantas, a previous band where Schuldiner was a member.
The early line-up of the band included drummer and vocalist Kam Lee, along with guitarist Rick Rozz. This trio played a crucial role in defining the band’s unique sound, which involved growling vocals, complex song structures, and fast, technical guitar riffs. At the same time, they laid the foundation for the sub-genre known as death metal.
In their initial years, Death was well-known for its demo tapes, which gained wide circulation in the underground metal scene. Their first demo, “Death by Metal,” was released in 1984, making considerable waves in the metal community. However, their fame didn’t just stem from their music. Schuldiner’s commitment to pushing boundaries, both in terms of musical style and lyrical content, played a significant role in attracting fans and shaping the trajectory of the genre.
Rise to Prominence: “Scream Bloody Gore” and “Leprosy”
Death’s ascent to the status of death metal legend began in earnest with the release of their debut studio album, “Scream Bloody Gore,” in 1987. This album was recorded with Schuldiner handling both guitar and vocal duties, and drummer Chris Reifert backing him up. Released under the Combat Records label, the album is considered a seminal work that laid the groundwork for the death metal genre.
“Scream Bloody Gore” was characterized by its raw sound, heavy guitar riffs, and Schuldiner’s distinctive guttural vocals. The album’s lyrical content, often focused on horror and gore, was a significant departure from the more traditional themes of heavy metal at the time.
The band continued to push boundaries with their next album, “Leprosy”, released in 1988. This album marked a shift in the band’s musical direction, incorporating more complex song structures and melodic elements. It also saw a change in the lineup, with Schuldiner now joined by guitarist Rick Rozz, and the new rhythm section consisting of drummer Bill Andrews and bassist Terry Butler.
“Leprosy” is often considered the album that set the standard for death metal, influencing numerous other bands in the genre. The album’s themes of societal issues and mortality were a significant shift from the horror and gore of “Scream Bloody Gore”, and showed a growing maturity in the band’s approach to songwriting. These two albums played a crucial role in establishing Death as a powerhouse in the metal scene and pioneering the development of death metal.
Continued Evolution: “Spiritual Healing”, “Human”, and Beyond
In 1990, Death released “Spiritual Healing”, marking another turning point in their musical style and thematic content. The band continued to refine their sound, adding more complex rhythms and melodic elements. However, the most significant shift was in the lyrical content. While the first two albums were characterized by their focus on horror and gore, “Spiritual Healing” tackled more serious, real-world issues, such as organized religion and societal ills.
With this shift in lyrical focus and increased musical complexity, Death started moving towards the progressive death metal sub-genre. The band’s lineup also continued to change, with Schuldiner being the only constant member. For “Spiritual Healing”, guitarist James Murphy and bassist Terry Butler joined the ensemble.
The band’s evolution reached its peak with the release of “Human” in 1991. This album marked the beginning of the band’s foray into technical death metal, with complex song structures, intricate guitar work, and a shift towards more philosophical and introspective lyrics. “Human” featured musicians Paul Masvidal on guitar, Sean Reinert on drums (both from the band Cynic), and Steve DiGiorgio on bass, highlighting Schuldiner’s tendency to surround himself with technically adept musicians.
Following “Human”, the band released “Individual Thought Patterns” (1993), “Symbolic” (1995), and “The Sound of Perseverance” (1998), each one further pushing the boundaries of death metal, adding progressive elements and demonstrating remarkable technical proficiency. Throughout these releases, the band continued to undergo lineup changes, with Schuldiner remaining the driving force behind Death’s music.
The Demise of Death
Death’s musical journey came to an abrupt and tragic end with the untimely death of founder and frontman Chuck Schuldiner. In 1999, Schuldiner was diagnosed with a rare type of brain cancer (pontine glioma). Despite a vast international fundraising effort by fans and fellow musicians to cover his medical expenses, Schuldiner sadly passed away on December 13, 2001, at the age of 34.
After Schuldiner’s death, the band inevitably disbanded, marking the end of an era in the history of death metal. However, the legacy of Death and Schuldiner continues to live on. The albums and the unique sound that Schuldiner pioneered have significantly influenced countless bands in the genre.
In recognition of his contributions, Schuldiner is often referred to as “The Godfather of Death Metal,” and his influence is still profoundly felt in the metal world. The albums he created with Death are still regarded as some of the most influential works in the genre. “Scream Bloody Gore”, “Leprosy”, “Human”, and other albums have left an indelible mark on the genre, pushing the boundaries of what was possible within the confines of heavy metal and inspiring countless musicians to follow in their footsteps.
Posthumous Releases and Continuing Legacy
In the years following Schuldiner’s passing, Relapse Records, in conjunction with the Schuldiner family, worked on remastering and reissuing the band’s albums. This included the release of previously unheard tracks, demos, and live recordings, providing fans with a deeper look into the band’s rich history. For example, the reissue of “Human” in 2011 included instrumental studio tracks and rehearsal versions of several songs from the album.
Beyond reissues, Chuck Schuldiner’s creative process and his work beyond Death have been showcased in several posthumous releases. In 2004, “Zero Tolerance” was released, featuring Schuldiner’s work with his side project Control Denied, as well as some early Death demos.
In recent years, the “Death to All” tribute tours and the tribute album “Death by Metal” have also kept the band’s legacy alive. These efforts have not only paid homage to Schuldiner’s immense talent and influence, but have also raised funds for charities, keeping alive his spirit of community and mutual aid.
In the broader cultural context, Death’s impact goes beyond their music. They have contributed significantly to the development of the death metal genre, pushing its boundaries and continually redefining its possibilities. Their commitment to evolution and their refusal to be confined by genre conventions have established a legacy that continues to inspire and shape the world of heavy metal.
In conclusion, while the story of Death is marked by the tragic loss of Chuck Schuldiner, the band’s legacy is enduring. Through their revolutionary approach to music, their dedication to their craft, and their influence on countless other artists, Death’s place in the annals of metal history is forever assured.