Death was the brainchild of Florida vocalist and guitarist Chuck Schuldiner. Historic for his ruthlessly diligent work ethic and for generally being difficult to work with, Schuldiner’s vision may have taken different forms across the bookends of the band’s career, but it was that vision alone that he believed in. As a result, Death, as an entity, was never truly a band in the traditional sense, with Schuldiner being the only consistent member across Death’s seven studio lineups. Schuldiner reached out to various virtuosos of the scene as he saw fit to fulfil his goal. A tempestuous history it may be, but the results were some of if not the most influential death metal albums ever produced, and here, we’re going to put them in order.
Whether Scream Bloody Gore is the first true death metal album could be wrestled over for hours, but what remains indisputable is the talismanic force that the album sent ripping through metal’s underground. Given the album’s volatile origins, with Schuldiner’s constant relocating and the band’s turbulent lineup, it’s a small wonder that Scream Bloody Gore wasn’t a garbled mess; the reality was quite the opposite.
Soaked in the vile and putrid imagery of ’80s horror flicks with an equally skeletal runtime of just 37-minutes, these collections of cacophonous riffs, unrelenting rhythms and harrowing growls laid the blood-spattered path for death metal’s brutal incarnation. It may not boast the thought-provoking lyricism of future Death releases, nor does it house what would become the band’s signature songwriting strengths, but the LP remains a ruthless collection of mindless headbangers and the ‘ground zero’ for one of the genres most violent ongoing chapters.
I have always had a touch of sympathy for Individual Thought Patterns. Following ‘91’s Human is no easy task and while it doesn’t quite reach those coveted heights, the album remains a worthy addition to the band’s discography.
It carries its slight limp due to the baffling production, the clarity of its predecessors turned muffled and a less than appealing kick drum spoils the previously spotless track record. Is it a deal-breaker? Of course not. Production value aside, this is the same Death on the same lofty pedestal that they’d clawed their way up for the past six years. While Schuldiner and company continue in their efforts to extend their catalogue of demented and ever-shifting instrumentals, they take leaps and bounds when penning the words behind the assault. They tackle the concept of power and its tendency to poison the mind (“Mentally Blind”), the introspective evil within human beings (“In Human Form”) and even a critique on the true validity of philosophy (“The Philosopher”); they’d come along way from guts and gore.
Just one year on from their defining debut, Leprosy saw Death take their established trademark of brutality and carve into it, the inception of their acclaimed – and near unmatched – blend of violence and complexity. This new form of organized chaos is more than exemplary from the opening title track with the established formula of three-minute 100mph riff riots being forfeited for a selection of more elaborate and extensive batterings.
These more substantive offerings combined with an increase in production clarity – thanks to the work of Scott Burns – not only gave fans a better chance to digest the unfolding nightmares, but also a chance to appreciate the band’s ear for rhythm and melody (if we can go as far as to call it that). It is here that Death culminate some of their most important tracks with “Pull The Plug” being a precursor to the sounds of tech-death and “Open Casket” being a fine example of Death’s penchant for whiplash-inducing tempo switches matched with genuinely vulnerable lyricism. It remains one of the most important death metal albums ever made, and we’re only at number 5.
I can already see the pitchforks and torches heading my way. Spiritual Healing over Leprosy? Really? Are you insane? That’s not to say Spiritual Healing is treated as the runt of the litter, by any means, it’s just its predecessor is generally held in much higher regard. Placing the album above Leprosy took a great deal of consideration as, on paper, it remains level-pegging with Leprosy in almost every factor.
It’s the same unrelenting brutality splayed through twisting and unforeseeable song structures, delivered through the same foul shrieks from Schuldiner atop his spearheaded lead and rhythm attack with James Murphy. Perhaps I’d receive some disconcerted glances from a few death-heads for saying it but, Spiritual Healing excels past Leprosy on account of its lyrical content. This is the album where Schuldiner makes a distinct swerve from the mainstays of death metal imagery and, instead, makes greater use of his more socially-centered insights. The anti-drug sentiments (“Living Monstrosity”), the discussion of abortion (“Altering the Future”) and the bitter spits towards religious manipulation (“Spiritual Healing”); it’s all context that give those ruinous instrumentals some real substance. It was a change for the better, and a change Death would not look back upon.
Human. Possibly the most gripping half an hour I’ve experienced that didn’t involve brawling my way to a merch stand for the last small-sized band-tee. To put it simply, Human is a coalescence of the greatest parts of each of the out-and-out banger records that Death had previously dealt. The ferocity of Scream Bloody Gore is dominant, the engineering mastery of Leprosy is tightly wound and the lyrical potency of Spiritual Healing is in full-force.
Add the drumming wizardry of the late, great Sean Reinert and a sheen of heavy, in-your-face production to the mix and the result is simply otherworldly. Raising an already lofty bar, Human burrows deeper into a more grandiose and progressive approach to the band’s sound crafting vast odysseys in which to deliver deathly dissonance. With heavy-hitters like “Lack of Comprehension” and “Suicide Machine” being key examples as to why, Human remains one of the most integral entries to the death metal codex.
The Sound of Perseverance’s origins will always remain obscure, with implications that material was repurposed from Schuldiner’s newfound prog metal outfit Control Denied, but the facts remain that, however it may have been conceived, it stands as a fitting resolve to one of metal’s greatest underground icons.
Whether it was influence from Chuck’s splintered creative interests or not, elements of the progressive are patent throughout the track list’s lifespan. Following the thorough example set by ‘95’s Symbolic, this resulted in each track forgoing its own expansive, yet rather jagged, adventure – with album highlight “Spirit Crusher” capriciously snapping without warning like Schuldiner’s playing with the settings on an unsuspecting treadmill. Exhibiting both the shrillest of all his range and the most tender of instrumentation through the acoustic-led “Voice of a Soul,” Schuldiner’s untimely death renders this album as Death’s unintentional swan song; and what a finale it is.
Yes. I know. What a surprise, Symbolic at number one like every other ‘Death ranked’ list; well, funnily enough, it’s for good reason. Two years prior, Individual Thought Patterns – with tracks like “In Human Form” – gave a teasing glimpse at the melding of progressive metal with the existing thrash influences that had been embedded since Death’s birth; Symbolic took this beyond what could have been imagined.
Harboring the savagery of their past craftsmanship and instilling a grander sense of scale pushed the boundaries of what a death metal band could be, yet remained accessible to anyone of the more abrasive persuasion. Each of the band’s many virtues are in full-force from the title track’s momentous guitar-slinging, “Without Judgement”’s neck-breaking chorus and the poignant lyrical depth of “Crystal Mountain” that tempers its oddly catchy chorus melody with a bitter dialogue on religious superiority. Symbolic, then, is a band, or perhaps a vision, in its greatest fruition. After just one album it was clear that Death would not simply orbit solely about its namesake, its course was to something greater and Symbolic was that very something.