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If one were to listen through all of Death’s studio recordings from start to finish the following 5 hours of music would be a steady progression from harsh and raw to crisp and refined, from structurally simplistic and technically complacent to grandiose and virtuosic, with never a detour in quality. From their early days as a of source of sonic bludgeoning to this, their final album the changes have been immense; yet Chuck Schuldiner remains the key factor and the defining element, managing to release no two identical albums while maintaining a definitive path throughout.
The final installment in the Death discography sees a totally different line-up than its successor, Symbolic. Gene Hoglan moved on to Strapping Young Lad and was replaced by Richard Christy and Scott Clendenin on bass and Shannon Hamm on guitar round out the lineup. The shift from Hoglan to Christie is undoubtedly one of the key changes, as Hoglan was the foundation of the two albums most directly related to The Sound and is, of course, a god among mere mortals. Christie rightly tackles this project as a his own and not in the shadow of the Atomic Clock and aside from being a fully capable drummer was perhaps an even better fit for Chuck and his traditional/power metal leanings. What Christie brings, or rather what comes out through Christie, is a more driving, less punctuated rhythmic approach, galloping along with an almost merry temperament. The effect of this shift is a livlier, more predictable base for Chuck’s catchy, approachable brand of progressive metal. Christie isn’t quite the artist Gene is but he’s no slouch and his percussive persistence probably allowed the music to become exactly what Chuck had been working towards all those years.
Truthfully, even by the time of Human Chuck’s tastes had changed. He didn’t really like the death metal of the day, found much of it to be mindless, speed-crazed silliness, and was trying desperately to distance himself from the “Evil Chuck” image the band’s name did little to contradict. It would be less of a stretch to say this wasn’t at all the same band anymore than it would be to say the opposite, and 15 years and 432 band members later Chuck saw himself as one of the few who still stood for metal in a time when metal only stood for “brutality”. He had already started putting together his next band, Control Denied, the process of which had brought him Christie, and was adamant about the role and necessity of melody in a music that had become dominated by indecipherable growls and distorted atonal churning. Much of the material found here was actual meant for the upcoming Control Denied album but was reworked for Death to fulfill contractual obligations. It’s not that this album was forced – the ideas are as fresh and vitally infused as anything before or after, it just wasn’t exactly what Chuck planned to be doing at the time.
The most obvious clue to this overlapping of interests is the vocals, which are the most clear and crisp the man would ever divulge and a noticeable shift even from Symbolic. They’d been moving in this direction since all the way back on Spiritual Healing but here they really bite and are more vicious than ever. Some decry the shift from the early voice, which was a trademark sound of the origins of death metal, but these piercing cries are a feat rarely matched in any field of metal. While they generally sit in a coarse, throaty bark they can ascend to shrill heights and attain truly chilling effect.
The remaining ingredients more subtly belie Chuck’s interest in traditional heavy metal but nonetheless bring its fruit to bear. Overall, this album can be seen as a successor to Symbolic, but to see it only as that is to miss its unique place on the metal spectrum. Here the melodic aspects are, if not more developed, more prominent. The guitar tone is wire-thin and has a slightly juiced-up reverb; it stands apart more so than any prior Death effort and is very reminiscent of the early days of metal and the dominance of the guitar. This sonic separation comes alongside further integration of melody into the songwriting, something Symbolic had only begun to do. The ratio of two-guitar, rhythmic riffs to single-axe melodic leads is the lowest in the whole catalogue and the most time seems to have been spent crafting these winding, spiraling, dancing licks, which represent themes, embellishments, transitions and interludes and are not limited in their scope nearly at all. While at times this can edge towards superfluity the seemingly infallible melodic aptitude of the composer assures every phrase and every run of at least some merit and a good many of them of unforgettable status.
For the death metal devotees among us, the music here could be somewhat disappointing: it feels so much more than its predecessors like a transition to something else, something other than Death. Where Symbolic had a plethora of heavy, powerful riffs, The Sound subsists on a different diet and the death metal elements here are certainly out of the spotlight. That being said, this album is less cluttered, is neater; it’s easier to remember songs in their entirety despite a continuing attention to the nuances of song composition and progression. The same clarity of vision is present, there are simply fewer individual pieces at play, a trait which I’ll refrain from characterizing as either a positive or a negative and leave simply as a distinguishing, the distinguishing, factor.
Perhaps a direct result of this, or perhaps an effect sharing with it a cause, is the real, practical shortcoming of this final album, that it has songs that just don’t quite make it. Amazingly, this is probably the first such album from Death. The aesthetic differences are incremental, if substantial, and the structural elements remain top notch. But, songs like “Story to Tell” and “A Moment of Clarity” never deliver the punch line. There are plenty of hooks on the album, but not nearly the ridiculous amount on either of the past two nor quite the consistency of the two prior to those. With durations exceeding 6 minutes, that ends up coloring the whole record. As strong as “Bite the Pain”, “Spirit Crusher” and the monumental “Flesh and the Power It Holds” are they can’t conceal the thinness of their comrades. It’s a testament to the prodigious capabilities of Chuck that this album is, despite this, great.
But even here we might be selling him short. This isn’t just a great album; it’s unique. It didn’t have the influence of Leprosy or Human and it didn’t spawn a genre like Scream Bloody Gore or Individual Thought Patterns but it does stand firmly in between disparate realms, between progressive death, technical thrash and power/heavy metal as it does between the new metal and the old metal. That it may not be definitive with regards to these relationships doesn’t diminish its singularity or steadfastness of vision. And now, 25 years on from the birth of that wonderful thing we call death metal, after countless diversions, imitations, mutations and bastardizations, regardless of our interest in Judas Priest or Dio or clean vocals we should be very acutely tuned to the presence, in any form, of the spirit of classic metal. It was devotion to this spirit that gave us thrash, that gave us death, that gave us all the “extreme” metals in their various forms. And it’s the vanishing of that spirit that signals the end for any variation on these themes. Chuck knew that all along and in him and in Death we have an enduring monument to the necessity of that thought.
Written for www.leprousgarden.com