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Since I seem to have survived the rash of stabbing and car bombing attempts that surrounded my lukewarm reception to Death's well regarded 1991 effort Human, I must once again cast myself into the maw of reckless endangerment by discussing the band's final studio effort, The Sound of Perseverance. I admit to some exaggeration here, because this is perhaps the most divisive of Schuldiner's albums among the general populace, but like Human, I've known numerous individuals who consider it to be some unquestionable pinnacle of musical achievement (individuals, who, in my humble opinion, clearly need to listen to quite a broader range of output before speaking such lies). At its very best, The Sound of Perseverance is a weak admixture of the past three full-lengths. At its worst, its ridden with underwhelming thrash rhythms, competent but forgettable leads, and a mediocre cover song that shows where Chuck's thoughts were TRULY at when he decided to unleash this about the audience.
Those ruminations were already several cups deep in the planning of Control Denied, a side project in which Schuldiner was highly excited, for which he had written a humdrum hybrid of power and progressive metal. The Sound of Perseverance is really just a bridge spanning the possibilities between the poles of Symbolic and The Fragile Art of Existence, which he wanted to get out of the way before moving his attention to that newer outlet. As was the Death tradition, he wrangled up a new lineup for the experience, this time, entirely (even Hoglan took a break). He brought in his Control Denied co-conspirators Shannon Hamm (guitar), Scott Clendenin (bass) and Richard Christy (drums), all competent enough in their roles. In particular, Christy kicks up a storm here. I could seriously just turn off the vocals and guitars and listen to the man batter away. His dynamics are one of the few components of this album that prevent it from the status of a stupefying bore.
Otherwise, it's mostly business as usual. The same thin, punchy processing of guitar tone that was present upon Human, Individual Thought Patterns, and Symbolic. The same inherent level of variation throughout the song structures. The same taut expression of glimmering, spiral leads and muted melodic patterning. Only this time, there is a dearth of inspiration. Not a single song on this album is fit to shine the loafers of even the weakest fraction of Symbolic. Tracks like "Flesh and the Power it Holds", "Scavenger of Human Sorrow", "Story to Tell" are all bloated masses of familiarity, stringy progressive death cycling through a wealth of tempos and tribulations, but falling well short of riffs that I'd ever want to hear again. The jangling grooves that inaugurate "A Moment of Clarity" seem curious at first, but the song soon devolves into a mire of pernicious ruin, offering not even the slightest step beyond the studio precedents. And you can forget about there being even one single 'evil' riff drawn from the cauldron of the band's grisly past, a feat that even the other 90s efforts were capable of pulling off.
But there are two further aspects of The Sound of Perseverance that ensure its position at the bottom rung of this band's career ladder. The first is that Chuck's vocals had become incredibly feline and bitchy throughout this album, almost like a little girl. It's the same general direction as he'd been moving towards through the previous decade, but somewhere between 1995 and 1998 the guy's bluejeans must have been pulled all too tight. It occasionally borders on the black metal rasp prevalent throughout that scene, only more 'emotional', if that makes sense. He sounds like the teamster boss for a union of kittens, crying over sour milk. Takes a bit of getting used to, and as the music does little for me as it stands, I do not intend on getting used to them. And then we come to the unfortunate cover of Judas Priest's "Painkiller", which I suspect is Chuck testing the waters for Control Denied more than anyone might have thought at the time, even though it's a bonus track, supposedly just here for fun. Not a bad choice, mind you, but Death fails to evoke anything interesting in its execution, just a clinical walkthrough, only the leads have been dried out and fall flat on their asses next to the Downing/Tipton originals, which soared.
If I had to pick just one song on The Sound of Perseverance that I immediately feel no urge to skip past, it would have to be "Bite the Pain", and only because it sounds like a Symbolic outtake. The dodgy bass in the bridge, and the choppy mutes that accompany the lead around 2:00 are the only value I've ever gotten from the album in over a decade, aside from Christy's percussion. Even the lyrics are weak, if not thoughtless. This all feels like a massive step sideways and back, a peripheral voyage to Individual Thought Patterns or Symbolic that forgot to pack all the good music into its cargo hold. The Sound of Perseverance makes Human shine in comparison. Hell, even the Control Denied full-length has more to offer, and since this would turn out to be Death's swan song (Chuck sadly succumbing to brain cancer in 2001 after a long struggle), it seems even more a disappointment in retrospect. The album isn't complete shit, but to these ears it felt wholly anticlimactic after Schuldiner had managed to sharpen the 'second phase' of Death to a razor-fine edge with the previous two releases.