Happy 45th Birthday to Death's Chuck Schuldiner
With an ongoing ambitious reissue and rarity series appearing with regularity, the man's musical progress from 1984 through 2001 has been preserved, repaired where needed, and annotated by the bandmates, colleagues, and fellow travelers who knew him best. That doesn't change the brutal tragedy, that this pillar of metal determination was lost at age 34.
He deserved to last much longer, in no small part to see metal snap back from its downturn in popularity and the reach of his music to all parts of the world. From interviews completed for a book on Chuck's life, here's a birthday card to the departed death metal leader, signed by former bandmates Matt Olivo, Chris Reifert, Paul Masvidal, and Richard Christy at some key milestones along the way.
"Into Crypts of Rays (Celtic Frost cover)," Death from 1985 Rehearsal
In 1985, Death's lineup briefly included Chuck Schuldiner, drummer/vocalist Kam Lee, and both Scott Carlson and Matt Olivo of legendary Michigan grindcore act Repulsion. Despite this atrocious sound quality, this was not unusual fidelity for the multiple-generation cassette copies that fed the early death metal movement. Death plus Repulsion doing a Celtic Frost cover was the heaviest thing imaginable.
Matt Olivo: "We were planning on giving Death a go. We wanted to make a career. And it was awesome, dude. Those were great times. When we would rehearse, we would literally have Kam sing a song, Chuck sing a tune, and then Scott. We had three killer vocalists in the band and we all got along great. At that age there are absolutely no outside distractions. You don't have bills and wives and jobs. Well, we had these jobs but we didn't give a shit about them. It was just a dream, man. We just knew we were gonna make some great music, get along great, go on tour, and have some great times."
"Beyond the Unholy Grave," Death from Scream Bloody Gore
Schuldiner left Florida to pursue his dream, landing in San Francisco and teaming up with young drummer Chris Reifert, now of Autopsy. The pair struggled to find like-minded death metal fanatics, but soon landed a deal with happening New York-based metal independent label Combat Records. With Schuldiner playing bass, the pair recorded Scream Bloody Gore in 1987.
Chris Reifert: "Combat Records set us up in this big-ass fancy Hollywood studio, Music Grinder, which to me looked like an aircraft hangar. It was just like massive and totally pro. Then we found out we were going to work with Randy Burns, that was awesome because he did Possessed's Seven Churches, and he was working with Dark Angel on Darkness Descends. That was like the guy to work with for brutal metal. We never could find a bass player, though. We tried so hard. We put like ads in record stores or music stores. And nothing happened. That's what it was like in California at that time, for just hardcore death metal. I think I tried out one guy to maybe play bass and he couldn't do it, it didn't work. It never got past just, you know, the meeting once stage. We had zero luck, and that was pretty discouraging."
"Born Dead," Death Live in Houston, 1989
Death's debut and its follow up album, Leprosy, had a huge impact on the metal scene internationally. Though early Death guitarist Rick Rozz returned to the band and appeared on the album, Paul Masvidal of Cynic replaced him before a triumphant tour of Mexico in 1989.
Paul Masvidal: "I didn't realize Death were that big. We played these little arenas, I would say to thousands of kids, and the response to Death was very Beatles-like. The kids, they were very hungry back then, and I don't know if they still are. I think most of these places that perhaps don't get shows as often as big American cities, or Western European cities, they tend to be really appreciative. These kids were just kinda crazy, they were almost louder than the band, with over the top fervor and energy and enthusiasm. It was fun, I had a great time. It was cool to step into that and be hurled into an established situation and realize that Chuck already had built up quite the name for himself with just two records, cause really it was Scream Bloody Gore and Leprosy at that point."
"Lack of Comprehension," Death from Human
As Death's reputation grew and death metal music spread into the periphery of the mainstream, Chuck continued to inject more complicated music into his band's basic brutal approach. By the time of the fourth album, 1991's Human, Schuldiner had grouped with Masvidal and Sean Reinert of Cynic to forge the most intricate and progressive death metal music yet imagined.
Paul Masvidal: "Chuck felt really strong about this record and I think he had a lot of energy, anger and aggression driving him. But at the same time there was still this conservative bone in him that wasn't gonna jump off a cliff and go into the unknown. He was gonna keep that language intact. That was really how he acted as a producer, in a way, pulling back a little bit here and there. I don't know, it's one of those things that I guess kinda works. We weren't really thinking when we did it, we were just kinda doing. It was all very in the moment."
"Spirit Crusher (live)," Death
Deep into the 1990s, as heavy metal struggled to retain its dwindling mass audience, Death continued to make musical and professional inroads. Kansas transplant Richard Christy became the anchor on drums of yet another Death lineup, one which saw Chuck's personal intensity mellow while the musical intensity deepened on the group's final album, 1998's The Sound of Perseverance.
Richard Christy: "It blew my mind how Chuck was so talented a guitar player and also so talented at structuring a song. We had rehearsed the music to The Sound of Perseverance so much without vocals and I had no idea how to structure vocals around music that was so complex. When we did the demos and I finally heard Chuck's lyrics and the way he structured them within the music I was just blown away. It was so genius, so creative, and so catchy. He took words and just blended them perfectly with really complex crazy music. Then before we would go on tour he would have to learn to sing along with playing guitar, which was incredible because those guitar riffs are so crazy. Chuck never wrote riffs thinking 'I gotta make this so I can sing it and play it at the same time.' He would just do the lyrics and sing over the demos, and then later figure out how to do it all together at once. He always did it perfectly, it always belw my mind, it was always just like the record."
Happy birthday, Chuck Schuldiner... let the metal flow!
Ian Christe is the author of Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal, and the publisher of Bazillion Points Books, home to modern classics like Swedish Death Metal, Metalion: The Slayer Mag Diaries, and Murder in the Front Row: Shots From the Bay Area Thrash Metal Epicenter.