Only Death is real: 2011 let us get reacquainted with Chuck Schuldiner

A decade ago today, the death metal world was robbed of one of its greatest minds when Chuck Schuldiner passed away due to complications from a brain tumor. He was only 34 years old. But even though he died very young, his influence and creations with his seminal band Death would go on to further shape the genre he helped pioneer and make him one of heavy metal’s true heroes.

Throughout Death’s run, Schuldiner was the only constant. A lot of people point to the band as sort of his solo project, since he always brought in a revolving cast of characters that would make each one of the band’s records unique.  But I never really saw it that way.  I always think of a solo project as one man’s vision that he collects hired guns to help him realize. Each member that gained membership into Death contributed to the group’s brain trust, and without, say, Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert (both of Cynic) on “Human” or James Murphy (Obituary) on “Spiritual Healing,” those records likely would sound totally different. Schuldiner may have been the leader of the band, but he let his contributors etch their DNA into each record.

Death also helped take death metal out of the gutters. That’s not to suggest death metal ever was anything low brow or unworthy, because it never was. It always has been a misunderstood art and reduced by many to trash. But Schuldiner added an amazing level of musicianship to the genre, something that caused many others to follow suit, and his work also helped future artists branch into sub-territories such as tech death and prog death (something he did further with his other band Control Denied). Death metal didn’t have to be totally about blood and guts and didn’t have to be all raw all the time. It could sound good, be produced better and even push the lyrical boundaries into brainier, more philosophical topics. That’s not the suggest Death is the only band to go there, but certainly they were the most successful at doing so.

Relapse Records, along with having a stellar year putting out their own bands’ new releases, have helped solidify Death’s legend and given listeners reissued, remastered copies of their catalog. The project only has just begun, as we only have three of their albums in sparkling new form, but it’s been a worthy investment for Death and death fans, and I should know, as I’ve bought every piece. I want the best possible copy I can of my favorite albums and the genre’s best efforts, and the Relapse project has delivered on all fronts. There also is a ton of bonus material and new liner notes included with these albums, along with exclusive merchandise tied to each one.

The first of these efforts was released in February, and Relapse started with the end. “The Sound of Perseverance,” originally released by Nuclear Blast in September of 1998, was to be the final Death album before Schuldiner moved onto Control Denied permanently. The album features a rare instrumental track, the fairly quiet and serene “Voice of the Soul” and also includes a crushing version of the Judas Priest classic “Painkiller.” Also notable in the lineup is Richard Christy on drums, who went onto form Charred Walls of the Damned. You’ll also likely note that the album artwork was redone a bit to give it a sharper look. It’s pretty slick looking. Relapse offers a 2-CD set with the original album and demo cuts, as well as a 3-CD version with even more demo material. No matter which you prefer, you’ll still be celebrating the swan song of one of metal’s greatest bands.

Next up, released in June, was a reissue of “Human,” the aforementioned record that included members of Cynic in the lineup and saw Death take progressive leaps forward musically. This seems to be where Schuldiner really started to further expand his thinking creatively and offered some hints of where the band, and its leader, would go in the future. This also featured a more introspective, inward lyrical approach, as Schuldiner moved away from what had become a fairly clichéd gore focus. This album, originally released in 1991 on Combat, had to be remixed rather than remastered, and the explanation for that is that the original masters were lost by Sony. Nice work, jerks. But it sounds really good in its remixed form, and the reissue deal from Relapse contains a second disc packed with basic instrumental demo cuts for the album, as well as some more realized early versions of the songs. It’s a pretty neat look into the creative process. This stands as one of my favorite Death records, and my interest in the prog-death circuit more than likely plays a part in that feeling.

In late October, we got a new version of “Individual Thought Patterns,” originally released in 1993 by Roadrunner. The album features Andy LaRocque (King Diamond) on guitar and drumming madman Gene Hoglan (Dark Angel, Testament) behind the kit, and it continued the path the band started on “Human.” Once again, the style is prog-heavy and leans further toward jazz, and it was clear that the band was going in this direction with no hope of ever looking back. There even was a video produced for “The Philosopher” that served as my introduction to the band. I remember as a high school kid watching Headbangers Ball and being blown away by what I heard and saw. It was a little uncomfortable for me at first, I admit, as I hadn’t really gotten into death metal at the time, but it obviously made a permanent impact considering the make-up of my record collection. Relapse has both a 2-CD version, with the album and a live show from Germany in 1993, and a 3-CD package with a nice set of demo recordings.

Coming up in February, Relapse will issue a double-live collection called “Vivus!” that combines previously released concert albums from the band’s Whiskey A Go-Go performance in Los Angeles as well as their stint at Dynamo Open Air. Both shows were recorded with the band’s final lineup in 1998 and released individually in 2001. You also can get your hands on the reissue of Control Denied’s “The Fragile Art of Existence,” also released by Relapse. Find a link to that below.

Losing Schuldiner was devastating, and there never will be another musician quite like him. Luckily, he left us with an impressive, ground-breaking catalog with Death, a collection we luckily got to partially revisit this year. His legacy is still alive, and younger fans can get their hands on strong copies of these classic albums so they can hear death metal royalty. Or for those of us who are a little longer in the tooth, we can get something updated that’ll sound much, much better on our iPods. It’s a fitting time to celebrate Schuldiner’s life and work, and we’ll be listening to his music well into the night (as well as the future). Rest in peace, Chuck.

For more on the band, go here:

For more on Schuldiner, go here:

To buy any of the reissues, go here:

To buy the Control Denied reissue, go here:

For more on Relapse, go here: