The pioneering album from the Death Metal maestros remains an extraordinary musical achievement.
Metal historians hold that Death main man Chuck Schuldiner created a new sub-genre with the release of his band’s debut Scream Bloody Gore and 1988’s follow-up Leprosy. Was the term ‘death metal’ concocted in honour of his early artistic endeavours or simply as an apt description for a malevolent down-tuned racket with nihilistic lyrics? Ultimately, it’s a pointless, rather dull question undeserving of consideration. Beyond all dispute, however, is that Schuldiner’s eventual achievements would equate to so, so much more than merely inspiring Cannibal Corpse and their ilk.
The succession of masterworks that ran from Human (1991) to The Sound of Perseverance (1998) are essential components of any adventurous rock fan’s collection. Innovative, complex, passionate, and enthralling; the (sub) genre label is almost an irrelevance when describing those four remarkable records. Death’s origins were rather more modest. For music that supposedly represented the birth of a new variant on an established genre, Leprosy sounds a lot like Slayer’s Hell Awaits with Tom G Warrior on vocals. There’s nothing here that constitutes a significant departure from the familiar machinations of 1980s thrash metal. Minor-key punkoid riffs are rocketed through the ether by blast-beat percussion as a belligerent guttural voice roars across the one-note symphony of fury. Memorable hooks are spread thinly, yet, as brutally efficient mosh-pit fodder, it’s gratifying on a deep, visceral level that defies logical explanation. On headphones, at hazardous volume, Leprosy is like a particularly lively night in Helmand Province erupting between your very ears.
That’s not to say the album doesn’t boast individual songs or elements that assert themselves over the pulverising din. With Pull The Plug, for example, Death created their first bonafide classic. Despite the title, this is no eco-rant urging head-bangers to conserve electricity and power-down all curling tongs, but the internal screams and futile pleadings of a coma victim as others make plans to prolong his meaningless existence. The name of the band is Death, remember, and themes of euthanasia, terminal disease, and… erm… funeral attendance are to be expected and embraced. Pull The Plug’s effective sequencing of exceptionally strong, diverse riffs –including that monstrously doomy intro – and genuine air of despondency ensured its place on live setlists long after Schuldiner had moved beyond the stifling conservatism of death metal.
The title track – possibly the only rock song ever to contain the term ‘tuberculoid’ – also emerges as an apocalyptic highlight. Red-raw, bellicose vocals are smeared over a desperately bleak introductory riff before sections of muscular mid-tempo chugging breathlessly alternate with hellishly fast thrash. In stark contrast to Death’s later music, for the most part, guitar solos are defiantly anti-musical throughout – caterwauling, whammy-bar extravaganzas obviously inspired by Slayer’s King and Hanneman. There are moments though when Schuldiner’s nascent genius is glimpsed and his brief neo-classical lead on the title track is one. The otherwise no-nonsense, balls-out Born Dead also, unexpectedly, showcases some gloriously fluid tapping that bursts through the bombast with a stirring elegance. And the supremely catchy intro that heralds Left To Die is evidence of the guitarist’s developing ability to balance fiery testosterone-fuelled might with affecting musicality.
Listening to Leprosy after all these years, through a jaded mid-life perspective, it’s easy to mock early Death’s po-faced indulgence in the horrors of human existence. In a sense, accompanying tales of slow, agonising death with such rabidly exuberant music is paradoxical to the point of ridiculous. Open Casket, for example, combines reflective sentiments of grief with turbo-charged double-bass drums and retched shrieking. Ironically, it’s the closest the album comes to outright hardcore punk. But unlike many other metal artists of the era, there’s a sensitivity and social conscience underpinning the occasionally clumsy lyrics, and when Chuck screams “Things will never be the same” as he stares at a deceased loved one, there’s an undeniable emotional power that the genre rarely achieves.
Relapse continued their impressive run of remastered Death LPs with a lovingly restored and packaged version of an album that sounded somewhat flat and tinny on its original release. Music like this really does benefit from the sonic heft that sensitive modern remastering can offer. Back in 1988, Schuldiner obviously would’ve wanted this album to have a towering presence, formidable power, and crushing heaviness… and now it finally does. A bonus disc offers various rehearsal recordings from the era; they sound like they were captured on a portable mono cassette player and, compositionally, differ very little from the final album versions. Despite that, the way the material is savagely attacked – reducing some songs to a blur – successfully captures the exciting punkish intensity of the late Eighties extreme metal scene.
Death neophytes seduced by this review are strongly advised to acquire a copy of Symbolic or Individual Thought Patterns before proceeding further. Long-term fans, meanwhile, will rightly regard this as a mandatory purchase. Even if it isn’t the landmark turning point in metal history that some claim, it does represent an important progression for Schuldiner on his path to creating some of the most outstanding rock music of the 1990s before his tragic untimely death in 2001.