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Death Is Never Finished: Remembering Death Metal Pioneer Chuck Schuldiner

Chuck Schuldiner, of Death, in 1995. Schuldiner died of a brain tumor on December 13, 2001.
Courtesy of the artist
Chuck Schuldiner, of Death, in 1995. Schuldiner died of a brain tumor on December 13, 2001.

[Chuck Schuldiner] showed the foresight and courage to not only help create the rules of death metal, but to demonstrate how to break them. — Arthur von Nagel (Cormorant)

There's something to be said for the visionary who dismantles the very movement he's created or pioneered. John Coltrane left behind hard bop to scatter sheets of sound, always knowing there was something more to explore. After joining the Communist Party, composer Cornelius Cardew rejected his prominent role in the English Avant-Garde to protect populist folk music. For a humble guitarist from Florida named Chuck Schuldiner, his metal band Death (not to be confused with the proto-punk band of the same name) was a mere instrument. Along with the Bay Area's Possessed, Death not only helped spawn an entire extreme genre around gore and technical guitar wizardry, but like horror movies sometimes do, Death also challenged our notions of life.

From the 1983 Death by Metal demo by a pre-Death band called Mantas to the hollering banshee wail of Scream Bloody Gore to the early jazz-metal fusions of Human to the glorious 1998 swansong, The Sound of Perseverance, Schuldiner lived the Leonardo da Vinci creed: "Art is never finished, only abandoned." Not one Death album was the same, but they were very much all connected; the non-linear narrative continued through Schuldiner's formation of the scream-less progressive heavy metal band Control Denied.

Ten years ago this week, Schuldiner died after a two-year battle with brain cancer. To honor his legacy as a death metal pioneer, an inimitable vocalist and, frankly, one of the best guitarists to thoughtfully shred the six-string, I've asked eleven metal musicians to pick their favorite Death song, and write what it and Schuldiner has meant to them. And from gushing memories to what could be standalone essays (see the brilliant deconstruction of "Left to Die" by Matt Harvey of Exhumed), it's quite evident that Death was more than an influence for these musicians. Death was a personal revelation. For Paul Masvidal (Cynic), Gene Hoglan (Fear Factory) and Richard Christy (Charred Walls of the Damned) — all former members of Death (and there have been a lot) — it's telling that all three chose songs from 1991's watershed album, Human. In the modern metal scene, younger musicians like Arthur von Nagel (Cormorant), Elizabeth Schall (Dreaming Dead) and John Dyer Baizley (Baroness) all grew up with the legend of Death and have taken its heavy lessons to heart.

If you want more, I strongly recommend tracking down Decibel magazine's oral history of Death published this past year in Issue No. 77. Relapse Records is also in the midst of an extensive reissue campaign that includes more demos and live tracks than you can shred a B.C. Rich at. And if you're curious, my personal favorite Death song is "To Forgive is to Suffer" from The Sound of Perseverance, but, really, you should read on.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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