Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Perennial quest: On new doc 'Death by Metal' and Chuck Schuldiner's peerless metal evolution

Toward the end of Death by Metal — a new documentary on the life and work of Chuck Schuldiner, the mastermind behind the band Death — Schuldiner lays out pretty clearly, via two brief snippets from archival interviews, the conundrum that defined his career:

"[Death is] a pretty brutal name, definitely. At the time, I wanted something extreme, brutal, shocking to go along with the music. Now, I would probably call it something different, but it's kind of stuck with us."

"I think the name definitely hinders the band to a certain point but at the same time, people really dig it, and hopefully they just take it as a name describing the sound that we started with."

One of the things that made this doc so fascinating for me, beyond the fact that it offers a window into the mind of a man I consider to be one of the greatest auteurs metal has ever seen, is how well it demonstrated the sobering reality that whatever your medium might be, even an art form as esoteric as death metal, if you're making a career out of it, you still have to navigate the pressures and demands of the marketplace — not to mention the constraints of genre — on a constant basis.

The quotes above come during a brief but illuminating section of the film that deals with Control Denied, an offshoot band Schuldiner launched in the mid-'90s, and which seem to grow out of the frustrations described above, i.e., frustrations that could be summed up, more or less, by the question of, "What do you do when you outgrow the medium that you made your name on?"

In the film (which is out on DVD now), the brilliant drummer Gene Hoglan, who worked with Schuldiner in the period leading up to Control Denied, and recorded two phenomenal albums with Death, 1993's Individual Thought Patterns and 1995's Symbolic, recalls Schuldiner's frustrations during that period, specifically how he felt constrained by the signature growling / deliberately pitch-less vocal style that he had helped bring into fashion with Death's early work, specifically their remarkably fully formed 1987 debut, Scream Bloody Gore. According to Hoglan, Schuldiner was, at the time, attracted to a vocal style reminiscent of Queensrÿche's Geoff Tate, and other frontmen who, in the drummer's words, "grasped the invisible orange" when singing (think Ronnie James Dio or Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson). So much so, apparently that he confessed to Hoglan that "I wish I didn't have to sing on this music."

I've been spending time with the lone Control Denied album, The Fragile Art of Existence, released in 1999, and it's excellent, a sort of more overtly prog take on the sound heard of Death's final album, The Sound of Perseverance (which, as Shannon Hamm, guitarist on both that album and Fragile Art, suggests in the doc, really began life as a set of Control Denied material, before his label encouraged him to record another Death album, and might not have even have come about if Schuldiner had felt free to really leave the Death brand behind and pour all his creative energy into the new project). Vocalist Tim Aymar seems to provide exactly the invisible-orange-grasping drama that Schuldiner was looking for, and that Schuldiner even demonstrates himself on demos for Fragile Art demos (heard on a handsomely expanded reissue of the album) where he sings lead.

Death by Metal, written and directed by Felipe Belalcázar, does a good job of portraying this sort of central fact of Schuldiner's relatively brief, incredibly productive career — which began in the early '80s, when he was a Florida teen leading the band Mantas and going by the moniker Evil Chuck and was sadly cut short by brain cancer in 2001— i.e., that he felt a constant need to shed his creative skin.

As metal historian Jeff Wagner (author of the excellent progressive-metal history Mean Deviation, as well as an equally worthwhile biography of Type O Negative's Peter Steele) pithily puts it, "You're not getting the same Death album twice."

Revisiting the Death catalog in recent days, I've been re-struck not just by the speed of Schuldiner's remarkable evolution (his perennial quest, if you will), by the fact that, for example, just four years after the lean and single-mindedly aggressive Scream Bloody Gore, he would release the prog-steeped landmark Human (which I was proud to blurb for Rolling Stone's Greatest Metal Albums list), but also by just how thoroughly he seemed to master each "stage" before moving on to the next. Scream Bloody Gore, for example, might be a relatively straightforward document of the '80s underground, complete with plenty of adolescent lyrical extremity ("Regurgitated Guts") but it's in no way a primitive-sounding album. With that record, Schuldiner seems not only to have pioneered what we now know as death metal, but to have perfected it. The same goes for pretty much everything that would follow. There are periods of more slight adjustment — between, say, 1988's Leprosy and 1990's Spiritual Healing, for example, or Individual Thought Patterns and Symbolic — but at every stage, you can hear Schuldiner simultaneously making mini breakthroughs, mastering his new turf and plotting his next quantum leap. (Note: Remastered/expanded versions of all the Death titles except Symbolic are now available on Bandcamp.) In some ways, The Sound of Perseverance is a summation of everything that came before — not to mention an ingenious reconciliation of "extreme" and more traditional metal styles — and a tantalizing look at what might have been. There's not a dud among these seven albums, a feat that very few other bands with similarly sized discographies, metal or otherwise, have matched.

As the documentary makes clear, Schuldiner's journey was never a smooth ride. No two Death albums feature the same lineup, and even some of Schuldiner's closest associates describe in the film how trying it could be to work with him. For one thing, he had a penchant for pulling out of tours, either just before they were about to happen, or while they were actually in progress, which seems to have caused his bandmates and intrepid manager Eric Greif no small amount of, well, grief. (Hoglan also recounts a very telling incident where Schuldiner took his label to task for lumping Death in with other death-metal bands in a magazine ad.)

But the film also captures an enormous amount of love for Chuck. Pretty much everyone who appears on screen, from his family members — whose support of his artistic passion seems to have been, right from the start, unusually committed — to his collaborators, expresses what a caring, down-to-earth dude he was, and by extension what a tragedy his premature death at age 34 was.

The doc has its flaws, mainly a narrative structure that can at times feel hard to follow and overly granular (I imagine this would be even more of an issue for a viewer who wasn't already a Schuldiner superfan, such as myself) and some disappointing omissions (I would have loved to hear from, for example, key Human-era member Paul Masvidal, who doesn't appear, though we do get valuable insight from his Death contemporaries Sean Reinert and Steve Di Giorgio). But overall, it's a trove of Schuldiner-iana (many archival interviews, outstanding live footage spanning pretty much all eras of the band from the Leprosy lineup onward) and lore. I loved watching the ever-charming/-humble Richard Christy, drummer on The Sound of Perseverance and The Fragile Art of Existence, reminisce with deep fondness about Schuldiner's excitement over the new direction he was taking with Control Denied; or hearing Decibel editor Albert Mudrian cite Schuldiner's wearing of a shirt adorned with kittens on Headbanger's Ball, a move that Mudrian interprets as a sly "fuck you" to the overly rigid death-metal scene, and then seeing the clip just after; or listening to Scream Bloody Gore–era drummer Chris Reifert recount his final phone conversation with Schuldiner, where the two quoted a favorite passage from Italian cannibal flick Make Them Die Slowly. The film is also a tribute to Schuldiner's constant interrogation of, and — somewhat ironically, given metal's core anti-authoritarian ethos — rebellion against his native genre's constrictive tendencies. If you're a fan, I highly recommend it.

Aptly, at one point in the film, we near a snippet from the Individual Thought Patterns track "Out of Touch," which in retrospect seems like some sort of manifesto:

Trapped in a lost world of brutality
So weak are the ones that must rely on shock
To push this so called force that inspires their call
To be extreme so it seems is a mental crutch
To cover up for those that are completely out of touch
I interpret this song as a sort of meta–death-metal diss track (and simultaneously an exquisite example of progressive death-metal aggression, in and of iteslf): Schuldiner's remarkably clear-eyed critique of a set of rapidly calcifying genre conventions that he himself had helped to define during the prior decade. As of Human, and even earlier, he was far beyond all that.

Discussing his turn away from blood-and-guts themes and toward more socially conscious lyrics (roughly around the period of Spiritual Healing) in the doc, Schuldiner says:

"Death is a band that I can put my personal outlook on certain things in life into. And I think it means a lot more when you're singing about something other people can relate to. That's why you don't hear Death singing about demons flying down and plucking nuns from the earth. That's idiotic... That's putting a limit on people's [points to head]..."

Been there, done that, in other words. "Evil Chuck" had had his day. So long to limits, both lyrical and musical: an ethos that's encoded into every single album Chuck Schuldiner ever made. He wanted more, not just out of metal, but — as the film's window into the personality of this gentle yet relentlessly driven soul demonstrates — out of life.