Rest in peace, Chuck.
A passionate homage to 'The Father of Death Metal', by Andrew Oliver.
Everyone has at least one real defining moment in their life. One instance that comes out of nowhere and, whether it be subtle and cause gradual change, or abrupt in its delivery unto oneself, helps shape who you are for years to come, help makes you who you are. One moment that hits you from out of sight and makes you change gears completely, open your eyes, and assess your situation in a whole new light.
Now, let me start by saying that when I was young, my exposure to music was limited to boring singer-songwriters, your James Taylors and John Denvers, etc. And, even being as young and impressionable as all children are, this music bored and annoyed me, therefore, leaving me to dismiss all music altogether as being frustratingly simple, and plain. In my house, it was all acoustic, all the time.
Then it happened. Out of the blue and completely unexpected as all of these moments tend to be. I was eleven years old at the time, and staying at my cousin’s house while my parents were away. My cousin always had some sort of program on his television playing music, but I never really paid any attention to it when I was over there, and my distaste for music had not yet changed, but on that day, my cousin actually made a point to call me into the room and show me what was on the T.V. What I saw was none other than Chuck Schuldiner himself, playing a live show with Death, shredding a solo on his sleek, sharp B.C. Rich Stealth. It was like nothing I had ever seen. A guitarist playing notes so high and so fast, and on an electric guitar that was slick and sexy, not some big hunk of hollow wood.
That moment, something clicked in my head. I wanted to do what this guy was doing. Playing this incredible fast music, so loud and distorted, and have it enjoyed by huge crowds of people while I did it. It was an epiphany, a revelation. I was to be a heavy metal guitarist. And it was all thanks to this man, whose name and identity, at the time, was unknown to me. So I went home, and got my hands on as much metal music as I could. CDs by Metal Church, Nuclear Assault, and Flotsam and Jetsam soon graced the shelves in my room. I had found a music that inspired and liberated me, and it was all thanks to that one video of Chuck playing his solo.
Eventually, and to no real surprise, I found out about the legendary Death metal band, and who Chuck Schuldiner was, the visceral lead guitarist and vocalist behind the first real Death metal band, the man who inspired me to take up guitar and join a band, both of which are activities that I am very active in to this day.
It’s true, in a very indirect way, Chuck Schuldiner changed the way my life was headed, but my life story is not what I’m aiming to write here, so I’ll expound upon myself no further. December 13 was the tenth anniversary of Chuck’s untimely death due to brain cancer, which he fought through violently to the bitter end, always continuing to write and play music for his fans, and for himself, but what I want to accomplish with this article is not to write yet another sad story about the death of Chuck Schuldiner, but rather, to focus on how great he was while he was still here. How important he was as a musician, as a vocalsist, a guitarist, and as a person as well.
When Chuck formed Death, I’m sure he had no idea the influence he would have on Heavy metal, and really, on music as a whole, by inventing, unknowingly, one of the most infamous forms of music around still to this day. Many people, including myself, consider Death to be the first Death metal band. Some may say Possessed came first, but I disagree, and find them more on the Black/Thrash side of metal, but Death was the real deal as far as Death metal was concerned. Spear-headed by the young and talented Chuck, he created a debut album, Scream Bloody Gore, that was raw and visceral, taking influence from the early works of Metallica, Anvil, and Motorhead, and taking it ten steps further in the speed and aggression departments. It was like Thrash, but faster, like Black metal, but more raw (at the time), and with Chuck’s guttural growls, down-tuned riffs, and frantic, speedy solos, it was like nothing before it.
Chuck had come from humble beginnings, taking these classic metal influences that he so loved, and wanting to add his own chapter to the book, with his own music, and in the process, created something entirely new and innovative, but of course, this music labeled Death metal, a label Chuck himself never liked, a name like Death, and campy, gory lyrics, the music, and the band themselves, were met with obvious scorn by those who didn’t listen, and didn’t understand what the band was trying to accomplish.
“I consider the name to definitely be just a name,” Chuck commented on the band name during an interview in 1991, shortly after the release of Human. “I wanted a name to describe the music. An extreme name for extreme music.” While he held this belief firm, he still garnered many stereotypes to the Heavy metal genre, but did his best to smash just as many or more than he attracted and created.
Chuck was a damn good musician and songwriter, as we all know, but he was just as good a person. He tried constantly to show the public that just because you’re a heavy metal musician, it does not also make you some Satan-worshipping delinquent who wants to kill babies and burn down churches (unless you’re a Black metal musician in Norway, that is). He was always trying to make people see deeper than just the name, to try and make people see that judging based on aesthetics is not the way to go.
“I’m a very positive person,” he said in an interview with MTV. “Towards life, towards friendship, towards love, towards, you know, all certain things that we’re made up as, as being human.”
It was always important to Chuck to believe music, not rumors (his own words, there), and tried to clear up the ever-popular negative connotations associated with his the type of music he played. His music, extreme as it was, was a positive outlet, a way for him to create art, and just because the lyrics are growled, and the guitars are fast and distorted, does that make it wrong? Chuck certainly didn’t think so, and he wanted to voice his opinion.
“I’m not satanic because I’m in a band called Death. I’m not a violent person or anything. I’m just a person who has a name of a band, and I’m trying to just make everything fit together, you know? It wouldn’t work having a band called Pink Flowers.”
“We did write gore lyrics, but it was more like kind of tongue-in-cheek, horror-movie type level. Nothing like encouraging people to go out and hurt themselves or anything stupid like that. It's pure fantasy-movie type, scary stuff.”
To make matters better for himself, after the release of Leprosy (1988),Spiritual Healing (1990), which even contained a controversial track on his stance on abortion, and of course, the album that launched Death into the spotlight, Human (1991). Chuck began abandoning his humorously gratuitous and gory lyrics for the politically and morally charged verses on
But it Death wasn’t just evolving lyrically. Chuck was a creative genius, an artist who wanted his art to grow and change and evolve, not at all content with an interchangeable discography of boring musical consistency. With every passing album, the music started becoming more technical, “more musical,” as Paul Masvidal (former Death guitarist during Human and long-time Cynic guitarist) said in an interview. Riffs became more complex, and time signatures started getting crazier as Progressive influences started finding their way into Death’s music and Chuck’s songwriting. Intros and interludes were starting to be introduced, and melody was becoming more and more prevalent in the riffs and solos.
By the time Symbolic was released in 1995, following the frantically technical and wildly melodic Individual Thought Patterns released in 1993, many thought Chuck had reached a creative and technical peak. His songwriting was superb, a perfect balance of extremity and melody, raw speed and memorable hooks, but despite the seemingly unbeatable brilliance of this release. Chuck kept writing, and kept evolving his music to new heights when he released his final album, and his most ambitious and progressive work to come, in 1998, The Sound of Perseverance, released a year before he was diagnosed with brain cancer on his 32nd birthday.
After initial treatment, Chuck was in recovery and looking good, but the cost of the operations were more than he and his family could afford, and they were put in massive debt, and they were, as a result of their financial issues, unable to continue the treatment that could have saved Chuck’s life.
Now, I know I said that I wasn’t going to focus on the sad stuff here, but what, if any, positivity you can take from this is that, at the first notice that Chuck’s life was in danger, bands in the metal community, as well as bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers began hosting massive fundraisers and benefits to raise money for Chuck and his family.
In 2001, however, his cancer returned, and the chemo-therapy drug he was given weakened him greatly, and he soon took ill with pneumonia as well, leaving him dead on December 13, 2001, leaving behind him a legacy that can be matched by few others as musicians, and as people as well, for Chuck was not only striving to push himself musically, but was always trying to better the lives and conditions of his fellow musicians, disparaging the negative stereotypes placed upon them, and actively trying to encourage the idea of equality and that judgement was the real evil, not the music.
While Chuck may be gone, we still have him here with us in the music that he created while he was alive. Even after his death, he continues to inspire people, such as myself and countless others with his music. Like so many before him, Chuck was an innovator, who was able to create so much in his short time here, to crush stereotypes and break boundaries never before crossed.
This is how we should remember Chuck Schuldiner when we think of him. Not just as the raw and guttural frontman of the very first Death metal band, and not just as the Father of Death metal, but as a positive lover of friendship, love, and animals, someone who believed in the power of creativity and art.
“Believe in music, not rumors.” That’s what he would be saying if he were still here, and while I’m sure, if you’re reading this, that you know who Chuck Schuldiner and Death is, and that you’re probably not someone who associates metal music with such negative stereotypes, maybe, in remembrance, of Chuck Schuldiner, you can help carry on what he tried to do until his dying day. Show this to your family, your friends, anyone who may look upon these musicians and artists in distaste, and show them that their judgment is skewed, that playing music that’s faster, more extreme, or different than what they’re used to hearing doesn’t make it bad or wrong or evil. Help them open their minds the way Chuck tried to get people to.