Press: Jawbone Press
Book: The 100 Greatest Metal Gitarists: 10) Chuck Schuldiner

Written by: Joel McIver
Published: January 2009



Death metal was an American invention, unlike its British-born antecedent, thrash metal. The origins of the genre's name are disputed, with rival claims to its invention coming from the late Tomas ‘Quorthon' Forsberg of Bathory as well as the staff of the German Noise label who issued the Death Metal compilation LP in 1984. However, most experts credit Jeff Becerra of the San Francisco band Possessed with coming up with the ‘death metal' tag and making it the title of one of the songs on his band's debut album, Seven Churches, released in early 1985.

Possessed may have been the first death metal band out of the blocks, but it was a close thing. As they rose to prominence, a younger, more isolated act called Mantas were doing something rather similar at demo level. This Florida band had been formed by the then 16-year-old Charles ‘Chuck' Schuldiner in 1983, recording a demo that year called Death By Metal. Raw, fast and utterly unsophisticated, Schuldiner's songwriting bore little hint of the complexity to come. He had started learning the guitar at nine years old after losing his older brother in a car accident: his parents bought him the instrument in an attempt to help him with his grief. After some initial reluctance he took avidly to the instrument, practising for entire weekends at a time.

Forming Mantas with his schoolmates Barney ‘Kam' Lee (vocals/drums) and second guitarist Rick Rozz, Chuck continued to record more demos after Death By Metal, including Reign Of Terror and an in-concert recording (naively titled Live At Ruby's Pub) – both of which appeared the following year, after a name change to Death. By this point the band, although still without a bass player, were making a name for themselves on the Florida live scene, bolstered by 1985's Infernal Death, Rigor Mortis, Back From The Dead and Infernal Live tapes.

In 1986 Chuck parted ways with Lee and Rozz, having negotiated a deal with the Combat label for a full album. Crucially, he had met another like-minded musician, Chris Reifert, a drummer, vocalist and guitarist whose taste for horror-movie-style slasher lyrics matched his own. The pair recorded a demo, Mutilation, in spring 1986 – after Chuck had endured a brief and unsatisfactory stint in the Canadian thrash metal act Slaughter – before embarking on songwriting sessions for the first Death LP, Scream Bloody Gore, released in 1987.

Scream Bloody Gore was a turning-point in extreme metal. Influential though Possessed's Seven Churches album had been two years previously, more than a few metalheads regarded that LP as merely thrash metal with harsh vocals. Scream… extended and elevated the concept a little further, with Schuldiner's throaty roar and the dark, doomy production taking another step towards extremity. The solos were understated and delivered uncertainly, with Chuck clearly searching for a musical identity; he played all the guitar and bass tracks in fast unison, uninterested at this stage in attempting anything other than a speedy, bloodsoaked rampage. In 1988 Death recorded Leprosy, a smarter, cleaner and more thoughtful album, with leads a more prominent feature of the overall sound. Reifert had departed to found the even more extreme death/gore metal band Autopsy, leaving Chuck to recruit his old Mantas sparring partner Rick Rozz along with bassist Terry Butler and drummer Bill Andrews.

By 1990, Schuldiner had reached the ripe old age of 23, and with maturity came a newfound desire to expand his musical and lyrical creativity. Replacing Rozz with the renowned session guitarist James Murphy (see previous entry), he composed the groundbreaking Spiritual Healing, another extreme metal milestone. At this point, a whole death metal scene had arisen in Florida, with Morbid Angel and Deicide exceeding the speed and violence of Death's output by utisiling blastbeats, a fast drumming technique with the snare drum playing sixteenths. This device, borrowed from the hardcore punk scene and the new grindcore movement pioneered in the UK by Napalm Death and Carcass, lent the music much more intensity, and Schuldiner must have noticed that his rival bands on the Florida scene were using it: however, to his enormous credit, he persevered with his own vision. Spiritual Healing, with an iconic cover designed by Megadeth sleeve artist Ed Repka (whose art had also adorned the previous Death albums), was the first step towards a progressive death metal approach, with complex writing such as the riff immediately before the long, melodic solo in ‘Defensive Personalities'.

At this point, Chuck stepped out of the safety zone and really stretched his abilities to the fullest, recording the Human album with a band of extraordinarily gifted musicians including bassist Steve DiGiorgio, Paul Masvidal (also in this book) on guitar and Sean Reinert on drums. Questioning social ills such as suicide and the mysteries of the cosmos, Chuck wrote songs that were a universe away from the gore themes of Scream… and the quasi-political commentary of Spiritual Healing, overlaying the fiercely complex music with opaque lyrics. Human was one of the first albums to combine extreme metal with progressive elements, an approach that continued and expanded on the remaining Death albums, Individual Thought Patterns (1993), Symbolic (1995) and The Sound Of Perseverance in 1998.

What these latter albums have in common is a constantly restless songwriting style, in which riffs are interchanged and juxtaposed in a complex, asymmetrical sequence. Chuck's melodic, fast alternate picking was a constant feature of his solos, delivered on his instantly recognisable BC Rich Stealth, as were his frequent returns to tremolo-picked death metal passages from the old days. His strength lay in the many types of guitar-playing which he had mastered, manifesting themselves in a high-profile supergroup called Voodoocult in 1994 in which he temporarily played alongside ex-Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo and Kreator guitarist Mille Petrozza.

In fact, such were Schuldiner's skills that – like Alex Skolnick of Testament before him – he embarked in a direction which took him away from extreme metal when Death went on hiatus in 1998. His new band, Control Denied, played a combination of straight heavy metal with progressive elements, a mixture that attracted much praise for their sole album, 1999's The Fragile Art Of Existence. Aided by DiGiorgio again as well as drummer Richard Christy (another Death alumnus), singer Tim Aymar and guitarist Shannon Hamm, Chuck seemed to be well on track to building a succesful second band.

However, Schuldiner was diagnosed with cancer of the brain stem in May 1999, making the title of Control Denied's then-current release somewhat prescient. As is so often the case, radiotherapy reduced the tumour and surgery removed the remaining material, but the cancer returned two years later. Although Chuck had continued to write and record with Control Denied in the interim, problems meeting his medical bills and the gradual erosion of his health meant that much of his time was spent away from the studio, and the new music remained unfinished. Although many of his fellow musicians (Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, Kid Rock, Korn and the Red Hot Chili Peppers among others) donated time and money towards a fundraising campaign, Chuck died on December 13, 2001 after a severe bout of pneumonia. His death at the age of only 34 was a tremendous blow to Death's fans, who might reasonably have expected another three decades of virtuoso music from him. What made the tragedy even worse was that over his short musical career (a mere 14 years) Chuck had followed a steep curve of evolution, both as a musician and songwriter. If he had moved from raw death metal to prog-metal to melodic heavy metal in that short time, what might he have accomplished if he'd been granted a full lifespan? We will never know, and for many thousands of his fans, that fact still hurts bitterly.

Seven years have passed since then, and it has been a source of comfort for many Death and Control Denied fans that Chuck has not been falsely deified in the way of so many fallen icons. He is known today, just as he was known in his lifetime, as a driven character who could be difficult to work with, as his standards were so high. Chuck demanded, and received, the best possible performances from his fellow musicians, using only the most talented and committed people on his records. This led to a degree of quality control that meant there is very little inessential material on any post-1990 Death album, and not much before that point either.

Chuck's legacy has not been without its controversies. His mother, Jane Schuldiner, who administers his estate and music, has been involved in a legal struggle for some time over the remaining Control Denied recordings, some of which were issued by a European label in the mid-Noughties as part of the Zero Tolerance compilation. The feeling among fans seems to be that the recordings deserve to be finished and issued in a manner appropriate to Chuck's last recorded work, although the compilation itself sold well. Death's entire catalogue was reissued by Century Media at the turn of the century, and the 1995 album Symbolic received a luxury reissue by Roadrunner in 2008. Hopefully more of these albums – each of them proof of Schuldiner's phenomenal musical skills and presence – will be reissued soon. BC Rich recently announced that a version of the Stealth which he used on so many great songs will go into production shortly, with fans' reaction to the news varying between delight and cynicism (the latter probably due to the huge revenues and publicity accrued by Dean from their Razorback model, released after the untimely death of ‘Dimebag' Darrell Abbott).

Schuldiner's name remains one to conjure with in metal circles. As a guitarist, as a songwriter and as an innovator, he was one of a select elite whose vision has shaped the music we listen to today. He is much missed.

Moment Of Guitar Genius
‘The Philosopher' features a tapped intro and perfectly precise alternate picking throughout, as well as a picking-hand precision that has been rarely equalled, but any and all of Death's albums display Chuck's maverick genius.


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Edited for Empty©Words 02-07-09