THRASH ‘TIL DEATH is a 50 week long set of features exploring the legends who crossed over between thrash and death metal between 1983-1993. The focus is primarily on under-served, unknown, and exemplar bands/releases. The selection is comprehensive but the numbering is not indicative of any type of rank or value: The order of band appearance is arbitrarily chosen. E-mail me if you want to suggest any relevant bands!
You might not agree without digging a bit deeper into the full story but the way I personally see it: The corrupt, inhumane and entirely fucked up healthcare insurance system in the United States was ultimately responsible for Chuck Schuldiner‘s death in 2001. The recurrence of his brain stem tumor demanded swift action and despite purchasing an insurance policy prior he was still denied a vital second round of treatment within a small window of action. The help came by way of the music industry but it was ultimately too late. The system is fucked up. Remembered, idolized, and always fondly Schuldiner wasn’t the first youth to pick up a guitar and put all of his grief and ambitions into heavy music but he would end up being one of the most influential. The major explanation for this stems from the fact he’d been incredibly prolific in terms of pressing the record button and pushing out tons of demo and rehearsal tapes throughout the 80’s starting with his first band of teens, Mantas. You could dig into interviews and cover songs from the era but you’d only need to listen to Mantas/Death to hear heavy influence from Slayer, Venom, Hellhammer, Mercyful Fate, hardcore punk and the emerging extreme metal presence in Europe and the United States as death metal was birthed. There are literally a hundred tapes to dig through from 1983-1987 but I’ll skip all of the rehearsals just for the sake of retaining my own sanity. I don’t honestly think anyone cares what I have to say about ‘Leprosy’, but it is the point where Death became more than just an ‘underground’ band and the point where Schuldiner‘s vision became notable enough that he would soon be able to work with musicians of his choosing and create ‘serious’ death metal music. We’re here for the dirt of the underground, so I’m clipping it off in 1987. If you would like the complete history of Death and all releases go to: EMPTYWORDS.org // Hey! I’ve done my best to research as much as I can but please feel free to message me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or leave a comment if I’ve left out anything vital or gotten something horribly wrong!
|Title [Type/Year]||Death by Metal [Compilation/1983-1984]|
|Rating [3.5/5.0]||LISTEN on Bandcamp [Compilation]|
Mantas was formed in 1983 by a 16 year old Schuldiner, himself a guitarist joined by second guitarist Rick Rozz and vocalist/drummer Kam Lee, who was 15 at the time. By 1984 they added a very temporary bassist named Dave Tett and recorded a rehearsal tape entitled ‘Emotional’ where they struggled through two takes of three basic ‘evil heavy metal’ songs. By the end of 1984 Mantas had released three rehearsal tapes, a live tape, and a demo entitled ‘Death by Metal’ before changing their name to Death and re-recording that demo… then releasing four live tapes, and one more demo under that new name. Most of the Mantas material is included on the compilation I’ve linked and Death has a big enough following/bootleg culture that all of it is available online. The core of this year was spent developing three notable songs “Evil Dead”, with its unforgettable aped opening lead, “Legion of Doom” (which will be familiar to folks who love “Lethal Tendencies” by Hallow’s Eve) and the Slayer influenced “Death by Metal”. What shines through here most of all is a love for the rise of ‘evil’ heavy metal following the popularity of raw NWOBHM groups such as Venom.
At this point these teenagers were working in line with other early extreme metal groups such as Sepultura, Slaughter, Hellhammer, etc. on a primitive and thrash inspired form of hardcore punk sped heavy metal. These tapes sucked, I mean the songs were memorable enough but pretty dry metal-punk for ’83 standards, but their importance was in sound and attitude as you’ll find many folks would catch on as Schuldiner sent out leagues of these tapes to zines and tape traders. The sentiment was basically “Look at this evil shit these teenagers are making left and right, it rules” and more importantly “We can do this, too.”
|Title [Type/Year]||Reign of Terror [Demo/1984]|
|Rating [3.0/5.0]||LISTEN on YouTube|
Mantas had actually split up in the summer of 1984 and in forming Death Schuldiner quickly realized he didn’t know anyone who he could get right to work with. So, Death was technically a new band and entirely Schuldiner’s own thing. Due credit came in hindsight as people combed over Death‘s posthumous legacy as many independent bands back in the day were written/performed by 1-2 people but credited so they would appear as a viable touring band, which is/was always more likely to be signed to a recording contract. Point being that for all 80’s death releases some credit was given to band members upon release when most all of the songwriting, lyrics and (guitar/bass) performances were attributable to Schuldiner. At this point Kam Lee was the sole vocalist and his growled reverb heavy thrash tone was surely influenced by both Possessed demos and Hellhammer tapes. Lee is the only real point of personality on this first official Death demo and the style indicates a very similar modus as Slaughter up in Canada, a band that Schuldiner would briefly join a couple of years later. Of all of the brutal/extreme tapes out there in the world of thrash in 1984 this is tame as hell and lazily played, in my opinion.
|Title [Type/Year]||Infernal Death [Demo/1985]|
|Rating [3.25/5.0]||LISTEN on YouTube!|
Death entered 1985 with their second official demo ‘Infernal Death’ this would be the last release with all of the original members though Rick Rozz would return for the recording of ‘Leprosy’. Rozz would later state in an interview that he was fired from the band at this time after meeting a girl on tour in New Jersey and disappearing to hang out with her for two weeks. This is where I felt Schuldiner began to write memorable death/thrash songs, having better worked out his aptitude for basic song structures beyond 1-2 riff wonders. The final song “Archangel” is the only one to not be included on ‘Scream Bloody Gore’ but there is a fantastic version of this song recorded by German band Atrocity as a bonus track for their second album. After this demo Schuldiner would be joined by two members of Flint, Michigan grind band Genocide (pre-Repulsion) for rehearsal tapes #7-10 until Kam Lee left. At that point Schuldiner was clearly driven to find the right band and he’d move to San Francisco, California until the end of the year.
|Title [Type/Year]||Back from the Dead [Demo/1985]|
|Rating [4.0/5.0]||LISTEN on YouTube|
The San Francisco Bay Area was a full-on storm of independent and highly competitive heavy metal acts circa 1985 and Schuldiner found a really solid opportunity in working with drummer Eric Brecht who’d been the original drummer for crossover thrashers D.R.I. having left right after the ‘Violent Pacification’ EP. For the first time Death was playing in time most of the time, the riffs had gained some traction and the band had a dedicated bassist. ‘Back From the Dead’ was the first official demo to come from this line-up along with two live tapes and two rehearsal tapes until Schuldiner returned to Florida and Brecht joined Hirax for their classic ‘Hate, Fear, & Power’ album. This is my favorite official demo from Death for the clarity of the recording and for Brecht‘s drumming which includes far more hardcore fills and skank-beats than peers at the time such as Master, Slaughter, or Repulsion. The artwork I’ve included is from a bootleg version of the tape, the original did not have a proper sleeve. Altogether in 1985 Schuldiner would record a total of eight rehearsals, three live tapes, three demo tapes and move across the country and back. It was time to think about a full-length but he’d returned to Florida without a band, and with a few ex-bandmates from the now brimming Florida scene kind of soured by his attempts to escape their flat, swampy underground Hell.
|Title [Type/Year]||Fuck of Death [Archival/2004]|
|Rating [4.0/5.0]||LISTEN on YouTube|
It was always kind of a bummer to hear Schuldiner state how little sub-genre and individual contributions mattered to him in the 90’s because it was clear in the 80’s how driven he was by the best of extreme metal and had fantastic taste that ranged from obscure French metal like Sortilege all the way down to these gutter-thrashing nuclear death-punks up in Toronto, Canada. Slaughter would spend a short while rehearsing with Schuldiner as their guitarist in January of 1986, this rehearsal from the end of the month includes versions of two of the earliest Mantas songs (“Evil Dead”, “Legion of Doom”) that are perfectly suited for Slaughter. Is it any coincidence that the Canadians were doubly heavy from this point on? I don’t think so, the ‘Nocturnal Hell’ 7″ that was recorded in February of that same year was twice as heavy as any pre-Chuck visit material! The rehearsal itself includes “Fuck of Death” which I was always under the impression they’d written with Schuldiner. Where did he go next after a short winter in frozen Hell? Back to the Bay Area.
|Title [Type/Year]||Mutilation [Demo/1986]|
|Rating [4.25/5.0]||LISTEN on YouTube|
I’ve seen this part of the story told a few different ways and only one version is logically possible unless Schuldiner had phoned in a radio ad within earshot of drummer Chris Reifert before having an address or phone number set up. Reifert was fresh out of his first band Burnt Offering, a brutal thrash band that few remember because they’d relocated from California to Oregon and dissolved by 1987. This is the dude from Autopsy before all of that happened and it was the absolute right match in hindsight. At this point Steve DiGiorgio of Sadus would practice with Death either because they’d vibed on the simpler songs or because the two bands were sharing a practice space. For these 19-20 year old kids it was probably just a way of putting in their dues but holy shit did Schuldiner do his best work climbing this final set of hills in realizing his first full-length.
This is the demo the less invested public should hear in terms of understanding where Schuldiner had become musician enough to realize his ideas as full-length worthy. Disagree? Well, the very competitive heavy metal space circa 1986 ultimately decided this is where Death were a viable act. ‘Mutilation’ is a raw, jaw-dropping plunge into true death metal serving as a proof of concept as to what a horror-themed trip ‘Scream Bloody Gore’ might be. “Zombie Ritual” and the title track are staples of that legendary Side A but I’d always wondered why “Land of No Return” was (more or less) left on the chopping block along with a few other solid pieces along the way. The story as it is most often told is that the band would get signed by Combat Records based on this demo and would go work with Randy Burns for the debut at that point. In fact, there was yet another demo that preceded the final product.
|Title [Type/Year]||Aggressive Tyrant [Demo/1986]|
|Rating [3.0/5.0]||LISTEN on YouTube|
Allen West was a huge addition to Obituary‘s sound when he joined in 1987 and you can hear a lot of his Celtic Frost influence in the riffs written for his first band Massacre who formed in 1984. The project also featured ex-Death/Mantas vocalist/drummer Kam Lee along with future Death drummer Bill Butler. The line-up would briefly include Rick Rozz on guitars as well. ‘Aggressive Tyrant’ is kind of a stupid mess between Lee‘s shouts of “Thrash!” and flamboyant performance. The whole growling and laughing thing just sounds like a nervous tic from being high and on stage a la Hellwitch. Massacre is a tough thing to follow as it has always been Plan B for the musicians involved as they’d happily jump in and out of the band to work on more important projects. The ’89-’92 era of the band is the most important and even that ended poorly, at the very least you’ll see where these guys were around age 19-20 and no doubt you’ll find value in these rhythms and see how they connect with the shift in Obituary‘s sound as they transitioned from early death/thrash sounds in Xecutioner. The choice to dumb down ‘From Beyond’ with old primitive songs instead of the material from the ‘Second Coming’ demo will always bother me, that album always felt like a corporate label spurring on opportunism. Just a thought in hindsight, doesn’t actually matter.
|Title [Type/Year]||Scream Bloody Gore ‘Aborted Sessions’ [Demo/1986]|
|Rating [3.5/5.0]||LISTEN on YouTube|
I’ll have to speculate here based on a few sources and some ‘official’ sources become inconsistent around this time. It appears that Death (Schuldiner, Reifert) attempted to self-record the recordings for the album that would become ‘Scream Bloody Gore’ after signing with Combat Records. Upon hearing these raw and musty pre-production demos (or, untouched recording sessions) from the duo the record label would ship the band out to Hollywood, California to work with producer Randy Burns, the fellow who’d introduced the world to Possessed, Suicidal Tendencies, Crumbsuckers, etc. If you’re familiar with Burns work circa ’86 it’ll sound funny that he was the choice to clean things up, offering muddy mixes for bands like Megadeth that same year but after hearing this tape it becomes clear the record was going to sound like a rushed Slaughter demo without some intervention. Most notably these sessions would include some of the earliest songs written for Mantas, all of which received the axe for the final tracklist of the debut. If you’re not sure about this demo, it is explained/included on the deluxe remaster/reissue boxset for ‘Scream Bloody Gore’ that Relapse Records released in 2016.
|Title [Type/Year]||Scream Bloody Gore [LP/1987]|
|Rating [4.0/5.0]||LISTEN on Bandcamp | Spotify|
Despite how fucking ham-fisted every aspect of Death had been from the start, the grifting Schuldiner had done for the last two years finally paid off in realizing ‘Scream Bloody Gore’. If you’re keen to consider this the first ‘proper’ death metal full-length I’ll have to suggest that numerous 1986 releases brought this level of extremity and the production from Burns here was about in line with ‘Schizophrenia’ from Sepultura that same year. Disagreeing hard? You’re listening to the 2016 remaster! In fact you can’t listen to the original mix/master of the album anywhere on the internet anymore. The closest you’ll get is the 2010 reissue from Relapse Records, after they’d acquired digital rights to the album, which I believe is the version up on Spotify now. Regardless of what version you’re hearing Randy Burns’ production for this recording was more or less set to create ‘Seven Churches’ 2.0 in terms of sound design, capturing some of the punkish swing of the ‘Back From the Dead’ demo while gaining the heavier claustrophobia of ‘Mutilation’ that’d impressed Combat Records so much in the first place. The eternal debate among less adventurous listeners remains locked between Possessed and Death for ‘first death metal album and that conversation is fine, both were exceptional extreme thrash bands who were making evil heavy metal that was worthy enough to be noticed by the masses.
The great success of ‘Scream Bloody Gore’ is something I believe Schuldiner had been working on hardest for those first four years, distinct rhythm guitar technique that lead to intuitive riff structures pushing beyond the average thrash metal voicing of the time. You’ll hear this technique flood into extreme thrash bands around this time across the board, taking the high speed runs of LaLonde/Tarrao and using them as the alternating narrative voice beyond Schuldiner‘s own punkish rasping attempts to sing. ‘Leprosy’ was the result of those ideas fully realized but you could hear techniques from ‘Scream Bloody Gore’ all over demos/albums from Messiah, Sentenced, Nihilist, and countless others I’ve covered in this feature… Although the most earnest continuation of those rhythms would see meaningful evolution in Reifert‘s own band Autopsy. As much fun as it might be to explore the influence of Fulci and Raimi horror movies and countless obscure thrash bands upon Schuldiner‘s work the real legacy of Death comes from a restless need to evolve and move away from his general incompatibility with the drug-addled opportunism of the early Florida death metal scene that he’d experience. Unfortunately this takes us away from the inception of extreme metal and towards a lot of stupid fuckery.
The fact is that folks took every opportunity to leech off of Schuldiner in his lifetime and beyond, be it disputed tours under his band’s name or countless bootlegs in the wild. As much as people have long worshiped Death, they’ve never missed an opportunity to profit from it. A deeper look at the legacy of this “invention” of death metal allows us fans to remember where the sub-genre began, in the garages of random teenagers affected by grief and alienated by life in the early 1980’s United States. Beyond that the real takeaway from Death‘s early discography is that success is earned through hard work, a process of trial-and-error, whereas legacy is earned through evolution beyond fad and trend. I’m grateful that Schuldiner was apt to document his musical evolution and though I didn’t include roughly 30 live tapes, rehearsals, and as many live show bootleg VHS tapes… It all helped justify and concrete the innovator beyond the grave.
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