Monday, December 27, 2010

1990: "Memories Remain", Obituary

Hailing from the same South Florida backwater swamp as influences and label mates Death, Obituary nicked a lot from Death early on: John Tardy's guttural vocals a near dead ringer for Chuck Schuldiner's distinctive howl, the musical focus on an atmosphere of dread as much as uptempo brutality also a hallmark of Death circa 1990, etc. But at this point Cannibal Corpse and the Florida bands were all the death metal that most Americans had heard, and Obituary more than made up in quality what they lacked in originality. Over the long haul, though, the lack of brutality on top of an unwillingness to progress would eventually find the band falling out of step with the cutting edge of death metal, leading to a prolonged break up beginning in the late 90s.

1990: "Lunatic of God's Creation", Deicide

Another early entry in the Florida death metal canon, Deicide was a fan favorite right out of the gate, both for their uncompromising brutality as well as frontman Glen Benton's revival of hardcore Satanism in the metal genre, a theme which had long since fallen out of favor in late 80s thrash (Slayer's South of Heaven being one of the last high profile metal albums to feature unapologetic pro-Satan tropes, which in 1988 had already begun to make the album sound dated).

Deicide, according to a Blabbermouth news item (which I won't bother to link to since the item itself doesn't cite a direct source), is allegedly listed by Nielsen SoundScan as the second biggest selling death metal album of all time; in fact, it may very well be the genre's top seller, as its release predated the SoundScan era, whereas the official #1 - Morbid Angel's 1993 album Covenant - did not... so we can expect that Covenant's sales figures are pretty well accounted for, whereas a pretty significant chunk of early sales for Deicide are not.

At any rate the album is a veritable "greatest hits" of death metal classics, with nearly all of its songs remaining fan faves today. Hell, this album was so popular at the time that Roadrunner would release the original demos of these tracks three years later as Amon, Feasting the Beast. I could have chosen just about any of these cuts as representative of the Deicide ethos, but opening track "Lunatic of God's Creation" says it all about as well as anything else could.

1990: "A Skull Full of Maggots", Cannibal Corpse

One of the first bands to take the baton from the vastly influential Death album Scream Bloody Gore and run with it, Cannibal Corpse formed in 1988 in the barren frigidity of Buffalo, NY... the polar opposite of the swampy biosphere Death's members were culling for inspiration. Cannibal Corpse, led by frontman Chris Barnes, would take the gory lyrics of Death to new extremes, making that disgusting imagery their stock in trade. Aside from later replacing Barnes with George "Corpsegrinder" Fisher, CC have for the most part continued mining the same gore-laden brutality with little variation in the two decades since, making them one of the premier torchbearers for old school death metal.

Eaten Back to Life was the band's debut, and though it was considered an instant classic at the time, it's been handed down in history as one of the lesser Corpse albums. Even as early as 2000, when the group's first live album was released, "A Skull Full of Maggots" was the only song off of Eaten Back to Life that still regularly made its way into the set list.

1990: "Defensive Personalities", Death

Back from a long hiatus, the holidays have wrung all the wholesome, life affirming essence out of me. What better way to get back into the swing of things, then, than with a series of entries on the burgeoning death metal movement at the turn of the 90s?

Probably seems kind of lame/obvious starting off with the actual band Death, but unsurprisingly the Chuck Schuldiner-led ensemble was one of the seminal acts in creating the death metal template as an extreme spin off of thrash. The genre itself was inadvertently christened in 1985 by Bay Area band Possessed, on a song by the same name off of their Seven Churches album, but at the time Possessed were seen less as a pioneering new influence and more of a traditional, sloppy thrash group a la contemporary Celtic Frost and early Venom. Like many pioneers, Possessed would have to wait until their field was a little more crowded before fans retroactively began to realize that they were on to something new, instead of just peddling a particularly virulent strain of thrash.

Death was the band that served notice that a new form of metal was here to stay. 1987's Scream Bloody Gore set the bar immediately for those who wished to consider themselves on the cutting edge of extremity, the stomach churning lyrics, guttural vocals and darker, more sinister riffs establishing a prototype for all death metal bands to come (a fact not lost on burgeoning thrash bands in Florida, which would become geographically to death metal as the Bay Area was to thrash).

By 1990, however, Schuldiner was on album number three, and had already lightened up the pace somewhat in favor of more technical musicianship. Spiritual Healing largely retreated back toward thrash, save for the guttural vocals - Schuldiner could sing no other way - and wasn't particularly well received at the time. In hindsight, it's an essential stepping stone in the evolution that would lead to the band's late period masterpieces Symbolic and The Sound of Perserverance. Schuldiner himself would eventually downplay his role in the rise of death metal, proclaiming "I don’t think I should take credit for this death metal stuff. I’m just a guy from a band, and I think Death is a metal band".

Nonetheless, though he would never again write an album with the visceral brutality of Scream Bloody Gore, Schuldiner retained sufficient respect and a large enough fanbase that Spiritual Healing and - in particular - later efforts would make him an influential figure in the technical death metal movement, which would peak in popularity in the mid-to-late 90s.