From Dio holograms to reunion albums to retro-fucking-everything, the last decade or so has been all about pandering to nostalgia, and Gruesome are a prime example. A few years ago, the ‘Death to All’ tours were begun to bring live renditions of the late Chuck Schuldiner’s music to a generation that never got to experience it the first time around. Following this time spent touring with former Death members, Exhumed’s Matt Harvey and Malevolent Creation’s Gus Rios took things a step further, forming Gruesome with the intent of creating new music in the vein of classic Death. Without outshining Schuldiner’s work, the band’s 2015 debut Savage Land was still fairly well received, even when paired against the hardened fist of Steel. Yet Steel’s review came with the caveat that his interest would likely wane if the project continued, and thus you’re left with a grunt writer like me to tell you why Gruesome may indeed have been better off if someone pulled the plug.
Given the title and artwork, you don’t have to be a member of the Schuldiner Fan Club to recognize that sophomore LP Twisted Prayers moves beyond the Leprosy worship of Savage Land and into the more progressive leanings of Spiritual Healing. As such these 8 tracks are rife with the twirling melodies, crystalline harmonies, piercing solos, and woke-ass lyrics that made Healing the masterpiece it was. Likewise Gruesome have remained steadfast in their sonic mimicry. Everything from the guitar tone to the snare drum to Matt Harvey’s vocals reek of Death circa 1990, and once again Ed Repka’s cover art imitates his work on Death‘s early records. Hell, they even got Healing guitarist James Murphy to perform a few guest solos on this thing. Point is, if you want Death, Gruesome give you Death; if you don’t want Death, feel free to close out this tab and go back to wiping.
Trouble is, things feel a bit too familiar. Aside from borrowing its title from a memorable “In Human Form” lyric, first single “A Waste of Life” feels almost entirely built from repurposed Death riffs, with an opening melody that treads far too closely to the intro of Healing’s “Within the Mind.” Likewise “Fatal Illusions” features a progression that sounds almost identical to the opening of “Living Monstrosity.” The examples don’t end there – in fact, you can go through this entire album and cherry pick the exact Death riffs that Gruesome seemed to be writing minor variations of. Even those riffs that don’t have an obvious Healing counterpart have a similar enough feel that the recycled vibe still pervades. It doesn’t help that the middle portion of Prayers is bloated with unmemorable tracks like “Lethal Legacy” and “At Death’s Door,” making moments like the brief crunchy riff in the middle of “Fatal Illusions” feel far more notable than it should.
Credit where it’s due – the lyrics I can make out actually aren’t bad, tackling social issues like excessive punishment (“Inhumane”) or mass shootings (“Fatal Illusions”) with at least a degree of thoughtfulness. Likewise the solos are a real treat and do well in evoking the glory of classic Death, with “Crusade of Brutality” in particular featuring an especially ripping lead section.1 The production also does a good enough job replicating Healing’s feel, even it if lacks the same warmth. And to be fair, not all the songs are bad – “Inhumane” and closer “Twisted Prayers” are somewhat memorable and well-written, even if that all-too-familiar stench still lingers.
In all, the most frustrating thing about Prayers is that Gruesome are starting to feel less like a loving tribute act and more like a cash grab. Forget stage holograms, at this rate it seems we’re only years away from exhuming Schuldiner’s corpse and stringing it up like a marionette puppet, and I don’t want to be there to see that. While Prayers features fleeting moments of inspiration, one needs only revisit Healing to hear how lacking these tracks are compared to the iconic songs on that record. Granted, that’s a high standard to reach. But whereas Savage Land attempted to do the same thing with Leprosy and ended up feeling like a cool little novelty album, Twisted Prayers feels more like a bag of regurgitated guts that’s already starting to stink.