“Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” A universally familiar quote, uttered by one Dr. Robert Oppenheimer – “father of the Atomic bomb” – as he witnessed the historic first detonation of a nuclear weapon. A quote, which, in the context of modern culture, not least heavy metal, has been infinitely appropriated to suitably melodramatic effect and almost inappropriately detached from the event that inspired its musings. The origins of the line are rooted in the Hindu scripture, The Bhagavad-Gita, a text, which details an exchange between a conflicted warrior prince and an incarnation of Vishnu – one that results, at its most fundamental core, in Vishnu as a force of inevitability. Ironic, then, that an observation that has since come to posthumously define Oppenheimer, has connotations that far exceed the excerpt’s overt immediacy. Vishnu, ineffable by nature, is an ultimately cyclical deity – one whose concept is equal parts creator and destroyer; an incarnation of extremes. As he creates, so he destroys. So did Chuck.
Death‘s importance in developing my musical tastes are not to be underestimated, in fact, they are downright pivotal. As metal fans, we more than most, have a tendency to look for the next great spectacle. Often, this pseudo-manifests in displays of proficiency, but complexity doesn’t equal innovation; a willingness to take the logical next step does – a capacity to stay just one frame ahead, unbound by the status quo. Chuck Schuldiner is one of our culture’s most lauded innovators and the undisputed “father of death metal.” Scream Bloody Gore, a labour of unwavering vision and unrelenting drive, stands atop that hill of bones as the very first death metal record 1, still glistening from the sanguine amniotic fluid that so grimly nurtured the audible ugliness that would soon evangelise a school of brutal expression2.
It’s important to consider just how young Schuldiner was when he assembled the living monstrosity that would eventually become Death. Although the lyrical content would perhaps belie the author’s age, the musical compound found within the iconic debut spoke of a much higher quality. While hardly refined in its nascence, there was always a virtuosity to the structure of the band that seeped into that moribund core – efficacious in its simplicity, yet deceptively adept. The throat-shredding vocals that rampaged over “Infernal Death” somehow gelled with the potent thrash-suffused structures that dominated the verses, and coupled with a guitar tone that may well have been cartilage on garrote wire, exemplary riff after riff swarmed, baleful and bold. Schuldiner’s forward thinking approach to the guitar allowed cult classics like “Evil Dead” and the timeless “Zombie Ritual” a frenetic barbarism that remains as effective today is it was thirty years ago.
Although for all intents and purposes a solo album, as Schuldiner balanced all guitar and vocal duties, the infamous Chris Reifert would provide his indicative cro magnon approach to the skins. If you’ve absorbed even a few fleeting seconds of his own legendary vehicle, Autopsy, it should be clear what his drum work offers the record. Primal, if not primitive percussion drives everything from the abject savagery of “Mutilation” to the deliberate riffing that presides over “Sacrificial” and “Regurgitated Guts.” Even now, his loose belligerence allows “Beyond the Unholy Grave” a frantic presence often overlooked in today’s race for hyper-technicality, cementing the song as one of death metal’s first and finest. The duo’s feral fascinations, both musically and conceptually, would instruct an entire generation on the limits of aggression only hinted at in the decade’s Bay Area boom.
In creating Scream Bloody Gore, Schuldiner introduced a genre not content to tell the audient void with a whisper, but with an undead howl. Consistently evolving, the Floridian, New York and Scandinavian scenes that quantify death metal as we know it today, would scarcely exist, not having sipped from the goblet of gore. As the source of some of extreme music’s most depraved and vilified content, the genre and album are, by definition, indicative of death in all of its more mortal implications, but it is also a bold genesis whose mottled dead skin mask can still be glimpsed behind the shroud of every new act carrying that corpse-light torch.
Few records serve to canonize their makers, and although Schuldiner’s legacy, for fans like me, would sadly be discovered posthumously, a more fitting Momento Mori can rarely be recalled. Though arguably not his masterwork, no album since can truly claim to have “become death” with such legitimacy as Scream Bloody Gore – a shaper of aural worlds, and a breaker of boundaries – creating and destroying in equal measure; a zombie’s drug for the ages.