by Mitch Goldman
DEATH--The Masquerade, Atlanta GA 7/26/95
Hey kids, it's Death! That's right, Tampa, Florida's seminal death metal band is back on the road, in suppport of their sixth album SYMBOLIC. Death leader/songwriter/guitarist/growler Chuck Shuldiner is still keeping Death alive with his ever-rotating roster of sidemen, this time out with the amazing Gene Hoglan on drums (for the second album/tour in a row, an unheard-of continuity for Chuck's band), Kelly Conlon on bass, and Bobby Koelble on guitar.
Chuck was just 16 and still in high school when his first version of Death recorded the highly influential (yet exceedingly primitive) SCREAM BLOODY GORE in 1987 (imagine Chuck at home: "Ma, I'll do my homework as soon as I finish the lyrics to "Ritual Zombie"!). While Morbid Angel may have been around the Florida death scene longer, Death were the first pure-death US band to release a nationally distributed album, thus making them the fathers of the Florida grindcore scene. Now in his late 20's, an old man in the world of grindcore, Chuck has lead Death through six albums, three times as many personnel changes (Chuck is notoriously difficult to work with!) and a staggering amount of musical and lyrical progression. Now firmly ensconced in what I would call "techno-thrash" Chuck and company play a kind of jazz/art/core: frequent arty time signature changes, syncopated rhythms, off beat (yet still typical "death" like) vocals, and philosophical lyrics now dominate on SYMBOLIC. Death's progression has come incrementally throughout their releases (SCREAM BLOODY GORE, 1987; LEPROSY, 1988; SPIRITUAL HEALING, 1989; HUMAN, 1991; INDIVIDUAL THOUGHT PATTERNS, 1993; and SYMBOLIC, 1995), so these six albums form a template for underground metal development; but if you were to compare GORE to SYMBOLIC, you'd be certain you were listening to different bands, and you'd be right.
The metal market has shrivelled drastically since Chuck released THOUGHT PATTERNS two years ago; metal audiences are smaller, and the industry was demoralized by the major label commercial failures of bands like Carcass and Entombed, two bands signed to CBS in the hopes of a death metal commercial breakthrough. That never materialized, and while there are still hundreds of death bands in Europe plugging away at this fast-putrefying genre, the aforementioned bands (along with Obituary and a few others) are the only real contenders for the future stakes in metal. Luckily, all these bands continue to progress and push the limits of what's defined as "death" or "grindcore".
Taking the stage at the Masquerade (in front of an audience a third smaller than the crowd that piled into the club for Death two years ago) Chuck and the boys ripped through a one hour-plus set that represented all of Death's albums except the first. Chuck and new guitarist Bobby Koelble traded precise, surprisingly melodic riffing with a reckless-yet-rehearsed abandon, and Gene Hoglan is perhaps the best drummer in thrash today; with his head tilted back, he smiled at the ceiling, his arms almost floating above his kit with a jazzy flair that brings an element of, well, *class* to the proceedings (Gene's one of those drummers who makes drumming look like dancing). The true joy with which he plays his swing/thrash is rare in rock these days. The only gripe with the band is new bassist Kelly Conlon who, while quite competent, doesn't bring the jazzy, fretless sound to Death that previous players have.
Set highlights included the opening ten minute thrash mini-opera "Spiritual Healing"; "The Philospher" (from THOUGHT PATTERNS) which featured impeccable soloing from Chuck and Bobby; and the new tunes from SYMBOLIC, "Crystal Mountain", "Zero Tolerance",and the title track. Throughout the set Death-heads in the crowd shouted for Death's seminal early hit "Pull the Plug" (from LEPROSY), which of course the boys saved for the obligatory encore. "Plug" was played better than I've ever heard it; the band included a neat little false ending, and then pumped up the feedback climax with as much intensity as you can expect at 1:30 in the morning.
While death and grindcore continue to wither on the vine of commercial success and genre balkanization, Death leads the US metal pack in pushing the boundaries of death metal, and redefining what "thrash" means to thousands of kids hungry for aggressive, yet *progressive* rock.
Lack of Comprehension
ENCORE: Pull the Plug