The room’s four walls seem like they are closing in on me. Everything is blurry and all senses have lost their highest abilities. Somethingstrange surrounds me and I feel completely numb to act. Even worse is the feeling that I am trying to get my bearings among all the aforementioned and be able to write an article about one of the heroes of my young age, who still haunts my life with his aura. I am supposed to state to all people, familiar and unknown, why this tribute is being made and why even now, ten years after the loss of one of the most charismatic and important people in the history of music, the weight on my shoulders is much heavier than I can describe. And I can be sure that unfortunately, I am not the only one who feels like that. We must make clear that this is not an article about Death, but it concerns only Chuck Schuldiner, their founder and main composer, who left his mark in the history of music as one of the originators of something special among other genres. The so called DEATH metal. Let’s take things in a row and see if we can make some things clear.
The birth of a hero
Charles Michael ”Chuck” Schuldiner was born on May 13 of 1967 on Long Island of New York in the United States Of America. His father was Jewish with an Austrian origin and his mother was from the American South, rather keen on Judaism as well. His bigger brother Frank died at the early age of 16, a hit under the belt for young Chuck which hardly got over until the end of his own life as well. He also had a sister named Bethanne. His parents considered on buying him a guitar to ease his grief for his brother’s loss. It seemed that this was not the right treatment, as Chuck didn’t really like the stuff he was being taught and he quickly quit the lessons. He was a child that wanted to do his own thing from the very beginning and that’s something he kept through the years to come. Until the day when he was being given his first electric guitar. That was it. The youngster finally found what he thought was appropriate for him and started practicing as much as he could, especially when he got his first amps he would play for hours, when given space for it, because of his school duties.
Loving the electric guitar, influences, forming Death
Despite being always a clever child, he was never the type of guy who loved school, which later also quit, as he found no interest on it, being rather born of the education he was given. After many years he regreted this decision but never regreted the efforts he made to achieve all of dreams.Chuck was very much into the NWOBHM (New Wave Of British Heavy Metal) scene. However, his taste in music was never limited and he found many bands to accompany him to his early style of playing. Kiss was definitely one of them, then came bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest or Saxon and artists like Billy Idol to gain his interest. The fire was lit and Chuck’s ongoing discoveries lead to the French band Sortilege from Paris to become his favourite one. Later on, his taste in music became more extreme and then came Slayer, Possessed, Metallica and Mercyful Fate in which he owes a lot for making his band Death sounding the way it did. Death were founded in 1983 in their first form under the name of Mantas, but later, to avoid confusion with Venom’s guitarist (another band that inspired Chuck a lot). He also contributed as a second guitarist for the Canadian thrashers Slaughter in 1986 when Death were on a little hiatus, but this cooperation didn’t last long.
Gory beginning, promising debut
In his musical career, he never wanted to do the same thing again. That’s why the music of Death would evolve from album to album in all the forms Chuck would consider accessible. On May 25th 1987, the first album of Death, ”Scream Bloody Gore” was released. It was recorded twice due to the crappy sound of the initial recording, producer Randy Burns managed to save Chuck and his partner Chris Reifert (who later became the mastermind of death metal pioneers Autopsy). Chuck played also the bass on this recording, together with all guitars, rhythm and lead. Chris played the drums (he had joined earlier for the ”Mutilation” demo) and the album got tremendous reviews. Nothing like this was heard before and it is considered to be the first real death metal album, that’s also why Chuck was named ”The Godfather of death metal” since then, though he would always insist that he was just doing his own thing. At times, he would become angry about it and state that Possessed should get all the recognition about death metal with the release of their landmark album ”Seven Churches” back in 1985.
The trademark death metal album which everyone still tries to reproduce
It was time for evolution though and Chuck knew very well what to do. The next year, he releases ”Leprosy” on November 16th, 1988 with the help of his old partner in Mantas Rick Rozz (full name Frederick DeLillo) on the guitars and Bill Andrews on drums. Chuck played the bass on the recording again but was not credited for it. The credit instead went to Terry Butler who filled the line-up. Far away from the aesthetics of ”Scream Bloody Gore”, the new album was many steps forward and until today, defines the whole death metal genre. In my personal opinion, ”Leprosy” is for death metal what ”Hell Awaits” is for thrash metal, simply the album that all future attempts of bands were based in order to create something so unique (with the exception of very few bands like Morbid Angel or Obituary for example). Chuck quit the gory lyrics and decided to write about stuff that make people think a bit. ”Pull The Plug” which is the most characteristic song of the band until today, talks about a man held in life by mechanical support and his choice to die, for not suffering any more. It was clear that Death was not just an ordinary band and Chuck surely was not just an ordinary guitarist and vocalist, but a man with vision and he would never throw his own group into the trap of repetition.
And so came spiritual maturity
Work continued, the Death machine seemed unstoppable and despite another line-up change, with Rozz being fired in 1989 and James Murphy, another young and promising guitarist, joined the band. The third and crucial album ”Spiritual Healing” was released on February 16th, 1990. The album of Death’s maturity for sure, where the sound cleans a lot but extremity remains. Having a more skilled guitar player than Rozz, Schuldiner writes some of the best compositions of his life and especially the solos of the album seem like a battle between Chuck and James (”Low Life” should be taught on universities about how to create a solid riffed song accompanied by insane perfect solos). Chuck expresses his worries once again with tracks like ”Living Monstrosity” which is totally against drugs or ”Altering The Future”, an anti-abortion song. The young naive Chuck and Death had really grown up and the album sold thousands of copies. That was the last album to feature Ed Repka on Death’s covers and the last albums with a steady line-up. Chuck refused to go on tour and the rest of the members went on tour with Kreator in Europe without him. Chuck didn’t want the band to tour over Europe because of a bad memory of his previous European gigs. He felt it wouldn’t be organised properly. Add the fact that he had his personal issues back then and here’s the end of Death’s full line-ups. Chuck totally fed up by this fact would only hire session musicians in the future,
Changes and a revengeful statement that seemed everything but human
That’s why his next album ”Human” was stated as a statement and a revenge for him. He would also say ”support music, not rumours” on the booklet of the album, because of the many negative rumours his name would undergo through, mainly about this last incident inside the band. With the help of the Cynic members Paul Masvidal on guitars and Sean Reinert on drums, and the great Steve DiGiorgio on bass, a member of thrashers Sadus who had also played with Chris Reifert on Autopsy. ”Human” was released on October 22nd, 1991 and is the album of perfect balance for Chuck and Death. Sounding fresh, aggressive, hyper-technical and with the best vocals he ever did, it seemed that enabled their leader to start his career over at a very critical point. Death were more alive than ever and only positive outcome could Chuck bring upon himself and his fans as well. Scott Carino replaced DiGiorgio for the upcoming ”InHuman Tour” and also, a compilation album called ”Fate” (ironically tragic, right?) followed the next year. It was time for radical changes inside the band and Chuck would never stop surprising his fans. The first video of the band was filmed for the legendary ”Lack Of Comprehension”. It still remains Death’s best selling album with over half a million copies being sold.
Food for thought
After a very successful tour, Death released their fifth album ”Individual Thought Patterns” on June 22nd, 1993. Chuck’s favourite album by far, with the help of ex-Dark Angel drumming phenomenon Gene Hoglan, Steve DiGiorgio on bass again (maybe the best rhythm section in the history of metal music) and King Diamond guitarist Andy LaRocque. Chuck would describe this line up as gifted musicians that fill a great chemistry and the mood of the recordings was filled with fun. This is where Chuck reveals his Watchtower and Queensryche influences more than ever, as we are talking about a progressive death metal masterpiece. It was then when he started thinking about having a project in the future where he would just play guitar and have a high-pitched vocalist in the veins of Rob Halford, creating a traditional metal album with a progressive touch on it. ITP remains until today a state of the art creation and is the influential point for today’s bands like Obscura for example. A video for the last track of the album ”The Philosopher” was also filmed, making it the second and last official video of the band. They would tour for the album with Ralph Santolla and Craig Locicero of Forbidden on guitars.
Symbols sometimes tell nothing but the truth
Chuck took part on the 1994 release of the supergroup Voodoocult on their first album ”Jesus Killing Machine” by contributing some solos on the tracks ”Birn Bad And Sliced” and ”Voodoocult”, an album also featuring Dave Lombardo of Slayer on drums and Waldemar Sorychta (ex-Despair, ex-Grip Inc, Enemy Of The Sun, great producer as well) on guitars.Musical search continued also on the next challenging album ”Symbolic” which was released on March 21st, 1995. With Gene Hoglan once again on drums and with Kelly Conlon on bass and Bobby Koelble on guitars, this album is characterized by the maelstrom of riffs it contains and also the big change in Chuck’s vocal style, where he attempted a less brutal and more screaming high-pitched style which would develop on the next album as well. Steve DiGiorgio was supposed to be the bass player for the album again, but this finally didn’t happen, causing a big argument between the two friends which was quickly solved. ”Symbolic” is the album on which many fans got to know Death and is still one of the most favourites. Chuck includes many acoustic guitar parts inside the album and for the first time maybe, fans started to understand that he had a lot more to give as a musician. Even die-hard death metal fans, recognize this album as something very unique and not even the longer duration of many songs compared to the past, was an obstacle to make the world press give praises to the band. And then comes a hiatus for the band, as Chuck decided to split the band, only to reform them some years later.
The sound of what was in Chuck’s mind for ages
The reason was that Chuck was craving to do the traditional metal project mentioned above. The new band’s name would be Control Denied and it was a dream to come true for Chuck. The working title for the band’s first album was ”A Moment Of Clarity” and Warrel Dane of Nevermore (Sanctuary as well), the band that accompanied Death on the ”Symbolic” tour, would be the singer. But this finally never happened and Chuck felt it was time to ressurect Death for a final album before going on with Control Denied. The final Death album ”The Sound Of Perseverance” would be released on August 31st, 1998 and would feature some songs that were supposed to be on the Control Denied album. Another great album for the band, the perfect way to close a legendary chapter, with Chuck’s vocals even more high-pitched, and with an amazing cover of Judas Priest’s ”Painkiller” included. Accompanied by guitarist Shannon Hamm, bassist Scott Clendenin (instead of Steve DiGiorgio which was supposed to participate on the album again) and drummer Richard Christy, Chuck unleashed his final Death attack which caught all listeners by suprise. A final tour would follow and so ended the Death chapter in its most glorious way.
Control Denied, but not life denied…yet
But Chuck didn’t have any time or room for thought. He was 100% given to release the Control Denied album. On his 32nd birthday, on May 13th, 1999, ”The Fragile Art Of Existence was released and it was time to enjoy Chuck as a composer only, as Tim Aymar handled the vocals, Steve DiGiorgio the bass (finally after two failed attempts in the past) and his partners on the last Death album, Shannon Hamm on guitars and Richard Christy. The most different and most special album Chuck ever released was finally over and listening to it, we can understand why Chuck wanted to fulfill this dream for almost a decade. Imagine the most heavy progressively extreme album with clean vocals you can think of, maybe you won’t even reach the variety of this album. The last baby Chuck gave birth so far was about to become the starting point of new explorations in the whole metal scene, as Chuck once did with Death very successfully. But it’s many times in life where things don’t come as we want them and during the recordings of this album Chuck started feeling pain in his neck. What was thought to be a damaged nerve, proved to be a tumor. The diagnosis’ result was he had a pontine glioma, a type of a brain cancer that invades the brainstem, the part where the lower brain part connects with the spinal cord.
The hard struggle and the metal community’s help
Chuck had to immediately start chemotherapy and a few months later, on October, the good news were that the tumor was not threatening any more. A little later, on January of 2000, Chuck successfully went through surgery and the good news spread all over the world. However, it was a very expensive operation, which made the whole Schuldiner family struggle financialy. Numerous fans and known musicians managed to help Chuck through his fight with fate, by raising funds, auctioning stuff on E-bay and everywhere possible, concerts were being held for money to be collected, and in general, the whole metal community stood by his side as much as possible. Chuck’s adventure intrigued the whole world and after his first meeting with death, he could be able to continue on what he loved most, writing and playing music. Unfortunately, in 2001 the cancer came back and Chuck’s organism suffered once again. The cost of a new operation would be very expensive and Chuck first denied the operation because there were no money. Artists such as Anthrax, Ozzy Osbourne, Napalm Death, Dave Grohl (ex-Nirvana drummer, he wanted Chuck to take part in his Probot project), Kid Rock, Red Hot Chili Peppers and many others, did the best they could with the help of MTV to collect money for Chuck by auctioning valuable stuff. Also, Trivium played a beneficiary gig when they started their career, and the money went for Chuck’s help.
Death is never fair
Unfortunately Chuck was weakened through all these chemotherapies and he got ill with pneumonia. Especially on November of 2001 his condition got much worse and he finally lost the battle of life on Thursday, Decembert 13th at 4 A.M. His loss spread grief and pain through the whole music scene. Few could believe that such a charismatic person would exist no more, metal fans suffered a preemptive strike and the feeling of injustice was raised on all topics concerning him. His body was cremated and his memorial was attended by all the members included on Death and Control Denied, as well as musicians with the heavy name of Dimebag Darrell (who also passed away on December 8th, 2004), Mike Patton, Max Cavalera, Trey Azagthoth, Glen Benton, King Diamond, Ville Valo and many others. We cannot predict what Chuck would do if he had lived, but we can assume that whatever he would decide, he would have thought of it very thoroughly, as he was very demanding for his material, some people say that he was the definition of the word perfectionist, despite being very open-minded and always ready to discuss about stuff concerning music.
A person full of life with a band named Death
As a person, Chuck was always a very positive man. He loved animals very much, that’s why he considered his two dogs like brothers. He was a very caring person that had a lust for life. He once stated that he would love to live forever if possible. There were times when his smile would simply leave you unable to say or do anything. There were also times when he would insist on some things, maybe in a very persuasive way. But that was Chuck. A man always believing in his skills, without offending others. His advice to younger people that started music was always train, practice and never take things for granted. Out of personal experience, I can tell you all than when he came to Greece, he couldn’t believe his eyes with the welcome he had. People would tell him he’s a god among humans and Chuck would answer that he’s just a fan like all of us. That night on the legendary Wizard Club, where he saw his face being sketched on one of the club’s walls and the Wizard logo on the pit place designed with the Death logo style, his smile was brighter than ever. He didn’t refuse to sign to anyone, he stayed until very late at night, it almost got morning when he left and he told us he would see us on the venue the following day. Before and after the show he did the same thing again, he came as close as he could with the fans and what amazed us all was his sincere statement that if he knew what welcome he would have, it wouldn’t take him so much years to come to Greece. I still remember your promise that we’d meet again. There’s no hard feelings because I know you meant it. It was just not up to you any more. I hope I’ll see you somewhere else, in a surely better place than this. As he would always say, ”let the metal flow”. I shall live the final words to him, as he stated in the final lines of ”Believe” by Control Denied’s ”The Fragile Art Of Existence”:
If I was paid for disappointments I would be a wealthy man
The magic lives in sincerity, in truth, behind the
thoughts I choose to stand…
Aggelos “Redneck” Katsouras