You’re walking in a desert. The sun above you is blistering your eyeballs but you have to keep them open so you can trudge step by step by hundredth step, hoping to find some way out of this arid wasteland before night falls – because that’s when the true hell begins. Following a mile behind you is a shuffling shape wrapped in a beige shroud. You can’t see their face, if they have one, and you don’t want to. Why are they following you? What could they possibly want? All you can concentrate on is the sand in your mouth and the moans. The moaning is constant as your heartbeat. But you don’t know where it’s coming from. Is it you? Is it the shape? Is the world trying to tell you something?
Rarely, and by God do I mean rarely, can you remember what you first thought when you heard a ‘classic’ album. However, the memory of the dream I had after hearing Death’s legendary ‘Leprosy’ album for the first time still gives me faith in the transcendent qualities of recorded sounds (see above for details). Chuck Schuldiner is one of the few, and by God do I mean few, artists that have left a legacy that has no flaws. Every album he made under the Death moniker is an absolute treasure.
Think about it – if you’re a fan of Hawkwind (I am), can you say that there aren’t any duffers in their catalogue? Black Sabbath? Judas Priest? Iron Maiden? Thin Lizzy? I’m grasping here but you catch my drift. Death, or more accurately, Chuck Schuldiner, didn’t make a ‘Forbidden’ or an ‘It Is The Business Of The Future’… or a ‘Jugulator’. ‘Leprosy’ is, to put it lightly, as close to a Holy Grail as death metal has – a kind of eyeless, rotting ‘Vol. 4’, if you will.
It’s unfortunate in that, like ‘Vol. 4’, it is sandwiched between two releases that fans of the particular band tend to favour over it. For a long time it was considered inferior to Death’s other works (check out the Allmusic rating and review, it’s practically disgusting.) The debut ‘Scream Bloody Gore’ and ‘Leprosy’s follower ‘Spiritual Healing’ both have camps of rabid fans. Perhaps ‘Leprosy’ is too similar to the debut? Perhaps it gets overlooked because ‘Spiritual Healing’ kicked off the proggier leanings Death would pursue in their later records? It’s all speculation. In any event, ‘Leprosy’ is essential listening for any metal fan.
The funny thing is, it’s not death metal as you or I know it. It’s got more in common with gnarled punk or thrash than it has with prime Cannibal Corpse, who earlier on in their career were undoubtedly influenced by Schuldiner’s corrosive sounds. A quartet of Schuldiner, guitarist Fred ‘Rick Rozz’ DeLillo, bassist Terry Butler (not that one, that’s a different Geezer) and drummer Bill Andrews made up the band at the point ‘Leprosy’ was recorded (there was no constant Death lineup – the lineup shifted album-by-album, Schuldiner was the only constant member.)
The artwork for ‘Leprosy’ was painted by Ed Repka, who’s painted iconic covers for Megadeth and sizzling pieces for Municipal Waste, Toxik, 3 Inches of Blood… it’s an amazing cover that can inspire some very terrifying dreams in 14 year old young men. Believe me, I was one of them.
Below is my disc-by-disc run-through of the new Relapse edition of ‘Leprosy’, which in my opinion is a tremendous, loving restoration of one of the greatest, most important metal albums ever:
Disc One – ‘Leprosy‘ remastered by Alain Douches
I have to insert a little disclaimer here – the promotional materials I had at my disposal were mp3 files. I would have loved to have heard them on their original vinyl – or even CDs – and I especially would have liked to have seen the new layout. That’s one of the miniscule downsides of the gig. (Relapse, get at me!)
The album opens with the epic six-minute title track, where thunderous rolling percussion and acrid chords lay underneath a squalling lead guitar for mere seconds before the guts hit the fan. Pumping Cliff-Burton-esque bass runs in tandem with the lead guitar before a signature Schuldiner “YOUARRRGGGHHHH” becomes the spark which lights the thrash fuse. The track takes on a variety of horrid rhythms – from the grinding, ripping opening section; to the pummeling, hyperspeed thrash of the next passage; to a jazzy breakdown – and back to horrid thrash-punk for the chorus. Casually scattered around the track are the seeds of death-metal-future – the intense, varied double-kick drumming and piercing guitar shredding AND unbelievable, Slayer-influenced dive-bomb solos practically laid waste to any competition at the time or now. And listen to those fucking vocals!
Before you’ve got time to gather your spilled viscera, the Motörhead-on-a-death-trip intro of ‘Born Dead’ is upon you. It morphs into a thrash-terpiece with hate-filled, bilious vocals and crushing drums. The buzzsaw tone of the guitars and relentless rhythm is reminiscent of ‘Hell Awaits’ era Slayer, which puts it into context (if you’re a fan of that record, it does, anyway.)
The evil-wizard incantations and over-the-edge pace of Forgotten Past have always intrigued me. The craziest point to make here is that the snare hits that come after 1.30 seem to be going faster than the tape that’s recording them, resulting in a distortion of the time signature that your brain hears. It’s incredible. When it catches back up with itself a minute later for a mind-boggling solo, you’ll either react with a head-shake or a head-bang. It’s only polite.
The highlight of the record is ‘Left To Die’. For whatever reason, it keeps pulling you back. Maybe it’s the punky opening passage? Maybe it’s the blood-boiling, cranium-busting “yaaaaAAAAAAH” Chuck busts out at 23 seconds? Maybe it’s because there are more riffs per square inch of this number than your average metal band can muster on an entire record? Shit, man, maybe it’s all of that. It’s probably because at 2.35 all hell literally breaks loose – Schuldiner never sounded more possessed than when he’s screaming bloody gore all over your ears. “No more tomorrow… this is your last day.”
You get duped into thinking your ears and senses will be getting a break when ‘Pull The Plug’ opens in relatively sedate fashion. Chuck had other ideas – the band grind harder than ever on the track, and pull out some jazzy MegaDave-influenced textures to tempt you back into the crypt. At 3.35, the outro begins – and boy you best be ready: a gnarly double-kick bass drum attack and galloping riff carry the track out in glorious fashion.
‘Open Casket’ busts straight into your ears from the get-go… the sound of the snare on this track is particularly flavoursome – it sounds as though short-term member Bill Andrews is trying to cave your bleedin’ ‘ed in. The sibilant hiss of the hi-hat complements Schuldiner’s shredding to perfection. Andrews’ drumming is superb throughout, and his work on ‘Spiritual Healing’ is just as potent. Chuck’s roar of “Open…Casket…” is enough to make you scared of the dark all over again.
The final caustic one-two of ‘Primitive Ways’ and ‘Choke On It’ close the record in tremendous fashion. ‘Choke On It’ in particular is a grim slice of blistering thrash – when the double-kick pattern hits after the divebomb at 2.04, I swear you can hear Beelzebub laughing. Then, at 3.20, when the final shred-fest of the record kicks in Schuldiner and Rozz send bombs of guitar voodoo at each other in a maddening solo-off.
The remastering is superb – the instruments sound brighter, crisper, and generally louder than before. The true genius of the remastering is that it sounds like nothing has changed – no major facelift has been inadvertently given to ‘Leprosy’ because it didn’t need one. Douches did a tremendous job of making himself invisible, which compared to some ‘remastering’ hatchet jobs I’ve heard before is something of a delight. ‘Leprosy’ has always sounded great, why fix what ain’t broke?
“First an arm and then a leg, Deterioration grows , Rotting while they breathe – Death comes slow”
Disc Two – ‘Leprosy‘ Rehearsals
If you’re not keen on the sanctity of an album-as-final-project being completely decimated by people releasing demos and rehearsal tapes, you’d best not listen to this. If, like the interminable voyeur that you are, you like to see the machinations of a great piece of art then you’d better get your hands on the 2CD edition. The rehearsal tapes are amazing – hearing the tracks in their embryonic states is a complete revelation.
The four tracks culled from the 23/9/87 rehearsal (two run-throughs of ‘Left To Die’, one of ‘Open Casket’ and one of ‘Choke On It’) are as lo-fi as it gets. I’m not even sure the drummer was using a bass drum the sound is that muddy. But that’s the beauty of these recordings – imagine taking your wife for a scan and seeing a beard on your baby’s chin. It’d be grotesque. These four primitive takes are vocal-less, bass-drum-less and completely wondrous in their crudity.
The six other tracks are from a later session – 5/12/87 to be precise. These feature vocals and bass drums, and the sound isn’t generally as muddy or primitive – but these tapes still sound better than a lot of black metal records (I jest, I know what kvlt’s all about is, put the axe down Magnus).
The takes of ‘Open Casket’ and ‘Born Dead’ are particularly fucking righteous – there’s an evil thunder hanging over them that the shitty sound actually adds to. It sounds like they were recorded in Dracula’s lair after an hour of eating viscera. That nasty. It’s worth getting the 2CD package for these two tracks alone, but the rest of the December session is pretty incredible.
“Leprosy will take control and bring you to your death, No chance of a normal life to live just like the rest, Leprosy will spread with time, your body soon to change, Appearance becomes hideous a sight too much to take”
Disc Three – ‘Leprosy‘ Live
Final disclaimer: if you live in the United States, then you will be able to get this third disc from the Relapse Mail Order Store only, I’m afraid. It is part of a super-limited 3CD edition coming in at a bargain $24.99! Alternatively, you get a download code for all three discs with the super-deluxe vinyl edition, again a mail-order exclusive. The rest of the world, you have no chance – it’s limited to 2000 copies. So just, well, imagine how it sounds.
The live cuts here vary greatly in quality but are largely intriguing addendums to the main portfolio of tracks on offer. The disc is made up of two gigs, one from Rochester NY, the other from Bloomfield NJ – some of the best bits here are the on-stage banter:
Chuck, at the close of Leprosy from Rochester: “How are you people doing? Come on it’s kinda quiet… YEAGHRRGH ALLLRIGGGHHT!”
When Chuck teases the crowd at Rochester’s Backstreets venue, he’s on splendid form. Take for instance his humour before first album highlight ‘Zombie Ritual’: “This next one I’d like to dedicate to a couple friends of ours, Ron and Dave. This one’s for you. It’s about a ritual. What’s the name of the song? ZOMMMBBIEEE RIITTTTUEEEEELLLL!”
That particular track is a beauty in this live format. As is the rest of the first album material, which the band had plenty of time to rehearse. Of the two shows presented here, the four tracks from Bloomfield’s The Dirt Club sound slightly inferior to the eleven from Backstreets – there’s a lot more crackling, popping and distortion, but that’s to be expected. But the Backstreets portion of the disc is absolutely incredible, a worthwhile addition to any fan’s collection.
‘Infernal Death’, the final track from the Backstreets gig, features some polite encouragement from Schuldiner for the fans to get raging (I’m sure they raged away), and is the highlight of the live disc because all musical poise seems to go out of the window, and Death power forwards with an unmatched intensity. It’s a magical moment.
“No hope of recovery, after the nerves are eaten away, Damage is done you feel no more pain, Bones decay deterioration grows, Origin of this horrid disease nobody knows”
Chuck Schuldiner died of pneumonia as a result of cancer treatment in 2001 at the young age of 34. He lived to be one year older than Jesus Christ. Chalk that up to a victory for him downstairs.
Relapse’s amazing work at keeping his legacy alive has resulted in one of the most exciting remaster/re-release packages to hit the shelves in ages. If you know any metal fans that have never heard, or heard of Death, this is an ideal entry-point into their stunning catalogue. If you’re a fan of Death and you’re unsure whether to spend your hard-earned shillings on yet another re-release, this is arguably the best package Relapse could have put together. If you’re willing to go the extra mile and lay out the extra funds to import the deluxe vinyl edition or the 3CD edition, more power to you, this is a sterling release.
All in all, this is a fantastic version of one of the best metal albums of all time – and now, we wait until 2015, in joyful hope for the coming of Our Saviour, the final piece in the Death Holy Trinity: the deluxe reissue of ‘Scream Bloody Gore’.
Scribed by: Ross Horton