Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Let's talk about Leprosy

So, full disclosure, this post isn't about Exhumed really at all. If you wanna read about Exhumed, I'm working on some new posts, I swear. 

After getting the deluxe reissue of “Leprosy” in the mail, I immediately headed for the liner notes. What can I say, I'm a liner notes guy, and I've heard the album hundreds and hundreds of times by this point, so this was something new to dig into (I did enjoy the rehearsal disc quite a bit though). I liked them, but I felt like I didn't quite get what I was looking for out of them, so I decided to write my own. That may seem unnecessary, or pompous, or both (probably both), but hey, it's my blog, so fuck it. I'm going to reitereate some thoughts that I shared with Death / Schuldiner intellectual property manager / lawyer (also Relapse's lawyer) Eric Grief when I met him the first time in Calgary. Eric booked our show there, and we chatted for quite a while about his involvement with bands like Morbid Saint, Viogression, Morta Skuld, Num Skull, and the early days of the Milwaukee Metalfest, but his management of Death was the topic I was the most interested in. The reason this is noteworthy is that my conversation with Eric is (I think?) one of the things that eventually led to my getting contacted to be part of the initial incarnation of the Death To All tour – I'd like to think that that was in part due to the thoughts on Chuck and the band's legacy in general, and Leprosy in particular that I shared with Eric that night. At any rate, let's talk Leprosy.

I got this flyer outside my first metal show, Anthrax, Exodus, and Helloween at the Henry J. Kaiser Auditorium in April 1989. Although my parents didn't let me go see Dark Angel and Death, I had the foresight to hold onto the flyer. I also unfortunately colored it in with crayons - because I was 13 years old. Kids. Sheesh.
When Leprosy came out in 1988, Death Metal was still predominantly a tape-trading phenomenon. With the dissolution of the genre's originators Possessed the preceding year, there was definitely a sort of Death Metal “Power Vacuum.” Up to that point, Possessed (along with Celtic Frost) had been the most visible Death Metal band, even though their swansong “The Eyes Of Horror” was more Thrash than Death Metal and their sophomore album “Beyond The Gates” was hampered by terrible production. Other (signed) bands that were arguably part of the seminal generation of Death Metal acts like Celtic Frost, Onslaught, Sodom, Kreator, and Sacrifice (yes, I know they're all considered “Thrash” now, but I'm talking about 1987 “Death Metal”) had unilaterally moved on to less extreme pastures by 1988. Thrash Metal had successfully broken through to a much wider audience in 1986, and people were waking up to seek out sounds heavier than Metallica.

That was the overall climate that greeted Leprosy – a golden opportunity for the right band to step up and put the burgeoning Death Metal scene on the map. There were thousands of rabid headbangers slinging demo tapes through the mail from Necrovore, Slaughter, Morbid Angel, Desecration, Necrophagia, Insanity, Genocide / Repulsion, Master / Deathstrike, Devastation (Chicago), Sadus and Autopsy, but Death had a serious leg up on the rest of the genre – a record deal. That may not sound like much in 2014, but this was the 80s, and to get out of the tape-trading scene and into the underground proper, a deal on a label like Combat Records (Metal Blade or Noise Records would have done as well) was essential. With all of those factors in place, Chuck and the recently co-opted Massacre line-up (minus vocalist and former Death drummer / vocalist Kam Lee) made what is referred to in the biz as “the right record at the right time.”
Press clipping from "Power Metal," sometime in 1988. "Power Metal" was Hit Parader's Thrash Metal magazine, and every issue featured Metallica, Megadeth or some combination thereof. The "writing" was terrible, but you could find out about new albums and get neat pictures to keep in a box for 26 years and then post on your blog later. Also, Chuck's quote there is endearing. 
Scream Bloody Gore had been comprised mostly of marginally re-worked (see the no-longer-Satanic lyrics to “Infernal Death”) tunes from the band's demo days, but newer tunes like “Denial of Life” and the title hinted at Chuck's musical ambition. Those tendencies were prominently displayed on Leprosy - the album was easily the band's most “musical” record. It represented, for all intents and purposes, a quantum leap forward in musicality for Death, with articulate solos (and also solos by Rick Rozz), novel drum parts, occasional unorthodox time signatures, and sophisticated (for 1988) production values. That the album sounds so grimy and old-school in hindsight is a testament to the level of sophistication that (for better or for worse) has made its way into the genre in the ensuing years. This was the first widely available Death Metal album that was difficult for Thrash Metal fans to laugh off as noise – not only due to the album's comparative refinement, but also thanks to Slayer's Reign In Blood, which had readied the Thrash Metal audience's ears for harsher sounds.

A couple of observations regarding musicality and extremity in Death Metal circa 1988 are helpful to keep things in perspective, lest we start to laud Leprosy with unrealistic levels of praise. One thing that's disturbing is the cult of posthumous "Chuck-worship" that now clouds serious analysis of the band's musical catalog - I love Death, but crediting them with the "invention" or "revolution" of Death Metal in the 1980's is at it's most accurate, a drastic oversimplification. They were certainly the breakthrough band of the genre, but it's worth noting that None Shall Defy by Infernal Majesty pre-dates Leprosy by a year and boasts a level of musical sophistication and clarity well beyond Death and Possessed albums of the same time (in fact, their demo sounds much better production-wise than Scream Bloody Gore or Seven Churches). For whatever reasons, be it bad promotion / distribution, line-up problems, atrocious cover art, a stupid-looking logo, goofy band photos, or just being a Canadian band, they never caught on the way Death did. I've often wondered if some of the riffs on Leprosy and Spiritual Healing are indebted to Infernal Majesty. Furthermore, by the time Leprosy was released, Napalm Death (on their way to co-opting the Death Metal scene that would shortly return the favor) and Carcass were already cranking out far heavier, harsher sounds across the Atlantic, but wouldn't resonate with American Thrash Metal audiences for a couple more years (Carcass' tour supporting Death didn't hurt in that regard). Ultimately, Death was extreme enough to be musically shocking and something "new" to the larger Thrash Metal audience, but was still within the average Slayer fan's musical "comfort zone."
Let's be honest, this cover totally sucks. Great record, but... damn. 
Not only was the album sonically in the right spot, it featured professional cover art and an extensive cassette j-card, that even featured the logos of the band's instrument endorsers. There was no doubt from top to bottom that this wasn't just another tape-trading basement racket (as much as the aforementioned Leprosy-era rehearsals might put that statement to the lie at the songs' core) – this was a real band. 

Leprosy and Scream Bloody Gore J-cards compared. 
Leprosy (above) and Scream Bloody Gore (below)
J-cards, interior comparison
To be fair, I suppose both of the Death J-Cards are nicer than most Death Metal cassettes of the era, which looked like this - a thumbnail of the square LP cover with the logo and album title below.
That perception was cemented by their inclusion on the Ultimate Revenge II video tape. At the time, music videos for Thrash Metal bands, even those on major labels, were scarce, so a music video for a Death Metal band would be unthinkable. Now, not only were Death included on a video, which was rare enough, their performance was actually moderately competent in comparison with the other, more ostensibly "accessible" bands featured (certainly tighter than Dark Angel's, although they lacked the polish and flash of Forbidden). Most importantly they certainly stood out as the heaviest footage on offering. Again, all of these factors, along with positive press coverage at a time when most Death Metal bands' demos were mercilessly slagged by the press, were telltale signs that this was a legitimate band to be taken seriously by Metal fans, a feat as yet unaccomplished by a pure Death Metal band at the time.

Ultimate Revenge 2 in all its analog glory, on VHS and Cassette. And yes, I just happen to have this crap lying around after 25 years. Don't fuckin' worry about it.

"Forgotten Past" from the Ultimate Revenge 2
Leprosy era article in Metal Mania from sometime in 1988. I had this on the wall at our rehearsal room when we were practicing for Anatomy is Destiny. We practiced so often I used to literally read the article while we were jamming.
The lyrics also had achieved a level of comparative "maturity" – gone were Scream Bloody Gore's lurid nursery rhymes about “Vomit for a mind, maggots for a cock.” In their place were cautionary (but still morbid - see what I did there?) tales about deadly disease, death by misadventure, and the inevitability of death and it's impact on life. Okay, well “Choke On It” may not have had much depth, but the fact that any of the lyrics had any depth was something in and of itself. Until Leprosy, the entire Death Metal genre's lyrics (except for Master's quasi-political, apocalyptic material) had consisted of two topics: Satanism (or occultism in general) and horror movies. Here was somebody at least saying something. Sure, the nursery rhyme aspect was still there, but lines like:

Life will never be the same
Death can never be explained
It's their time to go beyond
Empty feeling when they're gone”
(From "Open Casket")
had more to say than:

Trying to escape
They torture you by cutting off your cock
When you're dead, Upon your bones they'll feast
Your brains they'll eat and chop.”
(From "Torn To Pieces")

In the end, I suppose terms like “listenablity” or “maturity” are all academic if the album sucks. And Leprosy categorically does not suck. Front to back, it's all killer and no filler. Every tune oozes aggression and maintains a gloomy, morbid vibe. In short, it sounds the way Death Metal is supposed to sound, but clear. And the clarity of the recording only makes it heavier and more authentic. Where Scream Bloody Gore sounded like it was recorded in a warehouse in between bong hits (mostly because it was), Leprosy boasts a clear, balanced and powerful mix. Bill Andrews' precise and creative (at least in terms of where Death Metal was in 1988) drumming and Terry Butler's dutifully clanking bass-lines fall seamlessly into alignment with Chuck's cranked Marshall. Songs like “Leprosy” and “Pull The Plug” exercise a degree of restraint absent in most Death Metal up to that point, allowing riffs to develop and build effectively (effectively being the operative word) rather than plunging hell-for-leather into chaos. Sure, speed was still there, but the band's sound had filled out and found a heaviness that hadn't been as prevalent since the Mantas days of bludgeoning Hellhammer-esque riffs. Was Scream Bloody Gore more deranged? Absolutely. Was it more evil? Sure, in fact it's still my all-time favorite Death album. But was it as good as Leprosy? Objectively, no fucking way. 

To top it all off, Chuck's leads were downright classy for a Death or even Thrash Metal band of the day (and were certainly miles ahead of leads by Slayer and Kreator at the time in terms of being “musical”). But just in case things were threatening to get "pretty" or overtly "melodic," Chuck was counterbalanced by Rick Rozz's frenzied divebombs and whammy bar abuse. A quick word about Rick Rozz's oft-maligned guitar-work: the guy knows how to phrase a catchy, memorable solo, which is no mean feat when 90% of his stuff is just tremelo bar pull-ups and dives. His absence on subsequent albums helped cement the band's reputation for musicality and guitar heroics, but at the cost of aggression in the leads. Rick Rozz fucking rules, end of story. And no, I'm not gonna call him DeLilo. To me, he will always be Rick Rozz. At any rate, the songs managed to tick all the musical boxes: heaviness; speed; skill; and they even managed the Death Metal genre's first real vocal hook with perennial crowd-pleaser “Pull The Plug.” My personal favorite track is still “Left To Die” which features my favorite Chuck vocals of all time and the best kick-snare beat turnaround since “Battery.”
So basically, what I'm saying is: "Nice job, these guys"
Now, twenty-six years later (Holy shit! I'm old!) it's painfully clear that Leprosy was the album that not only cemented Death's reputation, but put the entire genre of Death Metal, the Florida Death Metal scene, and Morrisound Studios on the map. Two years later, as Thrash Metal largely dried up creatively (and soon after commercially) the Death Metal genre was moving from strength to strength. A host of bands emerged from the same tape-trading scene that had devoured Death's “Back From The Dead” and “Mutilation” demos, and the whole movement had finally gained serious traction among underground Metal labels and fans alike.

By 1990, Thrash Metal had been rendered completely irrelevant to my circle of friends and I, and to many other like-minded kids around the world. New and more commercial albums from bands like Metallica, Slayer, Kreator and Testament were met by a collective shrug - our fandom had been wholly subsumed by the Death Metal movement that began taking the underground by storm with the release of Leprosy


  1. That's Eric GREIF to you, Mister. ;) (killer commentary, dude!)

  2. Sorry Eric! Duh! Embarrassing spelling mistake there. And I tried to fact-check this, haha!

  3. fantastic series of archives and a great read also. Well done Matt!
    Greetings from Santiago,Chile.

  4. Great read with one correction, Chuck recorded bass on Leprosy, not T.Butler.

  5. Me and my best friend in the world Mark Strong pretty much agree that Death is both our favorite band period. What we do not agree on however is our favorite Death album. My friend hands down loves Leprosy the best. Myself on the other hand thinks Human is by far the best Death album. Don't get me wrong though because I agree with almost everything in your post here, I guess I just would have liked to here more opinion and comparison towards other albums besides Scream Bloody Gore.

  6. Very nice article. It must be really conforting to bring back those memories from time to time. Well done! Greeting from Buenos Aires!

  7. Matt, that was really great to read, and right on! Be excellent to each other.

  8. This is awesome, thank you so much. Now I want to start buying tapes again !

  9. Matt if you ever want to write CD reviews for a Magazine we would love to have you! This is a great review! Who knows your band might even be in the next issue!

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  11. Bill Andrews' drumming creative? Oh well, we're talking 1988 here. I literally devoured this entry (hey, it's lunch time...). Great job. Matt!

  12. Matt, thanks for the post! Much info about favourite genre, a whole sacred crypt! :)