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Death’s Leprosy Turns 25

In my mind’s eye, I can see Chuck Schuldiner sitting there in the Morrissound control room in 1988 during the Leprosy sessions, thinking about death metal and life. He’s got that iconic BC Rich Stealth cradled on his lap; it might’ve been a Mockingbird or something else, but for me it has to be the Stealth. He’s 21, and that’s a fucking scary time in life. Life’s a game, and you play it, or it plays you, and at 21, it’s easy to get played. It feels like you’ve got all the time, but that’s an error in perspective. The future stretches on forever, infinite paths beckon, and all the doors are open. But you cannot climb a vista high enough to see your end.

I don’t know how much of that Chuck understood at 21. Like most of us, probably some of it, but not most of it. What I do know is that Chuck chose to play the game of life as a death metal musician. Later on, he would play it two ways by becoming a progressive metal musician as well, but that’s another story. In 1988 though, he was strictly death metal. He’d realized at some point he could actually eke out a living by being Death, and that it would be enough for him.

If I’d ever met Chuck, I’d have had trouble containing my jealousy. 1988: what a time to live in. You could play fast, heavy, morbid music, and maybe make a career of it. You could be avant-garde but coherent, brutal but catchy. You could be all of that stuff at the same time with relative ease! And Heavy Metal ruled, but the Heavy Metal Rules were still being written, by Chuck and by other people.

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Chuck’s sitting there, and he’s recording another album, and he can do what he wants, but he has to make a living. He wants to push the boundaries, but it has to be death metal.

So how does Chuck make this all work?

Bill Andrews heads into the live room to do some takes, and Rick Rozz follows him in to play scratch guitar. Andrews is turning out pretty well, Chuck muses, and he’s glad that Rick is back in the band. These guys are working out. He still needs a bass player, though, and he’s got a guy named Terry Butler in mind. You need good help to play the game of life, and now Chuck’s got some.

Speaking of bass, Chuck’s gotta do that, and his guitar parts too. He’s a better musician than he was, to go with his better band. The years of shows and practicing have paid off. Hard work, elbow grease, reps — whatever you want to call it, Chuck’s put them in, and that’s a good move in the game.

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After Chuck and Rick get their leads done, it’s time to hear a rough mix. They haven’t worked with this Scott Burns guy before, but the man’s a professional, the studio’s great, and it shows: the mix sounds incredible. The production’s thicker, fatter, heavier, but also clearer than it was on Scream Bloody Gore. A smile creeps across Chuck’s face, because everything’s going great. Burns and Morrissound are locked in, doin’ it and doin’ it and doin’ it well.

Everything but the vocals are done, so Chuck heads into the isolation booth. He grunts and roars his way through the song. The chorus goes: “Pull the plug / Let me pass away / Pull the plug / Don’t want to live this way,” and goddamn, is it catchy. Chuck’s a fan of classic rock and traditional metal. He knows the value of songcraft, the need for a hook, a memorable melody.

One of the things about getting old is that you look back on yourself and what you’ve wrought, and you feel sheepish. You can see where you could’ve done better and done smarter. You blush at your earnestness, your naiveté. This hindsight is a curse. Chuck knows these new songs are better, but he’s not feeling embarrassed about Scream yet. He’s still proud of it, and he hasn’t figured out that it’s a wet splatter of a record. That’ll come later, much later, probably thirty minutes before he decides to alter his band’s logo.

But he’s starting to realize it, I think. Some of the youthful exuberance, the ignorance that we charitably call naiveté has disappeared, and Chuck’s writing lyrics that are more serious. No more zombies, no more baptisms in blood. The silly teenaged fantasy shit is pretty much gone. Chuck wants to be taken seriously, and why not? He knows he’s pushing the boundaries with this record, that it’s just better in every way, but he probably doesn’t understand just how much better it is than Scream Bloody Gore.

Chuck retrieves his Stealth, walks into the live room again, sits down. He’s not happy with the way he played some stuff. Gotta play it better, tighter, heavier, he thinks. Winds through the intro for “Left to Die”, still fucks it up a little. Tape rolls again. Some doubt creeps in, but he pushes on, just hoping. He doesn’t know where he’s going, he’s got no vantage point.

Rob Halford once sang “If you get it wrong, at least you can know / There’s miles and miles to put it back together.” Chuck didn’t need the miles because he got it right when he made Leprosy. He wouldn’t need to look back on it and feel sheepish. He only needed thirty-nine minutes to push the boundaries a little further. He sits there, trying to get it right, and he doesn’t know it, but we can see it from our vantage point twenty years away: Chuck Schuldiner, driven to play the game of life as a death metal musician, succeeding at it, 21 years old, 1988, Morrissound Studios, recording Leprosy. What a time to be in. I’m jealous.

— Richard Street-Jammer

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