Godfather of Death Metal Chuck Schuldiner’s Legacy, Illness and Death

He did not have the most docile personality or the easiest genius to carry, precisely because of his constant search for musical perfection. He was one of the most prolific composers of metal and an innovator within it. Charles Michael Schuldiner, better known as ‘Chuck’, was – like the band Possessed – one of the heroes of Death Metal, creator of hundreds of melodies that gave life to this subgenre and later broke with the schemes of it, taking it to a more technical and elaborate path, although a little lonely.

Originally from Long Island, New York, Chuck was a boy who faced a tough childhood after losing his older brother in a car accident. That happened when he, at the time, the future leader of the Death band, was only nine years old. Of course, this incident marked the beginning of his closeness to music, since it was during this period that his parents gave him his first guitar, to help him channel the impact of the tragedy.

Six years later, after spending much of his time practicing and taking an interest in bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Venom, an already perfectionist but teenager Chuck began looking for musicians to have his own musical project, a task that would not be easy for a personality that demanded 200%.

At the end of 1983, he founded Mantas with drummer Kam Lee and guitarist Rick Rozz, his first band, which despite lasting only four months, was the previous step in creating Death. Precisely the dissolution of Mantas was due to a factor that would be common in Schuldiner’s life, the search for commitment and seriousness in musical work, and years later, the search for the ideal sound. A factor that also brought him many enemies and, as he called him, bad press.

Godfather of Death Metal Chuck Schuldiner’s Legacy, Illness and Death


The First Try

In 1984 Schuldiner took the step and began to compose songs for Death, although due to problems finding other musicians, he had to turn to Lee and Rozz as companions on this musical path. Between 84 and 85, demos ‘Death by Metal’, ‘Reign of Terror,’ ‘Infernal Death,’ ‘Back from the Dead’ and ‘Mutilation’ were released, which opened the way for Death to sign with Combat Records, the same label that at that time housed bands like Megadeth and Possessed.

Already at the end of 85 ′, Chuck returned to California, leaving his bandmates behind and starting the route to achieve his goal under the wing of a record company.

Godfather of Death Metal Chuck Schuldiner’s Legacy, Illness and Death


Path to Perfection

The consolidated history of Death begins with ‘Scream Bloody Gore’ (1987), a quite hard and forceful album in which Schuldiner recorded practically all the instruments, where he only had the help of his friend Chris Reifert on drums. This work shows the first glimpses of Chuck’s future death metal, with sounds similar to thrash, but much more violent, carefully crafted, which was not very common at that time.

Later, in 1988, ‘Leprosy’ was released, which marks a brief but unwanted return of Rick Rozz and also features the percussions of Bill Andrews. Schuldiner’s evolution was rapid and clear, and this album is an example of this, as it resulted in much more elaborate work than its predecessor.

Spiritual Healing from 1990 marks one of the first changes in Chuck’s mindset as he leaves out the letters gore and is more interested in the human side of life. 

In some interviews, he admitted that he addressed the gore theme because of his immaturity. But later, he said that “the topics of daily life are more brutal than writing about demons ripping a person’s heart out. It was the reality that they really made people identify/relate themselves with the music,” so this gave a radical change to their lyrics.

Regarding the instrumental part, the sound of Death was already consolidated, with heavy and complex guitars that would be accompanied by powerful percussions. From here onwards everything went up for the “Death sound,” with Human (1991), Individual Thought Patterns (1993), Symbolic (1995) and The Sound of Perseverance from 1998, where the musical maturity is seen consecutively, in Special in songs like ‘Lack Of Comprehension’, ‘The Philosopher’, ‘Crystal Mountain’, ‘Spirit Crusher’ or ‘To Forgive Is To Suffer’.

The evolution has reached a point where the roots of jazz and progressive rock that Chuck constantly listened to reflected in the creations of the last decade of the band. A period in which he had collaborations with great musicians such as Steve DiGiorgio (Sadus, Testament), Gene Hoglan (Testament, Strapping Young Lad), Paul MasVidal (Cynic, For Spoke), Andy La Rocque (King Diamond) and Ralph Santolla, among many others.

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Challenges with the Band’s Lineup

More than 20 musicians went through Death, including studio musicians and official members, and only Chris Reifert was saved from being labeled stupid by Chuck. This wasn’t because he really suffered from a complex egomaniac, as accused by the Death’s first members, but because of the problems they caused while they were in the band. Mainly because Chuck – the vocalist and composer of the band – was against drugs and based his work only on musical professionalism.

In His Words

“I can’t deal with people who are going to stop us from improving. Of course, I like it when a band maintains its formation, but as long as they keep the same sound, that’s what interests me, that’s how good music is made. Regardless of the rest, Death has always been faithful to his sound, and that is what matters,” Chuck Schuldiner said in an interview with Metal Mania in 1991, when they were preparing to release their album ‘Human’.

It was also in this period that Chuck Schuldiner directly faced criticism from all sides, due to the constant changes in the formation of the band, which from 1991 onwards would only work with session musicians. The album ‘Human’ was conceived as a concept to respond to all the criticisms, and to prove that the decisions made by Schuldiner were not fanciful, but aimed at seeking a better future. “We can all make mistakes, and unfortunately, when it happens to us, the public looks at us with contempt. I have made mistakes. I have had to do things that do not make sense to people. But instead of assuming that I am an idiot for doing them, they should think that I have my reasons,” he also stated in 1991, explaining that he was seeking to clarify the bad. Those were the rumors that left him as an egomaniac before the fans of those years.

Schuldiner was a perfectionist and was always clear in explaining that the name Death was nothing more than that, a name for the band that suited the violent of the music, but did not mean something more obscure or macabre, much less something close to Satanism. It is true, his music was violent, and he wanted it to be so. But his way of being was not consistent with the violence of his riffs. For the same reason, he always declared himself a lover of life, of animals and, obviously, of beer.

“I am a person with a very positive vision, towards life, towards friendship, towards love, towards all those things that make us human beings,” he said in 1991 during an interview on MTV.

Godfather of Death Metal Chuck Schuldiner’s Legacy, Illness and Death


Illness and Death

Chuck was not only involved in Death, but he also published the album ‘The Fragile Art of Existence’ with his side project Control Denied. He participated in the Voodoo Cult supergroup, together with Dave Lombardo (Slayer) and Mille Petrozza (Kreator). In 1998 he visited Chile in a show which was forever etched in the memory of many death metal fans.

He was definitely a prolific musician with a future, but in May 1999, specifically on his 32nd birthday, everything changed. After suffering a series of pains in the back of his head, Schuldiner decided to have some tests, in which it determined that he had brain cancer that required immediate treatment. This was where the great ordeal of the musician began, who decided not to give up. After almost a year of chemotherapy, he underwent an operation to remove the remains of the tumor. By the end of 1999, Schuldiner’s recovery was announced, however, the joy would not last long. Months later, Chuck’s family, who was already bankrupt due to the expensive treatment and operation the musician had undergone, received the terrible news that the original diagnosis was not correct. And in May 2001 cancer reappeared.

Chuck was always a good student, but he got bored of school and dropped out at an early age, so he never had a degree, a profession, or even health insurance, which in this case played against him in a brutal way. The new treatment was too expensive, and having no insurance, he couldn’t afford another surgery he required. For this reason, his family, together with the record label Nuclear Blast published two DVDs that many readers of this article will remember with emotion; ‘Live in L.A. (Death & Raw)’ (released in 1998) and ‘Live in Eindhoven ’98 ′ (released in 2001), both to raise funds.

The metal community also came together to help him. His old companions and session musicians who accompanied the most famous moments of Death, Gene Hoglan, Paul MasVidal, Steve DiGiorgio, Richard Christy, and Shannon Hamm, among others, were in this crusade to help Chuck. Holding a series of events and donations to raise enough money for the operation, but it was all in vain. He was weakened by an experimental drug that was provided to him while he was raising the money. Schuldiner contracted pneumonia, which ended up taking his life on December 13, 2001, when the renowned musician was only 34 years old.

Godfather of Death Metal Chuck Schuldiner’s Legacy, Illness and Death


It’s devastating to think about how early Chuck Schuldiner left and still everything he managed to do for music. The American musician, who would have turned 53 in 2020, died at the age of 34 in 2001 from infamous brain cancer that completely destroyed him, after his career had already achieved an incredible evolution, and he saw a much better future. The escalation in music was fast and accurate, marking the firm foot in a new look at metal and a new way to expand the style in the late 90’s.

If we draw the line from where it starts with Death in “Scream Bloody Gore” (1987) to “The Sound of Perseverance” (1998) we will notice how great was its significance in dealing with metal. His genius did not lie simply in growing musically and implement new techniques (whoever he did, adding his jazz school and progressive formulas to a heavy, hard and sinister metal). But also from the album “Spiritual Healing” that his head revolved around themes that were not going just talking about gore, blood and Death as was the trend in style (Cannibal Corpse, Carcass, Napalm Death, Morbid Angel, and a long etcetera). In those years, he began to see life with a more philosophical look where there were many things that disturbed him in the behavior of human beings and society, such as the abuse of hard drugs, abortion, genetics, and the false preachers of TV, among many others.

From then on, things would only improve after titling Death’s next album, “Human,” which is one of the essentials of death metal history. The human side in Chuck was something that separated him a lot from the rest of the “icon metal character” or at least from the external gaze of a fairly conservative society. Especially in the US in the eighties, under the Reagan regime with the well-known “Witch Hunt” led by Tripper Gore against the authors of the lyrics in metal. Many times in interviews, he defended his position and the judgment that was made on the music he composed and even on the name of his band.

“Death is just a name to describe music, an extreme name for extreme music. I am a person with a very positive vision towards life, friendship, and love,” he commented in numerous interviews. He was emphasizing that because Chuck only wanted to be understood. It was not just as a matter of personal self-defense, but also about the change in the paradigm of the vision of metal music in general.

It is one of the hardest mourning that over time has transcended beyond metal, because Schuldiner showed us strength in the face of incredible adversity. He never wanted to give up, and he never wanted to stop making music, which led to an extreme style that he carried in the heart to a supreme level. The Death Metal, as we know, was coined like this thanks to his band and Possessed, a well-deserved tribute that marks history and that time will surely continue to dictate that both by the talent and by humanity. Chuck Schuldiner was the father of a whole generation of musicians who they have followed in their footsteps and will continue to do so.

Godfather of Death Metal Chuck Schuldiner’s Legacy, Illness and Death

Godfather-of-Death-Metal,-Chuck-Schuldiner-Playing-BC Rich Guitar

We have decided to put together all the information above about Chuck Schuldiner to spread the word about him. He gave his life to his music, to his fans, and to this world. Chuck is one of the most influential names in the history of metal who will be forever missed. You can watch the videos below to know more about him, visit Death’s website and listen to their records.

Godfather of Death Metal Chuck Schuldiner’s Legacy, Illness and Death


Listen to DEATH on Spotify

Post Image Credit; photograph by Catherine McGann/Getty Images

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