The scouring of every fiscal speck from the marrow of deceased artists is gruesomely displayed on endless subpar reissues every year. It’s an ugly, depressing business. Thankfully, every so often, comes a tastefully presented reissue—one that treats the departed artist with genuine respect and highlights a deserving album that’s had a significant impact.
Such is the case with Relapse Records’ recent reissue of Death’s third album, Spiritual Healing. The pioneering Floridian death metal outfit’s legacy has been profound, with frontman Chuck Schuldiner being hugely influential in extreme metal. As Death’s founder, vocalist, chief songwriter, and guitarist he was one of death metal’s principal architects. Sadly, he passed away from pneumonia in 2001 while battling a brain tumor. Death’s 1987 Scream Bloody Gore and 1988’s Leprosy were keystone works in the evolution of the sub-genre; without Schuldiner’s presence in those early years, death metal, certainly technical death metal, would be less adventurous than it is today.
Schuldiner wasn’t the only influential artist to be mining gems from the mire during the sub-genre’s formative years, but as the reissue of 1990’s Spiritual Healing reminds us, his refusal to be stylistically boxed into a corner has had far-reaching repercussions. These days, extreme metal is open to utilizing diverse methodologies to hammer the point home, and that’s a direct result of artists like Schuldiner, who forged a path between compositional progression and overall aesthetic consistency. Death’s early years were spent crawling through the swamps of thrash-laden death metal, but it was Schuldiner’s determination to develop as an artist, both lyrically and musically, that spurred the band to refine its sound and grow exponentially more inventive with every release.
In recent years, Relapse Records has been reissuing Death’s classic albums in deluxe, remastered and repackaged multidisc editions—with a choice of two- or three-disc versions for Spiritual Healing. The three-disc (limited) edition contains a live show from 1990. The two-disc version (which we’re reviewing here) comes with the same extensive liner notes, a remastered version of the album on the first disc, and an additional 16 rehearsal outtakes and studio instrumentals on the second. (Disc two delivers some bare-boned and bloody tracks that will be of much interest to die-hard Death fans, providing a fascinating insight into the band’s songwriting processes.)
Spiritual Healing is the most significant reissue from Death’s oeuvre, marking a crucial turning point for the band and for death metal as a whole. It’s a transitional album, and not likely to top the list of best Death albums for many fans. Still, that doesn’t reduce its importance one iota. Following the band’s definitive early albums, Spiritual Healing represents the juncture at which Schuldiner began to scrape off some of the filth and fine-tune Death’s sound—a direction set in stone on the follow-up, 1991’s Human.
On Spiritual Healing, Schuldiner injected significantly more virtuosity into the up-front technical riffing, and with lyrics influenced by social issues rather than the earlier ghouls and gore, he took an abrupt and brave narrative turn. While the album straddles the line musically between its predecessor, Leprosy, and follow-up, Human, that developed lyrical perspective was matched by more complex songwriting. Intricate, progressive riffing and off-kilter time signatures provided compelling and, for the time, acutely innovative arrangements.
Such progressive tendencies have been the key to Death’s continued influence. Schuldiner was ably assisted on Spiritual Healing by a stellar line-up, including guitarist James Murphy—who would go on to become a legend in death metal circles—as well as bassist Terry Butler and drummer Bill Andrews making up a powerful rhythm section. The reissue is replete with glimpses of the band members’ inventiveness, with the commanding opening trio of “Living Monstrosity”, “Altering the Future” and “Defensive Personalities” revealing the template that innumerable death metal bands would soon duplicate.
The dissonant, thuggish and famed Morrisound death metal production is still there, but the remastering adds a great deal of clarity, allowing for the solos, breakdowns and fills to sound crisp and lucid, yet retain their begrimed brawniness. The remastering lends a far greater appreciation of Death’s evolving discipline in the studio. Given that the original production on Spiritual Healing was hardly the band’s best work, tracks such as the mammoth and knotty “Spiritual Healing” and “Within the Mind” are given new life—in truth, the album’s never sounded better.
Spiritual Healing hacked and exploited gaps in the boundaries of death metal. It was brutal and toxic, yet replete with unorthodox, cleaner shadings. On this reissue, it sounds as visceral and vital as the day it was originally released, affirming the fact that its narrative and musical sophistication laid the groundwork for countless metal bands to explore frenetic musical pathways with unabashed artistic honesty. Spiritual Healing captures Death beginning to transform its bestial viciousness into something altogether more complex and progressive, though no less intimidating. It’s a powerful reminder of the band’s prowess and the continuing influence of Schuldiner—a driven and imaginative musician that has never been, nor ever should be, forgotten.
// Notes from the Road
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