After Death: Chuck Schuldiner's Life and Legacy | Revolver

After Death: Chuck Schuldiner's Life and Legacy

Remembering the Godfather of Death Metal
chuck_schuldiner_1987_credit_frankwhite.jpg, Frank White
Death's Chuck Schuldiner, 1987
photograph by Frank White

On December 13th, 2001, the metal community lost one of its most trailblazing creative figures with the untimely passing of Death mastermind Chuck Schuldiner. The visionary vocalist, guitarist, songwriter and bandleader set the template for death metal before leading the genre to its most progressive, technical and thrilling heights, influencing everyone from Cannibal Corpse and Mastodon to Gojira and System of a Down along the way.

Schuldiner was born on Long Island, New York, in 1967. When he was one, his family moved to the Orlando, Florida, suburb of Altamonte Springs. It was there, at age nine, that he first picked up the guitar as an activity to help him process the grief after his 16-year-old brother was killed in car accident. The young musician received a classical guitar from his parents and took a few lackluster lessons. But it wasn't until he scored his first electric guitar from a local yard sale that his passion was ignited — and he discovered the obsession that would change his life.

Like many metalheads coming of age in the Seventies, Schuldiner was initially drawn to godfathers like Black Sabbath and KISS, before gravitating to the faster, heavier melodic sounds of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (in particular, Iron Maiden). By the dawn of the Eighties he had discovered the underground tape-trading circuit and the unbridled brutality of Venom, Metallica, Slayer, Mercyful Fate, Celtic Frost, Possessed and more.

In 1983, when Schuldiner was just 16, he formed Mantas, which eventually became Death. Schuldiner and Co. jumped into the tape-trading fray and issued a string of demos, including Infernal Death and Mutilation. The raw proto-death-metal expressions captured on these tapes were massively impactful and struck a chord among traders (who shared them as vigorously as the more established bands of the day), extreme-metal fanatics and budding musicians around the globe. "Those really were the monuments of death metal," Asphyx frontman Martin van Drunen told Revolver.

Schuldiner in KISS makeup as a kid

In 1987, Death released their debut studio album, Scream Bloody Gore — a force of nature that many consider to be the first true death-metal album. All the component pieces were there: the gory, evocative themes (reflected in the iconic Ed Repka cover art), the guttural vocals, the unrelenting, shifting, fast-as-hell riffs and head-cutting solos. The debut established Death and Schuldiner (who played guitar and bass, sang and wrote all the songs) as the new game-changing voice in the scene.

Leprosy (1988) and Spiritual Healing (1990) further cemented Death's influence and power, and hinted that Schuldiner and his band — which over the years featured a revolving cast of supporting players including Andy LaRocque, Gene Hoglan, Richard Christy, Chris Reifert, Paul Masvidal, Sean Reinert and more — were out to see just how far they could push the genre. Schuldiner's lyrics moved beyond Satanic tropes and were replaced by increasingly topical and introspective subject matter (including personal betrayal, abortion, the crack-cocaine epidemic and the right to die). As Schuldiner's songwriting and playing evolved, so did his desire for musical perfection — a pursuit that led him to demand increasingly rigorous levels of articulation from his and his bandmate's performances.

1991's Human was a landmark in Schuldiner's creative ambitions — a virtuosic, progressive death-metal stunner that many considered to be their masterpiece. Though it was released the same year as Metallica's blockbuster Black Album, Mastodon's Brann Dailor says Human had a much greater impact on him. "I was like, Who is the drummer?" he recalled on Revolver's "Fan First" podcast earlier this year. "It seemed like Chuck got way more technical because he was able to, because he had a drummer [Reinert, of Cynic] now who could really keep up."

System of a Down's Daron Malakian was similarly mind-blown. "I had never heard anything like Human before," the guitarist, also of Scars on Broadway, told us in 2020. "Before that album, Death was more of a straightforward death-metal band. But with that album they transitioned into something a little more progressive. ... These guys took Slayer and made it heavier. It was so fresh and brand new."

Schuldiner continued to explore the far end of death-metal's proggy, complex realms on follow-ups Individual Thought Patterns (1993), Symbolic (1995) and The Sound of Perseverance (1998). Perseverance marked another pivotal moment for Schuldiner. The album wasn't just a tech-death high-water mark full of bold structures, virtuosic solos and seething vocals — it also proved to be Death's swan song. At that point in his career, Schuldiner was ready to explore a more melodic style that he felt wasn't possible within Death's framework. So he pivoted to his progressive metal side project Control Denied (which he founded in '96).

In early 1999, during the making of what would become Control Denied's first, and only, studio album, The Fragile Art of Existence, Schuldiner began experiencing extreme neck pain. An MRI revealed its chilling cause: a tumor was growing at the base of his brain. Further tests resulted in a diagnosis of pontine glioma, a rare type of brain stem cancer.

Schuldiner received treatments (including radiation therapy), which culminated in January 2000 with a successful surgery to remove part of the cancerous tumor. He underwent physical therapy and within months was feeling better. He soon was back in the studio with Control Denied, working on their sophomore album, tentatively titled When Man and Machine Collide. But by early 2001, Schuldiner's symptoms resurfaced — the tumor had started growing again — but this time it had invaded areas of the brain too sensitive for surgery. Schuldiner continued to work on music, even as his symptoms worsened.

death_1988_credit_frank-white.jpg, Frank White
Death, 1988
photograph by Frank White

"Music was Chuck's focus," Death and Controlled Denied drummer Christy recalled to Revolver in 2011. "It was the thing that gave him strength. It was inspiring to see somebody going through something so hard and still playing guitar and writing music. Chuck was just so committed. He gave it everything he had."

Schuldiner fought until the very end, eventually passing away from complications from the disease in 2001. He was 34.

"His music is timeless," Christy continued. "It still sounds as fresh as it did when it came out. Plus, Chuck's style on guitar is unmatched: it's the perfect mix of melody, technicality and brutality. I'm extremely lucky to have been not just part of the band but also a close friend of Chuck's. He inspired me, and he continues to inspire me, every day."