Review Summary: One big step up for both Death and death metal, though some flaws still carry over from Scream Bloody Gore.
No matter what one may think of Scream Bloody Gore
's quality, there's no denying that it was incredibly important. While Seven Churches
by Possessed came out first in 1985, many believe that Death's classic debut was the first true death metal album because it eliminated many of the thrash influences that dominated other genre precursors. That, and it was fucking vicious
. Sinister guitar riffing, hard-hitting drumming courtesy of Chris Reifert, and vocals that sounded like they came straight from hell... this new sound must have shocked underground metal listeners when it came out. It was primitive, sure, but that was actually part of the album's charm. It wasn't bogged down by excessive technicality, relying instead on an evil atmosphere and solid songwriting to carry things through. Regardless, I can't quite claim it to be the band's best release as far as their pre-progressive metal albums go, as the follow-up Leprosy
would refine this sound and bring it closer to perfection.
was the next step in Death's evolution, sandwiched between the raw brutality of Scream Bloody Gore
and the intricate motifs of their more sophisticated future. It really is a nice mix we get here, too. One moment you'll be hearing the straightforward and thrashy riff of "Born Dead," but then the song will suddenly break into a gloriously tapped guitar solo out of nowhere. Such is the nature of this album, abrupt and choppy at times but often adventurous for its era in a developing genre. Give frontman Chuck Schuldiner credit: he certainly began his band's musical progression early on. The record's opener and closer, "Leprosy" and "Choke On It" showcase the group trying longer compositions and more labyrinthine twists and turns, while the fan favorite "Pull the Plug" explores frequent tempo changes and fantastic trade-off soloing to amazing results. I should also mention that these songs are driven by what I believe to be some of the best production values Death have ever had. Dan Johnson's production work and Scott Burns' engineering generate a sound that's both refined and still utterly vile in tone. The guitars cut through the speakers like razors during the tremolo picking of the guitars, and yet the bass and drums sound incredibly full and thick. Just listen to the intros to "Born Dead" and "Open Casket" and you'll hear this combination played out wonderfully. In fact, it reminds me a lot of Kreator's classic 1986 album Pleasure to Kill
, which also benefited from a merging of rawness and refinement.
But what of Leprosy
's lyrics? Well, the opening title track should explain this one for you:
"Bodies deformed way beyond belief
Cast out from their concerned society
Flesh contorting day after day
Freak of the dark world is what the people say"
Yeah, they hadn't fully gone past the blood and gore by this point, and it's one thing that was carried over from their debut. So what makes it different here? The framing of the music surrounding it. I mentioned before that Scream Bloody Gore
sounds quite evil, but this album quite frankly makes it sound like a walk in the park. This is one record that benefits a lot from the listener reading the lyric booklet along with the music; for instance, "Pull the Plug" has a thrash-influenced bridge where Chuck screams out, "I now behold, a machine decides my fate; End it now, it's all too late" which leads into a gleefully demented Rick Rozz solo soon after. In fact, many of Rick Rozz's solos are extremely twisted, his short segment on "Born Dead" being another great example of this. But one of Death's best strengths was that Chuck often recruited guitarists who were talented enough to rival him while having completely different guitar styles. We heard this on Human
with Paul Masvidal's jazz fusion influence clashing with Chuck's neo-classical-inspired scale runs, and we definitely hear it here as well. Rick Rozz is a perfect musical foil for Chuck, both guitarists stirring up battles of rawness vs. refinement and contrasting each other for some unforgettable riffs and solos. So what exactly is wrong with Leprosy
? Well, the lyrics are a minor issue for being a bit generic and primitive, but a few songs simply fall short of the greatness that tracks like "Leprosy," "Born Dead," and "Pull the Plug" bring. "Primitive Ways," despite having some decent lyrics, is a bit boring musically and doesn't quite have an interesting enough opening. It starts with a fast thrash-based riff, but the songwriting is pretty bland and it all starts to blend together after a while, even with some different tempos here and there. "Forgotten Past" also suffers from similar issues, and appears to be slightly aimless during the speedier sections in the middle.
However, this was around the time that Death were still finding their footing. And for being a sophomore album from an evolving group, Leprosy
is seriously impressive. It melds many of Death's best features into one cohesive sound, but the deliciously evil production work and the increasingly sophisticated songwriting are what really push it into "excellent" territory. It's just an extremely solid death metal album, and that's a perfectly good reason to strongly recommend it. And the crazy part is that Death would eventually top it multiple times, showing just how consistent Chuck's music was and how crucial it was to the evolution of extreme metal.