Monday, April 26, 2010

Death - Spiritual Healing (1990)

If someone put me on the spot and asked me to pick the one album that I feel is the most pure representation of what Death Metal is all about, the first thing I would think of is Scream Bloody Gore. With that album, Death managed to codify everything that Death Metal stood for. A year later, they built on this with their classic sophomore effort, Leprosy. Then, sometime in 1989 or 1990, Chuck Schuldiner began to lose focus and no longer displayed a strong understanding of the very creation that he had played such a crucial role in giving birth to.

The third Death record, Spiritual Healing, marked the beginning of a strange journey. Musically, this album wasn't too far off from the previous one. It's at this point that one can notice that this band progresses in a fairly even manner. Each album sounds like a mixture of the one before and the one after. At any rate, the main changes on Spiritual Healing were the vocals and the lyrics, themselves. There is an annoying vocal effect that is used, throughout the entire album, and it takes away from the atmosphere quite a bit. In the end, it could have been overlooked. But, more importantly, the lyrics took a completely different path from anything related to Death Metal. Instead of lyrics about zombies, gore and horror, we find lyrics that display some sense of social consciousness. The themes include abortion, drug addiction, religious hypocrisy, and even taking shots at those who had been speaking ill of him, personally. All in all, the lyrics have nothing in common with what he'd written for the previous seven years. Gone are the days of "Mutilation" and "Regurgitated Guts". Instead, there's nonsense such as "Defensive Personalities" and "Within the Mind", the latter seeming to be the result of reading too many New Age books. Some would argue that the lyrics and even the packaging are inconsequential and that the music is the only thing that matters. I strongly disagree with this. Ideally, everything should come together to create a certain atmosphere. Lyrics, song titles, album art and even band photos can all do a great deal to add to and accentuate the feeling being conveyed by the music. If one, or more, of these things is not in line with the rest then it detracts from the overall work. It's difficult to come to terms with an album like this one, as the lyrics are much better suited for their Thrash Metal contemporaries. Had Chuck decided to create a new band, around this time, it may have been a better idea in the long run. But to utilize the Death Metal sound and vocal style, yet produce an album bereft of any true Death Metal spirit, it marks a turning point in the career of this legendary band.

Beyond the lyrical concern, there is another matter that must be addressed. The songwriting is still what one would expect from Chuck Schuldiner. There is some progression from the previous album and, as mentioned, this would continue with each subsequent release. However, the music is not as enjoyable as it should have been and the problem has a name: Scott Burns. By this time, Morrisound Studio had become the place to go if you were a Death Metal band. Unfortunately, the employees of this studio were either very lazy or very arrogant. What I mean by that is that once they found a particular sound that they liked, they tried their best to never stray from it. So one could assume that they were too lazy to really put in the hard work to get the very best sound out of every band and to accentuate the individual strengths of each group, or maybe they were so arrogant that they felt they had achieved the 'perfect' sound for this type of music and saw no need to alter it. Compare Spiritual Healing to Blessed Are the Sick, Cause of Death, Deicide, Tortured Existence, etc. Some bands even came from overseas to get this sterile and cookie-cutter sound. Take a listen to Harmony Corruption and Testimony of the Ancients, for example. If you listen to all of these albums, you'll notice that everything seems to run together. In particular, the faster parts are completely interchangeable. The guitar tone and mixing of the drums is practically the same on every album, from around this time. It's not that all of the bands were trying to sound alike; in fact, each one had their own distinct approach to songwriting. The problem was that they all put their fate into the hands of an idiot like Scott Burns, who had no artistic vision, whatsoever. It was all paint-by-numbers for him, and the bands that went to Morrisound did what they felt they needed to, in order to get the sound that people had begun to expect. The typical Morrisound production job smoothed out any and all rough edges and left the end result neutered and 'safe'. Some classic albums were recorded there, but they were all held back by the horrible efforts of Scott Burns. Spritual Healing is no exception to this.

If you can get past the useless lyrics that have absolutely no place in Death Metal, as well as the sterile production, what's left is still quite a competent album with songwriting that is solid and interesting. There are a lot of good, memorable riffs. It can be said that this record is more for fans of Chuck's style of music and fans of Death, itself, rather than people looking for great Death Metal. This was the last album to feature the guys from Massacre. After the tame album that they took part in, they chose to focus on their own project and went on to record From Beyond. Chances are, you're better off picking that one over Spiritual Healing, if it's Death Metal that you are after.