How much do you love Chuck Schuldiner’s legendary band Death? How much do you love that primal, teeth-rattlin’, gut-churning death metal that Chuck helped wretch out of the Florida muck? If there is love, the actual, physical need to listen to Death’s first few albums routinely, then does that love extend to wishing that there were more Death albums in that style? Do you ask your own question (which is also pondered with Cliff Burton in lieu): if Chuck hadn’t passed away in 2001, what kind of music would Death be making? Your answers will shape your impression of Gruesome’s Savage Land.
This can’t be escaped because without the influence of Death’s landmark albums from the early 1990s and Schuldiner’s unexpected passing, Gruesome would not exist. All four members of Gruesome were part of the Death To All tour, which was a celebratory concert revival covering Death’s classics involving any number of musicians. Once the DTA series wrapped up, Gruesome decided that they liked what they were doing but then took another step: instead of just covering Schuldiner’s classic songs, they’d write original ones in the same style.
The result is eight songs that are perfect examples of the gore-drenched, sewer-burping death metal akin to Chuck’s early work. Savage Land sounds and looks exactly like a Death album, one that would fit nicely between Leprosy and Spiritual Healing. The whole package invokes the feel of a Death album that never was, from the album cover, the song titles, the lyrics, the arrangements, the guitar tone and the thump of the drums, right down to Matt Harvey’s vocal inflections. From the first second of the album, though, Savage Land is just as absorbing as any of those classics.
You could consider any approach to explain the appeal here. Think of Savage Land as more than a copy, a replica of Death, a clone, because Gruesome is more than a cover band, though they certainly started at that point. Savage Land is imitation, but I don’t think that the band is under any illusion that they are doing anything original. Gruesome isn’t meant as a replacement for Death either, or at least I would hope not: anyone first gaining interest in the style presented on Savage Land will eventually work back to Leprosy, while everyone else comes at it from the other end.
You could see it as the practice of Death, in that they are following a school or style of death metal long thought dead. We weren’t supposed to get any more albums like Savage Land, yet here we are with an album that could rate among the best of that era. Perhaps the one that works the best is to think of the album as an homage to what Gruesome considers holy and sacred. Chuck is the inspiration, and this is outright Death worship. Historically, parishes tried to build the biggest, tallest church in order to be physically closer to God. Gruesome have done the same thing with this album in approaching Chuck, and you’re more than welcome to be part of the congregation.