The Album That Sculpted the Face of Modern Death Metal
Revisiting Death's 'Leprosy' 35 years later and understanding its pioneering role in the evolution of death metal
Death: the inevitable destination for all living things and perhaps the greatest force to shape extreme metal in the late '80s and '90s. When it comes to death metal, few bands managed to guide the possibilities of the genre more than Florida’s Death, led by the incomparable Chuck Schuldiner, the band’s founder, mastermind, and only consistent member. One could even say that Death was Chuck, and Chuck was Death.
Despite the inconsistency of the lineup, the output was inhumanly consistent across seven albums that widened in scope from the early thrash-leaning Scream Bloody Gore to the progressive sounds of 'Symbolic' and The Sound of Perseverance. No matter which direction Death chose to explore, they simply excelled. What’s more, is that they simply had no glaring growing pains along this trek, with each sound fully formed when it arrived, even when iterating within one specific interpretation of death metal.
The albums which are arguably the most alike from Death’s discography are the first three: Scream Bloody Gore, Leprosy, and Spiritual Healing. While there is notable growth in this three-album run, they’re all ruthless death metal with few, if any, progressive flourishes that would begin with Human. In this initial trilogy of records, Leprosy, for many, stands the tallest, and with its 35th anniversary being celebrated in 2023, now is the time to re-examine this record’s legacy and impact.
Leprosy is considered by many to be the peak of Death’s straightforward approach, couched between Scream Bloody Gore’s obsessions with horror and Spiritual Healing’s societal observations. Taking the vigor and imagery of their first album but, rather than fetishizing the events and concepts that dole out the horror, Leprosy looks at death as a concept and applies it to a variety of differing vignettes that prey on the mind as well as the body. This alone helped it stand out at the time when lots of bands in extreme metal were focusing solely on the instruments of terror or dwelling fully in the psychological or political realm, and fewer still were balancing these ideas.
Death metal at the time was incredibly young in 1988, but just one year after, there seemed to be an explosion of bands within this burgeoning genre, and while most of the acts which released albums in 1989 - such as Morbid Angel, Pestilence, Atheist, etc. - were already active, it would be foolish to think that Leprosy didn’t have a massive impact on what followed.
One of the first things that stands out on this album is beginning with the title track. Bolder still is that the title track is the longest song on the entire album. While this may be practiced more often now, at the time this was a little unheard of, but Chuck used this opening as a thesis statement that was precisely placed at the start of side A to show everyone that this band has matured. The songwriting, the production, the lyrical content, all of these things have blossomed in the single year since their debut album.
Leprosy is an archetypal thesis song that puts on display what you’re in for should you decide to stick around for the entire album. The effects-laden roar cements the ‘Evil Chuck’ moniker that he’d been saddled with, kicks the song into high gear, and the snare feels like a boot to the chest with every hit over this song’s near six-and-a-half minutes. It is rife with timing changes, bouncing grooves, and lilting solos that are full-on panic attack inducing.
On paper, the lyrics read as simply a description of this illness that has plagued mankind for a large chunk of civilized society, but it’s also at this point that one could get the feeling that Schuldiner was starting to slip some metaphorical content into this song about outcasts, misfits, and of course, the psychological toll that accompanies the physical torment of this disease.
All of these elements come and go during this album’s runtime but are presented in this opener with great effect, and there’s really no better blueprint to follow to construct a great death metal album. With eight songs in total and clocking in at just over thirty-eight minutes, there’s a lot of meat on these compositions, but Leprosy still manages to feel like an economical album that doesn’t meander or waste time but still gives you plenty to chew on.
When it comes to balance, it’s tough to beat what Death accomplished on this album. While a lot of the songs linger around the four-minute mark, each one has dynamic counterpoints that keep them interesting from start to finish.
"Born Dead" comes out swinging with a thrashy groove before descending into a chaotic frenzy of that blasting snare, scintillating solos, and you can hear the bass parts just as much as you can feel them. This song also reiterates the concept of death in a new context with the idea of being born dead. It's morbid, terrifying, and helpless all tied up in a simple song title. It’s the ultimate, ‘I’m fucked’ sentiment that one could have.
And for all of these change-ups, there are also moments where “let them cook” comes to mind as on the track “Forgotten Past,” where the riff gets ridden until the end of the track while one of the most underrated solos on Leprosy gives Chuck the spotlight for his wizardry.
Furthering the concept of ‘I’m fucked’, “Left To Die” reaches into the realm of psychological torment once more and pulls on a thread and protracts a realization of inevitable demise across almost five minutes. Five minutes that are loaded with thundering drum fills, blood-curdling screams, and chugging riffs all performed with deranged aggression.
While the subject matter is again vague, an examination of the lyrics makes it seem like someone has lost their legs due to a landmine detonation. Again, Schuldiner smartly dodged having an angle here but wrote a war-themed song without losing focus on the horror of it all and making it one of the most horrendously wonderful songs on the record.
The groove that shifts into play around a minute-and-a-half in feels like the perfect time to interject the notion that all of these realizations have happened in an instant but time itself is even against you here, extending the suffering by not letting these horrors pass in an instant.
Letting side A end here is perfection because we all know that the B side begins with arguably the single best track on Leprosy and the dovetailing of sentiments from “Left To Die” and “Pull The Plug” feels like a transition of realization to resignation.
“Pull The Plug” is, to most, the pinnacle of Leprosy. This is a song that has spawned countless copies, attempts at copies, and plain rip-offs. This is a death metal track that manages to not only impress with some of the most memorable solos of the era (and yes, there are plenty of technical and objectively interesting things about this song), but one of the most impressive is just how Chuck and company managed to construct such an oppressive atmosphere out of all of these disparate components. It’s aggressive, yes, but it’s also authentically heavy in a way that few death metal songs can be without incorporating some kind of doom metal ornaments or slowing things down to let atmosphere saturate the song.
This is the kind of thing that more than likely took a lot of work at Morrisound, the legendary studio where this album was recorded, and employing the skills by the legend Scott Burns who was on hand as well. It’s worth discussing just how great this song - and this entire album - sounds.
Leprosy sounds alive, feral, and hungry. The snare has already been mentioned, but the way that Bill Andrews smacked that snare is something that left a mark on death metal. The way it punches through the songs but still doesn’t overpower them is quite the feat, and while there are other parts of the kit that are utilized to great effect - like the aforementioned fills on “Left To Die” - this component changed just how much of an impact that a single drum head could have on a record. Coming from 'Scream Bloody Gore,' Leprosy feels wider and chunkier, eschewing the leaner, garage-esque production of its predecessor. The guitars take up the right amount of space but feel appropriately buzzy, and the bass - played by Chuck - again is audibly in the mix and not just a low-end rumble that keeps the record from being imbalanced.
Even when the record is ending with “Choke On It” with the array and disarray of elements converging and clashing with each other, everything feels right at home and like a hammer to the face.
To say that Leprosy is a foundational death metal record would, by most standards, be an understatement. It arrived just before the boom of the early '90s and lit the path for so many bands that would follow. There are plenty of foundational or pioneering records that fail to live up to what their influence created, but that’s just simply not the case for Leprosy. While journalists have been waxing poetic about Death and their storied career for decades now, this is an album that hasn’t lost its edge, importance, or rightful place near the top of the heap of all-time great metal records.
Psychologically terrifying lyrics, blazing riffs, intricate-but-not-flashy song structures, throat-ripping vocals, and of course, that damn snare were all blended together in that Florida swamp 35 years ago, and its legacy is quite literally the story of death metal. While most would agree that there’s no ‘bad’ Death album, Leprosy is often the top choice of fans, and that’s for a good reason. It’s still a monster.