Originally written by Justin Bean.
There are plenty of albums out there that could benefit from being remastered and re-released, but Death’s The Sound of Perseverance wasn’t on my list. However, being that the album is — in my mind, at least — the near-perfect realization of the life-long musical quest of one of metal’s most visionary and talented musicians, I will gladly accept a new edition, especially when a trove of demo material and a handsome new booklet and layout are involved. I’m not going to spend time discussing whether it’s Death’s best album (which I would argue it is) because that would completely miss the point of Chuck Schuldiner’s artistic trajectory, which was an arc of growth, maturation, and refinement. Nor will I be discussing why I would choose this album to represent the high-water mark of 90s death metal, after which one could observe a slow reversal of tides as the 21st century rolled in with deathcore, Daath and other such silliness. Nevertheless, it can certainly be said that Death’s history and subsequent influence on death metal could generate a master’s thesis, at least.
There is a fine but distinct line between an artist and a musician. A musician, like a craftsman, learns a trade. He learns rudiments and scales and practices them until he can perform any song he wants, perhaps aiming for a career as a studio musician. (And this is not to say that a studio musician cannot be an artist, by the way.) On the other hand, an artist will probably learn some of what the musician has learned, but he will most likely become distracted by his desire to “figure things out for himself,” as he might say. Or – and this is arguably the more important factor – he will set himself a goal of creating something “new.” The philosophical shortcomings of dualities and discreet categories aside, I would have to place Schuldiner in the category of “artist,” and that probably isn’t a particularly controversial statement, but I do have a point here, and it has less to do with the remastering or repackaging of TSOP than it does the extra material released on the second disc, but I’ll get to that shortly.
As I started to say above, TSOP didn’t call out to be remastered in the same way that, say, Symphonies of Sickness arguably did. (Granted, if you’re a purist you’ll say history should stay history and not be touched.) But, hell, why not give a great album a bit more production juice if the label is paying? Alan Douches was responsible for the new TSOP mastering job, and from what I can tell he has thickened up the mids and low-end on the guitars, and the overall volume is a notch louder, and there’s probably some new kind of digital clarity to the whole thing. But in 1998, which wasn’t that long ago let’s remember, Jim Morris provided the band with one hell of a recording, so the difference is not dramatically noticeable to my ears. As with the original production, the guitars scream; the drums are organic and powerful; and the bass tone is articulate but heavy. But without a doubt, there is a new warmth to the album’s sound that doesn’t hurt one bit. Artist Travis Smith has also revisited his album art from 1998, and to great effect. In the original cover piece, we see the mouth on the mountain and the people climbing, but by now the digital effects used in the illustration have aged like an original PlayStation game. The new illustration is far more powerful and rounds out the whole package, which subtly demonstrates via a tastefully reconstructed layout the respect that TSOP has accrued over time.
But let us get back to the extra material: I’ve found that extra tracks are particularly hit or miss. Slaughter of the Soul’s 2008 re-release had some killer unreleased tracks, but when a label tosses some intolerably raw live tracks onto the end of an otherwise good album, or does nothing more than repackage the disc in a fancier jewel case (*cough* Nuclear Blast *cough*), it can cheapen the experience of the original release or make you wonder why you didn’t just buy a used copy of the original on the internet for five bucks. This, however, is not the case with TSOP. Like a true artist, Schuldiner was a meticulous planner and revisionist, and on disc two, we get two years of demos for most of the songs that appear on TSOP. Three bass-less tracks – “Spirit Crusher”, “Flesh and the Power It Holds”, and “Voice of the Soul” – see the songs in forms close to their final arrangements, but here and there, riffs and harmonies differ from those used in the final recording. It’s always interesting to see behind the curtain, so to speak, and to briefly view an artist’s creative process in action. In some cases, such as with the lead riff that opens the ’98 demo version of “Bite The Pain”, the earlier decisions sounded good, but for one reason or another, they were altered. In other instances, such as with the vocal effects used in the ’97 demo of “Story To Tell”, I was left feeling glad that artistic license was restrained.
Ultimately, the privilege of hearing Schuldiner working out his compositions shares space with a real sadness at his passing in 2001. We will never understand the choices he made while building what would become Death’s final opus, but we don’t need to in order to know the greatness of Death and The Sound of Perseverance. And though the album was brought to fruition with the help of three other phenomenal musicians — Richard Christy’s drum performance is one of my favorite in metal, period — it was Schuldiner’s vision that shaped The Sound of Perseverance and Death’s profound legacy. In the re-release liner notes, second guitarist Shannon Hamm says as much and more: “The Sound of Perseverance closes the final chapter in a legacy that Chuck has left behind, and it will only continue to grow over time as future generations discover the meaning of ‘perseverance’ through the eyes of a genuine musical genius.”