Raise your hand if you’ve ever been sittin’ ‘round the old turntable with some scraggly buds of yours and someone said something to this effect: “Fuck I wish I’d have been around when <INSERT DEFUNCT BAND NAME HERE> was around…” only to have all of your friends nod in agreement or bring up similar thoughts. It’s the eternal conundrum: Music is timeless, but we’re not. I’d give my left leg to have caught an Emperor show once, even during a reunion; would just love to say I’d gotten to see Metallica prior to the Load tour (which I didn’t); and of course, would have killed to see Sepultura when that band was still really that band. There exist plenty of recordings chronicling these years and tours, but rarely do they come close to matching the studio works I know and love or make up for never experiencing these acts firsthand.
All of this has been a wordy way of saying this:
1. More than possibly any other band, I really wish I’d have gotten to see Death live, and
2. Just because a band is/was great live doesn’t mean it translates effectively to a live album.
In fact, I can count on one hand the number of metal live albums I listen to consistently (Live After Death and Unleashed in the East are obvious, while Alive in Athens remains Iced Earth’s greatest moment), and none of them are by extreme metal bands. Live metal isn’t about the accuracy of the notes or the improvisation of the band members, it’s about the goddamn energy, and this is something that very rarely comes across when the sweat, volume, and well, stink of a metal show are all compressed into a recording.
This brings us to Vivus!, a handy packaging of two past Death live albums (Live in Eindhoven ’98 and Live in L.A. (Death & Raw)) into one convenient and affordable morsel. Both are shows from the band’s The Sound of Perseverance tour, and both feature the lineup from that album. The setlists are quite similar – heavy on Perseverance and Symbolic but showing off tracks from throughout Death’s history – and this lineup plays (almost) everything with surgical accuracy. (The only real changes are Richard Christy’s occasional flairs on old material and Chuck Schuldiner using his higher rasps throughout.)
There is, however, that energy issue. Taken as a set of songs, Vivus! is infallible, an unmatched collection of classics from beginning to end. Period. But listening to these songs live on record is a bit like being stuck in between the album and the show, achieving neither the visceral ferocity of the former nor the aura and experience of the latter. (Again, only Iron Maiden live albums seem to come packaged with some sort of teleport-to-concert power, which is probably why they’re still releasing them). Some faults in the sound quality and mixing department – particularly on the Eindhoven half – are part of this, but not nearly enough to prevent any real Death fan from still getting completely caught up in the proceedings. Instead, it’s more a question of whether Vivus! deserves much praise for exactly what it is. Answering that requires going into split-personality-critic mode…
If Vivus! is viewed from the perspective of a massive Death fan who came to the party too late (not until my 20s, after Schuldiner had passed), listening to these shows is more than a little bittersweet. It fully reveals how masterful this band was live, and how much each era of the music must have come across to an audience, regardless of what lineup was playing it. But it also leaves me knowing that I’ll never get to witness this mastery in person, ever.
On the other hand, if Vivus! is analyzed from purely a critical standpoint, it is easy to view as hands down the best deal a live-Death-seeker is going to find, but not quite what fans deserve at this juncture. It’s a two-for-one of a man and his band at the peak of their game, showing off their stuff with both class and intensity. But if you’re like me, you’re still holding out for someone to open the archives and unleash some live artifacts from throughout Chuck’s unparalleled career, not just repackage two releases from a decade ago. The man deserves a true anthology, and so do his fans.
Oh, and “Pull the Plug” remains one of the best concert closers of all time.