Relapse’s exhaustive re-issues of the Death catalog continues with this three-disc version of 1990’s Spiritual Healing. So far, these sets have been textbook examples of how to properly re-issue iconic records, with each new version featuring studio instrumentals, rehearsal demos, live performances, and the like. Though it’s often relegated to lower slot in the band’s almost unequaled catalog, Spiritual Healing doesn’t get the short straw here – this expanded edition is every bit as lovingly enacted as those that have come before, adding the requisite array of rehearsals and alternate takes, plus an entire disc containing a 1990 concert in New Rochelle, NY.
At this point in their career, Death was just beginning to stretch beyond the thrash-based early death metal that they helped create with landmark records like Scream Bloody Gore and Leprosy. Chuck Schuldiner and his revolving company hadn’t quite yet grasped the full-on progressive and technical mastery that would define later recordings – that would start with the next album, 1991’s Human. But in this one moment, Death began their steps over the line – the blunter edges of their earlier, more rudimentary attack were sharpened a bit, their energy more focused and more precise, but yet the result is still noticeably far from where Death would be in only a few years’ time.
With Schuldiner’s goal of a more skilled performance came a new guitarist, as soon-to-be-journeyman James Murphy replaced Rick Rozz. Murphy’s solos are more controlled, less thrash-squall noise, and it’s the combination of Chuck’s ever-improving songwriting and James’ burgeoning fretboard skill that pushes Spiritual Healing forward. Still, for all Chuck’s grand improvements, at least half of the less technical performances that defined early Death are still very much in play. The complicated rhythmic interplay that would characterize later Death records is absent. For all the forward shifts in the guitar work, Bill Andrews’ drumming is still straightforward and mostly rock-based; Terry Butler’s bass is almost entirely unheard, and it’s that transitional disconnect between the old and the new ideals that ultimately defines Spiritual Healing. Chuck is pushing, but the band is holding him back, and the complete line-up shift for Human reflects that. (Though it wasn’t that easy — there was a falling-out with Murphy that led to his departure immediately after recording, and then, angry with Chuck’s decisions, Andrews and Butler toured briefly with a Chuck-less version of Death, on their own accord, which led to their expected sacking from the outfit.)
By this point, it should’ve been clear to anyone who’d kept up with Chuck for two now-legendary albums that the man could write some killer songs, and Spiritual Healing delivered a few more future Death standards. The album opening “Living Monstrosity” is an outright classic, and other tunes like “Within The Mind” and the title track are undeniable smashers. Spiritual Healing is outshined by its brothers, on either side of the line, but it’s still an absolutely great record – the reason Chuck Schuldiner is a metal god is because the man never released a bad album.
This reissue adds two discs, the latter of which I didn’t receive for review and thus cannot accurately cover. (That disc contains the live performance I mentioned above, which would’ve been a far bigger selling point than the middle disc that I did receive.) Aside from a remastered version of the album proper, what I did receive of this 2012 version contains rehearsal takes of five songs (with “Within The Mind” presented twice), plus three additional studio instrumental versions and some goofball jams and other goodies. The rehearsal takes are what you’d expect – they show that Death could legitimately perform these tunes, though they’re not exactly the type of tracks anyone would ever spin regularly. Those studio jams (rightly indicated as “joke tracks” elsewhere on the internet) are interesting, amusing briefly, but far from essential – the so-called “Satanic Jam” is the best of the bunch, with some blast-beat heaviness to offset the funky goofiness of the “Primus Jam” and the falsetto-shrieked trad-metal knock-off of “Jon A Qua [Takes 1-6].” All of that is certainly good for the collector, but I must admit that none of these bonuses fall into the category of anything but a one-listen-and-done affair.
Spiritual Healing is a transition record, an album caught in the middle, but it’s one by a band that literally could do no wrong. This one’s bookended by two of metal’s all-time landmarks, stuck between the last of Death’s early and brutal period and the first of its envelope-pushing, genre-expanding masterpieces. Stylistically as chronologically, it hangs in the balance, closer to the former than the latter, but still, in that difference, there is genius. In that spot between high points, Spiritual Healing remains the dark horse of the Death catalog, the one most often overlooked, but it’s not unworthy. This album is great; this band is one of the best metal bands of all time; this reissue adds a great remaster and some completist bonus material to sweeten the deal; and that is all you need to know. If you don’t own this, you need it, and now there’s more of it to love.