Savage Land, the debut from death metal super group Gruesome, was born out of Exhumed’s Matt Harvey’s (guitar, vocals) and Gus Rios’s (drums) involvement in the Death to All project. Harvey conceived Savage Land as a tribute to the first four Death Albums, and rounded out the Gruesome lineup with Derketa bassist Robin Maze and Possessed guitarist, Daniel Gonzales. The rotten fruit of this collaboration is a brutal platter of splatter that would do Evil Chuck proud.
Regardless of how you feel about the value of a tribute project of this nature, there is no denying that Harvey and company dove into this endeavor wholeheartedly. The band’s ability to capture the essence of early Death is astounding. At times, you might forget that this is not an actual Death album. For starters, while Harvey’s voice doesn’t sound exactly like Chuck’s, he mimics Chuck’s cadence and phrasing perfectly, and the lyrics are steeped in the horror and gore with which young Chuck Schuldiner was so obsessed. Death’s horror-movie-theme melodies are deftly echoed and the songs are even structured in much the same way as Chuck’s compositions were. Savage Land is the result of a meticulous dissection and reconstruction of the early Death sound.
No copy is ever completely perfect, and Gruesome does deviate from the source material in a few ways, but most of them owe to two-plus decades of advancement in recording technology and the fact that Gruesome is comprised of experienced musicians trying to imitate the performances of teenagers and young men. Everything is a little tighter, punchier and sharper than the original, but not enough to detract from the atmosphere.
Though billed as a tribute to the first four Death albums, Savage Land definitely leans more toward the earlier end of that spectrum; more Scream Bloody Gore and Leprosy than Spiritual Healing and Human. Some of the guitar solos, however, do shred in the more fluid and melodic manner that became a hallmark of Chuck’s later work. The drums, as well, lean more toward Reinert-like precision than they do Reifert-like barbarity.
Now to the meat of the matter: the fucking riffs, sweet baby Jesus, the riffs! If you’ve paid any attention to Exhumed, then it’s no secret to you that Matt Harvey can write some god damn riffs, and age only seems to have sharpened his skill. Sure, some bits on Savage Land come pretty close to plagiarism, but that is undoubtedly intentional. Some riffs, though, particularly the head-banging, neck-snapping, furniture smashing thrash breaks, surpass their inspiration in pure metal magnificence.
The truth is there isn’t a dud to be found on Savage Land, but “Closed Casket” (wink, wink) is a definite highlight, and probably as perfect a tribute to Leprosy-era death as could be conceived. And if you’re not bellowing the chorus by the tune’s end, you’re probably no fun at parties. “Gruesome,” with its not-so-sly nods to both “Infernal Death” and “Living Monstrosity,” is another standout.
Whether or not Savage Land is a fitting tribute to early Death – and I’m telling you it most definitely is – it is a great death metal album, and moreover it is shit-loads of fun. There are no crystal mountains here, no voices of the soul, but there’s a whole lot of screaming, bloody gore, and if that isn’t good enough for you, then might I suggest you choke on it.