Imagine being an extreme metal fan in the New York-New Jersey region at the dawn of the 90s. It was far from the only booming death metal scene (you’ve heard of Florida, right?), but there was quite a bit to please the ears. Out on Long Island, Suffocation was giving new meaning to both musical brutality and technical wizardry. Up in Yonkers, Immolation was about to unleash one of death metal’s most cerebral, sophisticated monsters upon the world while a young Mortician was revving up the buzzsaws and Malignancy was about to get started. Some of the longest lasting, and in the cases of Suffocation and Immolation, most groundbreaking and successful careers in death metal history came from this era.
Over in Jersey, the scene was led by skronky, thrashy death act Ripping Corpse and their grindier pals in Human Remains, and had other promising acts such as Latshaw and Damonacy. To say that the fates of these bands were not parallel to their New York peers is an understatement. Ripping Corpse and Human Remains have proven to be extremely influential over the decades, but those bands, as well as Latshaw and Damonacy, were short-lived. Between all four acts, only one proper full length record was released.
That record was Ripping Corpse’s Dreaming with the Dead, and it starts by asking you if you smell the sweetness.
It is said that the flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long. Dreaming with the Dead takes that old proverb and ups it by about a factor of 10. Way back in the yesteryear of 1991, there just wasn’t a lot of music on tape like what Ripping Corpse was putting down. The reasons for this were many: brutally efficient songs (12 in under 35 minutes), dizzyingly technical riffs and drumming, solos that range from controlled madness to the slightly trippy, a relatively natural production (particularly for the time), a bit of hardcore attitude in the vocals, and a sassy/snarky brashness permeating everything. It’s a total onslaught, with every musician competing for space (and with themselves) while working in concert to level the listener. A constant show of one-upmanship that also happens to be rife with sneaky melody and slick songcraft, this one.
The reason for such success was, naturally, the people involved, and in terms of launching careers, Dreaming with the Dead was a bit like death metal’s version of the Scum / From Enslavement to Obliteration days. It all started with Shaune Kelley, a guy with such brass balls that he wasn’t afraid to ask Mille Petrozza if he could use Kreator’s “Ripping Corpse” for the band name. Mille obviously said yes; talent recognized talent. Through a variety of hometown/school/scene acquaintances, the band eventually included drummer Brandon Thomas, bassist Dave Bizzigotti, vocalist Scutt Ruth, and some guy named Erik Rutan on second guitar. That these five dudes pushed each other to greater, crazier sounds is perfectly evident on the record, but it was also happening behind the scenes. On their earliest demos they were a one-guitarist band, with Rutan merely hanging around and taking tips from Kelley. It wasn’t until Rutan’s skills got to a certain level that he caught the eye of Kelley and was given an audition. Imagine there being a band that, even in its infancy, could want more of Erik Rutan.
That was Ripping Corpse, and that was the mentality it took to create a record like Dreaming with the Dead. In a way, it incorporated everything that had happened in death metal up to that point, while stretching out in weird ways that other bands would make common later on. It had the musical sophistication of Human but the splatter-happy nastiness of Scream Bloody Gore; the riff acrobatics are likely to remind listeners of Demilich as much as an obvious parallel like like Atheist, but it predates Nespithe by two years; and it has that pit-happy touch of slam but presents it alongside some of the wackiest music to ever draw a lumbering caveman into the circle, at least at that point in metal history.
More than anything, this record had the riffs. But you knew that statement was coming, right? What death metal classic isn’t loaded to the brim with riffs? But friends, Ripping Corpse riffed like few bands ever have riffed, showing an almost grind-like efficiency (and attention span) in how they bring one crusher and quickly change the scene and tempo to another crusher. Take that colossally smartass hammer-pull line that comes in at about the 20-second mark of “Glorious Depravity.” It’s one of the album’s top hooking moments, and it’s quickly dropped for a total blastoff of speed. The key is that the band knew exactly when to return to that motif. They treated you to seconds, but put you through the ringer first.
In many ways then, Dreaming with the Dead is spastic in both the micro and macro, but it’s also sophisticated in the micro and macro, and every song is somewhere on the spectrum between those two traits. The title track, for example, is packed with tempo changes and blasting madness, draining the listener in under 100 seconds. Like much of the faster material on the record, it spatters its speed riffs with fast pinch harmonics, creating a sound somewhere between an industrial shop vac and a circular saw. At the (relatively) less chaotic end of the spectrum is closer “Seduction of the Innocent,” which opens almost theatrically with spidery interwoven leads and has a set of higher, syncopated riffs that are one of the record’s most infinitely headbangable passages. It’s like the album wants to play nice and catchy before the brutal, almost unceremonious ending reminds you that everything here is, in fact, really damn mean.
No discussion of Ripping Corpse or this album is complete without giving full appreciation to Brandon Thomas, whose performance on Dreaming with the Dead was nothing short of mastery. His rapid blasting ‒ which could keep up with just about anyone outside of grind at the time ‒ was just part of his wide arsenal. Thomas turned the already wicked cool descending thrash passages in “Feeling Pleasure Through Pain” into pure gold with one of his great ride cymbal patterns; his blazing fill/crash combos in “Deeper Demons” and tight snare rolls acted as hooks during some particularly unrelenting sections; and his attention to hi-hat detail ‒ be it a quick muting during a fast part or a touch of funk ‒ was the perfect meeting of style and skill. The man possessed as much individual flair as Kelley, and was probably the most important element of the band’s undeniable chemistry.
If Thomas was the ultimate example of the band’s musical prowess, Scott Ruth was there to bring it all back to the dumb muck (in the best possible way, of course). An obvious point to be made about Ruth is his notable connection to old school hardcore, and sure, he certainly had more ‘tude than your typical death metal singer, but that wasn’t what made him perfect for Ripping Corpse. No, what made him ideal for this band and this record was that he screamed as if he had spiders crawling under his skin… and was enjoying it. Listen to the way he gets extra nasty during a slower, nutso heavy part of “Beyond Humanity” (“Surviiiiiiiiiiiiiiiive.”), or how he sounds sickened with himself during the even slower, even more nutso heavy chorus of “Rift of Hate.”
Ruth traded in standard death growls for something snide, demented, corrupt, and more than a little snotty. His delivery of “My sensitivity / My brutality / It’s all relative” in opener “Sweetness” is both deathly serious and totally sarcastic, a duality that can be attributed to the whole album, really. How else do you explain a song entitled “Chugging Pus” that is about hypocrisy in government and religion? You don’t, you just take in the riffs and the extra high shrieks and enjoy each disgusting second.
Every band member, riff, vocal line, blast beat, and neck-breaking tempo change added up to make Dreaming with the Dead a classic, but they also added up to make it sound fresh, a quality that remains today. This was a band that knew how to have fun without drenching anything in irony and that had that great “Check out what I can do!” flair without sacrificing an ounce of songcraft. And it was a record that knew how to sneak in some super slick melody and musical class without losing the dirty sawblade that made it terrifying. And essential.
Scary, essential, and of course bittersweet, with the only Ripping Corpse release after being the brief Industry EP. In 1993, Rutan left for Morbid Angel and Scott Hornick (who had taken over on bass) went for some formal music training at Berklee. At one point, instrumental tracks for a second album were laid down, but nothing was completed (said tracks are on YouTube). Even before these movements, however, Ripping Corpse was a band cursed with bad luck. Most notably, Earache founder Digby Pearson didn’t sign the band because he didn’t like Scott Ruth’s look. Really, that was the reason. Imagine Dreaming with the Dead getting that level of label support instead of what it was given by Kraze Records, which went belly up soon after the album’s release. A what-if among many what-ifs.
The biggest what-if, and one of the biggest in all death metal, is what would have happened had they stayed together. But thankfully the individual members of Ripping Corpse have kept plenty busy since the split, in case you hadn’t heard. Kelley, Ruth, and Thomas formed Dim Mak almost immediately, and in a few obvious ways other than the personnel, their new band was a bit of a Ripping Corpse extension. Sure, they had less total madness, a whole lot more kung fu, and a different, less schizo songwriting approach, but it’s impossible to ignore Kelley’s unique riffing style and that lovably wacky attitude. Not hard to imagine a lot of those riffs being on Ripping Corpse records in an alternate universe.
Erik Rutan, meanwhile, did nothing but become one of the most important figures in death metal. His two stints in Morbid Angel placed him on a couple albums called Domination and Gateways to Annihilation, and he went on to be one of death metal’s most sought after producers. Oh, and he formed a little band named Hate Eternal, who over 20 years have refused to release anything but great records. Rutan even brought his old pal Shaune Kelley back on Fury & Flames. Elsewhere, Thomas hit skins in The Dying Light, Bizzigotti is thrashing about in Speed Kill Hate, and Kelley started exerting his undeniable influence over brutech band Flesh Consumed on their latest, Hymn for the Leeches.
Beyond the band’s lineup, however, it’s impossible to not view Dreaming with the Dead as the biggest part of a watershed moment for extreme metal in their regional scene and specifically New Jersey. Prior to Ripping Corpse and the aforementioned Human Remains, the most famous metal to come out of the Garden State was largely of the thrash, power, and trad varieties, with Overkill being the obvious once and future kings. Sure, there were far more extreme metal bands everywhere in the 90s than in the 80s, but it takes some serious mental gymnastics to not hear how the spastic nuttiness was carried on in bands like post-Human Remains group Burnt by the Sun, grinders Discordant Axis, and even mathcore lords The Dillinger Escape Plan, not to mention Jersey’s current death metal generation.
But taken out of the contexts of of each musician’s individual story or the NY/NJ scene as a whole, Dreaming with the Dead is just a classic of the highest order, and on the short list of metal’s greatest one-off records. It finds a way to be simultaneously technically impressive but downright belligerent, and unabashedly fun but brutal enough to appeal to the bloodiest of knuckle-draggers. If you’ve never smelled the sweetness, now’s the time.