To suggest that anticipation for this gig was high would be something of an understatement – many people I know had invested in their tickets months in advance and given the general sense of good-feeling towards this incarnation of the death metal legends, excitement was ramping up to fever-pitch in the NW5 area of London.
Due to a late-running prior appointment, I missed Darkrise (reports from various people were pretty mixed) and by the time I enter the Forum, Germany’s Obscura are onstage and shaking the foundations with their own brand of tech-fuelled death metal. Given the legacy that the four-piece owe to Death’s latter works, it makes perfect sense for them to be on this bill and frontman Stefen Kummerer is clearly relishing the opportunity. The sound is pretty good and enables the intricacies of their playing to shine through – drummer Hannes Grossman is a veritable tornado of precision and speed whilst the numerous searing leads of Kummerer and Christian Meunzner slice through the dense mix.
When they play it hard ‘n’ fast, Obscura are great, boasting flawless musicianship and a dash of invention. It’s when they pull back the gears into some ‘soaring’ chorus sections (replete with trite clean vocals) that my eyebrows raise. Identity crisis? Whatever the situation, these singalong moments do not sit well with this reviewer and serve to undermine the quality of their material. The packed out crowd don’t seem to care a jot however and they leave to thunderous applause. New friends made tonight methinks.
And so. Death:DTA. Whichever way you slice it, this was a show that was bound to invoke strong feelings. There are doubtless those among you who cannot even contemplate the prospect of a live performance of a band bearing the ‘Death’ name that does not feature mainman, sole songwriter, vocalist, guitarist and genre mastermind Chuck Schuldiner (RIP for those who have been living in a cave for the last 15 years). Yes, it is certainly strange but given that 75% of tonight’s line-up appeared on the seminal 1991 album ‘Human’ and that this outing had the blessing of Chuck’s family and close associates, I see no reason why this cannot be seen as a testament to the man’s legacy.
If this is the route being taken, then it should be a full-on celebration and in my eyes, viewed as Death gig. Not a nostalgia act or vaguely morbid curio but an opportunity for the music to live again, delivered by musicians who were part of it. That’s definitely the feeling here walking into the Forum – the audience is salivating at the prospect of Chuck’s music being played live by such respected musicians – and when the four of them launch into ‘Flattening of Emotions’, the place goes ballistic, frankly. It’s a wild outpouring of pent up joy, feverishly revelling in the presence of material that I’d imagine half of this audience never thought they’d ever see live. The other half meanwhile – no doubt convinced that their memories of seeing Death live would remain as that – are enraptured.
‘Suicide Machine’ is up next and that Human one-two salvo serves as a reminder of just how good this material is – these songs were written in 1990 but STILL sound relevant, still sound cutting-edge. The set is short but sweet – carefully balanced to provide blast of older-school bloodthirstiness (‘Zombie Ritual’ from 1987’s ‘Scream Bloody Gore’ has grins plastered across the faces of audience members) whilst an effortless run through of ‘Crystal Mountain’ reminds us all of not only Death’s legacy as pioneers of progressive death metal but also as to the sheer calibre of these musicians.
The star is undoubtedly Cynic’s Paul Masvidal on guitar – beaming from ear-to-ear, leaping about the stage and peeling off solos with an effortlessness that is frankly awe-inspiring to behold. His co-Cynic Sean Reinert on the drums is perhaps a little more subdued but is never less than stellar whilst bass legend Steve DiGorgio prowls apeishly around the stage in sandals, coaxing all manner of noise from this three-stringed(?!?) bass. Cynic live guitarist Max Phelps is given the tall task of ‘being’ Chuck for the evening – a huge honour but one that must come with a real sense of responsibility He certainly looks the part for sure, wielding that BC Rich Stealth high in true Chuck fashion and barking out the vocals with real force. His guitar however, is practically inaudible. Moving around the venue yields no improvement and given that Phelps is covering for a number of Schuldiner’s solos, it leaves the sound seeming very thin at points.
That Phelps also engages in zero stage banter at all (Mr DiGorgio seemingly happy to work the mic) and steps back into the shadows between songs leads to a vague sense of unease. Is he uncomfortable with the circumstances? If he’s going to BE Chuck for the evening, you’d like to think he’d be given free-reign to go for it. Perhaps it is from a sense of respect that he holds back to this degree but it only serves to highlight a sense of what’s missing. When Obscura’s Steffen steps up to lead proceedings for a rendition of ‘Spirit Crusher’ and works the crowd as a frontman, it serves to underline the sense that Phelps really should just go for it to fully bring the experience to life.
The slide-show of Chuck photos and footage during the intermission was a nice touch (if perhaps a little too lengthy) but again, veered the gig towards a memorial feeling that in hindsight, robbed energy from proceedings. Of course, with a closing salvo of ‘Lack of Comprehension’ and ‘Pull the Plug’, the energy levels don’t take long to ramp back up but by the end of the show, I am left with mixed feelings about the evening. It’s been a difficult review to write as there’s a lot of emotion that surrounds this situation – nonetheless, I can’t help but feel that if this is a Death show, they should have totally gone for it and let Phelps off the leash somewhat. Something seemed a little neutered about it and whilst there was no doubting the excellence of the material or the performances, I was left with – whilst certainly not flattened – then definitely mixed emotions.
(Review by Frank Allain)