GRUESOME "Death Worship"

By Dr. Abner Mality

There was once a land where zombies drank the blood of the innocent...where leprosy condemned the inflicted to a hideous fate...where DEATH held sway! That was the musical universe created by one Chuck Schuldiner, an enterprising and talented young fellow who made his mark by creating the template for the musical genre we lovingly know as "death metal". Chuck's band Death left its mark for sure, first with grim tales of torture and demise, and later with more progressive and thoughtful fare. What a shame that Chuck is no longer around to enjoy the fruits from the seeds he planted. He died an untimely death in December, 2001.

He certainly would have enjoyed the subject of our little interview this evening...GRUESOME! Here we have a collection of top notch talent sincerely motivated to recreate the gut-munching style of the early Death albums, most notably "Scream Bloody Gore" and "Leprosy". As you will learn, not only does Gruesome not conceal their influence, they positively rub your face in it on their debut record "Savage Land". Gruesome is composed of Exhumed mastermind Matt Harvey on guitar and vocals (sounding uncannily like Schuldiner), Possessed's Daniel Gonzalez on guitar, Derketa's Robin Mazen on bass and the gentleman I am speaking to below, drummer Gus Rios formerly of Malevolent Creation and Divine Empire.

Despite his macabre enjoyment of tales involving subhuman cannibals and gangrene (or maybe because of it), Gus is a real cheerful and talkative guy to talk to, with plenty to say not only about Gruesome, but about how big an influence early Death was on him personally, the evolution of death metal and even legendary cover artist Ed Repka. Just goes to prove that us gorehounds are an amiable bunch...

Now, prepare to parachute into the Savage Land and meet your GRUESOME fate!

WORMWOOD CHRONICLES: When you guys went in to record the Gruesome LP, how did you get yourself into a proper frame of mind? Did you try to turn back the clock to the late 80's?

GUS RIOS: That's actually a pretty good question! Something interesting happened along the way and I literally got an inner vibe feeling because of the way Matt structured the Gruesome songs. They are actually structured like Death songs. "Leprosy" has been my favorite death metal record since 1988. Honestly, if you want the definition of what death metal is supposed to be, in my opinion, it's that album. It's got every element necessary...the album cover, the production, the riffs, everything. When I heard Matt's music, it was so close to Death that it was easy...almost innate...just to approach the songs in that super-solid Bill Andrews style. That's from a drummer's perspective. A lot of people dog that guy, but man, to me, he's the Phil Rudd of death metal! (laughs) If any other drummer would have played on those records, they wouldn't have been those record, man!

WC: If you asked me to pick my favorite out of the Death catalogue, it would have been "Leprosy" as well.

GR: Yeah! So that record is so ingrained into my DNA as a musician. I can't overstate it. For me...and probably for a lot of cats my was Slayer first. I got into Slayer in early 1987 and then I heard "Leprosy" a year later. It didn't take me long. I heard "Scream Bloody Gore" first and I thought it was killer, I bought it in 1988 and "Leprosy" had already come out. I sought it out right away and went "Ho...Lee  Shit!" I bought it hook, line and sinker. I was on board for the ride.

WC: It was a great visual package as well.

GR: Exactly! For those of us who are old enough to remember what that was like! I only bought the tape, so I don't even remember if there was a picture of the dudes. I remember "Scream Bloody Gore" didn't have a picture. I was a real little kid then and I was listening to this album thinking it was the zombies on the cover actually playing the music!

WC: I still have the vinyl of each one that I originally bought.

GR: No shit! Like a total douche, I sold mine on Ebay. But I had my original "Scream Bloody Gore" tape for a long time and it had no printing on the inside at all...nothing!

WC: That's the way it was back in those days!

GR: And that's the entire point of Gruesome! It's just the sheer nerdness of four dorkish musicians wanting to relive our youth! This is the equivalent of collecting 80's toys. Matt and I clicked on the Death To All tour and when I heard how close his riffs were to Death, I just went, dude, this is my favorite band during my favorite era. Thank you, Matt Harvey!

WC: I've been collecting hard rock and heavy metal LP's since the mid-70's...

GR: Wowww, man! You must have a superior collection.

WC: I did have to finally make the switch over to CD's.

GR: I held out on that, my friend! I was very reluctant on that.

WC: I've got about 800 vinyl LP's.

GR: Got any first print Black Sabbath stuff?

WC: I do. I have "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" and "Never Say Die". I was too young to get the earliest Sabbath records when they came out.

GR: You and me can have a real conversation on this. When you bought a record back then, it was a thing! It was like, Mom, tomorrow I'm gonna buy the new Slayer record! (laughs) There was no Internet, you couldn't hear a stream, there usually wasn't a video. You didn't know what you were getting until you popped that bitch on the record player

WC: It was a lot more special. I remember going down to the record store every week for 2 months waiting for "British Steel" by Judas Priest.

GR: You got a few years on me, but I was on the tail end of that. For me, it was mostly tapes. I don't even remember how I found out, maybe it was from "Metal Maniacs" which came out in print in 1989, but I learned that Death had a new record out called "Spiritual Healing". Holy shit, I didn't even know until I read that! I picked it up the next day.

WC: When I first started picking up underground metal around 1982, it was strictly the visual appearance of the records that drew me to them.

GR: Right! I'd go to the record store and start with the letter "D". I knew that the letters "D", "M" and "S" were always good for something new! That's how I discovered one of my all time favorite thrash bands called Devastation. I went looking in the D's, saw the cover to "Signs of Life" and went, I'm in!

WC: There were a lot of "D" bands but a ton of "S" bands.

GR: Oh dude, totally! Sadus was one such band. I saw "Beneath the Remains" by Sepultura on vinyl and I went, I don't even know what this is, but I see that it was recorded at Morrisound, it's got the dude from Obituary on guest vocals and it looks cool as hell. I'm in!

WC: I loved an old British paper zine called Metal Forces. That's where I learned about many, many bands.

GR: It was another era. Plus, that was when genres were invented. It was the origin of speed metal, which gave birth to thrash metal, which begat death metal. You would see the seed get planted and then watch it grow! And that's what we were really trying to recreate with this Gruesome record, man.  When Matt sent me the logo for the band, I just started cracking up. You nailed the logo just as good as you nailed the riffs! "Are you having seances with Chuck? Be honest!"

WC: It seemed that way. Now Gruesome is focused on the "primitive" early period of Death as opposed to the later "progressive" period.  Were you always more into the "primitive" or were you into the entire Death history?

GR: It's an interesting question, the answer to which led me to Gruesome, believe it or not.  The first death metal record I ever heard was "Scream Bloody Gore" and then "Leprosy" came just a few days later.  That was in 88. Then Pestilence came out and Morbid Angel and that early 90's Swedish explosion with Entombed, but by then, I had already lived with Death for quite a while. I started playing drums in late 88 or maybe 89. My two biggest influences were Bill Andrews and Dave Lombardo. Gene Hoglan, too, but as a kid, I thought, I can never play that Gene Hoglan stuff! (laughs). "Leave Scars", I can't do that!

WC: To this day, many people can't. You can't even program a drum machine to play a lot of that stuff!

GR: You know what's funny? I played those Dark Angel records for kids on the bus, when I was in my old band. We'd have these "buy-on" bands with 18 and 20 year olds and I'd play "Leave Scars". They'd say "that sounds like shit". Man, you don't get it! It's not the sound, it's the vibe. To me, that's what metal is...a vibe. Getting back to your question, the early Death impacted me in a way that gave birth to my drumming, but interestingly, when I first heard "Human", I credit that record SOLELY with changing my life. If "Reign In Blood" and "Leprosy" made me want to play drums, "Human" took it to another level. I remember the exact day. I heard the record earlier that day and thought it was pretty cool, but I heard it later that night with headphones on and I started hearing all this stuff going on that I absolutely did not understand. It was the epiphany of "Wow!" I really want to start studying this instrument because I don't understand what's going on. That's the record that really changed my path in life because that was the point when I said, I want to study the drums, I want to be a student of the instrument in all genres and all styles. I was fortunate enough to take lessons with former Death drummer Sean Reinert for a while in LA and to this day, that dude and me are best friends. That's how I got on the "Death To All" tour, because Sean and I are such buddies.

WC: That's a great story. There was a line in the press release that I thought was really good. "Chuck Schuldiner wrote the rules of death metal and he was the only guy allowed to break those rules."

GR: Because he was the one fuckin' writing them! People have this debate, especially with Dan in Gruesome being a member of Possessed. It's kind of a preference thing....if "Seven Churches" is your favorite record, that might be the first real death metal record. For me, when I think of the textbook for death metal, I'm sorry, but in my opinion Chuck Schuldiner invented it.

WC: I'm close to Chicago...

GR: I know, I know. Supposedly Speckmann and Master invented it any case, it you had to describe a death metal record to the layman...what shape it would take, with lyrics about death, murder, gore; the crazy logos; the brutal imagery; the crazy song titles..."Scream Bloody Gore", man. That record set the pace. For me, anyway. A lof it depends on when it hits you, at what point in your life you're at.  If you're 15 years old now and you're just going backwards and discovering these bands, it might not hit you the same way. I lived it. I don't know what a kid today thinks if he hears "Leprosy".

WC: They are so used to hearing triggered and digital drum sounds...

GR: That's the thing! I tell ya. I've been on the bus with so many of these young "buy-on" bands and I'm always the bus DJ. I'm always playing the classics...Maiden, Priest, Sabbath. Every once in a while, I'll kick out a Death song. I remember one time I played something off "Leprosy" and the kids are like, what the hell is this? Then I put on something from "Symbolic" and they were like, aw, I love this!

WC:  As long as they bother to listen to it.

GR: That's something else that has come up. Who do I think the Gruesome demographic is? Are they the forty-somethings or are they younger fans who may have just discovered Death recently? Obviously I'm going to go with a much higher percentage of us geezers getting into it. (laughter) We look at that album cover and we get it. We know instantly what it is, we know what it makes us feel. We have an emotional investment into this music. If you were into Death as a kid, you're already invested in Gruesome. "Savage Land" is just like another record from that band that was lost. It sounds funny that I'm saying that, because I'm in the band, but really and truly I can listen to this record like a fan.

WC: In my review of the record, I said it was really the lost sequel to "Leprosy".

GR:  I feel like I'm a fan of Gruesome more than a member of the band. We're not touring yet. I can just appreciate it as a record. How close Matt got to that dude's style....this is like the album that came out after "Spiritual Healing" but before "Human", before they got a really crazy drummer. The riffs are still kinda techy at times,  but there's still tons of that old school 88 sound all over it. Someone in another interview recently asked, what do I think Gruesome brings to the table? Honestly, we're just ripping off a band, you know what I mean? What makes our record worth buying? Well, Chuck was a genius, he made Death up as he went along. We had the benefit of him establishing the blueprint for what we're doing. We were able to splice vibes together into one song. There's one song on the new album that's called "Gangrene" that I really like. It starts off and you're like, holy shit, this is "Human". And then the next riff comes in and this sounds like "Leprosy"! And then another riff comes in like "Spiritual Healing". We're able to mash all these periods up and make these super-Death songs!

WC: I could see roots from each song on "Savage Land" in a specific old Death song. For example, "Closed Casket" is related to "Open Casket"...

GR: Everything about this band that you think might remind you of Death...believe me, it's very intentional. When we were recording the record, my motto was, if it didn't happen in 1988 with a guy named Chuck Schuldiner and a dude named Scott Burns, it's not happening here, either. I used a real drum set,  miked up, tuned right. I tune my drums super low and farty like they used to in the 80's. I went "period correct" like on a movie set. I miked up a Marshall amplifier...a real amp, not a computer plug-in. I ran two mikes into a pre-amp. I didn't record onto two-inch tape, which we didn't have, but other than that, I didn't touch anything, I didn't use a computer for anything.

WC: Sounds like you got very close to the technology that was used in the old Morrisound studios back in the day.

GR: I'll lay out the differences. I recorded this record in my studio, which is a modest home studio set-up, but I had decent mikes and I know what I'm doing. Those old records were done on half million dollar consoles with another 50,000 worth off  mikes. It was a different studio situation altogether. Now back in 1997, I was able to watch Scott Burns record an album and I was totally that annoying kid that asked him a thousand questions. I have to tell you, he was such a cool guy to me. He didn't get annoyed. I didn't really bother him when I knew it was time not to bother him, but I asked stuff like "what are you miking there?" and "why are you putting the mike that distance from the toms?"  Going into recording "Savage Land", I knew what Scott did to some degree and I know what needed to happen to get this record as sonically close to that as possible. I had to tune those drums real low. That would have been a dealbreaker. If those drums didn't sound the way they did, the record would have failed.

WC: You kind of reverse-engineered it...

GR: Exactly, 100%!  I liked it. It was the kind of situation where if you didn't play it right, you're not going to cut and paste it. You play it again!

WC: Can we consider "Savage Land" a one-off tribute or will we hear more from Gruesome?

GR:  Man, there's already 3 songs written for the next one! We signed a multi-album deal with Relapse so there's definitely going to be more Gruesome record. One thing we're always going to do, I think it's primarily going to be the old school Death. You might see a couple of more elements from "Human" in the next one and a lot more elements from "Scream Bloody Gore", which I don't think we did enough of this time. There's still some rich soil to rip off there, you know what I mean? And it's so much fun. I really want everybody to know...and I say this, we're not making any money off of this. (chuckles) This is literally the coolest thing I've ever done in music. I still come to the studio every night and play through these songs on my iPod. It's like being in Death. We're really doing this because we love Death, we love what Chuck did. It made a huge impression, it changed all our lives and this is the ultimate tribute. Matt nailed it. He made my life easy. All I had to do was copy sonically what I already knew how to do. But if the riffs weren't right, it would have failed. Matt wrote all the lyrics and worked hard on the vocals.

WC: His voice was quite different than the one he uses in Exhumed.

GR:  Believe me, we had a discussion about it. Before we pressed the button on the first Gruesome song we did, I played through my studio PA the Death song "Left To Die" and Matt just started singing along to it. I stopped him, pressed record for our record and he was on! He got into the character. He got as close to that vibe as he could and there are times on that record, I swear to God, it gives me goosebumps listening to him.

WC: Was it easy getting the cover art from Ed Repka?

GR: Yeah, it was easy. I just simply messaged him on his Facebook page and told him the story. Hey man, we're a band called Gruesome. I sent him a copy of our look at that logo and you definitely know what kind of band it is!...and told him we're signed to Relapse and we're a Death tribute band with original music. This is the album title, here are the lyrics, are you willing to do this for us? When he responded with "yes", man, it was cool! Seriously, if this record had no Repka cover, I don't even know if I would have released it. Without Ed Repka, it would have failed. Failed, failed!

WC: He's still pretty active. I just saw a cover he did for a thrash band called Bio-Cancer.

GR: Yeah, I see he did some recent stuff, including the new Municipal Waste. As I told him, though, we want you to really go back to the headspace of 1988. This of death metal in its infancy. You know what's really weird, is the cover got called racist by a few people. Honestly, nobody thought of that, it wasn't on our radar at all. I'm pretty sure if the Internet would have existed back in the day when "Spiritual Healing" came out, somebody would have went, "oh, my brother has cancer, that's so insensitive!"  The PC police would have came out for Death, too. You know what? As far as I'm concerned, the album cover is a win-win. It's a Repka, people are talking about it, it makes you uncomfortable, it makes you sick. It accomplished what Chuck would have wanted. Going back to the question of who are fans are, you asked me earlier what period of Death prevails, the primitive years or the progressive years. I think there is a clear division in who's been making the positive comments. It seems the younger people who only got into Death when the logo didn't have the inverted cross anymore and everything was real PC didn't like the Gruesome concept as much. We kept the inverted cross. We're not worshipping the Devil, we're going back to 1988 and trying to recreate a vibe. That logo, when I saw it, I loved it.

WC: I'd say it was "mission accomplished" as far as Gruesome goes.

GR: Matt's like a medium, a guy who talks to the dead. "Medium Harvey!"(laughs)

WC: He channeled the spirit.

GR: Really! It made it easy for me to synch up drums because most of the time I just asked myself, what would Bill Andrews do? It was a little bit of a challenge, actually. I had to pull back a little bit and almost do things like a pop drummer. It's just really simple, solid drumming....which is not seen much in death metal today!

WC: Did you ever have any contact with Bill Andrews?

GR:  No, but it's really cool. Terry Butler totally digs the band, he posts about us on his FAcebook page. I was on the last Death To All tour because Sean had to bail out because of health issues. Massacre played on that tour so I got to hang with Terry and Rick Rozz . My heart was pumping waiting for these guys to hear the record. It was literally like, dude, this is like playing for the guys  we are idolizing! They came back at me the next day and they gave me the unequivocal thumbs up, man! They said, dude, that was killer! Rick Rozz said, I'm flattered. Dude...I'm good.

WC: How about Gruesome on the live front?

GR: We're working on some potential dates for September, but we've got to work around Exhumed and Possessed and the fact that Robin is selling merch for just about every band that plays heavy metal on Earth. It's on the docket, it's pretty much priority #1 right now. I think we are within a week of  announcing the actual dates. It will come. We're super stoked to play live.

WC: Any bands you are playing in besides Gruesome?

GR: I might do some gigs with this band called Protest from Texas. I recorded the drums for their album a few years ago and they got a hold of me again recently. Man, I really dig their music. It's like Slayer with a hardcore singer. I hope we can work it out. Other than that, I'm busy doing session work and I'm playing everything but metal at home! I'm ready to get back out there!

WC: Any last words?

GR: I'm just real grateful that people understand what we're trying to do. You know, Chuck's old manager Eric Greif gave us his blessing from the start. That was huge. We did it right, we did it respectuflly and hopefully we can all get together on tour and relive the glory days together.