Return of the New Hope. “It’s a weird band to be a part of,” says Gruesome’s lead vocalist and guitarist Matt Harvey. And lest you think he’s piping up about being the longest-serving member of a band with two distinct phases and over the course of the last six years has drafted in a mascot and developed a gore-and-chainsaw-filled theatrical component to its live show (Exhumed) or a band which started as a truck stop tour joke and has grown into a NWOBHM/early U.S. speed metal referencing act featuring an ex-Angel Witch member (Pounder), he’s not.
The topic of discussion is Gruesome and Harvey joins us in a bout of laughter after we describe the band as about as close to being a cover band as one can get without actually being a cover band. That’s because Gruesome is all about being an unashamed worshipping tribute to Death, the pioneering metal band that was cut short once mainman Chuck Schuldiner was felled by brain cancer in late 2001.
Forming in 2014 as a side project after Harvey and ex-Malevolent Creation drummer Gus Rios’ participation in the Death To All tribute tours, Gruesome have chiselled out forward motion and upward trajectory all while summoning the spirit of its heroes. The quartet – rounded out by Possessed guitarist Daniel Gonzalez and Derkéta bassist Robin Mazen – write original songs and create original material, but do so with Death chiefly and solely in mind.
Check out the band’s video for the single “Inhumane” here.
“It’s not really about self-expression”, explains Harvey. “It’s more like death metal method acting; writing riffs and putting songs together the same way Chuck would have. It’s like making a new Star Wars movie; people are very familiar with the musical universe we’re in and we need to show them new enough to be entertaining, but also familiar enough to make them go, ‘Hey look, it’s like a Death album’.”
Gruesome doesn’t limit its methodology to simply writing songs that sound like Death. As the legendary band innovated a number of phases in and of itself, Gruesome’s two EPs and two full-lengths, including most recent album, Twisted Prayers (Relapse Records), have zeroed in on a particular era. First record, Savage Land has touches of Scream Bloody Gore and Spiritual Healing, but is mostly rooted in Death’s 1988 second album, Leprosy. Their second release, Dimensions Of Horror, went back to the rawness of Scream Bloody Gore, the band’s 1987 debut. Now, Twisted Prayers sees them aping Spiritual Healing, Death’s third album from 1990. Wrap each release in an original piece by artist Ed Repka and the result is a tribute on steroids.
Improbably, Gruesome has seen its doppelganger-ing grow to unheralded heights. Each record has been issued by Relapse Records with tours, festival appearances and live dates following up each release. In demonstrating how serious the band’s members are about their chosen craft, they dove deeper into the world of Death on the new full-length to show there’s much more at play than writing and re-writing a bunch of similar-sounding riffs and drowning them in flange effects.
The album Twisted Prayers was released on June 1, 2018, via Relapse Records.
“We did a lot of research. Our producer Jarrett [Pritchard] called Scott Burns and figured out a bunch of technical stuff related to how they did Spiritual Healing and we used that knowledge. We ended up finding Scott Burns’ assistant who was roadie-ing for Obituary on a tour Exhumed did with them, so we picked his brain about what they did in the studio. I talked to [ex-Death bassist] Terry Butler about where they were at when they were writing lyrics and stuff.”
“That’s become the plan,” he acknowledges, “to follow Death’s steps forward with Gruesome. When we started, we didn’t know if there was going to be a second album or anything, but now we’re on a 1:1 chronological track because the band is doing enough stuff that we’re necessitating a plan. It’s part art project, part research project and there’s something very academic about what we’re doing. It is a tribute band and we want to be respectful and treat the source material with the respect befitting it. We got [ex-Death guitarist] James Murphy to record a couple solos on the record and got the okay from Eric Grief, Death’s lawyer and intellectual property manager, to do all this. That puts a little bit of extra pressure because it’s not just an aesthetic, it’s a reimagining or a recreation, but it’s still a lot of fun.”
In addition to the obvious sonic similarities offered by Gruesome, one of the areas in which Harvey jumped on was his mimicking of how Schuldiner’s lyrics would often veer into territories pertaining to personal affronts and perceived slights. Once he moved out of the blatant horror/gore arena post-Scream Bloody Gore, Schuldiner was known to throw out the occasional call out; case in point, Human’s “The Philosopher” which was written about former guitarist Paul Masvidal. In the spirit of Spiritual Healing’s “Low Life,” Harvey has taken a similar tack with “A Waste Of Life,” a song about the head piece of shit floating atop the cesspool that is the present-day White House.
There’s no denying the severity of these “Fatal Illusions”.
“It’s funny because Chuck had a lot of vengeful songs directed at journalists, former band members and people in the industry. Because I’m 42 and not in my 20s, I don’t have that kind of personal animosity towards people, but I knew we needed a song with that kind of vibe. So, I thought, ‘who’s the biggest liar I can think of?’ Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, you know the guy is full of shit and has been his whole life. He was full of shit as a real estate developer, he was full of shit as a reality show host, which is the most bullshit occupation you can have anyway, and he’s full of shit as the president.”
Back To The Front. Metal is notorious for looking backward. Old-school everything is a huge commodity as people, with the help of the internet, discover bands they missed the first time around. Bands themselves celebrate releases from 20+ years ago with reissues and live performances. A decade ago, few seemed to catch on to the reality that the so-called thrash resurgence was more about looking, sounding and acting like it was 1987 as opposed to any actual forward movement. Today, Matt recognizes the perfect storm in which Gruesome exists.
“It only makes sense to do a band like this for a band like Death because we know there won’t be any more Death albums. It’s different from Darkest Hour or whoever chugging along in the ‘90s sounding like At The Gates. But suddenly when At The Gates comes back, it’s all redundant. There’s a 25-year nostalgia cycle and everybody wants Obituary sweatpants now, just like everyone wanted flip-up Megadeth hats ten years ago. And it’s not even about metal, it’s everything. In the ‘70s you watched Happy Days which was about the ‘50s, in the ‘80s you watched The Wonder Years which was about the ‘60s and in the ‘90s you watched That ‘70s Show. It’s a pop culture thing and fortuitous timing for us that people are into old-school death metal now.”