An Ode to Death

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Gruesome released one of the best death metal albums of this year in ‘Savage Lands’. Not only that, but the album is an excellent love letter to the older Death -albums, old school death metal and most of all, to Chuck Schuldiner. We chatted briefly with one of the main motors of Gruesome, drummer Gus Rios, about how the band came to be and how ‘Savage Lands’ turned out how it did. So sit down, pour yourself some Chianti, eat a corpse and let death consume you.

How did Gruesome come about? I assume it was tied to the Death To All tours you were involved in?

Yes, both Matt and I were part of those tours… Matt doing guitar/vocals in 2012 and I was a guest drummer playing “Baptized In Blood” and also helping my buddy Sean Reinert out in 2013. One night Exhumed was on the bill as direct support and apparently Matt was impressed with how I played and we basically bonded over drinks chatting about our mutual obsession with old school metal and old Death in particular. I eventually had this idea of doing a Leprosy-era DTA with Terry Butler, Rick Rozz, Matt, and myself. When that fell through, Matt and I were both still into the idea enough that Matt suggested that we should just write our own Death songs to which I of course said HELL YES!

Like most crazy ideas it fell by the wayside until about a year later when I had quit MC and then contacted Matt about his crazy idea. Within a few weeks he sent me a demo which I thought sounded like a lost Death demo and got a little excited about it. I recorded some live drums over his midi-guitar demo and then he got a little excited about it and wrote another song. Once things started to look like we were going to get a bit more serious I enlisted my friend Daniel Gonzalez of Possessed as I figured that he’d be a perfect fit. We recorded a 5 song demo, released a song through Decibel Magazine and Relapse Records really liked it. We signed with them because of their heritage and of course ownership of the Death catalog. After that I also got one of my oldest friends Robin Mazen to play bass and away we went.

Are the current members all full time members or will Gruesome be a rotating line-up of death metal veterans that you lead?

All members are full time, but of course remain fully active in their other bands as well. We are planning shows/tours now and have to carefully work around everyone’s schedules, but we’re making it happen. I think you may see some more guest appearances on future records, but the core line-up hopefully stays intact.

Can you explain a little to readers who may not have heard about it, about the DTA and its goals and future tours maybe?

DTA stands for Death To All and it started as an idea that the guys at Sickdrummer Magazine had to reunite some former Death members and play those classic songs live again. It was originally several members all interchanging, but eventually Eric Greif (Death’s longtime manager) kind of streamlined the idea and settled in on particular line-ups such as the “Human” album line-up, etc. A lot of people were/are against it, but I think it at least gives everyone the opportunity to experience those songs live again. Obviously without Chuck Schuldiner there can be no REAL Death, but this was a cool thing in my opinion and I had a great time touring with those guys. As far as the future of those tours I don’t know, you’d have to check that with Mr. Greif.

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The Ed Repka artwork is great: a nod to Leprosy but in its own way. Is that what Repka was directed to do or did it just come out that way? How thrilled was he to be involved with some a great homage to Chuck and that era of Death?

I gave him really minimal direction and we all wanted him to just be himself. His artwork on those early Death records I think is a huge part of what made those albums so amazing, and therefore having him do ours wasn’t even an option for us… it was a MUST! I sent him our logo, album title, explained to him what we were about (Death worship), and just told him to think it’s 1988 again and to make a killer death metal album cover based on the title of Savage Land. I think we may have said something about cannibal natives and that we wanted it to be brutal… he totally delivered and we couldn’t be happier about the whole thing! I’m not sure how he felt about doing it, but I’m sure it must have dredged up some nostalgia from him. Hopefully he had a good time with it and will do our next cover!

So the songs on Savage Land are almost cover songs of songs from the legendary albums Leprosy and Spiritual Healing. Did you do majority of the writing? When you wrote the songs were you trying to recreate specific moments or did they happen naturally as I’m sure you were overdosing on those albums at the time?

Matt wrote all of the songs and I do think that each song does have nods to particular riffs, but the cool thing is that each song will contain elements from all three records. For instance, the song “Gangrene” opens up with a very obvious “Flattening of Emotions” vibe, but then kicks into a total “Leprosy” feel, and that sort of thing happens throughout the album. I think that’s an advantage that we had in this… that Chuck gave us a TON of killer ideas to cull from and we can mix and match those ideas within each song. The next record will have songs written by Daniel and myself as well Matt, so that should hopefully add a little shift in dynamics and vibe. The main thing here is that we are genuinely having a lot of fun with this and it all comes from a place of homage and respect. It’s all going to happen naturally for us because we actually grew up on this band and still feel the impact to this day!

No love for Human, Individual Thought Patterns or Symbolic? Or will there be homages on future Gruesome releases?

There’s plenty of Human loving going on, especially on the drums! But both Matt and I are super devoted to those early records and that’s the sound and vibe that we wanted to recreate… really for ourselves. I’m sure that we could add some more progressive elements, but then it wouldn’t a natural thing because we don’t feel those albums the same way. I think I’m a bigger fan of the later albums than Matt, but to this day Leprosy is not only my favorite Death album, it’s my favorite death metal album. But I’m also a huge Sean Reinert and Gene Hoglan fan as well as Bill Andrews and Chris Reifert… so you never know I guess.

Speaking of future Gruesome releases, what will the band be doing on future albums? As we talked about above delving into other Death releases or maybe paying homage to other US classics like Autopsy? I could see you delivering spot on Severed Survival tunes.

We’ve already begun talking about it and our only solid goal at this time is to not do Savage Land part 2. Chuck never repeated himself and our challenge is so follow his example but yet still stay within an “early Death” -vibe. Luckily there is still plenty of awesomeness to pull ideas from and we could easily add more Scream Bloody Gore elements as opposed to just Leprosy and Spiritual Healing. Or mix SBG with Human, like a Scream Bloody Human feel?! There are a couple of songs already written and those sound a bit more brutal and fast so I’m already excited about album number two!

What drove the choice to cover Death’s “Land of No Return” (as heard on the deluxe edition of the album)?

We wanted to do a proper Death song, but not one that everyone would expect or has heard other bands do. “Land of no Return” is a bonus track on SBG and it’s a super heavy song. I actually wasn’t that familiar with it myself, but now it’s one of my favorite Death songs. Definitely happy with how it came out.

Daniel Gonzalez did a great job also of recreating the sound of early Death sound. Did he being in Possessed also have an influence on the songs and tone?

No, he’s actually a bit newer school with his style and sound! Dan’s a few years younger than Matt and I, and was used to playing through an amp with a lot more gain, but he’s also a super skilled guitar player and able to adapt so his tracks came out really tight. Also it was Dan who was able to emulate both James Murphy and Chuck with his solos while still having his style blended in, so that was another one of his great contributions to the record.

I come from an old school studio background and have never updated my style so to speak.I still prefer using a real amp, real drums, and minimal computer assistance for albums I produce. So in regards to the sound of the record, a lot of that came from me, but mostly from what Scott Burns did actually. I was fortunate enough to watch him record an album in 1997 (one of his last I think!) and I asked an awful lot of questions and took a lot of notes. I simply applied what I learned to most anything I’ve recorded since then and it just turned out that I was in a band that was trying to emulate that sound. Also, having a Florida veteran like Jarrett Pritchard mix the album really sealed the deal on having that classic sound. He pretty much knew exactly what we were going for and how to make it happen so I think he’ll be on board for the next couple of albums as well.

So here’s the ultimate question, seeing as you are close to both… Who started death metal; Death or Possessed?

In my opinion Death, but there is a bit of grey area though. Chuck was clearly influenced by Seven Churches, so it’s arguable that without PossessedDeath wouldn’t have sounded like they did. But in any case, what death metal really is to me, Death absolutely 100% laid out that blueprint! Lyrical content, album cover, band logo, song titles, etc, etc, etc. ALL the elements of what the world would come to know as death metal can be found on Scream Bloody Gore, and then solidified on Leprosy. Lower tuned guitars, double bass being utilized more often, the production style…all elements debuted by Chuck and Death. Possessed to me where more of a satanic thrash band, more blatantly than even Slayer. Death was all about horror, gore, and of course death itself. Just on album titles alone they win… Scream Bloody Gore and Leprosy are death metal’s alpha and omega!

The feedback to Savage Land has been great. I’m sure Chuck would have been proud. Would you have continued with this project if he were still alive, considering how much Death’s sound changed towards the late albums?

I doubt we would have even conceived it if Chuck were still with us. It’s tough to say though, because yes, it’s also very doubtful that anyone would have heard another classic sounding Death album from Chuck as he definitely moved on from that sound. I’m just glad people are understanding where we are coming from and like what we’re doing. Also having guys like Terry Butler, James Murphy, and Eric Greif not only give us their full support and endorsement, but genuinely digging our album is HUGE for us and means the world to me! Those guys are true legends and the heroes we’re trying to emulate. To have their approval does give me a bit of hope that somewhere the great Chuck is smiling down on us!

What next for you right now? Tour to support the album?

We have recently confirmed our first show at Full Terror Assault in September and we’re currently trying to add more US dates and possibly a trip to Europe in November. I want to thank you for the interview and support as well as ALL the fans around the world who have bought our record… THANK YOU ALL AND HAIL CHUCK!!

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