Coming from the genre of fan films pretending to be documentaries, Death by Metal tries to make Death frontman Chuck Schuldiner into a legend of metal who invented death metal out of thin air. In doing so, it panders to the nostalgia and hard rocker audience but misses many opportunities.
It does this by ignoring all proto-death and death metal bands before the first Death album (Sepultura, Morbid Angel, Master, Bathory, Sodom, Hellhammer, Slayer, Possessed) and instead hammers hard on Death metal meaning nothing. In its view, Chuck just accidentally created a genre.
Although we have hard historical proof that he did not invent the genre, and in fact may have taken it back toward speed metal and away from the rising language of death metal, Schuldiner was part of a movement that sought to express in sound a certain attitude toward modernity and eternity.
Through well-edited cuts from interviews with people in the band, on the legal team, and in the genre, this documentary tells a basic background story of the formation of Death, ignoring any influences on Schuldiner, his guitar playing methods, or his attitudes toward life.
Instead we get lots of “rocker” material. Much of it is defensive, like the lengthy explanation of why people saw Schuldiner as a mentally unstable dramatic prima donna who quit tours and fired people at random. They only partially succeed there.
The biggest voice against Schuldiner is himself, namely his seemingly politicized interview statements, vague answers, emotional posturing, and most of all that droning voice. It is not well to speak ill of the dead, but Schuldiner is often his own worst witness.
Unfortunately, the documentary completely skips over many points of interest, like the corpse found with Death Leprosy under it in Tampa, a legend that could use investigation. It does not cover the upside-down cross in the Death logo that slowly because rightside-up.
It also avoids talking about the larger death metal scene except peripherally, mainly because this would involve discussing non-American music and seeing how much Schuldiner was a small part of a larger motion toward a new genre of music to replace speed metal which faded after For Whom The Bell Tolls.
For some reason, there is a fairly intense look into his medical condition which features exclusively hearsay. No actual medical information is offered, as if they are hiding that Chuck Schuldiner died of AIDS or something of that nature.
We hear a good deal about how Death wanted to be “different” after Spiritual Healing, and how going ten years backward to power metal was a big step forward in progress, or some blather of that nature. He wanted to play the music of his youth; is this such a bad thing?
The audience also gets regaled with lots of propaganda about how death metal was closed-minded at the time in a quest for brutality, without mentioning Cannibal Corpse and how this was not the genre as a whole, just the people who imitated that band in the hope of following its success.
No mention is given to the other bands which may have pushed him into progressive directions like Gorguts, Pestilence, Morbid Angel, and Atheist, all of which were making a progressive version of metal instead of a metalized version of progressive-ish rock music.
In many ways, the early years of Death are slighted by too much of a focus on the lite jazz and power metal years, missing out on when Schuldiner was probably at his artistic best and mentally clearest. Apparently his troublesome family situation could not be discussed except in passing either.
For whatever his faults, Schuldiner has his place in death metal history, although not as a “godfather” or creator but one of the cluster of bands that built on what Hellhammer, Bathory, Sodom, and Slayer did. He deserves for his unique voice to be heard, maybe through a filter to cut down honk and squawk.
But mostly, this documentary falls flat because of the lack of meaty and compelling information. Death metal sought not just to break from a mold, but to create a new vision, and all of that is glossed over for what feels like a lengthy infomercial about the “deep” fan connection to Death.