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Reappraising Individual Thought Patterns: Extreme metal’s overlooked magnum opus

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When one looks down the expansive annuls of heavy metal history, the Florida titans Death have to be one of the genre’s most quintessential yet under-appreciated groups.

Death - Individual Thought Patterns

This isn’t to say that the Chuck Schuldiner-helmed pioneers have a large group of detractors: quite the opposite in fact. Every metalhead that speaks of Death almost always does so with nothing but reverence and admiration.

No, the issue is more that Death, given the juggernauts’ immense impact on the entire music world, simply don’t have the gigantic fanbase that such a game-changing act would deserve. Perhaps a great deal of that has to do with the group’s abrupt, tragic and premature end in 2001, the year that saw lead vocalist, lead guitarist, founder and sole constant member Schuldiner sadly lose a battle with cancer at just 34 years old.

It’s more than safe to assume that the very vast majority of people who know even the faintest of factoids about music as a whole have heard of the subgenre “death metal”: more often than not, within the mainstream, the rather brutal-sounding label has been used as a mockery of a mantle for all of excessively heavy music as a whole. Thanks to their acclaimed 1987 debut Scream Bloody Gore, many musicians, writers, historians and fans alike consider Death to be the first ever death metal band. Taking cues from British metal, then-burgeoning thrash acts like Metallica and Possessed (the latter of which is another group quintessential in the advent of death metal) and proto-black metal bands like Celtic Frost and early Sepultura, Death would – perhaps unwittingly – create a style all of their own.

In the wake of Scream Bloody Gore, death metal would flourish in Death’s home state of Florida: the impact of the album quickly opened up doors for other local names such as Morbid Angel, Obituary and Deicide. Soon, Tampa and Orlando especially would be cities that, although not as notorious in metal circles as the thrash hotbed of San Francisco, would define death metal for a generation, with New York following suit thanks to Immolation, Cannibal Corpse and more. The “melodic death metal” movement of mid-‘90s Gothenburg then demonstrated that the subgenre had expanded worldwide, thanks to big Swedish names like In Flames, Edge of Sanity and Dark Tranquillity.

Before their eventual dissolution in 2001, Death themselves would create six more discs after Scream Bloody Gore and, unlike the vast majority of artists, would find themselves with a spotless oeuvre: in retrospect, not one of their albums has ever been labelled en masse as anything less than fantastic. Death’s third and fourth releases, Spiritual Healing (1990) and Human (1991), saw the band gradually integrate progressive tendencies into their extreme sound, demonstrating increasing amounts of tonal experimentation and technical prowess in a continued climb that wouldn’t hit its peak until their lauded final album, the swan song The Sound of Perseverance (1998). What many consider to be Death’s greatest achievement, however, is their fifth album: Individual Thought Patterns (1993).

With the album slated for a vinyl re-release this coming October, more than 24 years after it first hit shelves, it goes without saying that Individual Thought Patterns is a beloved entry in metal’s history. But, with Death’s back-catalogue being one of the most consistently impressive of any rock band, what is it that makes this one stand out among the rest?

Firstly, the album succeeds immensely as a follow-up, coming two years after the progressive Human record and, somehow, upping the ante from what was, at the time, hailed as Death’s best work.

Even though Individual Thought Patterns condensed itself into the comparatively tiny running time of merely forty minutes, it continues to feel amazingly massive in its delivery. When compared to Human, its riffs are bigger, its vocals are bigger, its melodies are bigger and its diversity totally blew every other of the band’s albums out of the water. Closing track and lead single ‘The Philosopher’ remains the album’s big, rousing moment, complete with a simple, accessible structure, a guttural refrain and a truly attention-grabbing opening. However, the track also rings of the progressive with its plethora of solos and constantly mind-bending guitars thanks to Schuldiner and co-shredder Andy LaRocque, the latter of which is making his only appearance on a full-length Death release. ‘Destiny’ is even more experimental, beginning with acoustic cleanliness before exploding into full-blown, death metal brilliance. Captivatingly harmonic lead guitars on the track also form a gorgeous precursor to the Swedish melodic death metal movement that, at that point, was priming itself to sweep the world over.

‘Trapped in a Corner’ is often called one of the best songs Death ever released, ever-building and constantly flowing from sublime riff to sublime riff. ‘Nothing Is Everything’ and the title track both roar to life with charismatic, polyrhythmic notes before having a chorus built upon the foundation of technical yet melodic lead shredding. ‘Mentally Blind’ relies upon open-string chugging in a very thrash-esque style choice to open up, letting its chorus and subsequent solo slow the pace.

Much like any great record, Individual Thought Patterns tests the limits of its genre with flawless song-writing and structuring, packing as much prowess and punch as humanly possible into ten short tracks. It may be an extreme record, but it also equally owes many of its parts to free-flowing jazz orchestrations, as well as the instrumental melodies of the 1980s’ New Wave of British Heavy Metal. In turn, this brings with it an element of unpredictability and, thus – even more importantly for a listener – sheer, undivided investment in the album itself. As a result, despite being a short record, Individual Thought Patterns feels like an epic work, the amount of attention its intricacies demand making it exhausting in the best possible way.

While the album’s experimentation is not surprising given that is a natural successor to what had been built up on prior Death albums, there are also elements of Individual Thought Patterns that appear to rip-roaring success totally unexpectedly, the biggest being the album’s rhythm section.

The dream team of Steve Di Giorgio and Gene Hoglan man the bass guitar and drum kit respectively on the album, resulting in a duo so glorious in its fusion of soul and technicality that they have played together in not one, but two bands: namely, Death and the most recent incarnation of Bay Area thrash icons Testament. Their sheer skill and chemistry must have also been apparent to Death themselves, even this early on in their working relationship, as both the drums and bass are given a great many moments to shine brightly by themselves. Cuts such as ‘The Philosopher’ and ‘Individual Thought Patterns’ regularly give way to let Di Giorgio’s amazingly complex and fast work take centre-stage. It is one of the few occasions of a metal record giving the bass the full attention it deserves, and Di Giorgio’s sheer prowess with the instrument makes that mixing choice feel more than justified. It is common for the bass to be the supporting instrument in metal: the guitar in the background that merely sets up a framework for the six-strings. However, with Individual Thought Patterns, the bass feels just as essential as the guitars or the drums, or even the vocals. Without Di Giorgio and his stunning work being in full focus, this record would truly be incomplete.

Hoglan, meanwhile, proceeds to blast beat the living hell out of everything, his frantic work matching the equally insane polyrhythms and pace of the guitars perfectly. ‘Mentally Blind’ and the opening of ‘Nothing Is Everything’ give the maestro some room to slow down, but by that point, brutally laid out movements like those at the starts of ‘Overactive Imagination’ and ‘Jealousy’ have taken hold and stolen the show, and will doubtlessly have the more immediate impact on the listener. Combining this with Hoglan’s work on Death’s later Symbolic (1995) album, as well as his time in fellow progressive death metal mavens Strapping Young Lad, and it is practically impossible to argue against him being one of the greatest drummers to ever grace the heavy metal world.

Even the lyrics – which are, much like all of the album’s music, penned by Schuldiner himself – are adventurous, defying the death metal stereotype of being rooted in gore and horror inspiration. Despite the record not really being a fully-fledged concept album, Individual Thought Patterns possesses an omnipotent desire to either defy or critique social constructs. The first lines of the album, which open up the intense ‘Overactive Imagination’, state: “Your existence is a script / Life for you is a performance / Play out the leading role”. Such poetic observations and metaphors permeate the record, giving its lyrics the same sense of wicked intelligence that went into the instrumentations.

Thus, Individual Thought Patterns is more than an album in the history of Death. It’s a moment: a moment in which every single person involved with the group at that particular point was at their prime. From the performances on-tape to the writing to the production to the mixing – even down to the sequencing – everything on this record is done to perfection and endeavours to push the envelope of what was thought possible within extreme metal. Much like a film with a complex yet enthralling narrative, or a rollercoaster that throws you around harder and faster than you ever thought possible, this album deserves to be experienced again and again and again and again for one to truly discover and fully appreciate the intricate artistry at work. It’s dense and experimental, yet not so avant-garde or disconnected from extreme metal to be alienating to the subgenre’s fans.

Death created death metal.

Individual Thought Patterns recreated it.

Individual Thought Patterns will be re-released on vinyl via Relapse Records on 20th October.

Read our reappraisal of Metallica’s game-changing masterwork Master of Puppets here.

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