Gruesome’s “Savage Land”: Track-by-Track Breakdown with Vocalist/Guitarist Matt Harvey

      Photo by Niuvis Martin
      Photo by Niuvis Martin

Last week, we brought you an exclusive stream of Savage Land, the forthcoming debut LP from Death-worshipping supergroup Gruesome. This week, vocalist/guitarist Matt Harvey (Exhumed, Dekapitator, the “Death to All” tour) breaks down the inspiration for each song and provides some hilarious insight on what it’s like to write and record music that’s delightfully derivative.

Savage Land
When we started working on this band, our inspiration was to capture the feel of the early Death records, and when I looked at lyrical themes that ran throughout those albums, one that came up a few times was a “death by misadventure” motif. “Left to Die,” “Torn to Pieces” and, to a lesser extent, “Primitive Ways” all fall under that category. So I wanted to do a cannibal theme, and since I love taking stuff from all over, I chose an old Marvel Comics thing called the Savage Land, which was a remote part of Antarctica where dinosaurs still roamed a tropical rainforest. Basically, it’s a place where the past is still happening, which is what this song is about…except it’s about a primitive tribe of cannibals who dismember the folks who come there to study them. It’s a sharp reminder that beyond the civilized world, there are strange customs and societies that we can’t relate to. I don’t know if I believe that’s objectively true; I tend to think humans have a lot more similarities than differences…but this is a death metal album after all.

The music to this one was the second song I came up with, and it was also the first time I thought, “This actually might be pretty good!” Before that, I just thought the whole thing was a cute idea that would never really gain any traction. When Gus [Rios, ex-Malevolent Creation] sent me back the live drum tracks for this song, I started to see that this could actually go somewhere and be pretty cool. I love the beat turnaround in the beginning before the vocals—that’s always been one of my favorite songwriting techniques, and I love how Chuck used it in “Left to Die,” so we did it a couple of times on the album! This tune uses the same song construction that Chuck settled into (mostly) on Leprosy and continued to use throughout the rest of Death’s records, where there are four or five riffs that comprise a sort of verse/pre-chorus/chorus section, followed by a bridge and guitar solo section, and then all four or five riffs repeat with the same breaks and in the same way, with only the first verse having different lyrics.

I love the solo that Dan [Gonzalez, Possessed] came up with for this tune; it sits nicely between something Chuck would have done and something a bit more traditionally melodic, like a James Murphy thing. And the second guitar solo was one of the many solos on the record that was actually recorded by Gus, so he deserves credit for channeling Rick Rozz’s frantic whammy bar abuse so well.

Trapped in Hell
This was one of the later tunes we came up with for the record, when I felt like I had really hit my stride riff-wise. I lifted an old riff of mine from a short-lived project I did in 2001 called Cadaverizer that was heavily inspired by Scream Bloody Gore, Autopsy and Massacre. When I first wrote these songs, I had ratcheted the tempos down a bit, and Gus wisely kept telling me to bring them up and make the fast stuff faster. I’m glad I listened to him—the fast bits in this song came out very aggressive, which gives it a proper old-school death metal feeling instead of the more cautious tempos that prevailed in the post-Leprosy catalog.

I took the melody in the intro from an old solo that I wrote shortly after I was out of high school—I always thought it had a Chuck vibe to it. I couldn’t resist doing the intro; it’s sort of an alternate universe version of “Zombie Ritual” or something. Every time I hear it, I start to giggle because it’s just so shamelessly derivative that I can’t help it. I love what Dan added in the solo section here; he’s perfectly channeling Chuck’s lead vibe, complete with the parallel fifth harmonies and the kind of meandering runs that Chuck always had. I did the whammy bar solo on this song—one of the few things I actually performed on the record on guitar. It was a luxury having a great player like Dan do all the rhythms as well as contributing killer solos, and on top of that, Gus laid down half of the whammy bar solos, which made my workload very light.

The lyrics for this one are based on an ’80s horror movie, like many of the lyrics on Scream Bloody Gore. I wanted to do movies that Death didn’t have songs about already, but would still be appropriate chronologically if the album was being written in 1989. Hellraiser fit the bill on both counts and is one of my favorite horror movies anyway. I like that it deals with another realm—one of torture, horror and death, kind of like what Chuck talked about in the pre-chorus of “Denial of Life” on SBG.

The intro for this song was another old Cadaverizer riff, executed as if it were a riff in “Forgotten Past,” right down to the identical drum beat. Like most Death tunes, this one has a lot of abrupt breaks and tempo changes, and we used the same “beat turnaround” device again. The riff is a bit different, though—it’s closely related to the “Left to Die” riff. The chorus is based on a moving power chord thing where you break up the chord into root and fifth and play each note for a count before moving to another power chord and doing the same thing. I got that technique from the pre-chorus in “Primitive Ways,” which is one of my favorite Death tunes and one I think is very underrated.

After Dan’s over-the-top solo that almost sounds like something from the later Death stuff, I wanted to make it clear that the song was about The Exorcist, so the whole musical bridge section is based on the “Tubular Bells” theme from the movie. Instead of the chords in the background adding the foreboding vibe like in the soundtrack, we just modulated the theme around, which is a much more Chuck Schuldiner kind of technique. There are tons of Death riffs where one theme is simply moved around to make it sound more sinister.

One thing that was tough for me as far as the vocals was that Chuck didn’t really do a lot of “ungh” and “ooh” type stuff—he either sang the lyrics, screamed, or shut up and played guitar. I like to do a lot of that “hey” and “let’s go” kind of shit, and my natural tendency was to insert that kind of stuff all over the songs. I managed to get away with a couple of them here, but I was very aware that a little would go a long way and didn’t want to overdo it. Usually, you think of writing an album as an exercise in self-expression, but this record was unique (for me anyway) in that I was constantly thinking in terms of what Chuck would have done as far as his lyrics, phrasing, arrangement techniques, etc.

I thought The Exorcist would be a perfect movie to mine for lyrics since Death almost covered “The Exorcist” by Possessed in the studio and was clearly influenced by Possessed in the early days. Another thing I thought worked well was that Chuck often touches on a multiple personality type thing, or an intruder in one’s mind that causes anguish of violence, like with “Forgotten Past,” “Defensive Personalities” or “Flattening of Emotions.” Then in the bridge, I decided to go fully Scream Bloody Gore with the line, “Undead whores, sucking cock,” which I particularly enjoyed.

This is probably my favorite track on the album, and I think it was the last one we learned. The intro is a bit of a re-working of “Sacrificial” (originally “Sacrificial Cunt”) from Scream Bloody Gore, but Gus spiced it up nicely with some Sean Reinert-esque touches, which makes it sound a bit more musically sophisticated than it really is. Most of the tune is pretty fast and aggressive, and it’s probably the fastest song on the record. The bridge section does get a bit more musical, with a Spiritual Healing-era harmonized riff that eventually leads into the sort of odd-timed part inspired by the bridge in “Pull the Plug.” I love the solo section, as it no longer feels like I’m listening to “my band”—it just feels like I’m listening to Death, and the scream afterward is one of my best Chuck impressions on the record.

The lyrics are loosely inspired by the classic early horror movie Freaks. It’s one of the most truly disturbing films I’ve seen and has inspired everyone from The Ramones to Rigor Mortis. Chuck has some lyrics about human oddities, like “Together as One” and “Living Monstrosity,” so I thought it fit with the overall theme of the record and added a little pathos to the proceedings with the line, “They never asked to be this way.”

This was the first track I wrote, with the intro theme loosely ripped off from (most people would say inspired by) Fabio Frizzi’s theme in the movie The Beyond. The drum part that Gus came up with was very Sean Reinert-esque, so we just said “fuck it” and used it as the intro a la “Flattening of Emotions.” To me, the intro and chorus make the song, as well as the wonderfully Spiritual Healing guitar solos that Dan laid down. The ending of the second solo is just so quintessentially Chuck, it’s perfect. I almost fell over laughing the first time I heard it because it was just so fucking great.

Clearly, the line between “Gangrene” and “Leprosy” shouldn’t be hard to draw as far as the lyrics. Need I say more on those? “Rotting while they breathe, death comes slow” becomes “Rotting alive, your grisly fate, gangrene.” I swear, sometimes this stuff just writes itself.

Closed Casket
I think this is the third tune I wrote, and I was psyched that I got to recycle a riff from one of the first Exhumed songs ever (from our first demo, which was my attempt at ripping of Death back in 1992). In fact, the first riff in the bridge is from the first Exhumed song we ever wrote back in the summer of 1990, but the drum part here is much better. The only disappointment I have with this song is that Gus didn’t use the goofy Bill Andrews disco beat I originally programmed for one of the riffs, but the fantastic solo by my old buddy (and one of my favorite guitar players) James Murphy more than makes up for it. Having him involved with this record was such an amazing cherry on top of the whole thing, and yet another way we could tip our collective hat to Death.

The lyrics for this one were a no-brainer. I figured if Death had “Open Casket,” we’ll have “Closed Casket.” I just thought it was too much fun not to use the title. Once I had that, the lyrics came together in about five minutes. Confronting death and thinking of your own mortality are of course tackled by Death in “Open Casket” and “Pull the Plug,” so I figured it would be appropriate to bring it up here. The death of anyone close to you makes you realize the fragility of all of our lives and brings up questions about our fate, so why not put it into rhyming couplets like, “Dismembered memories, of a life that used to be”? Now that’s some deep shit!

Psychic Twin
This tune was inspired by some of my favorite tracks on Spiritual Healing, like “Altering the Future,” “Defensive Personalities” and “Killing Spree”—tunes that were more or less deep cuts but had some of the most killer riffs on the album. Somehow, this song ended up being pretty short and is put together almost like a thrash song, but I think it basically succeeds in what I was going for. The bridge was another old Exhumed riff that I wrote in 1991. Originally there were no vocals there, but Gus thought it needed something, so I wrote the bridge in the studio. His only requirement was that I use and emphasize the word “lies,” which was one of Chuck’s main things lyrically, so it was definitely the right thing to do. My favorite part is the more melodic theme in the bridge—I’m not sure why exactly, but I really dig that bit and think it turned out great. Then Dan follows it up with some really amazing solo work that showcases his versatility and channels Chuck, James, and even a bit of the later Death stuff as well. Another one of Gus’ great Rick Rozz-type solos caps things off before the song cycles back on itself.

The lyrics here go back to the “stranger in the mind” thing I mentioned earlier, with a dual personality: one “normal” and the other homicidal. As I was mulling over the concept while doing something totally unrelated, I thought to myself that it was almost like an evil twin thing—not a physical twin, like a parasitic one, but a psychic twin. That’s when the little (and admittedly very dim) light bulb went off in my mind and I thought, “We have a title!”

The intro to this song should sound familiar to anyone who’s heard the song “Spiritual Healing,” but here, the chords are reversed octave-wise (high to low as opposed to low to high) and the tapping sequence is also reversed, where the right hand plays the ascending notes as opposed to the left hand in “Spiritual…” The first proper riff invokes the beginning of “Infernal Death,” but with a different chord progression, and then it drops into a break a la the intro of “Left to Die” before the verse riff is introduced.

The next bit is sort of similar to the chorus in “Living Monstrosity.” This riff and the one after the first chorus are distinctly in 6/8 timing, which isn’t something I normally do. I always feel really awkward playing in threes; in fact, I’d rather play in sevens, but Death always had tons of killer riffs in 6/8 (the one in “Left to Die” at 1:25 is my all-time favorite), so I made a conscious effort to include them as the writing process went on, and I think it added to the overall Death-ness of things.

This was the last song I wrote lyrics for, and since I’ve always wanted to have an eponymous track, like Angel Witch or Iron Maiden, I figured this would be the one. As far as the lyrics themselves, I was at a bit of a loss when I started, so I pulled out my Scream Bloody Gore LP and scanned the lyrics for something to spin off from. Instead, I decided to write a song that went through the entire SBG lyric sheet, starting with “the hellish stench of corpses burning black and red” from “Infernal Death,” then “rituals to re-animate” from “Zombie Ritual,” and so forth. This turned out to be a lot of fun and these may be my personal favorite lyrics on the record. So, if you’re wondering why the lyrics just read like a list of gory stuff, that’s why! The final lyric, “staring at your severed head, you are dead,” is just so fucking ’87 death metal, I love it. I had a shit-eating grin on my face when I tracked that particular line.

Savage Land is out tomorrow in North America on Relapse Records. Physical pre-orders are available here, and digital pre-orders are available here.