Death – Human (1991)

Released – 1991

Chuck Schuldiner – guitars, vocals, production
Paul Masvidal – guitar
Steve DiGiorgio – bass
Sean Reinert – drums, percussion

1991 saw the release of Human, bringing Death and Chuck Schuldiner at last into the a realm hitherto unseen before in extreme metal. Aspects of this development had already been foreshadowed by other bands, including Schuldiner’s own output prior—Spiritual Healing precipitated some of it, to be sure—but nothing had come before that saw the level of technical virtuosity, compositional complexity, intensity, and pure pleasure of listening all put together in one package of extreme metal before quite like Human.

The album immediately kicks off on a different note than your typical death metal release: a gradual fade-in of Sean Reinert’s pummeling polyrhythm heralding the arrival of an iconic riffing series of modal ascents up a guitar’s range, bringing more percussion into the fray and the bass trailing in behind them as a 45 second long prelude to the song and the album as a whole. The song remains Schuldiner’s though, with passages harking back to Spiritual Healing’s and Leprosy’s compositions. It’s the breaks from those passages, the off-time riffs backed by Steve DiGorgio’s basslines that turn this album into something greater than the sum of its parts, and—not to distract from Schuldiner’s abilities—Masvidal’s guitar solos that sharpen the package into clarity.

Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert, both of whom would go on to be central figures of the notoriously progressive band Cynic, contribute their skills here in a manner wholly beyond the range of technical abilities presented on the previous installments of Death’s oeuvre. The opening of “Lack of Comprehension,” the solo work in “Flattening of Emotions,” and a good deal of “Cosmic Sea” foreshadow the latter project’s forays into the somewhat controversial genre of “jazz-metal”, or at the very least progressive metal tinged heavily with jazz elements and progressive rock. It’s precise and on-point, wildly dynamic, and remarkably inventive, and the same can be said of Digiorgio’s drumming. The synthesis these three had with Schuldiner’s creative abilities spawned one of the best metal albums of all time.

Lyrically, Schuldiner goes into more introspective and less socially-conscious lyrics of Spiritual Healing, marking a further divergence from his previous blood-lathered themes of his earlier work. Nietzschean themes of power and dominance, the individual’s place in society, and the necessity of personas in the world of your peers are of most prominence, recurring in several songs over the thirty-eight minute runtime. Content like this was somewhat unfamiliar in the world of extreme metal at the time of the album’s release; you had a few groups that had already gone in that direction, but generally speaking, they weren’t groups that were quite as prominent or as diverse as Death. Human brought an unexpected relevance and levity to the genre completely independent to his musical contributions.

The album features smoother, varied passages presenting nuance and atmosphere utterly absent on other Death albums, and solos by both Masvidal and Schuldiner that far surpass what either had demonstrated previously in the studio. It’s an outstanding release, having stood the testament of time—a landmark as of yet only surpassed or equaled by groups who took inspiration from it (or in Cynic’s case, helped work on it). Highly recommended not just for fans of extreme metal, but fans of progressive rock and experimental music, or just lovers of music in the broadest sense. This isn’t a release to miss.

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