Review by Sonny for Death - Human (1991)
If the only thing I took away from my deep dive into the early years of death metal was my re-evaluation of Death and elevation of Chuck Schuldiner to the level of metal god, then it would have been a worthwhile exercise. Being a death metal numpty at the outset I had, even here on the forum pages of Metal Academy no less, expressed scepticism that Death were all that. Approaching the band's releases chronologically and in temporal context revealed that yes, indeed, they were all that and Chuck Schuldiner may well have been the most evolutionary of all metal songwriters. A question that begs some contemplation is where would metal be now if Chuck had lived a longer life, what the hell would he be playing nowadays and is there anything even remotely like it in existence? I think it is fair to say that Chuck was indeed the very rare case of a true musical visionary.
Where Death excelled is that although they constantly changed, literally from album to album, they didn't throw the baby out with the bathwater and always gave their existing fanbase a way into their new material by a process of evolution of their sound rather than a complete overhaul. There may never be a better example of a metal songwriter's evolution than Death's seven albums. It is almost as if with each release it is possible to trace the individual steps of Death's metamorphosis.
For Death's fourth album, Human, out went the rhythm section of bassist Terry Butler and the much-maligned drummer Bill Andrews (after a legal battle over the pair's use of the Death name on a European tour) and surprisingly, considering how big an impact he had on Spritual Healing, out too went guitarist James Murphy. Previously Chuck had written material with other members, but for Human he wrote all the tracks in isolation and, possibly realising he needed band members with the chops to do his new material justice, in came exceedingly capable musicians in Sadus bassist, Steve Di Giorgio, and Cynic members, drummer Sean Reinert and guitarist Paul Masvidal. This was an inspired move, as there is a greater emphasis on technicality on Human that is pulled off brilliantly by the four members.
The sound on Human has a greater clarity than previous Death albums and allows the multifarious riffs and more complex rhythms distinction in the mix that may have been lacking in the earlier albums' muddier production. Both Reinert and Di Giorgio's amazing contributions can be heard distinctly and their technical prowess in both maintaining the rhythms and adding interesting work of their own to the shifting soundscapes is obvious for all to hear. Paul Masvidal's lead work is excellent and he takes a jazzier kind of approach to his soloing than Murphy's more traditional heavy metal approach, and this increasing technicality and diversity seems to be one of the major reasons for his recruitment into Death's lineup. The solo halfway through Secret Face, for example, brings a spanish, almost flamenco-like flavour to the track which, especially in 1991, seems like an impossibility in death metal, but is pulled off here with aplomb.
Chuck Schuldiner had always written great riffs, but on Human they became more complex, seemingly evolving and mutating as each track progresses, like some kind of virus. Despite this increasing complexity and technicality Human still has some incredibly powerful death metal riffing - the main riff of Lack of Comprehension is an absolute killer that is as muscular as anything you could have heard at the time. Human is comprised of truly memorable tracks that stick in the mind well after the silver disc stops spinning and this is a huge plus for me as I often find a lot of technical metal is so focussed on it's own complexities that listenability is sacrificed at the altar of technicality for technicality's sake. Just when you think you have the measure of Human, though, they toss in instrumental Cosmic Sea, which is an insane piece of work that comes at you with pretty much everything Chuck could muster, atmospheric keyboards, soaring solos, weird, otherworldly dissonance and another brutally heavy riff all combine for one of the most interesting metal instrumental tracks you may ever hear. Then on top of Human's sublime instrumentation there are the vocals. Chuck Schuldiner is a seminal death metal vocalist and I think the main thing that makes his vocals so great is that they sound equally as horrified as they are horrifying, as if even he himself cannot bear the evil tidings he brings.
At 33 minutes the album is Death's shortest, but there is just so much to digest within it's slight runtime that it is hard to believe only half-an-hour has passed come album's end. This is as rigorous a workout as you could reasonably have expected back in 1991 and most bands would fail to get even close to producing a half hour of metal as genuinely awe-inspiring as Human.