This is a big deal. Features like A Scene In Retrospect were practically made for bands like Death – for albums like Human. Ones that re-evaluate genres and arguably blaze the trail for new ones entirely. With the combined efforts of Chuck Schuldiner, Paul Masvidal, Sean Reinert (who tragically died earlier this year, along with Cynic colleague Sean Malone this month), and Steve DiGiorgio, death metal was turned on its head – decapitated even, if Death‘s earlier bloody output is taken into consideration – imbued with profound, introspective themes and progressive instrumentation that would be the influence for thousands of bands for the last three decades, and will continue to be for quite some time.
It was the anniversary of Schuldiner’s death recently – he would have been 53 this year, likely still making music in some way – so it feels fitting to examine one of his greatest artistic achievements, one of many reasons Chuck’s life resonates so strongly today. Enjoy the read, and see you in 2021!
There’s not much to say about Death and Chuck Schuldiner that hasn’t been said many times already, so I’ll just get straight into my own experience with their music, and, of course, Human. I will admit straight up that I am pretty unfamiliar with the earlier half of Death’s releases. When I was younger and just starting to get into metal, a friend gave me the entirety of Death’s discography, probably freshly downloaded from Limewire and of such horrendous quality that I deemed most of it, even without any understanding of what makes music sound good or bad, unlistenable. There were four albums that were decent, though: Individual Thought Patterns, The Sound of Perseverance, Symbolic, and Human. Symbolic bulldozed its way through my teenage brain and ate its way from there straight into my heart. It remains one of few albums from that time in my life that I can still listen to and feel as though I’m hearing it for the first time, while also knowing it inside out. It doesn’t get boring, or old, or stagnant; it remains full of surprises. That’s something I adore about every single Death release I’ve heard – it doesn’t matter how many times I hear it, I can still discover something new in every listen.
It seems strange to think now, considering how much Symbolic was a part of my life back then, that there was a period during which I didn’t really listen to Death at all. I had a break from many bands I liked in my teens to indulge a growing appreciation of prog, and I had all but forgotten about Death until I heard Symbolic playing in my bandmate’s car sometime last year. It’ll sound cliché, but it just came crashing back, everything I felt the first time I heard that album, minus the teen angst (or at least some of it). And I got right back into Death. This coincided beautifully with a rekindled love for Carcass (which peaked with the release of their very nice new EP Despicable earlier this year), and I started exploring both bands in greater detail. Around the time I really got into Carcass’ Heartwork, I also lost my mind over The Sound of Perseverance. I had heard both albums before, years ago, but could hardly remember them. They both blew me away. I absolutely adore The Sound of Perseverance; it’s not exactly an easy listen, but it’s so, so worth it, very nearly knocking Symbolic off its metaphorical pedestal.
You’re probably thinking, ‘that’s nice, but can you talk about Human…you know, the album this feature is about?’. Don’t worry, I will. What all of that was leading up to is this: while I love Death, and have spent so, so much time with Human over the past week in particular, it still doesn’t really hold a candle to Symbolic and Perseverance, or even the invigorating Individual Thought Patterns, for me. Perhaps the comparison isn’t quite fair, considering it is the earliest of the four, but even on its own, it’s…just…missing something for me. Initially I thought it was just a lack of familiarity, and it is a pretty hard album to swallow, but with the amount of times I’ve heard it now, I can say with absolute certainty that while it is a grower and while it is awesome, to me it’s just not as good as its successors.
Quick disclaimer: it should go without saying that everything that follows is only my opinion, my experience with Human. It’s not fact, it’s not something I’m asking you to agree with, it’s just how I feel about it. The other thing is, while I have some issues with this album, I still think it’s an ambitious and monumental release that deserves every bit of the praise it gets and has absolutely earned its place in the story of Death and death metal, and that was nothing short of groundbreaking at the time of its release. I respect fully everything that is owed to Human, and Death in general. What follows is my perception of this pivotal album.
Human is pretty great, but it’s also a little confused. It feels splintered, kind of unfocused, and – dare I say it – convoluted. While there is no shortage of riffs, and while I can’t name a single riff on Human that I don’t at least like, I’m not convinced by some of the arrangements. I don’t really see why a four-minute song needs ten different riffs, of which half don’t seem linked to the initial idea of the song at all, and also don’t repeat. “Secret Face”, while filled with fantastic ideas, suffers from – and I can’t really believe I’m saying this – simply too many good riffs jammed into one song. Don’t get me wrong, the riffs are sick, but I don’t feel they always need to be in the same song. I think “Lack of Comprehension” is by far the most cohesive song on the album – it still has lots of different riffs in it, feel changes, and tempo changes, but all the riffs seem much more related (with the exception of the guitar solo section; unfortunate, because that solo is gorgeous). I can tell that all of those riffs belong to one song, where I’d struggle to place others just because each song has so many different ones in it. I guess that was always Death’s style, though – the ‘abundance of riffs’ approach.
It’s so very clear that, on Human, Death are reaching out and pushing the boundaries of metal as it existed at the time. While Spiritual Healing hints at more progressive writing, Human doesn’t hold back in this regard at all. 1991 also saw the releases of Pestilence’s Testimony of the Ancients, Carcass’s Necroticism – Descanting the Insalubrious, and Cannibal Corpse’s Butchered at Birth, all of which are dark, heavy, and extreme, yet none of them take nearly as many or as great risks as Human. I think that alone makes Human the ballsiest death metal release of that year. Tempo changes, odd time signatures and unusual phrasings, harmony that is not only consonant in a world of tritones and minor seconds but also, God forbid, sometimes major, clean sections, an instrumental song, a bass solo, synthesizers!? The grandfather of death metal was pushing his music out of the putrid coffin it was born in and straight up through the flowers on top of it, and instead of shying away from their colour and perfume, he stopped to weave them into his rotting ribcage of distortion, blast beats, and screaming. Imagine if Dying Fetus suddenly started incorporating classical instruments and clean vocals into their sound, and it worked – that’s what I imagine it would’ve been like to hear Human for the first time as an avid death metal enthusiast in 1991.
Not that incorporating progressive elements was entirely new in the early ’90s. Progressive rock had been around since the ’60s, it’s no wonder that metal bands had borrowed from it by then. If we consider Human to be the …And Justice for All of Death’s discography, the most obviously progressive album among them, it’s almost like Death did a reverse Metallica. Where Metallica built up to Justice, and, with it, pushed themselves to the limits of their progressiveness (for better or worse), and then did a complete 180 with the Black Album (coincidentally, also released in 1991), Death took a huge leap forward in technicality on Human and then took the best aspects of it and perfected them on Individual Thought Patterns, Symbolic, and Perseverance. Plus, even though I consider Human to be the ‘weird’ release in Death’s discography just like Justice is in Metallica’s, for me the two are miles apart in two areas: the amount of attitude and the amount of bass in the mix. Human shows up Justice on both fronts.
Chuck’s death was a huge blow for the metal community. I’m not going to pretend it affected me personally – I was over ten years away from even knowing who Death were at the time. Now, though, I can’t help but feel he wasn’t done yet. As much as I love The Sound of Perseverance, it doesn’t feel like a final album; it’s a good end to a fantastic discography, but the collection doesn’t feel complete. I wonder what Chuck would’ve done next, I wonder how he would’ve kept the music fresh, how he would’ve pushed death metal even further.
I find it hard to keep the awe out of my writing as I dissect Human. I respect this album so much that it feels almost slanderous to speak ill of it. Without it, there would’ve been no Individual Thought Patterns, no Symbolic, and there certainly wouldn’t’ve been Perseverance. I am aware that I’ve barely touched on the actual music on Human at all in this feature; to me, the importance of Human lies not only in how out there it was itself, but more importantly in what came afterwards, what it paved the way for. Human was confused and convoluted so that nothing afterwards had to be, and for that, and for all the risks it took, I love it.
What can be said about Death that hasn’t been said one hundred times over? This is one of the most celebrated and decorated death metal bands in history. Chuck Schuldiner is the grandfather of one of the biggest genres of metal to ever grace the world and his name holds enough meaning to your average metalhead to be considered holy.
Music like Human simply did not exist before it was written. You had some emerging death metal acts paving the way for the genre alongside Death like Possessed and Obituary, but Human really ramped things up by a few notches. It is often debated on whether or not this is the very first technical death metal album, and I personally think that it is. Regardless of where you stand on that debate, it’s hard to argue about what a force of nature Human still is to this day.
Schuldiner wrote riffs that still hold up to this day among the greats. The solo of “Flattening of Emotions” is one of the first pieces of music on guitar that I really fell in love with as a teenager, even if I didn’t personally become a fan of Death until much later. Much can be said about any of the solos or guitar parts on Human, and just about any album that came after. This was a turning point for the band, and the entire emerging genre however.
Human is a much different machine than its predecessors. The writing has always seemed more confident and relentless, and Schuldiner’s solos rip with a more furious intensity than anything else that was around. Whether or not it was the first tech album, Human is really the album that separated Death from the rest of the pack in my eyes. There were other people doing the same shit, but only Chuck Schuldiner was the shit.
One of my favorite bands of all time is Cynic, and I have always loved Death because of the contributions of Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert (RIP). I would have loved to see Schuldiner and Masvidal play on the same stage, and I really wish they could have worked together more in the studio because their collaborations in music are some of my favorites of all time. Add in the legend Steve DiGiorgio on bass, and this is an absolutely star-studded album. These four guys all become some of the most influential in their craft on their respective instruments and are household names to most metalheads to this day.
It’s crazy to think that Masvidal and Reinert were only 19 when this was recorded. That just goes to show how good they have always been, and is surely a reason why Cynic has become one of the most celebrated prog metal bands of all time. I could sit here and write another 500 words on how good and important Human is, but I think it’s probably already all been said. This is one of the most celebrated and beloved death metal albums of all time, and for damn good reason. It’s hard to find metal from the ’80s and ’90s that hold up to today’s standards in my opinion. But modern metal will always be trying to meet Chuck Schuldiner’s standards.
I can’t think of a single genre of music that is more stigmatized than death metal. The immediate association with violence and rage has done a lot of harm, and I feel like that damage is irreversible. While I do understand that roaring guitars, thunderous drums, and deafening screams may not be for everyone, I do want to emphasize that tastes can change. If you have an aversion to ridiculously heavy music, maybe someday you’ll find solace in an incredible death metal album like Human from the almighty Death.
When I was first listening to heavier music, death metal hadn’t really appealed to me. I had started to check out bands like Deicide and Cannibal Corpse, but I was left feeling completely underwhelmed. I found that there were commonly only one or two stand-out tracks on each album, so a lot of their material was forgettable to me. When I thought about just throwing in the towel, I stumbled upon a more progressive side of death metal. This took me straight to Death’s discography. If I remember right, iTunes only had Symbolic and The Sound of Perseverance available for purchase. As soon as I heard those records, I knew I needed more.
Eventually, this brought me to order a physical copy of Human. While it isn’t necessarily my favorite record from Death (that achievement goes to The Sound of Perseverance; “Spirit Crusher” is one of my favorite songs of all time), I can absolutely understand the influence it delivered to the death metal scene at the time. Death’s first few albums were heavy as hell and raw, but Human refined the band’s sound and added a progressive element to their aggression. While I wasn’t alive to truly witness the impact Human had, you can hear the influence it left behind for other bands to experiment with.
Typically, I’d speak on specific tracks from a record. However, I feel like Human is best represented as a total unit. The entire record is impeccable, and I find that it’s best to experience the entire thing rather than focusing on specific tracks. The guitar harmonies and vocals are distinctive and recognizable, and the bass and drums are both pummeling and intricate. I feel like Death’s later recordings have a specific timbre that was introduced primarily in Human, and it’s definitely a sound that is highly recognizable among metal fans.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t speak to the sheer talent of the four-piece powerhouse behind this album. Chuck Schuldiner is easily one of the greatest guitarists and metal songwriters ever, and his abilities shine greatly on Human. The riffs throughout the album are creative and wildly technical, and Schuldiner’s prowess on his instrument is showcased flawlessly. I feel like the transition to a more progressive sound was assisted by the incredible Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert from the legendary Cynic. With this combination of brilliant musicians, there was no way that Human wouldn’t be a strong package.
Death’s later albums were definitely my favorite efforts from the band. Each album proved that death metal could be far more than just gory lyrics and loud music, but instead, it could be highly virtuosic and possess interesting melodic content. Human holds up as being a badass experience that proves that death metal is far more than the cliché it holds. If you’re reading this and have yet to dive into Death’s entire discography (especially if you don’t consider yourself a fan of death metal), do yourself a favor and start with Human. It will introduce you to a whole world you didn’t know you needed.
Living in 2020, where there is no scarcity of well-crafted extreme metal albums, it is easy to forget how different things were three decades ago. Thrash was king, with bands like Metallica and Slayer on the tongue of every metalhead. Death metal was still in its infancy, and one band that often gets credit for laying the foundations of death metal is Death – the brainchild of the talented visionary Chuck Schuldiner. But what many forget is that Death did not have one defining sound, and the sound of the band evolved as Schuldiner evolved as a musician. There is the early material in Scream Bloody Gore and Leprosy that was more upfront, in-your-face music. On the other hand, the later stuff in Symbolic and The Sound Of Perseverance is well-known for bringing progressive, technical elements to the death metal sound. But the balancing point between the two phases shows the very best of Chuck Schuldiner’s artistic vision, and that shone on Death‘s 1991 masterpiece, Human.
Human brought together what was probably the strongest (and the most short-lived) lineup in Death‘s history. Following the Spiritual Healing lineup dismantling, Schuldiner only wanted to bring on guest session musicians for the recording. While Chuck Schuldiner was always known to have a clear vision of what he wants the Death albums to sound like, one cannot discount the skills that Cynic‘s Sean Reinert and Paul Masvidal, along with bassist Steve DiGiorgio, bring to the table. From Schuldiner and Masvidal’s solos on “Cosmic Sea” to Reinert’s progressive yet frantic drumming on “Lack of Comprehension” to DiGiorgio’s technically precise fretless bass work on “Secret Face”, the lineups contribution played a large role in Human‘s legendary status.
Listening to the album even after nearly 30 years since its release, Human maintains an unparalleled balance of sheer technicality and relentless brutality. Right off the bat, “Flattening of Emotions” lays down a statement for what is to come – tight double bass, clean leads, and a much more defined rhythm. The song was a benchmark for death metal in itself, setting aside mere brute strength in favor of more detailed songwriting, its influence heard on countless death metal songs that have followed. Additionally, songs like “Cosmic Sea” demonstrate Death‘s tendency to set trends rather than follow them. Only Schuldiner and Co. could mix jazzy progressive solos and ambient electronica with diverse metal influences and make the output sound unquestionably Death.
Another aspect that makes Human such a landmark album is the shift in lyrical themes. Gone were the days of morbid lyrics for the sake of brutality as on Scream Bloody Gore, with Schuldiner taking a more philosophical and introspective approach. They make Human, and Death‘s music in general, more relatable to a much larger audience, a reason why such lyrics have become a staple to the genre over the years. “See Through Dreams” is exemplary of the deep thought Schuldiner puts in penning his words, taking an inspiring stand on a blind man’s life with thought-provoking lines such as:
‘Close your eyes and imagine to be without
What we take for granted every time we open our eyes
A permanent shadow to never step away
Feel the dark in the cold
Feel the warmth of the light
Which has been denied’
Simply put, Human is one of the most dynamic and creative outputs in Death‘s stellar discography. It sees the band impose its vision on the realm of death metal, providing a blueprint for the birth and evolution of technical death metal. Nearly 30 years later, it is as relevant as ever, timeless and influential, a must-listen for every metalhead.
What are your thoughts on/experiences with Human? Are you a fan of Death, and if so, what’s your favorite album of theirs? Do you have any records you’d like to recommend for inclusion in A Scene In Retrospect? Leave it all in the comments if you feel like sharing!