Album review: Death - Human (Roadrunner Records, 1991)
Tech/prog death metal
Ask any metalhead what their favourite DEATH album is and the answer will always vary. This legendary band who, along with the likes of Possessed and early Sepultura, were responsible for the birth of extreme metal during the 1980s. Over a career that lasted nearly 20 years (from the formation of Mantas in 1983), Death was a band that progressed musically with every album, refusing to rest on their laurels and produce the same record twice, thanks in part to frontman Chuck Schuldiner's constant revolving door of lineups that took in some stellar musicians over its existence. Through the primitive and thrashy "Scream Bloody Gore" to something approaching a more technical take on classic Heavy Metal on their final album before Schuldiner's untimely death in 2001 of brain stem cancer, the discography of Death is an enduring statement to evolution and the dismantling of boundaries within extreme music.
"Human" is the band's finest achievement in my opinion, a crushing slab of cerebral death metal boasting astonishing instrumental and songwriting prowess, and thought provoking, introspective lyrics. "Individual Thought Patterns" is constantly vying with this one for the top spot in my mind, though this is the one I have chosen to write this review on. This is the first album, I feel, where Chuck had surrounded himself with musicians capable of matching him and making his vision possible. I won't give in to the Dimebag-esque fellating he (like all deceased "metal legends") has been subject to since his unfortunate death, but the guy was a genius and that much is certain. By this time, Death had already made significant advancements with the transitional album "Spiritual Healing" of the previous year, the zombie holocaust lyrics of the first two records replaced with a more thoughtful social and religious commentary, and a marked advancement in composition and structure (which was of course largely rejected at first, by the backwards purists of the day). Floridian metal legend James Murphy joined Schuldiner on lead guitar for that album, the first time he would work with someone who's skill was a good match for his own. On "Human", the lineup is completely changed again with the welcome addition of half of the band Cynic (who at the time were still unsigned and yet to release their first album), namely guitarist Paul Masvidal and drummer Sean Reinert, and bass virtuoso Steve DiGiorgio borrowed from Sadus and who had also done session work with Autopsy.
This lineup wastes no time in going straight for the neck with some absolutely massive riffs and drumming. Reinert's propulsive double bass pedaling and inventive fills provide the groundwork for Schuldiner and Masvidal's excellent riffing and soloing, Masvidal's flowing, jazz inspired leads providing a great contrast to Schuldiner's own playing. Bassist DiGiorgio has been the cause of a little controversy on this album, being criminally mixed out and rendered mostly inaudible, although there are some parts when he can be heard if you pay attention (more on this later). Scott Burns gives another one of his signature production jobs, perhaps a little boxy sounding on the original release but with atmosphere of its own and fitting to the music. The lyrics (along with "Thought Patterns") are some of the greatest I've ever read on a death metal album, offering introspection at a time where a lot of bands were still clinging to outdated B-movie cliches (as fun as those can be, admittedly). To finish, I can only say that this album is a must for any metal fan or any music fan in general, to be honest. Get it and hear for yourself.
A note on the 2011 remix/remaster: For the 20th anniversary of "Human" Relapse Records released a remixed, and remastered edition available as a two or three disc edition with loads of bonus material including demo and live tracks, and (on the three disc edition) a veritable goldmine for fans in the form of scratch tracks with just drums and bass. The album itself was remixed and remastered and in a totally unprecedented move, not completely ruined by over-compression and loudness like pretty much every new release or remaster of recent years. What is equally impressive is that the bass tracks were raised to a more acceptable volume, still not as audible as some would like (as in "Individual Thought Patterns" audible) but on the whole DiGiorgio's playing is clearer and the scratch tracks of course allow all the details to be heard. The rest of the album, particularly the drums, has a noticeably wider stereo image and less muddy sound than the original release, the vocals are also clearer and the reverb on the solos is more noticeable. I think this newer edition is absolutely worth purchasing and I was genuinely impressed at how much effort seemed to have gone into it compared to so many other similar things these days. It ensures that this influential and groundbreaking record will live on.