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by Phil Freeman
The early 1990s were a weird time for metal. Some of the genre’s biggest bands were fracturing and faltering—vocalist Rob Halford left Judas Priest in 1991, at the end of the touring cycle for their 1990 album Painkiller. Two years later, Iron Maiden would lose their singer, Bruce Dickinson. Slayer released what many (erroneously) consider to be their last great album, Seasons in the Abyss, in 1990; two years later, they would lose their founding drummer, Dave Lombardo. Anthrax released their best album, Persistence of Time, in 1990, and/but their vocalist, Joey Belladonna, left in 1992. On the other hand, Metallica and Megadeth had their greatest commercial successes during this period with the self-titled “Black Album” and Countdown to Extinction, respectively. Suicidal Tendencies hit an artistic and commercial peak with 1990′s Lights…Camera…Revolution. And Pantera, who would be one of metal’s greatest success stories in the 1990s, released their de facto debut, Cowboys From Hell, just as the decade dawned.
As far as more extreme metal was concerned, the earth’s crust basically cracked open in 1990-91, releasing hordes of howling demons into the world. Death metal flourished as the ’80s ended and the ’90s began: Morbid Angel‘s Altars of Madness was released in 1989, as was Obituary‘s Slowly We Rot. Deicide‘s self-titled debut came a year later, as did Cannibal Corpse‘s Eaten Back to Life. But death metal evolved as fast as its guitarists played: By 1991, an offshoot mini-movement was already beginning to emerge, one that prized rhythmic fluidity and jazzy harmonic explorations as much as, if not more than, the punishing aggression that had been the genre’s primary sonic trademark. A trio of albums—Atheist‘s Unquestionable Presence, Pestilence‘s Testimony of the Ancients, and Death‘s Human—combined death metal’s blasting drums, roaring guitars and gut-churning vocals with keyboards, unorthodox compositional styles, and a complexity that recalled Return To Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra as much as, if not more than, Morbid Angel or Deicide. Similarly, the lyrics were more focused on spirituality than on horror-movie mayhem.
None of these were debut albums. Pestilence had started out as more traditional death metal, as had Death. Atheist had always been weird and proggy, but their 1989 debut, Piece of Time, was more headbanging than Unquestionable Presence; the replacement of bassist Roger Patterson, killed in a van crash, with the fusion-happy Tony Choy pushed the band in a more introspective direction. Similarly, Death founder Chuck Schuldiner made Human, his band’s fourth album, with three brand-new bandmembers: guitarist Paul Masvidal, bassist Steve DiGiorgio, and drummer Sean Reinert. Masvidal and Reinert would release the debut album by their own band, Cynic, in 1993; DiGiorgio was and is a journeyman, albeit a preposterously talented one, who was best known at the time for his membership in the hyper-thrash trio Sadus.
On the first three Death albums—1987′s Scream Bloody Gore, 1988′s Leprosy and 1990′s Spiritual Healing—Schuldiner did a lot to pioneer death metal as a specific style, indebted to thrash but decidedly different. The riffing was more aggressive, the guitars tuned lower and less concerned with groove. Thrash, despite its frequently dark and nihilistic lyrics, was an ideal soundtrack to skateboarding and partying; death metal was a soundtrack to sitting in a corner, smoking and glowering at people having fun.
Schuldiner’s vocals were a huge part of Death’s style, too. He didn’t go for the guttural, diaphragm-driven “Cookie Monster” growling style, instead opting to scream and rave like the guy nobody wants to sit next to on the bus. (Obituary’s John Tardy took a similar approach, to great effect—indeed, on Slowly We Rot, he frequently wasn’t even singing actual words.) But it was his guitar work, and the compositions his fluid solos supported, that really set Death apart.
By the time he made Human, Schuldiner had broadened death metal’s sonic palette enough that there was room for fusion-esque, fretless bass; abstract, hyper-complex drum patterns; synthesizers that bolstered the guitars, rather than merely providing creepy horror-movie intros; and songs that shifted from a downtuned chug to a hyperspeed assault, then back again, then took off for the stratosphere with guitar solos that owed more to John McLaughlin in early ’70s white-suit mode than the work of any of his Floridian peers. A lyrical evolution was underway, too. He avoided the gory fantasies and cartoon demonology that had become death metal’s public face, in favor of oddly introspective songs about assisted suicide (“Suicide Machine”), conjoined twins (“Together As One,” which is entirely about a pair of twins’ interior life, not about wallowing in the fleshly details of their condition) and what it’s like to live with someone intent on self-destruction (“Lack of Comprehension,” the video for which is below).
The interaction between Schuldiner and second guitarist Paul Masvidal is key to Human‘s power. The two are absolutely playing metal—Masvidal wouldn’t disappear entirely into jazz fusion until reviving Cynic in the mid-2000s—but they’re clearly out to pierce the membrane that isolates their genre from the world of progressive rock. The solos aren’t gnarled bursts of notes in the style Slayer‘s Kerry King stole from Black Flag‘s Greg Ginn, but carefully phrased extrapolations from the melody. Behind them, the rhythm section is taut and precise, but with an element of swing and groove that many death metal bands lacked.
The remixing and remastering job that’s been done on this 20th anniversary reissue of Human—the disc was first issued on October 22, 1991—brings the group’s instrumental achievements into sharper relief than ever. This is a record I’ve lived with for well over a decade, and it sounds entirely new to me. Every instrument is crystal clear; too many ’90s death metal albums sounded like a wall of noise, because producers and engineers didn’t know how to capture a style that offered so much input, so many simultaneous and competing frequencies. Where do you put the bass when the guitar is as downtuned as it is in death metal? How do you record a kick drum at the tempos death metal bands routinely achieve without turning it into a tiny, typewriter-like clicking? All these problems have been resolved on Human. The music flows from one peak of technical achievement to the next, Schuldiner and company demonstrating a skill and perceptiveness that are simply breathtaking.
This deluxe reissue includes a bonus track—a cover of Kiss‘s “God of Thunder” that, by chaining Schuldiner’s unorthodox voice and the band’s fleet fingers to a conventional, somewhat thudding rock track, winds up throwing their true capabilities into even sharper relief—and a 20-track second CD, which includes demo and instrumental versions of every song on the album. This latter material is sure to be of great interest to those who wish to seriously examine Schuldiner’s, Masvidal’s, DiGiorgio’s and Reinert’s playing, but the album itself is the real selling point, and all the enticement any fan of metal, or music made with serious artistic intent regardless of genre, should need.