Review Summary: One of the best albums in death metal history, Human is essential to any fan of extreme and/or progressive music.
Crafting yet another review for a Death album seems almost unnecessary, considering how much praise they've been showered with already. Regardless, it's always nice to hear different peoples' perspectives on just what made the band so great; some people mention the bevy of great riffs, others mention the technical intricacies of the group's later work, and yet others bring up the subtle compositional changes that became present with each passing album. The band's main member, late guitarist and vocalist Chuck Schuldiner, certainly did the world of music a favor when he announced back in 1991 that he would change his project stylistically and reject the satanic/gory themes of several of his death metal peers. Many bands still follow in the footsteps of Death's later material musically and lyrically today, opting for a more thoughtful approach to counter the typical brutality of extreme metal. And the album that really led the charge? Human.
I think it's safe to say that pretty much no one expected such a turn from Death (although it was hinted at with a good chunk of Spiritual Healing), but just like fellow Floridian death metallers Atheist and Cynic, Death were looking into the future of metal. Human's arrangements, when compared to prior releases, are both more concise and more technically advanced; imagine Spiritual Healing with a more "evil"-sounding production and trimmed musical fat. Of course, it also helps that Chuck hired some of the best musicians around. Sean Reinart and Paul Masvidal, both of Cynic (before Cynic made their own legendary album Focus), brought a sense of instrumental articulation and energy that Schuldiner's previous line-ups lacked (perhaps excluding James Murphy). Meanwhile, bassist Steve DiGiorgio is in death metal's proverbial Mount Olympus for his legendary work, an area commonly reserved for metal bassists like Alex Webster or Roger Patterson. His work here is no exception, his bass lines usually not even following what the electric guitar work is doing in the foreground. Much like Cliff Burton, he switches things up between following the guitar lines and doing his own thing.
But it all really comes down to the songs, and Human delivers in spades. First of, it features the best opener/closer combo of any Death album with "Flattening of Emotions" and "Vacant Planets"; these bookends are perfect ways to contain the whirlwind of intensity and technically that you're in for. While there are certain points in which Chuck and co. ease things up for the listener, such as the clean guitar work of "Lack of Comprehension"'s intro or the beautiful middle section of the instrumental "Cosmic Sea," the album remains completely focused throughout. There are no unnecessary instrumental moments that weigh down the experience like in Spiritual Healing, and the entire record avoids the trap of becoming repetitive in any way. Each song is at least relatively short, opting to give the listener a wide range of great compositional twists and turns in a short period of time. While there's the familiar song structure that Death fans should be familiar with by now, with the refrains at all, the shorter song lengths ensure that you'll be fine with hearing the same riffs once again without any song dragging on for too long. Also, songs like "Suicide Machine" and "Secret Face" display that Chuck's more melodic edge with the band is shaping up nicely by this point; the harmonized guitar lines of both tunes mirror the simultaneous technicality perfectly, making for a wonderful blend of different sounds. Finally, I must mention the vocal work briefly. With each passing album, Chuck's vocals had been shifting toward higher growls, with The Sound of Perseverance finally featuring more screams than any kind of guttural vocals. Luckily, Human is right in the middle; Chuck's mid-range shouts are perfect for the rawness of the overall sound.
Enough with all of the hyperbole. Get Human; it's legendary, it's perfect, and it's one of death metal's great cornerstones. It's a flawless mix of melody, brutality, progressiveness, and timeless compositions. May you continue to rest in peace, Chuck Schuldiner... you left us way too early.