Death. Founding fathers. Legends. What more can be said about Chuck Schuldiner’s Death that fans, media, and beyond haven’t already said? Incredible to think that across the storied seven-album catalog, Death continues to inspire, inform, and impress. That debut Scream Bloody Gore still, after 34 years, manages to put hair on end. Third album, Spiritual Healing, contains what might be one of Schuldiner’s finest hours in “Living Monstrosity.” Or, that sixth album Symbolic remains talismanic, if not for the inimitable “Crystal Mountain” than for the savage intellect of the title track. But really, Death is individual and conveys import to every one of us. Indeed, we here at Decibel have our favorite album — Leprosy is king! — but that’s as much music as it is time and place. Where most fans can align, however, is Death’s incredible fourth album, Human.
Often, Human is considered the bridge between Death the brutal way and Death the progressive way. In many respects, it is a continuation of Spiritual Healing, its songs initially having been written with and likely for ex-members Terry Butler (bass) and Bill Andrews (drums). The lineup changed, leaving Schuldiner to look outside central Florida. The inclusion of Paul Masvidal (guitars) and Sean Reinert (drums) from then-burgeoning Miami death metallers Cynic wasn’t just necessity (the glove fit, so to speak) but a stroke of musical genius. Not only were Masvidal and Reinert part of the scene, they were also not part of the scene, musically and mentally. When the duo joined Death as live musicians first and then as recording partners to Schuldiner later, they had just edged out of their teenage years. Musically, however, they were light years ahead of the curve, more apt to indulge in Allan Holdsworth, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Chick Corea than the popular death metal of the day. Bassist Steve Di Giorgio (from California-based ragers Sadus) also entered Schuldiner’s orbit — this time employed as a player/thinker. Whatever demos/songs were in place before, they were altered for the future by Death’s next-gen lineup.
Human was Death transformed. Human transformed death metal. Opening track “Flattening of Emotions” features one of the more memorable intros ever. That it transitions into an aggressive churn against Schuldiner’s wicked vocals is beyond reproach. Similar vibes can be felt on “Suicide Machine” (note Di Giorgio’s bass bonks), “Secret Face,” “Vacant Planets,” and, of course, through video single and album lead “Lack of Comprehension.” Indeed, “Cosmic Sea” was divergent. Not only because it was an instrumental but it was the first time where Schulinder opened arms and ideas to Di Giorgio, Masvidal, and Reinert. The “jam” ended up being a defining moment on Human and for Death. Producer and mixing ace Scott Burns provided a thick if heavy platform from which the songs were able to project. The combination of music, production, and artwork, courtesy of Florida-based artist René Miville, showed an evolutionary step for Death. Schuldiner had signaled he was ready for transformation on Spiritual Healing, but achieved it on Human. Human was death metal redefined 30 years ago, and today, it’s death metal inspired.
Happy 30th Birthday, Human! We’ve been fortunate to be on the receiving end of its innovative light for the last 30 years, and we’ll continue to revere Human as it ages into the foreseeable future. This piece is dedicated to the memories of Chuck Schuldiner (12/13/2001) and Sean Reinert (1/24/2020). Our world is vastly different without you.
Human turns 30 this year. That’s three decades of musical innovation, leadership, and songcraft. What strikes you most about Human and indeed Chuck’s legacy as it turns the three decade mark?
Eric Greif: I marvel at the fact that not only is Human 30 years old, but in December it will be 20 years ago since Chuck died from pontine glioma. I think everybody involved in the project knew that what we were doing was new and innovative, and that Chuck could not have pulled this off with previous lineups. Indeed, it was the raw talents of Paul, Sean, and Steve that fell into place with Chuck’s own growth and maturity. As it came together, it was obviously a masterpiece.
Paul Masvidal: Feels like yesterday and a lifetime ago. I remember listening back in the studio and realizing that this album marked a new beginning for Death. The songs felt fresh and the urgency in the music and the performances were tangible to us. The sound felt organic and modern in a whole new way. Death began to straddle the line of fierce brutality and musical sophistication. Although 30 years is a substantial stretch in linear time, I don’t know if records like this participate in traditional timelines. They sorta exist in their own dimension because of what they represent sonically, and the rare set of circumstances that made it manifest. But yeah, pretty awesome to see it continue being loved by the fans and embraced by new audiences.
Steve Di Giorgio: I’ve been asked this question a lot, but I’m not sure I ever give the same answer. This is something unique that happened in my life. Obviously, we had no idea what it would become. We were very young, very focused, and ambitious in making our mark and doing a good job of it. We were just another band paying our dues, finding our way through the whole scene. There’s no way we had any idea what it would become. We were heads-down and focused. We weren’t looking out on the horizon. That was a normal viewpoint, actually. It was all pretty normal. We didn’t think it would be this iconic session. We were just getting high every day and going for it.
Do you remember much about how the songs came together? There’s a huge leap from Spiritual Healing to Human.
Eric Greif: During the Spiritual Healing, Chuck was already working on songs that would end up on Human. These he attempted to demo with Terry and Bill, and scaled-down and more straight ahead versions. It was the insertion of Paul, Sean, and Steve that made the music what it was, and that was a giant leap forward.
Paul Masvidal: We heard a few demos, along with Chuck and I having a handful of guitar-related rehearsals, but it wasn’t until we got into Cynic’s rehearsal room in Miami that we started to really discover the tunes. Sean was the type of the drummer that understood the guitar parts on a musical level, so his drumming was responding and reacting to the subtlest details. It was this attention and attunement to the guitars that changed the way the tunes felt foundationally. Sean’s playing is what essentially turned the music on its head and redefined how we would approach the arrangements. Steve’s playing was also extremely unique and melodic, and how he connected with Sean brought out something completely new to the rhythm section in context. My musical connection to Sean was telepathic since childhood, so I imagine some of that unseen musical chemistry was imprinted onto the music without us even realizing it. And I had already earned Chuck’s trust having been friends and toured together prior to Human, so we felt at ease. The whole process was quite natural and relaxed.
Steve Di Giorgio: By the time I was recruited and made my way to Florida, all the songs but maybe one were completed. Or, pretty close to being done. He had a lot of the ideas mapped out with his previous lineup, Bill [Andrews] and Terry [Butler]. I know those songs were eventually rehashed and turned inside out after the lineup changed using a couple of Cynic guys and a Sadus guy. So, we went into the sessions not working from zero but tons of cassette tapes with guitar parts. We crafted our parts to those guitar parts. Everything was done in the context of Death though. Even though we’re reaching outside the lines and playing all this crazy jazzy stuff while being blazed out of our gourds, it still made sense musically. There was logic to his sound. It’s hard to tell with the way the mix turned out, but me and Sean wrote the drums and bass to go completely together. They’re speaking to each other. When Sean does a roll, my bass notes go with the roll. When I’m climbing up a scale, he’s following me. We were hand-in-hand always. My normal MO is to come in, crash everything and bolt. That wasn’t the case with Human. I went to Miami to spend a few weeks with Sean and Paul. We took our time to go over the music, understand each other, and really knock it all out of the park. That was the bulk of the whole album. Since we did have a lot time before, we were pretty efficient in the studio. We were a teeny bit ahead of schedule, so that’s how “Cosmic Sea” originated. I’m not sure if it was intended to be an instrumental from the start, but we wrote “Cosmic Sea” together in the studio. Chuck had ideas of the riffs, but Paul and Sean were always making suggestions. Now, that’s not at all how Chuck usually operates. He’s usually closed when it comes to his music. For “Cosmic Sea,” the door was open to us. We went pretty crazy on that song. The arrangements are different, a spacey instrumental jam. It was a group session that I don’t think Chuck ever revisited again. “Cosmic Sea” was a cool free-for-all.
Now that I think of it, me, Sean, and Paul had one, cool thing in common. We all liked to overreach. We like to try to play stuff that was out of what we were used to or what we could handle, so that the average of everything when we got it finalized was a step up. We were obnoxious and we were always trying to not be bored. That’s not to say we did that in spite of Chuck. It’s quite the opposite. He didn’t want paint-by-numbers music added to his sketches or outlines. The idea of the song was always formulated. Chuck always wrote in a rock or pop format, where there’s an intro, verse, chorus, versus, chorus, bridge, solo, repeat, and out. He kept his riffs limited and straightforward, and he knew if he had guys that would just follow along that format that he’d be in the same position he was in on the three previous records. He completely encouraged the three of us to go way outside the lines within that formula. He pushed and pushed us. Not only were we young and ambitious and trying to be crazy guys, but Sean had this particular batch [of marijuana] that wasn’t from Florida — Georgia or somewhere in the Carolinas — that lead us down a particular path. We loved it. Chuck loved it. The two Cynic guys were 19 or just turning 20. Me and Chuck were only 23 years old. Our experience level was kind of low, but we thought we knew how to do something new. Sure enough it comes out, and it made a major impact. I remember the sales were great, the reviews were great.
Do you think it was with Human where the melodic side of Chuck’s musical interests started to appear and mature? Even the print ads used the word “melodic” to describe Human.
Eric Greif: I honestly don’t think that Chuck gave it much thought as to whether it possessed more melodic content than the previous albums. It was just that the music and Chuck’s vision for it was able to be realized with the advanced musicianship that Chuck had around him.
Paul Masvidal: Chuck’s melodic voice was developing as a guitar player, and his riffs were finding new shades and inflections. He was blossoming during this period and probably felt more secure surrounded by musicians like us to take risks — which created space for his voice to emerge more freely.
Steve Di Giorgio: I was little older than the Cynic guys. I had been around the Bay Area — the thrash scene — and I knew what people were capable of musically. I knew what the norm was. It was a pretty high bar, but I had never wanted to settle into the norm. I didn’t want to be trapped. Remember, the Bay Area was fertile talent-wise before Florida took over. Anyway, when I met Sean and likely Paul, they were not the norm at all. They were way outside of it. Sean was playing stuff almost sarcastically, making fun of what was expected at the time. We’d have parts where it’s pretty obvious what the drums usually would do, but Sean was like, “Oh yeah?! Well, because you expected it, here’s something completely different!” He was doing that intentionally. That was a big finger to the norm. Just being a part of that really opened my eyes. Normally, a bass player like myself is supportive musically. Watching 50 percent of the lineup play in complete spite of the genre made me go, “Yeah, this is where I belong!” [Laughs] Chuck loved that. We all had a similar mindset that we weren’t going to fit into a nice and neat category. We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. We just wanted to do the unexpected, and still have it all sound pretty frickin’ cool. You can hear how much Chuck changed on and after Human. He never went back to the albums one, two, and three. That was a big turning point. The scene was still pretty young at that point. Maybe seven years old. Right as it’s about to slip into redundancy, Human comes out. Boom! Then, it’s like Atheist, Cynic, and Meshuggah… Human, I think, allowed bands to go for it. I will say, this is after 30 years of looking back on it. We never planned any of this stuff. We didn’t have a pre-Human huddle. [Laughs] We dug in and went for it. We were going against the grain of the norm.
Eric Greif: Some people at Relativity actually understood the direction Chuck was moving towards, and they therefore got behind the album with tireless work and money. I’m not exactly thinking that the staff of Relativity all knew that this was a tremendous musical endeavor on the part of Death, but with new mediums for metal such as Headbangers Ball, the label agreed with me that we needed a video, and thus we did one for Lack of Comprehension. This further brought the band to a wider audience, and the sales were the highest that Death ever saw to that point.
I gather Chuck felt the studio recordings for Human were different – more professional – than those of Spiritual Healing. What do you think Chuck took away from those sessions with Paul, Sean, and Steve?
Eric Greif: It wasn’t that the studio experience for Human was more professional, it’s just there was more time to get the album right. And the musicianship was at a Herculean level of prowess. Chuck didn’t even have to push the other guys anywhere musically, as this occurred naturally and based on their abilities on their instruments.
Steve Di Giorgio: That was my first time recording there. I’d end up returning there many times after Human with Death, Control Denied, and couple of other projects. By 1991, it had a legendary status because of Scott Burns and the bands that were coming to Florida just to record. Bands like Pestilence, Atheist, and Gorguts. But besides Deicide, Napalm [Death], Cannibal [Corpse], Obituary, and Morbid [Angel], bands like Nasty Savage and Savatage were recording there, too! Florida was frickin’ fertile back then. [Laughs] So, when I first set foot in Morrisound, it felt cool. It was like, “This is the place to get something done!” Mind you, this was 1991. Technology was where it’s at. We’re 23, we’re young and not really experienced. That was the first time I had seen a headphone monitor, which is where musicians can plug in their headphones and have control over each instrument separately. There’s a volume knob for each. Up to that point, tracking or recording was done at a compromise. Everyone had to hear themselves through the mix of the band. Here, this is the first time I could hear myself. I turned Paul and Chuck off, man. I had my bass cranked up and I could hear the drums come through. It was sweet. There were times when my Rickenbacker — the tone — was so perfect that I almost had an out of body experience. I was suddenly Chris Squire. [Laughs]
Describe the studio sessions with Scott Burns.
Eric Greif: Scott was a very mellow dude in the studio, calmly giving his advice without overpowering anyone. By that time, he was getting very well known in metal circles due to the number of albums he had produced. I know that this album is heads and shoulders above other bands at the time, and Chuck desired it to be unique in the melding of the performers’ musicianship with the concepts of the songs. I think Scott understood this.
Paul Masvidal: Scott was always patient and kind, and went above and beyond to create an environment conducive for recording. I remember his enthusiasm and excitement during this time. He felt like part of the band and we wholeheartedly trusted him.
Steve Di Giorgio: The studio sessions were intense. Scott was very cool, experienced. I had never played with that caliber of musician before. Sean was out of this world. I know I said that we were high on his crazy orange [out of state] bud, but we were high on each other, too. He definitely put pressure on me. I was older than him, but he was way more advanced musically than me. He lived the life a little more. He had training early on in his life. He had more intense training early on. He learned to listen, which is a very important musical skill. He say to me, “I know what you got, but have you heard this?” Everything he showed me was new to me, so I kind of looked up to him, even though he was four years younger than me. That was great! We maintained our tight friendship up to his end. Fortunately, we got to do the Death To All together. We got to really hang out, work on music at his house. I will say Human was a very valuable, important and fruitful time for me.
How did the cover artist René Miville come into the picture? I think the cover piece elevated Death from the more cartoon/comic book style to a more abstract style, which worked in concert with the advanced nature of the music.
Eric Greif: Rene was a Florida-based photographer, and someone turned Chuck onto his work. I agreed that the cartoon aspect of Ed Repka’s previous Death covers had served their purpose, but now there was a need for a fresh idea. René delivered on that with his unique method of making art in the photography lab.
René Miville: I did a spread for Spin about the death metal scene in Tampa. I didn’t even know it existed. I did a couple of shots with death metal bands like Deicide. I remember Glen [Benton] being great to work with. Suddenly, I’m getting phone calls from record companies like Roadrunner. They liked the art and wanted me to do some of their covers. Death was one of them. So, I eventually get to talk to Chuck, and he spoke like a granola salesman. I really felt like I was dealing with someone from Boulder, Colorado. There was nothing about him – his persona – that was like his music. When I worked with Pantera, the guy I was working with – I can’t remember his name – but he liked to box. He was off stage like he was on. That wasn’t Chuck. Chuck was nice, hardworking, and a pleasure to talk to. So, I felt compelled to do something really special for his work. He explained to me what Human was about. So, I tried to create images that transcended his persona or his thought processes. I took his style and plugged it into my style. I didn’t want the macabre. That wasn’t Chuck. He wanted something different, like the Doctor Strange comic book art. He liked my work on Human so much he hired me again and again.
Paul Masvidal: It was great to see Chuck wanting to try something new and change up the visual language. I suppose this idea went hand-in-hand with the reset the album represented for him.
You [Eric] picked the director David Bellino (and also documented the shooting) for the “Lack of Comprehension” video. What do you remember most about that day?
Eric Greif: I remember that all of us had a fantastic time that day at The Beacham Theater in Orlando. David and his crew were complete professionals, any knew what he was doing. As for the band, we were just happy that it was happening in the first place!
Paul Masvidal: We had a blast that day. I’m glad Eric had a video camera and captured some magical moments. The crew and everyone got along well, and there were lots of laughs and great memories.
You went to Europe with Death in 1991. Talk about the European tour itself and some of the media opportunities, like Headbanger’s Ball.
Eric Greif: Before the world tour for Human started, Chuck and I were flown to Europe by Roadrunner Records to do promo in cities such as Paris, Cologne, Berlin and London. The two of us had a great time, and we knew from the reaction to the music that it was going to be big. We return to Europe in December of ’91 for the Rock Hard Festivals, and then back to North America for a coast to coast tour. It was grueling, and alas turned out calamitous in the end.
Paul Masvidal: The tour had great intentions and a beautiful start, and as Eric cited, a rough end. I remember many amazing shows before it all went south. Death was in peak form.
Human is a high point and fan favorite. Human contributed a lot to the widening of musical perspectives in 1991. As it continues to age and find new audiences, what do you think its legacy will be in the years to come?
Eric Greif: I think the legacy of Human is the same now as it was 30 years ago. The insertion of death metal into a world of jazz chops. The album has stood the test of time and will be as fresh in 30 years as it is right now. Scott captured a band busting with eagerness, energy, and excitement. It just all came together that naturally, and that is evident to anyone who listens to it today or tomorrow.
Paul Masvidal: Human represents a significant moment in Death’s artistic trajectory and that’s an unchangeable truth. It’s is one of those records where art imitated life, and an incredibly unique set of circumstances were in alignment. I imagine the passage of (traditional linear) time will continue to do it justice because the songs have real mojo, and the performances are legitimately badass.
Steve Di Giorgio: That puts me back to 1991. How was I to know what would become of it? I wasn’t even thinking the next week but 20 years later? I had no idea. What I think is cool about Death is that you can have someone feel very strongly about Human. The next person will be exclusively Scream. Then, someone else is really only into The Sound of Perseverance, and not much before. What that says to me is that Death never really spit out the same thing. Had Chuck had the same lineup, I’m not sure what would’ve happened. But he knew better. He knew his writing style was redundant. This is why he surrounded himself with musicians who had a great sense of musicality. His ego didn’t get challenged by people who could play circles around him. He knew that he was up front and center. That was his music and his logo. I remember the first show of the Individual Thought Patterns — me and Gene stuck around after the album was done — tour was in Hamburg, Germany. On the very first show, people were screaming, “Dark Angel! Dark Angel! Dark Angel!” There was another set of people in front of me screaming, “Sadus! Sadus! Sadus!” They were chanting loudly. I was like, “Oh boy! Oh no! Chuck’s gonna be pissed.” We go back stage with our heads down and go up to Chuck and say, “Dude… Fuck! It’s not our fault.” Chuck smiled ear-to-ear and said, “No! I love it!” He was a huge fan of Dark Angel and Sadus. He said, “Let them do that every night. They bought a Death ticket. They’re in front of my band.” Dude was fucking smart. He got people in his band that drew a crowd. I think all that started with James Murphy. It wasn’t until James came in and said, “Have a load of these chops!” [Laughs] I think Chuck realized then what he was up against. He realized it turned out a lot better when he had high-caliber musicians around him. Each album is like that after Leprosy. I mean, when Chuck got Bobby Koelble, it was insane! He was the ultimate complement to Death. If Human influences people over the next 20 years it’s not because of the notes on the album. It’s because it shows that you don’t have be the norm. What Human does for people is: if you’re jazzy, heavy, and doing something new within the context of the genre you can still leave a mark. Don’t be afraid to stick your foot out!
I know Chuck is no longer with us and you’re speaking for him, but what do you think he would’ve thought of Human at this stage? He was always looking forward, if I remember correctly.
Eric Greif: Yes, as soon as Chuck completed a project he was already looking forward to the next one. But I believe in retrospect he would concur that Human was a stand-alone experience, where everything just seemed to fit. He would have to admit that this was a great lineup and that the collective created a work of art and beauty.
Paul Masvidal: I’m there with Eric. Stand-alone and everything just seemed to fit, sounds about right in terms of what Chuck would say.
Steve Di Giorgio: It’s almost 20 years since Chuck passed. I can’t really believe it, man. I think his music got elevated after he passed, sad to say. Gene and I talk about that all the time. We did the Death To All tours, and we got to really reflect on the music we were playing as 20 year olds. Trying to replicate that as 50 year olds, it’s fucking hard. We created something new back then. Remember, Chuck was one of the founders of the death metal vocal style. He didn’t invent it, but he was one of the early guys doing it, along with Dave [Vincent], John [Tardy], and Marc [Grewe]. The deal is once he found out he was credited with all that he tried his hardest to get away from it. Listen to his vocals after Human. The change in his vocal style was completely intentional. That’s why he was always bringing in new musicians and looking for individuality all the time. He wanted to do something unique. That whole technical death metal or whatever tag it gets now is something he’d be far away from. He’d shun it, man. I think that’s why his status is legendary. He wasn’t locked into a particular sound or style, but yet he had his own style and sound.
More 30th Anniversary Interviews::
1. Immolation – Dawn of Possession. LINK.
2. Dismember – Like an Ever Flowing Stream. LINK.
3. Autopsy – Mental Funeral. LINK.
4. Suffocation – Effigy of the Forgotten. LINK.