In 2017, when Rolling Stone counted down the top 100 metal albums of all time, Human, a 1991 LP by Florida outfit Death, landed at number 70. Death are widely credited with helping to launch the death-metal subgenre with their grisly, unrelenting 1987 debut Scream Bloody Gore, but by 1991, bandleader Chuck Schuldiner had more on his mind than raw extremity. Human’s opening seconds made that clear: The album’s first track, “Flattening of Emotions,” starts with a mind-bending drum intro, layering supple tom-tom rolls over pounding double bass, that sounds like a tribal riff on Alex Van Halen’s famed “Hot for Teacher” opening.
Behind the kit was a young drummer named Sean Reinert, appearing on his first studio LP and just 20 when Human came out. But along with guitarist Paul Masvidal — Reinert’s bandmate in the group Cynic, who was drafted into Death at the same time — and bassist Steve Di Giorgio, Reinert helped Schuldiner bring a prog sensibility to death metal. Reinert provided the white-knuckle, double-bass–driven intensity required of any cutting-edge metal drummer in the years following thrash landmarks like Slayer’s Reign in Blood and Metallica’s …And Justice for All. But he placed just as much emphasis on jazzy finesse: Check out his crafty syncopated grooves on “Suicide Machine” and “Secret Face,” or his delicate dub-like pulse at the beginning of “Lack of Comprehension.”
These days, it’s old news that death-metal drumming can be one of the chopsiest, most demanding musical disciplines on earth. But back then, the level of subtlety and sophistication that Reinert — who died Friday at age 48 — brought to Death was an outright gamechanger.
“When I recorded the Death record, I wasn’t listening to metal,” Reinert said in 2014 on the YouTube series Drumtalk, explaining the origins of his left-field approach to the genre. “I was listening to Chick Corea and all these fusion records. … I always had one foot in and one foot out.”
He went on to explain that pure speed, a perennial fascination in the metal drum world, was never his aim. “Just for me, ‘How fast can you play?’ I was already burnt out on that fact,” he said of the Human era. “It shouldn’t be about how fast you can play. By the time I was recording records, it was more about playing what’s right for the music, what’s right for our music, whatever that was.”
Reinert, along with Masvidal, guitarist Jason Gobel, and bassist Sean Malone, continued his search for a personal, trend-averse style on Focus, Cynic’s 1993 debut. The album contains trace elements of death metal but with its lush harmonies, robotic vocal effects, and overt jazz elements, it’s a statement that stands apart from any narrow idea of genre. The band’s outstanding 2008 reunion effort Traced in Air — recorded after Reinert and Masvidal had spent years working as session musicians on TV soundtracks, and exploring more ethereal, sometimes Beatlesque sounds in projects like Aeon Spoke — reminded the world of the uncanny potency of their seamless metal-jazz-prog-pop hybrid.
Reinert and Masvidal blazed trails in other ways too, as when both publicly came out as gay in 2014. In a Los Angeles Times article, both musicians discussed the difficulties of navigating the often close-minded metal scene while remaining true to themselves.
“Gay people are everywhere, doing every job, playing every kind of music and we always have been,” Reinert told writer Austin Brown. “It’s taken me years to finally be brave enough to say, ‘If you have a problem with that, then throw out our records. That’s your problem, not mine.’”
Cynic fractured in 2015, after making another EP and full-length, and Reinert formally left two years later. Around the same time, he paid tribute to his death-metal roots on a ferocious track by Gruesome, a band that’s modeled its own evolution on the various eras of Death. (Earlier in the 2010s, Reinert had also reprised his Death role in Death to All, a touring tribute to the legacy of Chuck Schuldiner, who died in 2001.) In 2018, he joined Perfect Beings, an L.A. prog outfit whose adventurous, style-blurring sound seemed like the perfect fit for a drummer of his diverse talents.
As his husband wrote on Facebook, Reinert’s death was sudden and unexpected. Various metal drumming heavyweights paid tribute to him on social media, driving home just how much of an inspiration he’d been. “I’ll never forget seeing Cynic in 1994 in Des Moines,” wrote Richard Christy, who played in a later incarnation of Death. “[Ex-Slipknot drummer] Joey Jordison and I were standing behind Sean Reinert’s drum kit for their whole set, with our jaws on the floor.” Former Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy shared a similar sentiment: “I watched him play every single night when Cynic supported DT in 2009 and was always in complete awe.”
Masvidal honored his longtime friend and collaborator on Facebook, writing, “There will never be another one like him. Peace to his family and all of his fans around the world. Listen to Sean play his drums and hear his heart sing.” Cynic’s Sean Malone concluded his own heartfelt remembrance by writing, “The truth is that we’re all lucky — lucky to have been alive while Sean Reinert was making music.”
For Reinert, a player who was never to content to exist within a stylistic box, his legacy as a godfather of technical death metal sometimes seemed like an albatross. But while playing the Human music on tour with Death to All, during a time when he was battling injuries, he learned to appreciate the impact he’d made.
“For a long time, after Cynic broke up and I went back to school and wanted to do other styles of music, I kind of was like, ‘I’m not a metal drummer.’ I was trying to get rid of that, and I could never, because anywhere I would go, it would be like, ‘Death, Human! Death, Human!‘” he explained in the Drumtalk interview.
“This record followed me everywhere,” he continued. “And I was just like, ‘Fuck, no, I want to break away from this!’ But I’m so honored to have people still respond to that record. And these [Death to All] shows have been sold out, so I’m humbled by it, that people are still pleased to hear that music. … And I’m not trying to get rid of that shadow anymore; I’m embracing it. I’m lucky that people come up and know something I’ve done or get inspired. When anybody says, ‘That record made me rethink …,’ that’s just the most amazing thing. That’s the best compliment you can get.”