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Twenty-Five Years Later: Death – Symbolic

Symbolic acts, so vivid, yet at the same time, we’re invisible

Before I get into this, I’m going to offer up a little personal background. So if that means nothing to you, go ahead and skip this paragraph. Symbolic goes back quite a ways for yours truly. Almost a decade ago, when I was a freshman in high school, death metal, in general, was introduced to me. For the most part, I hated it. I would obviously later dip my toes in the pool of filth, and while I had certain respects for different bands over the years, it wasn’t until last year that I started considering myself a huge fan of the genre. Rewind back to age fifteen, the same guy that showed me all of these other death metal bands that I hated (back then) introduced me to Death, and Symbolic, in particular, was the one album that I actually liked. Even the other Death albums didn’t sit with me for about a year. So the penultimate full-length by Chuck Schuldiner and co. really means a lot to me. “Crystal Mountain” specifically was what drew me in. It’s rare that the first album I ever enjoy of a style remains my favorite for so long, but in this case, I can confidently say that Symbolic is my favorite death metal album of all time. It’s very nontraditional of the genre, and there’s no better time to discuss this, now, on its twenty-fifth birthday.

Death is unique in the fact that their evolution leading to this is more apparent than most bands in general. In the formative days, they meshed heavily with the likes of Obituary, Cannibal Corpse, and other bands that brought the filth factor to the forefront. As they went on, you’ll pick up more signals reflective of Atheist, Gorguts, and others that were more technically focused. Symbolic brought the latter to its peak, and while some may argue that The Sounds Of Perseverance took that a step further, it’s without a doubt that this one held better songwriting. Bringing back Gene Hoglan from the previous album and hiring some fresh blood was a smart move. Bobby Koelble on guitars and Kelly Conlan on bass made for a finished lineup, allowing the band to build heavily on a career that was already so spectacular.

That being said, the accessibility of this album helps it stand apart from the entire genre as a whole. As abrasive and cutting as the vocals get, you can still pick up plenty of melody in Chuck’s delivery. You can understand everything he says, which makes the advanced lyricism stand out even more. More importantly, the instrumentation is hookier than what it has any right being. From the very first riff in the title track, the patterns stick to your brain and show no signs of leaving. The progressions are what nail it. Amping up the speed and laying down pummeling drum blasts couldn’t flow more smoothly if they tried. The layering is beyond stellar as well.

Another feature that helps is the way a lot of the songs unwind near their finish. “1,000 Eyes” immaculately places the bursts of drumming with wavy leads that flow like an intergalactic ocean. “Perennial Quest” utilizes acoustic guitars to the same effect, using a longer but stronger way of going out. Speaking of acoustics, part of what made “Crystal Mountain” so special was the inclusion of an acoustic lead at the end. It sits perfectly beside the rampage of riffing that carries most of that song. Hoglan’s fills during the slower guitar licks are out of this world, and this song alone does more than a lot of entire death metal albums do.

Attitude should be an obvious factor, but some songs display it while sporting a deeply fearsome badge. “Without Judgement” comes to mind. Some of the best lyrics on the record rise out of here, and the presentation of them casts such menacing undertones. It’s indirect, but it works well. On the contrary, “Zero Tolerance” is extremely straightforward with it, spitting a punchy yet catchy chorus to supplement the notes that jump all around. “Empty Words” utilizes the bass to a similar approach, and is probably used alongside the drums to the heaviest effect.

What remains are songs that bridge ideas together. “Sacred Serenity” is the shortest number here, and it works as the perfect pathway between the aggressiveness of “Empty Words” and the cooler melancholy that bestows some of “1,000 Eyes.” “Misanthrope” acts as that for the B-side, cooling the juices and dialing back some of the layering just a hair. So from cover to cover, there is a flow that has no awkward shifts. Even the sudden jumps within songs are performed beautifully and fit the overall idea.

I like to say that Symbolic is the Rust In Peace of the death metal genre. It breaks immense norms, and stacks itself so far above its peers, including the band’s own efforts. This would continue a style that was ultimately started earlier but brought to a peak by Chuck Schuldiner. And even into today, you still have bands all over the world drawing influence from this. There’s no need to spend a whole paragraph on its influence because it’s just that obvious. 

RIP Chuck Schuldiner 

Symbolic came out on March 21st, 1995, on Roadrunner Records. There are loads of CDs and cassettes in circulation, older editions, and newer. Plenty of reissues that include demos are also out there, as well as a couple of vinyl versions and one older pressing that goes for a lot of money. Find any and all of those here! 

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