For many reasons, it's hard to talk
objectively about the work of Chuck Schuldiner and DEATH. For
one, the man was taken from us far too early, leaving many musical
pathways still untraveled. There's also the fact that his legacy,
the arc of his creativity from "Scream Bloody Gore"
to "The Sound of Perseverance" and into the CONTROL
DENIED era, is an essential part of the evolution of heavy metal,
impossible to remove fully and examine out of context. Each of
DEATH's seven studio albums can be seen as both a fully-realized
milestone in metal history, and a transition point leading into
a future few could envision at the time.
"Symbolic" was already a breath of fresh air soundwise,
after the muddy production of "Individual Thought Patterns"
— this remaster sounds great and keeps the clarity of the
original mix without letting any one instrument crush out the
subtleties of the others. Schuldiner's pained, raging, higher-pitched
death vocals were in full evolution by this time, a point which
turned off some old-school fans (though most went running at the
more progressive sound of the music long before the singing kicked
in). Living legend Gene Hoglan was on his second tour of duty
with Chuck by then, and was a more integral part of a longer,
more relaxed writing process, which shows in his complex, nuanced
and hard-hitting performance here — his drumming setting
the tone on "Symbolic" just as Sean Reinert's work guided
the complex "Human" and Bill Andrews' straightforward
attack propelled the simpler, streamlined "Spiritual Healing".
Many fans at the time simply couldn't get their heads around this
new, progressive way of doing death metal — it could be
argued that the resurgence of "gore-grind" and the revival
of bands walking in the footprints of early DEATH, AUTOPSY and
the like, was a reaction to Chuck's more technical and melodic
experiments. Looking back on it in hindsight, while the songs
on "Symbolic" hold up as if no time has passed, it's
almost laughable to think of the hue and cry DEATH's perpetual
shifts in direction caused. After all, there are plenty of traditionalists
out there perfectly willing to regurgitate their guts (to coin
a phrase) and party like it's 1985 – why not give one man
and his cast of thousands (okay, a couple dozen) the chance to
expand the realms of what metal (death or otherwise) could be?
Thankfully, many people did follow Chuck into the breach —
"Symbolic" marking a second high-water mark in the band's
career, after the success of "Spiritual Healing" a few
years before, and spawning a new generation of metallers open
to the concept that brutality and melody could work together.
The reason that sounds so obvious now is because Chuck took the
heat for it, and blazed a trail for others to follow – there
aren't too many other individual musicians in metal's history
who did more to kick down those genre walls and make it okay to
And for all the highfalutin talk of prog-rock wankery, "Symbolic"
remains a highly catchy, downright air-guitar-able album. If you've
never heard it (shame on you!), just check the opening riff to
"Symbolic", the flowing ending of "Crystal Mountain",
or the crushing doom of the chorus of "Zero Tolerance"
for ample evidence of just how accessible DEATH could be. The
great thing about this lineup was the ability to infuse even the
most straightforward, blazing metal parts with little virtuoso
flourishes to make them special – witnessing a room full
of air-drummers mimicking Hoglan's twittering ride cymbals in
the thrashy part of "Symbolic" was a sight to behold
As welcome as a remaster is, it seems the vaults are scraped bare
as far as bonus tracks goes — we get five demo versions
of "Symbolic" songs, four without vocals and all with
drum machines (although the difference between a drum track programmed
by Hoglan and one done by Chuck it itself pretty enlightening).
As interesting as the rough demos are (and hell, they're not all
that rough, a lot of labels were releasing shittier-sounding stuff
than these and calling it the final product in 1995), they're
not essential to the overall experience. "Symbolic"
doesn't really need anything tacked on anyway — it's a crystal-clear
moment in the stormy career of a temperamental genius, a clearly-defined
line in the sand for metalheads to come, and it's pretty much
perfect the way it is.
If heavy metal were a college course, "Symbolic" would
be on the reading list on day fucking one. Buy accordingly.