The death of Chuck Schuldiner a few years ago robbed the extreme metal world of one of its greatest talents, and one of the originators of the death metal genre. Symbolic, Death's 1995 release, is about as perfect an album as you can get. Released on Roadrunner Records (the band jumped from label to label through most of their career), Symbolic sees the band fully realizing their newfound technical prowess, delivering an opus that is at times much more about technical progressive metal than death metal. Featuring Chuck on guitar & vocals, the MAN on drums, Mr. Gene Hoglan, bassist Kelly Conlon, and guitarist Bobby Koelble, Symbolic is filled with nine classic cuts, bursting with heavy riffs, technical arrangements, plenty of groove, and most important of all, memorable melodies, something you don't always get on your everyday extreme metal album.
The opening riffs of the title track "Symbolic" are a precursor of things to come, and quite frankly this song is one of the most monstrous, groove heavy, technical death metal songs ever crafted. With a slow, snarling behemoth riff permeating through your skull, Schuldiner growls those famous first lines ""I don't mean to dwell, but I can't help myself, when I feel the vibe, and taste a memory, of a time in life, when years seemed to stand still", sending a chill up and down your spine, before Hoglan blasts forth some pummeling drum fills, signaling the band to then plow ahead at hyperspeed. Littered with enough dizzying guitar solos from Schuldiner and Koelble to make your head spin, this one goes through so many tempo changes that you will be left in awe when it's all over. Just when you are trying to catch your breath, here comes "Zero Tolerance", another bruiser, this one a little less technical, and more about catchy, heavy grooves, with tricky guitar fills sandwiched in between the barreling power riffs, with Chuck's growls screaming "there will be zero tolerance, for the creator of hallowed intentions" quite effectively. It's interesting if you've followed the career of Death, how Schuldiner's vocals change a bit from album to album. On the earlier material, the guy practically created the death metal growl, but he developed a more high pitched growling attack as the years went on, and compared to many death metal singers, you could almost always understand every word Chuck sang. "Empty Words" is another of the albums strongest tracks, kicking off with a moody, progressive, almost Middle Eastern-tinged guitar opening. Once the band kicks in, led by more Middle Eastern melodies punctuated by heavy, smoldering riffs, Hoglan's monster drum work, and complex arrangements, this one's a real cooker, highlighted by some irresistible & majestic guitar melodies on the chorus.
Hoglan provides some spectacular rhythms with bassist Conlon on the intricate "Sacred Serenity", another boiling cauldron of death metal that screams of sophistication, which is followed by the rampaging "1,000 Eyes", a throwback to the bands earlier thrashy material. The synergy between Schuldiner and Koelble on "Without Judgement" is a marvel to behold, as they weave all sorts of complex riffs and melodic fills around each other, and the middle section features a masterful solo from Chuck, as he shows how tasty a player he was and what a great tone he had. Another big highlight from the album is "Crystal Mountain", a song with a real epic feel to it. This one has no shortage of massive and catchy riffs, swirling guitar leads, wild, jazz-fusion styled drum work from Hoglan, and certain passages that again have a certain Middle Eastern feel to them. If a death metal song can have any sort of appeal to a progressive metal fan, this one is it. Check out the majestic acoustic guitar fills on this one as well, which are just gorgeous. "Misanthrope" is full speed ahead death metal, with Hoglan's double-bass drum frenzies igniting the mix amidst plenty of stop-start arrangements, a stategy that the band continues on during the closer "Perennial Quest", a real complex piece that changes tempo every time you think the guys are settling into a groove.
There you have it-not Death's heaviest album, and not quite their most technical (that would probably be up for debate between Individual Thought Patterns and The Sound of Perseverance) but it falls somewhere in between, and offers up the best of both worlds. Chuck's vocals are perhaps the finest ever on Symbolic, and the production from Jim Morris is top notch. Mention must be made of both Conlon and Koelble, as while neither have the pedigree of some other superstars who spent time in Death, they put in fabulous performances here alongside Schuldiner and Hoglan which helped make this the classic album that it is.
2. Zero Tolerance
3. Empty Words
4. Sacred Serenity
5. 1,000 Eyes
6. Without Judgement
7. Crystal Mountain
9. Perennial Quest