Twenty-Five years ago the greatest death metal album was given to the world. Symbolic by Death is a journey. A formation of songs that encrypt the listener into an inviting climb of what thrash metal had buried within itself to become. Although Symbolic came towards the end of the Death Metal genres peak in the nineties, the album was the smoothest transition from thrash to death metal among its competition at the time. This is by far Death’s best work, from “Empty Words” to the closing progressive masterpiece that is “Perennial Quest”.
Recorded by Jim Morris in Tampa Florida, Death’s sixth album was released on March 21st, 1995. Symbolic is the pivotal moment in Death’s discography between their traditional metal approach on their early records and their progression power metal sound on their final record, “The Sound Of Perseverance”. This was originally intended to be Death’s final release as a band and after the touring cycle, the band had planned to split. As we know, this didn’t happen and the world got one more record after this before vocalist and guitar player Chuck Schuldiner tragically passed away from brain cancer in 2001.
The Death metal scene had been booming in America prior to this records release. Cannibal Corpse and Obituary had been taking the scene by storm and really progressing heavy music, taking such an extreme sound to a wider audience than ever before. Cannibal Corpse had released back to back breakthrough records with “Tomb of the Manipulated” in 1992 and “The Bleeding” in 1994. Meanwhile, Obituary had released the classic and groundbreaking “Cause of Death” in 1990 at the start of a decade that would see Death Metal rise and fall in very short number of years. However, while all of this was unfolding, Death had been tucked away captivating their own fanbase over America and Europe. Remaining an almost underground force. However, after releasing and touring their 1993 release “Individual Thought Patterns”, the band hid away in the humid Florida practice rooms to craft their milestone and legendary record.
It is important to remember the reputation of Death Metal itself in 1995. Symbolic is now considered a classic and if Death Metal was a mountain, this album is the summit. The album is a true stepping stone from thrash to death metal. Metallica had become a household name for heavy music, and transitioning into listening to the band was very approachable for fans of Guns N Roses, ACDC, and Motley Crue. Fans of Rock music were looking for more energy and aggression in their listening and thrash was the next logical step. Whereas jumping from “Appetite For Destruction” to “Butchered At Birth” was something that was not happening and not a digestible migration of listening material. Death Metal was an acquired taste for a minority audience.
However fans of thrash had been taking an interest and extreme music was growing in popularity by the month in the early nineties, especially in America. The point that this record is the ideal stepping stone from trash to death metal is so important because it is tarnished by the fact that Symbolic was released in 1995. Had this been released in 1992, Death Metal could more than likely grown much further than it did. However, the argument of the whole overly done dark tone on “Tomb Of The Manipulated” by Cannibal Corpse does come in to play. This record could have exposed death metal leaps and bounds, but the consistent growled vocals and such low toned guitars create no juxtaposition or contrast in the songs. For a record that so many fans of thrash had shown interest in out of curiosity, the second their needle hit the vinyl, they were immediately turned off and their view on death metal was then made permanent and their interest in thrash and hard rock remained. If these people had heard “Symbolic” in 1992 death metal could have been taking to much more extended heights that it did. This would have opened the door for people to discover more Florida based bands and unlike Cannibal Corpse and the UK Death Metal sound, their production was clean and the guitar had the more technical ability, similar to Thrash. Death Metal was still growing at a rapid pace though.
Bands such as Slayer, Sepultura and Forced Entry had exposed the heavier side of thrash, but fans wanted something that had an extreme factor. Hence, people discovering Death Metal. Death metal was growing worldwide and was made up of many regional scenes. The main locations being in London, New York, Stockholm and Florida. For people clicking with the new extreme sound, Death Metal was exciting. Each regional scene was working with a Black Flag inspired D.I.Y ethic and everyone’s inspiration for starting bands and going to shows was their like-minded friends. Shows were happening with strong turnouts and the genre was growing into something bigger than anyone involved with these regional scenes could have imagined in the early nineties.
By 1994 death metal had reached the commercial peak of its potential growth. From Cannibal Corpse legendary appearing in the Jim Carey film – Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. As-well as Beavis and Butt-Head mocking Morbid Angles music video for the song “God Of Emptiness”. These two acts of mainstream exposure showcased millions of to the existence of the genre. Also, in 1994, Morbid Angel, who had been making progressive moves into a more extreme sound in the late eighties, released the best selling Death Metal record to date with their album “Covenant” selling 150,000 copies.
However the years after did see the genre still being very active and exciting. At The Gates released “Slaughter Of The Soul” in 1995, Cannibal Corpse and Morbid Angel continued to release solid work in 1996 and many smaller bands were still forming and releasing exciting aggressive music. However, the genre was losing energy, interest, and was fatigued of new ideas. Black Metal had started to be born by the mid-nineties and it was the opposite to Death Metal. It was music that was not predictable, not overproduced and not lifeless when compared to the new emerging Death Metal bands. Black Metal had taken over, but a deeper discussion regarding why and how this occurred is for another day.
Now, less about why “Symbolic” was too late and more on why it was superior. Yes “Symbolic” was too late in death metals life span to gain the attention and reputation it does now, but the sound you hear today is sound you heard in 1995. The opening title track immediately set the tone for the next fifty minutes. Comprised and built upon seven different riffs, the title track uses the same guitar build and progression in two variations to result in a six-minute and thirty-four-second opener. Greeting the listener with the treasure chest of talent. The extreme atmosphere created in the opening track is nothing short of chaotic. The syncopated and energetic rhythm section contrasts with Schuldiners constant consistent changes of pace and harmonics. The melodic and groove-based patterns used are incredible. Schuldiner’s signature vocal sound is also heard immediately and the tone and technique used is present till the last lyric spoken. The harsh shout used for the vocal performance is just an octave below a high vocal scream. This unique sound, performed so effortlessly, gives the band and record such a unique presence vocally. All these factors blended together captive your attention and don’t fail to let go for a single second. The opening track also highlights the emphasis on melody. While progressing through the bands discography, when reaching the chapter of Symbolic, it is clear, like the album previous to this, “Individual Thought Patterns” the band have really taken on the melodic and technical direction in their music. Again, similar to the thrash sound of the nineties, but molded it with the extreme elements of death metal.
Moving on to two back to back tracks that showcase how to truly further build sounds and make bold statements with grooves. “Zero Tolerance” opens with a very progressive introduction blending together smooth melodic guitar lines with a profuse guitar lick that is complemented so well by a polyrhythm drum pattern. “Zero Tolerance” again combines multiple ideas and glues them together so perfectly. The sections feel so in place despite the abrupt pace changes, altering guitar tempos and solos and drumming that if notated, would take a lifetime.
Symbolic then transitions into the “Empty words”, an aggressive track about feeling nostalgia from a negative moment and wanting to re-live it to re-gain what they loved about the negative moment, I know very deep. The song begins with a creeping daunting atmosphere, adding tension and suspense to what was a fiery and lively opening to the album. The reverb-soaked tribal drums dropped in the mix haunt the space behind the guitar adding an appropriate break in the music and some extended variety in the textures applied to the record. This acoustic guitar usage was a first for the band and extremely out of character but adds an ambient introduction to a song that is fantastic. All this comes to an end though, and the wall of sounds explodes back in. Chucks vocals making there, once again, immediate presence. The vocals are abrasive and cutting, on every song. They are full of melody and his delivery means, unlike nearly every death metal record, you can actually understand what he is saying near enough on the first listen. This complements the fact he was also an excellent and advanced lyricist and gone were the gore inspired lyrics from the bands’ work.”In a precious world of memories We find ourselves confined” and “Do you ever feel it? A craving that is so strong, to by thought rewind in order to find” are some fine poetic examples of Chuck’s lyrics habituated in the albums third track.
While the vocals are the talking point, it is important and interesting to note that Schuldiner considered recording clean vocals for the album. The vocalist was listening to power metal during the recording of Symbolic and very nearly channeled his newfound influences on the Symbolic record. Upon reflecting the album Chuck stated in an interview in 1997 “Actually some of the melodies, guitar-wise [on Symbolic], are vocal melodies I would have had if there was a melodic singer in the band”. Producer Jim Morison was also trying to push Chuck with his new creative intention: “I heard him singing and I was like, ‘Oh my god, you can sing—you’re great! You could sing any metal stuff.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but I don’t like to sing while I’m playing guitar, so I have to have a singer. I still wish I could’ve recorded Chuck actually doing the vocals to it. We had another version of the record, but that was never actually done”. The potential clean vocal approach would have changed the sound of this record entirely. Projecting Symbolic into the thrash limelight even further and at the same time altered Death’s discography.
The albums shortest track then begins and is the perfect route, between “Empty Words” and the following track “1000 Eyes”. “Sacred Serenity” opens with an unforgettable bass riff that is then harmonized with the guitar, in a significantly higher key. The bass almost attacks the listening experience of this track and shows the true strength in Deaths rhythm section. “100 Eyes” is such a memorable track on the record. Laced with melody throughout the lyrical content is again at full strength with the subject of the loss of privacy being discussed throughout the verses and chorus. By the time the midway point of this album is reached, we have treated to such talent and raw expression, it is hard to believe there is more to come. But side two of Symbolic provides much more of what was so captivating and intriguing of side one.
The progressive powerfully led guitar line “Without Judgement” makes an entry like no other. Taking all the 90’s influenced thrash grooves but adding continues hooks that keep each section of this song interesting. The need to create such a complex record stems from the four members having such amazing musical ability. The albums mix does a great job of giving everyone their sonic space and everyone has an equal standing in mixing volume, although the second guitar and bass do fall out slightly at times. The mix sounds clean but not sterile. However as seen on this song and the majority of the record, it is Gene Hoglan’s drumming that holds down the record and allows Chuck’s ideas to be pinned down and added some discipline to the never ending creativeness that was being pitched while writing this record. Hogans drumming is a miracle performance. The tempo changes and progressive patterns complement everything so well. The complex songwriting gives him so much room to express himself and he is almost overwhelmed with ideas, the performance from him on this record will leave the listener dazed.
Crystal Mountain is next to be endured and Death make sure the tempo picks right back up and more of the same amazing musicianship is heard. This is one the best songs, if not the, best track the band ever wrote. The opening riff bursts out of the gates immediately with a pounding riff and matching drumbeat; but this only lasts for a few measures before the band switches to a softer passage, with a haunting clean guitar manufacturing a dreamy atmosphere. Completely different, and yet equally enjoyable to listen to. Death continues to dance back and forth uniting these styles effortlessly. The heavy parts are brutal, wild and dynamic while the softer parts, on top of creating atmosphere, provide a desolate dissimilarity that accentuates the heaviness to come. The solo at the end is played on an acoustic guitar, an amazing and bold statement to make for the band, adding such a perfect contrast in every sound on this track and a tailor-made finish for a masterpiece of heavy songwriting.
At just one second shorter than “1000 eyes” the penultimate song “Misanthrope” sets in motion. Gene Hogan once again takes the throne for his drumming performance and even more respect is earned for the drummer when acknowledging how Holgan painstakingly tracked the demos for the record. Due to the band owning just a two-track recorder to make their demos, when they really an eight-track, Hoglan re-crated and programmed the drum parts, note for note, into a drum machine. This album was Deaths commitment and sole purpose to life itself when crating this record. Hogan recalls the long days demoing the record “I just took my drum machine, and everything we’d played that day, I’d spend hours at night replicating it on the drum machine.” Hogan has gained the name “The Atomic Clock” for his work. Especially on Symbolic where he guides the countless guitar tempo changes and mammoth grooves. So just for a minute, take the time to envision the process of inputting all of that into a drum machine in 1995.
The final chapter and conclusion commence. A progressive and vaguely out of place when compared to the eight songs prior, “Perennial Quest” starts to establish itself to the listener and it is a beautiful and captivating piece of work. As stated earlier in the article Symbolic was planned to be the bands final release, meaning this was planned to be the last Death song. So to terminate the band’s output with such a mesmerizing piece of art would only have been right. With a mythical solo entering so early in the track and a tempo change that not even the band themselves could even predict, every minute and section of this song is phenomenal. This song is an outstanding musical achievement, not just in the domain of heavy music, but in music overall. The elegant acoustic end crowns the album ideally and leaves the listener with an impression and state of mind that every band should want their music to make.
However, it is hard to believe that symbolic did not have the reputation it does today when it was released twenty-five years ago. In-fact the bands record label barely even promoted the record. The album was essentially a word of mouth success outside the band’s fan base and this record has gained its well-deserved reputation gradually over the last twenty-five years. NU Metal had just started to become an item of interest for people and Roadrunner records were putting every inch of energy they had into promoting Korn in 1995. Chuck recalls how he felt the record was buried and forgotten so quick “Roadrunner had a totally disillusioned idea of what metal is and that’s why Symbolic wasn’t pushed,” he said in 1998. “Symbolic, in my opinion, was shit on, and that hurt me,” he added in another interview, continuing, “Roadrunner preferred to center its energies to promoting Type O Negative and Korn clones. Roadrunner’s idea of metal is Coal Chamber and Korn. They think metal is Korn. That is their idea of metal, that is why Symbolic got pushed aside and forgotten. Subsequently, the label didn’t even make a single music video for any of the songs on the record. Once again highlighting the fact it was too late, the times had changed just as Death became music masterminds. The band toured the album and sure, they played some larger capacity rooms than on their past tours, but the record did got the wide recognition it deserved until many years later.
This album is accessible and far from commercial. It adds such a wide variety of aggressive textures but does it tastefully. Symbolic, amongst all its technical madness is an album that is laced with heartfelt lyrics that bring to light such strong emotion. This album should and could have been an enormous success. But those who have spent time with this album, know just how perfect of an album it is. It expands on Thrash while at the same time borders on being a progressive record to form a Death Metal record that put them as key figures in musical history. This band argueable also put out the first Death Metal record, with their debut record “Scream Bloody Gore”. A stronger argument that “Seven Churches” by Possessed is actually the first Death Metal album is easy to make, but Symbolic is the genre’s finest hour. This record is engaging, emotional, glorious, and flawless from the first second to the last.
Article by Rob Kent