Groundbreakers: Symbolic turns 20
“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”
Reading these lines again takes me back to the first time I ever listened to Death, as a teenager and recently self-proclaimed metalhead who craved the next impossibly extreme aural concoction that would top yesterday’s overwhelming discovery. And an overwhelming discovery it was, albeit for different reasons. Paired with what has to be one of the most memorably simple opening guitar riffs of all time, “Symbolic” revealed itself to bear traits that were unmistakeably extreme, alongside others that I would have never expected to hear on a death metal album, but that had me instantly hooked and entranced for the ensuing fifty minutes.
Much like my comrade Leif, I was barely aware of my own existence twenty years ago, so if any of this is wrong, blame The Internet/Obama/etc. Released on March 21st, 1995, Symbolic came into existence at a time when the original death metal movement was starting to stagnate, with second and third-generation bands rehashing the same ideas and not really striving to innovate. It was left to the original “first wave” of death metal bands to create something that incorporated fresh ideas or die trying: some of these bands broke up, due mainly to a sudden lack of label support, while others went in groovier directions in an attempt to stay relevant in the barren wasteland of a musical period that future historians would simply refer to as “the 90s”.
Death, however, had started to incorporate more complex song structures and melodies into their sound as early as on their fourth effort, 1991’s Human. These tendencies continued on 1993’s Individual Thought Patterns, but didn’t reach their full potential until the release of Symbolic, which was to be the band’s final album before frontman and mastermind Chuck Schuldiner put the band to rest to work on his new progressive/power project Control Denied. No, I’m not forgetting 1998’s The Sound of Perseverance, an album born out of contractual obligations that made Schuldiner have to record one more album under the Death name before being able to make music as Control Denied. But I digress, that’s a story for another time.
Completing Symbolic‘s lineup were bassist Kelly Conlon, guitarist Bobby Koelble and drummer Gene Hoglan, each more technically proficient at his instrument than the last. Their collective versatility as musicians is evidenced throughout the varied content to be found here: the counter-beat ride cymbal grooves of “Sacred Serenity” and “Crystal Mountain”, the soft ethereal feeling of the guitars that begin “Empty Words” and end “Perennial Quest”, the unrelenting heaviness of “Misanthrope” and the title track, and enough instantly memorable riffs and fills to warrant infinite repeat listens. And let’s not forget the words: a far cry from the gore-themed rhymes that once defined Death, the lyrics cover topics that range from the existential and melancholical to the downright philosophical, and could stand on their own merits if they weren’t the icing on such a richly amazing cake. In short, Symbolic is one of the most important progressive death metal albums ever released, as well as one of the quintessential recordings in all of metaldom, period.
Don’t just take my word for it though, I asked other writers to chime in with their Empty Words:
HessianHunter: Every time I listen to the mid-tempo grooves and galloping guitarmony twiddles of “Crystal Mountain”, I can’t help but think of mid-era Mastodon. Apparently not only did Death help to invent death metal AND progressive death metal, but also laid a foundation for endless subgenres of forward thinking, heavy music. All hail Death forever and ever. Amen.
Dr. Dubya: It’s difficult to look at Symbolic and not see the blueprint for nearly every progressive death metal album released thereafter. What’s even more impressive, though, is how well The Atomic Clock’s distinctive drum patterns and Chuck’s riffs hold up against the every-expanding complexity of metal. They still sound as fresh today as they did twenty years ago. Just pick any track from something new, say Autotheism for example, and hold it up against “Misanthrope”. Death wins.
Dagon: I was only four years old when Symbolic was released. In actuality, I discovered Death’s entire discography in one day, more than a decade after their last album dropped. If it was so mesmerizing to hear the band’s evolution from Scream Bloody Gore to Symbolic in a single night, I can only imagine how groundbreaking this record felt at the moment of its release. From the band’s inception, Chuck displayed good song and riff writing skill. On Symbolic, however, he was finally able to instill all of his passion into a recording. The guitars in this LP scream and wail in a way that still gives me goosebumps with each listen. To this day, few death metal, or better yet, few albums regardless of genre display this perfect balance between proficiency and emotion, craft and feeling. This is the crowning achievement of a very accomplished career, one which was unfortunately ended too soon.
From the bands that have been more obviously influenced by it (like Obscura or Necrophagist), to some you’d be surprised by (like Fuck the Facts or Epica), to the twelve-year-old butchering “Crystal Mountain” on guitar in front of his webcam, the influence Symbolic and Death’s catalog as a whole has had on music is undeniable. Gone for fourteen years but not soon to be forgotten, Chuck Schuldiner has reached out and touched the hearts and minds of millions, and will keep doing so as long as his legacy continues to resonate with listeners. A legacy that he left us in life, that will live forever in Death.
R.I.P. Chuck Schuldiner. Let the metal flow into eternity.
Groundbreakers is the Toilet ov Hell’s Hall ov Fame where we induct some of the most important and influential metal albums of all time. Catch up on previous entries into this hallowed bowl.