Review Summary: On "Symbolic" Death arguably hit their creative peak, with frequently changing tempos and great guitar work and some of the most interesting lyrics in death metal.
Almost anyone who has ever heard the band will admit that few bands can boast a career as rich with ripe material as Death. From their inception the band consistently pumped out albums that were solid to fantastic; until their career was cut short with the tragic demise of Chuck Schuldiner. The band were formed in 1983 under the name of Mantas and released seven albums after changing their name to Death, with each one developing and expanding their sound until their final release incorporated so many different elements that it was a wonder it did not collapse in on itself. The band rose to fame by taking thrash metal to new extremes and creating the death metal genre almost single-handedly with "Scream Bloody Gore", before they would later shift toward a more progressively-oriented sound on their final four albums. Alongside "Human", "Symbolic" is frequently ranked the best Death album by many people.
The band's penultimate release was the album where the band's progressive nature really came to the forefront of their sound instead of the raw aggression that had fueled the previous two releases. Whereas "Individual Thought Patterns" and "Human" crammed many riffs into a short space of time; "Symbolic" was all about the constantly evolving song structures that carried it forward. The guitar work that drives Death's sound was arguably at its peak on "Symbolic" with many riffs that maintain a high standard throughout from the opening riff to the title track to the closing moments of the eight minute epic "Perennial Quest". The tempo is considerably slower than that of previous albums by the band for the most part aside from a few tremolo picked guitar lines here and there, as the album is primarily about all the twists and turns in the music instead of the speed it moves along at. This album is also quite a bit longer than the bands past material but it makes great use of this time with one of the best flowing exhibitions of extreme metal ever heard.
On the rhythm side of things, it would be fare to say that the drumming on this album, courtesy of Gene Hoglan of former Dark Angel fame, is varied and technically proficient whilst the bass work thunders forward and takes no prisoners. The vocals are rather unique on here and Chuck really does provide the perfect voice for the thought-provoking lyrics he writes. He screams in a high pitched manner instead of the low growl that dominated the past five releases from the band, and right from the opening lines of the album "I don't mean to dwell, but I can't help myself" you know you are in for something special. This is an album that takes its listener on an adventure through the twisted song structures that are constantly providing something fresh, be it an unsuspected acceleration in pace or an acoustic solo as found in "Crystal Mountain". "Zero Tolerance" is one note-worthy song on "Symbolic", opening with a slight breather for the listener after the incredible opener with the title track, but then suddenly you are thrown head first into a mountain of monstrous riffs and chaotic guitar soloing.
"This is not a test of power.
This is not a game,
To be lost or won,
Let justice be done.
There will be Zero Tolerance"
Lyrics such as the ones above display a level of depth that only Chuck Schuldiner can provide with his philosophical approach to writing. All throughout this album one will find deep and interesting lyrics that always have a meaning that relate to some element of society. "Crystal Mountain" arguably has the best lyrics on the album, referring to a mountain of greed and deception whilst using that as a means to get Chuck's real point across in that people are full of the aforementioned traits.
The songs on "Symbolic" are utterly majestic. The title track constantly changes tempo with some great drumming and one of the best palm muted riffs I have ever heard during the chorus. "Perennial Quest" is a work of wonder that takes you on such a journey of fluctuating tempos and contrasting styles throughout its entire eight and a half minute duration that it is a miracle the band pulled it off with the finesse they managed. "Misanthrope" and "Without Judgment" never cease to amaze with some great riffing and "Empty Words" is arguably the crowning achievement of the album with its absolutely ludicrous guitar performance. Each song on "Symbolic" is nothing short of a masterpiece and they are all complimented by the perfect production job. The guitars are heavy, the drums do not feel flat, the bass work is audible and Chuck's vocals are well mixed. There are absolutely no flaws to be found throughout the entire nine track and sub-fifty minute duration.
"Symbolic" is an air tight display of intense music that consistently evolves and adapts as the guitars create a chaotic and yet beautiful backdrop for Chuck to shriek his intelligent tales over the top of. If you have not heard "Symbolic", I honestly recommend that you do so immediately as this really is an album that is for absolutely anybody.