Review Summary: A very solid metal release that serves as a fine penultimate chapter in Death's discography.
There are just those certain albums that you have a love/hate relationship with. Those albums that simultaneously make you marvel at their excellence and make you want to punch a wall in anger - the latter in particular could be caused by numerous things, of course. Whether falling short of expectations after being on the hype train or even just some tiny niggling problems that just won't leave, it's incredibly frustrating when this split in quality happens. I've had this very problem with Death's sixth release Symbolic for many years, although both the pros and cons are extremely clear and definable to me. I find myself putting it on quite often and enjoying a large chunk of it, but just a few irritations deteriorate my interest after just a while. But why is this? How could I be such a cold and heartless bastard not to fully enjoy one of death metal's most acclaimed treasures?
Well first of all, one thing should be clear right off the bat: this is a great album. Almost every Death record is at least great, and this entry in the band's "final four" album streak is no exception. Coming off the success of Individual Thought Patterns (with the band even making it to MTV because of "The Philosopher"), Chuck's line-up experienced a bit of a shift; Steve DiGiorgio was replaced by Kelly Conlon, and Andy LaRocque was replaced by Bobby Koelble. Luckily, good ol' Gene Hoglan stayed as the drummer for this last record; however, don't expect his work here to be very flashy. While still offering a stellar performance behind the kit, his work is a bit toned down; in fact, while we're on the topic, this entire album feels that way compared to the other Death records around this time. Symbolic, while still thoroughly progressive at heart, doesn't retain a good chunk of the high-level technicality offered in Individual Thought Patterns as it opts for a more melodic route. As a result, much of the instrumental "fat" is effectively cut and the overall experience feels more organized.
As with many Death records, I find myself preferring the shorter tracks on Symbolic. While the title track and closer "Perennial Quest" are fine tunes, the shorter and faster bolts of musical energy seem to be the most effective ones, as well as having the most memorable moments. Whether through more accessible arrangements like the galloping rhythm of "Crystal Mountain" and the speed metal riffing (in the beginning and refrain, at least) of "Misanthrope," or the more complex and rhythm-shifting songs such as "Zero Tolerance" or "Without Judgment," variety and composure are well-balanced and work off each other nicely. Chuck wrote all of the songs (big surprise), and his craft shows signs of improvement which would carry over to the band's swansong The Sound of Perseverance a few years later, such as some experiments with softer sounds (like in the intro to "Empty Words") and a more refined approach to the band's progressive side. Unfortunately, however, not everything about this release is off the hook just yet.
There are only two things that hurt this album, and they just so happen to be enough to derail a decent chunk of the experience: the refrains and the production. While refrains are common in Death's music, previous albums at least did more to break up the repetition such as some different drum fills and variations on certain guitar licks. However, any changes made during the refrains here are usually unnoticeable or nonexistent, and serve to effectively ruin the progress the songs have already made. The instrumentation oftentimes sounds completely copied and pasted from the first verse and chorus, except with different lyrics and, thus, vocal variation. And this wouldn't be such a serious problem if it weren't for the production values this album has. There's nothing horribly wrong with the production, but it sounds a bit too refined when compared to previous classics the band released. Everything's favorably crystal-clear, from the instrumental work to Chuck's vocals, but it would have been nice to hear a rawer edge to the guitar work at least once in a while. It just sounds a bit too
perfect at times, making the music sound somewhat less emotional and more like the band members are on proverbial autopilot.
Regardless, Symbolic serves as an interesting benchmark in Death's discography. For any of you who haven't experienced the record, don't be discouraged at all by the flaws that were brought up; they're blemishes, but certainly not album-ruining ones in this case. Symbolic is just another experiment in Chuck Schuldiner's body of work, one that emphasizes a more streamlined and traditional sound compared to Individual Thought Patterns or Human. There's enough here for fans of speed, intensity, progressiveness, and melody; if you like all of those things, they're all rolled up into one package here. This record is quite flawed, but definitely recommended at the same time