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Symbolic (Reissue)

Roadrunner (2008)
Rating: 9/10

Originally released in 1995, Death’s sixth studio album once again saw frontman Chuck Schuldiner flirt with a different line-up, although drumlord Gene Hoglan remained on the skins from 1993’s Individual Thought Patterns, and Steve DiGiorgio played fretless bass on a clutch of tracks; although for the most part this duty was given to Kelly Conlon.

Some fans argued that this was the greatest Death record, but as a band they were always shifting gears, breaking new boundaries and setting up new stalls within the genre. This time round Chuck’s formidable and recognisable growl had altered, replaced by a seething, spitting sneer, but those solos were still abundant amidst the technical precision.

Symbolic is a nine-track masterpiece, with this 2008 reissue having five bonus tracks. Four of these are instrumental variations of tracks already on the opus, while the fifth is a demo recording of the title cut.

As usual, there’s the distinctive Death backbone which runs through all of their records, showing itself in those Schuldiner chords and solos, but Hoglan’s drums will give any band – of whatever weight – a boost, and he runs riot on this opus, even giving his Dark Angel days a run for their money. Coupled with Conlon’s bass and Bobby Koelble’s solid musicianship, Symbolic is a dense sounding affair that combines breath-taking subtle passages with some truly sonic assaults showcased in the violent thrashing of the opening title tack.

Lyrically, Chuck Schuldiner had matured beyond the guts ’n’ gory glory of earlier releases, with the band becoming a spiritual force, and finding a wonderful middle ground between the almost simplistic lyrical stance and the complex structures of the songs.

‘Zero Tolerance’ sums up the intricate nature of Death circa 1995, with spiraling solos and jarring drums. No listener can help but be drawn into this web of intrigue. The band, as a unit, effortlessly drift through an array of acoustic passages, sweeping dreamscapes, and dark, brooding mid-tempo death metal that is able to melt with a progressive style of metal not heard before or since.

Not one track slips below the four-minute mark, and exist as a wave after wave of technical brutality that somehow breezes out of the speakers without battering the listener senseless. For Chuck Schuldiner there was no need for uncalled aggression, and in ‘Empty Words’ Death reach sublime heights. This is a six-minute plus masterpiece which provides the backbone of the record; a well-crafted netherworld of staggering solos, intricate riffs and hypnotic melodies.

The same could also be said for the mid-section of this opus, in the form of the bewildering ‘Sacred Serenity’ with its majestic bass bubble and almost grooved drum plod. While ‘Crystal Mountain’ is probably the albums most soulful creation, featuring a wistful guitar orgy and Schuldiner’s distinctive snarl.

Death constantly excelled themselves, creating a genre and yet effortlessly moving away from it and bridging seemingly impossible gaps between other music styles. The eight-minute album closer ‘Perennial Quest’ is a fine example of crushing heavy metal in its purest form. In fact, to call Death a death metal band would be unfair, as with each platter they’ve served up a bewildering array of complexities, and Symbolic is no different.

Neil Arnold

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