Death_SymbolicI’m not the staff member you’d expect to write a retrospective on Symbolic, or any other Death release for that matter. When Chuck Schuldiner died and took the golden age of death metal with him, I was six years old and had no concept of what a riff was, could never experience the bizarre fun-house mirror that was ’90s metal as it happened. I’ll probably never know Left Hand Path by heart or fully understand just how offensive St Anger really is. But as I’ve gone through what little maturation I can and came to love death metal through Dark Tranquillity and Nile. I developed a taste for its modern forms by blasting The Faceless and Ulcerate while driving between home, school, and the local museum, I started to really look deep into the music’s history in spite of my general fear of back catalogs. Symbolic came up pretty early.

The reason for this sort of biographical navel-gazing is simple; everybody knows Symbolic is about as close to perfect as an album comes, but opinions are so based on nostalgia and records so thoroughly embedded in their context that it feels as if we as metal fans are required to love certain recordings even if our personal connection to them is tenuous or nonexistent. I want it to be perfectly clear that I love Symbolic not because it’s old, not because I want to respect the death metal elders, and not because I’m some insufferable tool drowning in ’90s nostalgia. The first time I heard Symbolic, I thought it was one of the best records I had ever heard, and probably would ever hear. Without context, without judgement, I loved it immediately and still love it.

Maybe it’s the riffs – I doubt there’s another album out there with such craftsmanship. Not a single song, from “Symbolic” to “Perennial Quest” has a lackluster guitar passage. Chuck and Bobby Koelble (seriously, who the fuck is that guy?) sound flawless everywhere, ripping through “Crystal Mountain” and “Misanthrope” with uncanny precision and an exemplary guitar tone. Or maybe it’s the lyrics: how many times has a death metal album opened with a song not about zombies, dismemberment, or aliens, but about childhood? Who would have the audacity and the humility to make such extreme music with such a philosophical bent and infuse it with honesty rather than pretense?


More than anything, it’s honesty that I see in symbolic. I see music that’s made with passion and care; music that’s neither obtrusively serious nor tongue-in cheek. It has no story and no concept; every song stands completely on its own, and succeeds on the merits of its music and lyrics rather than its history or importance to the future of metal. Symbolic isn’t an album with an agenda or a gimmick. It isn’t flashy or overbearing. It’s just there, devoid of ambition, ready for judgement on its own merits.

Symbolic is not great because Death is great. Death is great because of albums like Symbolic. I think that we as metal fans forget this too much, thinking of bands like Iron Maiden as being infallible. But bands are just a bunch of people. They can have bad years; they can be tired and play a lackluster show; they can make bad decisions about production, or forget to edit their work. They can have trouble getting along, and they can split up. They can die. We need to let them do that, because if we don’t extend that understanding to bands, how can we do it for ourselves? When people make something great, we need to recognize that it exists outside of them; because when they make something terrible, it exists outside of them as well.

Symbolic resonates with me, and maybe it’s for reasons that I don’t know or understand. And I don’t want to write about it because of its history or because of Chuck Schuldiner. I want to write about it because I know it resonates with other people as well, and because I know Symbolic will never change. I will die. Bands will cease to exist. The new Necrophagist album might not ever be a thing. But these works of art that we already have can stay with us. Death is not immortal, and neither an I, but Symbolic can be, and all I can do is selfishly try to preserve it.

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  • Dr_Fisting

    FUCK YES. This is awesome on all counts.
    Also, real subtle with the “insufferable tool drowning in ’90s nostalgia” line. Like there’s any doubt who that was referring to. Ha!

    • Kronos

      I actually wasn’t thinking of anyone in particular…

  • Karmazov

    One of my all time favorite albums, great article.

  • Patrick

    Nice write up. Rather than making me feel old like most of these articles do, I just remember the first time I heard this album and what that was like.

  • André Snyde Lopes

    I have not heard this album in quite a while but the riffs are so ingrained into my brain that I can basically just play the songs in my head from start to finish, including the lyrics, which are some of the best in the genre.

    This is top class, A-grade music and a truly immortal album.

  • Diabolus_in_Muzaka

    This was a wonderful write-up. Took forever to read though, because every time a song title came up I’d play some of it in my head and not be able to focus anymore because riffs.

  • Carlos Marrickvillian

    Well put, if I had to make a list of my all time favourite metal or non metal albums, this (or sounds) would be right up there.
    For exactly the reasons you articulate

    • André Snyde Lopes

      I’ve always divided Death into three periods: the raw death period
      (SBG and Leprosy), the trilogy and the later years (Symbolic and TSoP).

      I personally like the Spiritual Healing/Human/Individual Thought Patterns trilogy over Symbolic. SH being the most eclectic, Human the most serious (and the best), and ITP being the most technically sound of the three.

      • ITP technically sound? To me it always sounds like DiGiorgio being all “fuck you guys I’m going to play whatever the fuck I want TRY AND KEEP UP”

        • Kronos

          Yeah they really let him go all out on that album.

      • Carlos Marrickvillian

        I have a massive soft spot for Human as it was my entry point for Death, but for me it’s the last two that are his triumphs. To my ears the final pair of albums is Chuck really doing what he wanted and nailing it. His death was such a tragedy one can only imagine his progression as an artist and all the amazing music we’ve missed out on :(

        • Gabriel PérezMolphe

          Human was also my entry to Death and my favorite album of them. But Spirit Crusher is my favorite Death song, from the vocals, the solo, the bass intro, the riffs, and the accelerando that builds up for the chorus is perfect and brings up the grand chorus.

          • Carlos Marrickvillian

            Yeah spirit crusher is about as good as metal gets!

        • André Snyde Lopes

          There are two reasons why I can’t put this over the trilogy (I know this is truly personal bias): first, I am not a fan of how Chuck’s vocals evolved toward a higher and higher pitch in Symbolic and TSoP. Second (don’t kill me) I don’t like Perennial Quest or Flesh… since I feel like they drag compared to the rest of their respective albums.

          When Chuck formed Control Denied, though, he fixed all this and made yet another masterpiece.

          • Carlos Marrickvillian

            ha yeah interesting, see I think he improved his vocals. He was annunciating his lyrics a bit more, they’re clearer and more confidant.
            I love all of his stuff but the last two are master works.

          • André Snyde Lopes

            Regardless of taste, Death does have one of the best, most consistent discographies of any band so tiny disagreements like these are bound to happen :)

      • Kronos

        I definitely see the logic behind that. This is by far my favorite death album but Human is also up there.

  • Worldeater

    Great article! I really liked the part about fans wanting bands to be infallible. Can’t help but wonder if we – or humans in general – want things to be infallible because we can’t be it ourselfs. Besides that Symbolic is still a great album!

  • Luke_22

    A fitting write-up for one of the greatest metal albums of all time.

  • 517H

    You sound so wise mate I just assumed you were older. Like on the Yoda scale of age and wisdom.

  • Guillotine of Papal Crowns

    “When people make something great, we need to recognize that it exists outside of them; because when they make something terrible, it exists outside of them as well.”

    Gold. Right there. FUCKING GOLD.

  • basenjibrian

    Awesome write-up. For some strange reason, I have never sampled Death. :( I have no excuses, but…
    I clicked over to iTunes and will load it into the Nano soon!

    • Carlos Marrickvillian

      oh man fasten your seat belt.
      I gotta say i’m jealous. I’d like to discover Death again.

  • Wilhelm

    My first experience with Death was “The Philosopher” video on Headbangers Ball, but my first actual delve into the band was the Symbolic album. There was a huge jump in maturity and something that was melodic, heavy, slightly progressive but not exactly death metal. If people ask, I tell them to check out this album before The Sound of perseverance; mainly because I think Chuck’s vocals were way better on this and it seems natural without maybe some of the pretension found on the last one.

    • Kronos

      I really do think this is the best death album. It’s also the most accessible.

      • DoublePedalGangstaMetal

        I still have a hard time picking my favorite between Symbolic and Individual Thought Patterns.

        I agree with the rest of the commenters on here that it is a great read. However, I feel it is somewhat lacking an aspect in not mentioning Gene Hoglan, because I think his drumming is outstanding on this record. Chuck and Gene together is just, well, music to my ears.
        I remember seeing Death on the Symbolic tour, having no time for moshing because I was transfixed by Hoglan effortlessly being a straight boss behind the his kit.

  • John Mosley

    I discovered Death a bit late, myself. The guitar riifs on ‘misanthrope’ make me want to punch God in the balls… in a good way.

  • El_Cuervo

    With but a year or two on the young Kronos, some records are ageless. Picky though he may be, there is no denying some records. Such is Symbolic.

  • Mark Z

    Great writeup Kronos! I remember the first time I heard this album back in 2008 – I was about halfway through basic training at the time, and the only music I’d heard in four weeks was taps and reveille. At my first chance to get off-base I went with my parents to the local FYE and checked out this album on one of their listening stations. Hearing the opening riff to the title track after a month of no music whatsoever was like biting into a piece of finely cooked filet mignon after weeks of eating nothing but cornflakes. I bought the album the first chance I got, and still remember being awestruck the first time I heard the acoustic-tinged verses of “Crystal Mountain,” or having the chorus riff of “Empty Words” stuck in my head during every cross country race for the rest of the year. Even after first listen I knew this album was absolutely perfect, and time has done nothing to dull my opinion. You really nailed it – there’s just something incredibly honest about this album, and I don’t think it will ever stop being my favorite.

  • Noobhammer

    What a beautifully written article, that truly captures not only the greatness of a classic album, but also encapsulates the feelings we have for all those records that just seem to touch the masses in that special way.

    I love Symbolic, and it is a fantastic record. Yet for me personally I’ve always enjoyed “Human” more, with it being my first Death record, and my gateway to Cynic (Since both Sean and Paul played on it) and Athiest, as well as opening the doors to more groggy technical death metal.

  • mtlman1990

    Zero Tolerance and Crystal Mountain are in my top 20 songs of all time.

  • Wilbur Teegrus

    I remember discovering Death with my stepbrother…blasting Crystal Mountain while playing video-games together. Fond memories of a timeless album. An excellent post, thanks!

  • This album may be ageless but since I remember Death from their crappy demo days, I feel olde as hell now.

    • Monsterth Goatom

      There’s an app for that.

    • HammerofThor

      Hah…thought I was the only one who was there. SBG – Spiritual Healing was the Death I love and remember best.

  • beurbs

    “We need to let them do that, because if we don’t extend that understanding to bands, how can we do it for ourselves?”

    Damn, yo.

  • iagree84

    I doubt there’s anyone who can explain why we get goosebumps from listening to noise like this.

  • Phantom667

    Amen to that!

  • Hammersmith

    I came late to the Death party as well. I think I heard this album in the mid 2000’s. I still think its their best, and an absolute classic for sure. You cannot deny Crystal Mountain, that song is ridiculously tight.

  • Pacal

    It’s these kind of articles that set AMG apart from the rest of the metal blogosphere. This post is honest and profound in it’s simplicity; really successful in vocalizing what makes Symbolic an incredible record.

  • Innit Bartender

    Waiting for another brilliant write-up about Control Denied…

  • Zadion

    This is one POWERFUL reflection. As someone in your age category who missed out on the 90s hype train, I fully understand how you feel. And as someone who has never actually gotten into the rawest forms of extreme metal (techdeath is about the “hardest” I can take and I’m not even huge into that), I commonly overlook pure death metal bands entirely — Death being among them. I know there is no excuse for never having earnestly listened to Death, but this review inspired me to overlook all of my biases and prejudices and finally pick this album up immediately. Well done, Kronos.

  • Caio

    I couldn’t agree most. Apparently, we have born in the same year. Just like you, I love old metal records like “Lateralus”, “Powerslave”, “Paranoid” and “Human” (My favorite Death album) not because of some inherent nostalgia that those records generate in the headbanguer persona, like some kind of pretentious worship. I love them because I discovered them while wandering through this vast realm as we known as metal music, and I was stunned by the quality of the music. As you said, humans die. Art and their legacy lives on, and it’s out there to be discovered and appreciated. No matter how you will find it, by yourself like me or introduced by friends and family like many others. You shall found it. The judgement of it is up to you.

  • Hugo Lafreniere

    Symbolic is in my top-3, all time favorite albums, dare I say #1.

    I can listen to it in loops without ever gettig tired or bored. It truly is a masterpiece.