I’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.