For many reasons, it's hard to talk objectively about the work of Chuck Schuldiner and DEATH. For one, the man was taken from us far too early, leaving many musical pathways still untraveled. There's also the fact that his legacy, the arc of his creativity from "Scream Bloody Gore" to "The Sound of Perseverance" and into the CONTROL DENIED era, is an essential part of the evolution of heavy metal, impossible to remove fully and examine out of context. Each of DEATH's seven studio albums can be seen as both a fully-realized milestone in metal history, and a transition point leading into a future few could envision at the time.
"Symbolic" was already a breath of fresh air soundwise, after the muddy production of "Individual Thought Patterns" — this remaster sounds great and keeps the clarity of the original mix without letting any one instrument crush out the subtleties of the others. Schuldiner's pained, raging, higher-pitched death vocals were in full evolution by this time, a point which turned off some old-school fans (though most went running at the more progressive sound of the music long before the singing kicked in). Living legend Gene Hoglan was on his second tour of duty with Chuck by then, and was a more integral part of a longer, more relaxed writing process, which shows in his complex, nuanced and hard-hitting performance here — his drumming setting the tone on "Symbolic" just as Sean Reinert's work guided the complex "Human" and Bill Andrews' straightforward attack propelled the simpler, streamlined "Spiritual Healing".
Many fans at the time simply couldn't get their heads around this new, progressive way of doing death metal — it could be argued that the resurgence of "gore-grind" and the revival of bands walking in the footprints of early DEATH, AUTOPSY and the like, was a reaction to Chuck's more technical and melodic experiments. Looking back on it in hindsight, while the songs on "Symbolic" hold up as if no time has passed, it's almost laughable to think of the hue and cry DEATH's perpetual shifts in direction caused. After all, there are plenty of traditionalists out there perfectly willing to regurgitate their guts (to coin a phrase) and party like it's 1985 – why not give one man and his cast of thousands (okay, a couple dozen) the chance to expand the realms of what metal (death or otherwise) could be?
Thankfully, many people did follow Chuck into the breach — "Symbolic" marking a second high-water mark in the band's career, after the success of "Spiritual Healing" a few years before, and spawning a new generation of metallers open to the concept that brutality and melody could work together. The reason that sounds so obvious now is because Chuck took the heat for it, and blazed a trail for others to follow – there aren't too many other individual musicians in metal's history who did more to kick down those genre walls and make it okay to be unique.
And for all the highfalutin talk of prog-rock wankery, "Symbolic" remains a highly catchy, downright air-guitar-able album. If you've never heard it (shame on you!), just check the opening riff to "Symbolic", the flowing ending of "Crystal Mountain", or the crushing doom of the chorus of "Zero Tolerance" for ample evidence of just how accessible DEATH could be. The great thing about this lineup was the ability to infuse even the most straightforward, blazing metal parts with little virtuoso flourishes to make them special – witnessing a room full of air-drummers mimicking Hoglan's twittering ride cymbals in the thrashy part of "Symbolic" was a sight to behold in 1995!
As welcome as a remaster is, it seems the vaults are scraped bare as far as bonus tracks goes — we get five demo versions of "Symbolic" songs, four without vocals and all with drum machines (although the difference between a drum track programmed by Hoglan and one done by Chuck it itself pretty enlightening). As interesting as the rough demos are (and hell, they're not all that rough, a lot of labels were releasing shittier-sounding stuff than these and calling it the final product in 1995), they're not essential to the overall experience. "Symbolic" doesn't really need anything tacked on anyway — it's a crystal-clear moment in the stormy career of a temperamental genius, a clearly-defined line in the sand for metalheads to come, and it's pretty much perfect the way it is.
If heavy metal was a college course, "Symbolic" would be on the reading list on day fucking one. Buy accordingly.