I was first introduced to Death and Chuck Schuldiner between 2003 and 2004 by a drummer I knew who was into death metal bands like Morbid Angel. While I never became overly fascinated with the latter, the introduction to Death quickly captured my interest. This was incredibly unusual to me, because one of the key features of death metal bands is their use of harsh, grating vocals and my entire childhood had consisted of following bands that possessed very melodic singing styles. Another aspect of the harsh vocals that many bands employed was that I had a difficult time understanding what they were singing at times, making it doubly hard to connect to the music. What was unique about Death's situation for me was that their founder and frontman, Chuck Schuldiner, sang in such a way that still allowed me to understand each and every word, and while the vocals weren't the most melodic, his desire for melody was conveyed through every note of the guitar playing.
While Death has a plethora of fantastic albums, I was pointed first in the direction of their release entitled Symbolic. Though Death's early albums did cover some of the subjects normally found in death metal albums, such as gore and violence, over the course of their development Chuck began to write more and more about philosophical and real world topics. Throughout Symbolic, Chuck dwells on loss of innocence (“Symbolic”), the ever increasing lack of privacy to a world of growing technological advances (“1000 Eyes”), and the judgment from others who claim a higher status due to religion (“Crystal Mountain”). While he does not denounce religion itself, he doesn't hesitate to point a finger at those who falsely claim to be reverent while displaying no signs of character to that affect.
The backdrop to his poetic lyrics, and they are quite poetic, is an onslaught of some of the tightest metal playing I've ever heard. Chuck and guitarist Bobby Koelble complement each other beautifully, thickening out rhythm sections, providing melodies over the other, and trading off moving, and at times even blistering, solos that are sure to make your head spin. The drum duties are handled by the menacing Gene Hoglan, who has played with acts such as Dark Angel, Strapping Young Lad, Fear Factory, Testament, and most recently, Dethklok! His work here is a perfect match to the rhythm and bass guitars, performing stop-start breaks and walls of double bass with frightening accuracy. Bassist Kelly Conlon fills in the gaps between Hoglan's wall of sound and the rhythm guitars like water, leaving no room to breathe until the music allows you.
Death's career has seen albums transform from very raw, pushing closer and closer to more listener-friendly production. As someone who is extremely picky about his death metal, their debut LP, Scream Bloody Gore, is a far cry from my regular listening habits. With this album, they were getting closer than ever to something Chuck had wanted for a long time – a melodic metal band. While they certainly are not trying to cater to the masses, they did intend to give them a hefty injection of metal, and their tour for this album was even called “Metal To The Masses”. Symbolic provided just the right amount of attitude with the right amount of reflection to make this the best chance the band had thus far to do that.
Chuck Schuldiner passed away in 2001 after a fearless battle with a brain stem tumor. He was in the process of writing two albums before finding out the cause of his constant neck pains, one entitled The Sound of Perserverence and the other under a new band named Control Denied, which was entitled The Fragile Art of Existence. Whether Chuck had a feeling of his condition subconsciously while he was writing, I do not know, but the fact that discovering his ailment only pushed him harder to attempt to finish his next album stands as a testament to his character and his love for his art. Symbolic was written and recorded long before these symptoms showed, but Chuck was no less of the dedicated individual. Does this dedication make Symbolic any better as a result? Of course not. Regardless of any other facts, Symbolic stands as a remarkable album in its own right, encompassing not only aggressive metal and stirring acoustics, but subject matter that urges you to think, question, and keep moving forward.
“Filtering out the bad that holds us back...
Take hold of what is true to your hunger
A hunger that will not go away
Plans for tomorrow, they will remain.”
~ Perennial Quest
As Chuck used to say, "Support music, not rumors" and "Let the metal flow!"
Additionally, there will be a Death To All Tour, featuring former members of the band, touring to celebrate Chuck's music and for the benefit of the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund (which provides financial assistance to all types of career musicians who are struggling to make ends meet while facing illness, disability, or age-related problems) beginning on April 13th. Catch it if you can!
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Buy "Symbolic": iTunes | Amazon