There might be something to the notion that artists aren't fully appreciated until after they've died, particularly where Death and its central figure Chuck Schuldiner are concerned. On the other hand, one might argue that the recent aftermath of the craftsman's end, timely or not, leads to a period of inflated interest. Whatever the case may be, the passing of Chuck in the early 2000s ushered in a whole generation of itching ears who did not have the privilege of either seeing Death live or on MTV back when the channel was still worth a damn. And with that has come a favoritism toward the latter day works after "Spiritual Healing" that are not immediately shared by mainline death metal fans, particularly of the 80s and early 90s persuasion.
"Symbolic" is a difficult album to fully categorize, which makes the massive amount of interest in it all the more intriguing. It definitely has a progressive nature to it, incorporating not only the classical, jazz and rock influences that were already pretty well present on "Individual Thought Patterns", but also further elements of early 90s groove/thrash and even, to a degree, the older melodic metal bands that Schuldiner first took a liking to before switching over to the death/thrash sound that they heard from Possessed. The resulting melodic passages and general progression of the songs gives a nod towards the emerging Swedish melodeath scene, to almost the same degree as Carcass' "Heartwork", though from an even more virtuosic and progressive angle that also takes into account the waves Cynic had made with "Focus".
From the inception of the catchy and dark title song, there is a sense of duality between simplicity and complexity that creates an ingenious sense of tension upon which the philosophical lyrical pondering are given a fitting tableau. The first riff is cut from a haunting, Mid-Eastern character that reminds slightly of Slayer's various songs on "Seasons In The Abyss", and is actually among the more groove driven ideas Chuck has ever come up with, almost to the point of channeling Exhorder. In the often abrupt fashion, things quickly turn to a mixture of rhythmic twists and thrashing passages that are about as jostling as they are brilliant. The songs goes a bit long, as does much of the album, but the odd assortment of twists and hooks keeps things interesting.
For the most part, this album straddles a number of stylistic fences, almost to the point of becoming schizophrenic, and yet nothing seems at all out of place. The heavier numbers "Zero Tolerance", "1,000 Eyes" and "Misanthrope" play up the older thrash metal influences a good bit, while "Empty Words", "Sacred Serenity" and the spellbinding mixture of melodic and progressive elements that is "Crystal Mountain" seem to channel elements of Fates Warning alongside the more aggressive influences. The ultimate result is a collection of songs that, even when as short 4 and a half minutes in length, make themselves as busy as possible while somehow managing to stay catchy. There are literally a couple of instances on some of these songs, particularly the closer "Perennial Quest" where elements of At The Gates has managed to find its way into Chuck's riff set, alongside a lot of other stuff like a serene minute long clean fade out with volume swell guitar leads that sound like a lone mourner in a cemetery in the failing light.
The greatest strength of this album is its complexity, and ultimately its greatest weakness is, well, its complexity. While this is definitely a worthy successor of "Individual Thought Patterns" (still my favorite Death album to date), it actually reaches just a tiny bit too far into the progressive realm and occasionally gets convoluted. Granted, it's one of the better convoluted albums I've ever heard, and it is understandable why this album is praised to no end. In many ways the early offerings of Dark Tranquillity, Arch Enemy and In Flames resemble this albums sort of wandering stylistic aspersions, though not to the point of occasionally channeling Rush or Dream Theater. It's a high water mark for melodic death metal, and while the progressive label fits equally as well, that's pretty much the label I tend to place it under. Just one more towering accomplishment by a man who was taken from us way too young.