Widely regarded as the founding fathers of the death metal genre, Death’s classic album Symbolic was given a re-master and re-release. Joel McIver takes a look at exactly why they were, and still are, so very important.
The late musician and songwriter Chuck Schuldiner, who died in 2001 at the age of 33, is hardly a household name among fans of mainstream music. The figures of other prematurely-departed icons such as Kurt Cobain, Jeff Buckley, Jim Morrison and Elliott Smith loom much more prominently over most people’s musical landscapes.
But if extreme metal is your thing, Chuck stands tall among fallen heroes such as Cliff Burton and ‘Dimebag’ Darrell Abbott as a man who pioneered, defined and then redefined some of the most powerful music ever made.
The catalogue of Schuldiner’s main band, Death, has been the subject of the occasional reissue over the years, most notably an entire reprint run in 1999 courtesy of Century Media and a brand-new version of one of their best albums, Symbolic, this month.
Reissues are often disappointingly barren, but the brushed-up Symbolic has been given the full treatment by its licensee, Roadrunner Records, adding bonus tracks, liner notes and new packaging to emphasise its importance in the death metal canon. Buy it – we recommend it highly.
The relevance of Symbolic today is more easily understood in the context of Death’s relatively brief history, and the near-vertical curve of evolution which Chuck and his band underwent in that time. In 1987, after recording a series of demos, Schuldiner recorded a debut album, Scream Bloody Gore, with drummer Chris Reifert (who went on to form the highly influential band Autopsy).
As its title implied, the songs were raw, graphic and violent: titles included ‘Zombie Ritual’, ‘Regurgitated Guts’ and ‘Sacrificial’, whose verse contained the establishment-unnerving reference to the ritual murder of a ‘sacrificial cunt’.
Watch the video to ‘Lack Of Comprehension’ by Death
However, this early flirtation with gore and slasher themes didn’t last, as Chuck evolved a more sophisticated lyrical and songwriting style, with the following year’s Leprosy a much more refined work.
Assisted by death metal producer extraordinaire Scott Burns, Schuldiner and band (a revolving cast of musicians) created an album which continued to address macabre subjects (‘Open Casket’) but also dealt with mature topics like euthanasia (on ‘Pull The Plug’, Chuck muses “I now behold a machine decides my fate”, with sad prescience).
1990’s Spiritual Healing changed all that, with Chuck’s first step into progressive metal. Helped out by the ubiquitous shredder James Murphy, the band crafted long, multilayered songs like ‘Defensive Personalities’ (which dealt with schizophrenia), ‘Genetic Reconstruction’ and ‘Living Monstrosity’ (both of which addressed with the idea of DNA manipulation).
Watch the video to ‘The Philosopher’ by Death
Spiritual Healing was the beginning of an experimental path which took Death to new heights of musicianship via 1991’s landmark Human, ’93’s Individual Thought Patterns, the aforementioned Symbolic in ’95 and a final statement in 1998’s The Sound Of Perseverance.
Of these, Symbolic is probably the most enduring, with its epic atmospherics and jazz, ambient and prog elements a huge influence on the current wave of progressive death metal spearheaded by Opeth and Meshuggah.
Although Chuck died from a brain tumour in his early thirties, depriving the metal and wider music scene of perhaps 30 more years of creative output, he left a considerable body of work – much of which is only now beginning to be appreciated.
If you haven’t explored Death’s music yet, the time to start is now. Chuck Schuldiner was truly one of a kind.
Symbolic by Death is out now on Roadrunner Records