10 Things You Didn’t Know About Death’s ‘Symbolic’

A Sniper, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
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25 years ago today, Death released their sixth album, Symbolic. It stands as one of the most acclaimed death metal albums of all time, even among the near-perfect discography of one of the genre’s pioneering bands. Somewhat of a pivot moment between Death’s more traditional early work and frontman Chuck Schuldiner’s late-career deviations into progressive rock and power metal, Symbolic blends Florida death metal’s aggression and grooves with prog’s virtuosity and flair. It’s proven to be an inspiration for countless bands, including of-the-moment heroes Blood Incantation, Horrendous, and Tomb Mold.  

Schuldiner tragically passed away in 2001, six years after the album’s release, but he leaves behind a treasure trove of interviews, miraculously archived by the good people at Empty Words. We dug through those, as well as the excellent 2018 Death documentary, Death By Metal (which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime), to unearth some fun facts about Symbolic in honor of its birthday.

1. Symbolic was originally intended to be Death’s last album.

“I don’t know if that’s something that people realize but yeah, Death was actually over as a band after the Symbolic tours,” said Symbolic guitarist Bobby Koelble in Death By Metal. At that time, Schuldiner disbanded Death and began writing material for a power metal project, Control Denied, something he’d been longing to do for years. 

“It’s my dream to once make a traditional metal album, preferably with Ronnie James Dio on vox,” he told Dutch magazine Watt in 1995, “but I will never do that under the name of Death.” Nuclear Blast, Schuldiner’s new label post-Symbolic, only agreed to release music by the new act if Schuldiner would first record another Death album. Hence 1998’s The Sound of Perseverance, which arrived a little over a year before Control Denied’s debut. 

2. The song “Sacred Serenity” is about Schuldiner’s love for cats and dogs.

Schuldiner’s desire to break free of death metal constrictions extended beyond Symbolic’s proggy stylings and into its lyrics. Its songs more frequently discuss day-to-day concerns like paranoia and nostalgia than flesh-eating zombies, genocides, or other stereotypically gruesome genre fare. 

“This song is about animals,” he said of mid-tempo groover “Sacred Serenity,” “for me especially dogs and cats… They just live their lives, without questions, without analyzing their lives, they are just happy when they can see us. For me it’s all this very important that they feel good and are happy.”

Schuldiner discussed his love for pets in many other interviews, often while responding to questions about the everyday life of such an “evil” band. In 1998, he even expressed a desire to throw a benefit show for the Humane Society, as he had done for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and BETA (the childcare nonprofit where his mother worked) around the time of Symbolic’s release.

3. Human and Individual Thought Patterns bassist Steve Di Giorgio was originally slated to play on Symbolic, but left halfway through the writing process.

Throughout Death’s history, Schuldiner was the only consistent member and was infamous for swapping lineups between albums. The fact that Di Giorgio, who revolutionized Death and extreme metal as a whole with his virtuosic fretless bass playing, even appeared on two consecutive albums was something of a miracle, but he was supposed to last even longer. 

“When the Symbolic songs were written, I was gonna be in the lineup for that,” Di Giorgio says in the documentary. “I was called to Florida to work on the new song ideas with [Chuck] and Gene… I recorded the demo versions of the songs, but my first kid was being born and Chuck was in a really determined, busy mode and I wasn’t able to commit the time, so I wasn’t able to finish Symbolic.”

For his part, Schuldiner called Di Giorgio’s departure a “normal administrative catastrophe” in a 1995 interview, but it was clear that the pair had a strong desire to continue working together. A similar situation unfolded on The Sound of Perseverance, with Di Giorgio appearing on demos but not the final cut, but he and Schuldiner were once again reunited on wax for Control Denied’s sole album. 

4. Symbolic is the only full-length metal album guitarist Bobby Koelble has ever played on.

Symbolic’s two immediate predecessors, Human and Individual Thought Patterns, boast some of the most stacked lineups in death metal history. In addition to Di Giorgio being on both, the former features the two core members of prog-metal greats Cynic, and the latter marks the additions of Dark Angel’s Gene Hoglan and King Diamond cornerstone Andy LaRocque. Apart from Hoglan, who stuck around for Symbolic, Schuldiner went in a completely different direction, personnel-wise, in 1995. 

“Looking for new bandmates, Gene and I were not interested in the biggest or greatest names,” he said, speaking to the addition of native Orlandoans Bobby Koelble (guitar) and Kelly Conlon (bass). Unlike former Death members who had other musical obligations, Schuldiner said, “with both of them there is no threat of other activities.” 

Both Koelble and Conlon were involved in local bands, and have continued playing long after they left Death in the wake of Symbolic. Conlon went on to play in Monstrosity another core Florida death metal band, but Koelble, despite how adept his playing is on a genre classic, hasn’t ever appeared on another full-length metal album. He recorded a seven-track demo with Azrael, a thrash band that also featured future Andrew WK and Obituary guitarist Kendall Andrews, but aside from some guest solos on other bands’ material, his Discogs page shows that he’s mostly played prog and jazz over the years. 

5. For the demo version, Gene Hoglan painstakingly recreated his live drum parts onto a drum machine.

Death’s initial recording setup was pretty slapdash, with Schuldiner once describing how they’d use “two portable box radios to work out overdubs,” but for Symbolic, they acquired an eight-track recorder. 

“I remember there was no way we were gonna get a decent drum sound to make demos— it just wasn’t gonna happen,” says Hoglan in the documentary. “So what I did was I just took my drum machine, and everything we’d play in the afternoon, I’d spend hours at night replicating on the drum machine.”

Nicknamed “The Atomic Clock” for his impeccable timing, Hoglan is all over the place on Symbolic, guiding its many tempo changes with his prodigious grooves. Imagine the process of tapping all of that out on a drum machine!

6. Schuldiner did not want Symbolic advertised as a “death metal” album.

By 1995, Schuldiner had grown increasingly disillusioned with the state of death metal— hence Symbolic’s progressive sound and unorthodox lyrics— to the point that he didn’t even want his band’s music pigeonholed to the genre he’s credited with co-founding. In Death By Metal, Hoglan remembers a moment on tour when this reached a fever pitch:

“I remember after one show, we got the latest— whatever huge magazine in Europe it was— and on the back cover was a Symbolic ad. It had four other albums from four different death metal bands, and this is when Chuck was really trying to get away from that tag, you know? Flat-out, it’s what he was trying to do, he didn’t want to be called death metal. He called the record label, screaming, raging at them— ’I told you not to do this, fuck you, I would rather break up my band than work for you anymore.”

7. Schuldiner considered recording clean vocals for the album.

Control Denied proved Schuldiner’s love for power metal beyond the shadow of a doubt, but he’d been a fan of the genre for years. More so than previous Death albums, Symbolic makes this clear. “With Symbolic, Chuck’s riffs really started to explore his love for ‘80s power metal,” say Hoglan in the documentary. 

In various interviews, Schuldiner expressed a specific desire for clean vocals on Symbolic. “Some of the stuff I write could easily have melodic vocals— especially some of the material on Symbolic,” he said in 1995. “And it’s frustrating because I’d like to hear how some of my material would sound with a melodic singer.” 

“Actually some of the melodies, guitar-wise [on Symbolic], are vocal melodies I would have had, if there was a melodic singer in the band,” he elaborated in 1997.

Symbolic producer Jim Morris goes even further in Death By Metal, revealing that Schuldiner actually experimented with doing some clean vocals himself while writing the album:

“I heard him singing and I was like, ‘Oh my god, you can sing—you’re great! You could sing any metal stuff.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but I don’t like to sing while I’m playing guitar, so I have to have a singer. I still wish I could’ve recorded Chuck actually doing the vocals to it. We had like, another version of the record, but that was never actually done.”

8. The song “Crystal Mountain” is about Schuldiner’s religious neighbors.

“Inside Crystal Mountain, where evil is reborn” sounds like a pretty standard fantasy-metal lyric, right? Well, it did to many a metal journalist in 1995, as Schuldiner fielded a ton of questions that basically amounted to, “what are crystal mountains?” Much to their surprise, the song was just as nontraditional as “Sacred Serenity.” As Schuldiner said in 1995:

“[Crystal mountains] are synonymous with my overly critical neighbors… They believe they live a perfect life in a crystal mountain. Unfortunately, I live next door to these religious fanatics, who live [on Earth] and certainly not in [those] mountains. I’m sorry, but those people are not that different from me. They have to pay taxes and they shouldn’t be disturbed by long hair. I’m not religious at all [and] my neighbors are filled with hate and judge me. In this song there’s a cross changing into a sword, symbolic for the abuse of their religion. I have nothing against religion in general, but religion should not be directed against others. In ‘Crystal Mountain’ I express my hate and anger towards these people.”

9. The “keyboard” heard in the intro to “Empty Words” is actually a guitar effect.

Most of Symbolic’s musical progression comes in the forms of inventive song structures, more melodic vocals, and dazzling musicianship, but there are a few moments that mark drastic sonic departures from previous Death albums. The songs “Crystal Mountain” and “Perennial Quest” both briefly feature acoustic guitars— a first for the band— and “Empty Words” begins with a decidedly out-of-character ambient intro. Behind a mystical guitar riff and some reverb-heavy bongos is what sounds like a soft synth pad, but as Schuldiner revealed, it’s produced by his guitar:

“Actually, that’s a guitar effect. I told our producer, Jim Morris, that people were gonna think it was a keyboard. It’s an effect on the clean guitar part that takes each movement of the chord progression and lifts it out. There are four chord progressions in that part, and the effect takes the main root of that chord and stretches it.”

10. Schuldiner felt that Symbolic was barely promoted in the US.

Label woes plagued Death throughout the band’s lifespan. Schuldiner and co. had just made the switch from Relativity to Roadrunner for Symbolic, a move he explained was due to the lack of other metal bands signed to Relativity. “Now we’re ready to start a new adventure, certain of having the right promotion behind us,” he said. Unfortunately, that didn’t end up being the case. 

While promoting The Sound of Perseverance a few years later, Schuldiner repeated trashed their label for the way they handled Symbolic. “Roadrunner had a totally disillusioned idea of what metal is and that’s why Symbolic wasn’t pushed,” he said in 1998. “Symbolic, in my opinion, was shit on, and that hurt me,” he added in another interview, continuing, “That definitely is a hard feeling to describe… that, ‘wow, someone just gave me the run-around, because I was told that the record was going to get pushed and get the full treatment that they knew I wanted.’”

Funnily enough, one band repeatedly popped up in Schuldiner’s furious rants against Roadrunner: Korn. “Roadrunner preferred to center its energies to promote Type O Negative and Korn clones;” “[Roadrunner’s] idea of metal is Coal Chamber and Korn;” “They think metal is Korn. That is their idea of metal, that is why Symbolic got shit on.” Korn weren’t even signed to Roadrunner until 2010, but it was clear that Schuldiner thought that the surge in nü-metal’s popularity was hurting more traditional metal bands.

This lack of label support meant that Death had to fund the recording of Symbolic themselves and that they “couldn’t get video support,” according to Schuldiner in Sentinel Steel. It also meant that Symbolic became more of a word-of-mouth success story, something that’s hard to believe considering its vaunted status today. “When we were doing shows for that record,” Schuldiner said, “I’d have people who would come up and say, ‘man I got the album and played it for my friends who were into the bigger bands like Pantera or Metallica or whatever and they couldn’t believe it, they were shocked, they never knew there was an album like this one out.’”


Words by Patrick Lyons