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Death - Symbolic CD (album) cover




Tech/Extreme Prog Metal

4.24 | 502 ratings

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3 stars The Death of Prog?

When I was playing this sort of music, back in the late 1980s, we didn't think of it as Progressive Metal - and Progressive Metal it is not. This is a kind of technical metal - focussed on technique, not on progressing the music. The music remains pretty much as it was at its inception, with the debut, Scream Bloody Gore, which I have, appropriately, scored with 4 stars as being an excellent addition to any prog music collection.

The reasoning for adding Death to this site is supposedly ever more experimental structures through the last 3 studio albums - and yet there is nothing in the structures that is inherently more experimental than the structures developed by Metallica on Ride The Lightning. Somehow, Death are widely accepted as a Progressive Metal act with little question, yet Metallica are not - although Metallica wrote the more sophisticated and progressive music, in terms of composition and structuring, and over a decade earlier. How does that work?

Here we have yet another re-iteration of the same basic musical ideas present on the debut, the same overall styling, just played with a better technical competence and using fancy techniques (hence Technical Metal, or Technical Death Metal, if you prefer).

There's nothing progressive in the compositions or structures really - compare with anything on Kill 'Em All (except, perhaps, Jump In The Fire!).

Listen to the riffs - the seemingly endless repetitions without even the faintest modification - the burn out of the title track is the perfect example. The simple construction of this song makes this modern day heavy metal - it's not as complex as, say, System of a Down, or even Linkin Park. There's nothing inherently more progressive in the structure than there is in Chop Suey or Papercut.

Zero Tolerance is crammed full of complicated riffs - but again, these are all simple re-iterations. The tempo changes are quite interesting, as are the contrasting textures, and even the riffs themselves. This song is a demonstration of how Death Metal can be a highly melodic and creative force - but that's not the same as Progressive Rock.

Empty words sounds a bit of a Slayer tribute track in places - and where it doesn't it's kind of empty in its own way, the riffs and soloing here not as convincing as on the previous two tracks, and the parallel 4th harmony on the solos is so weak that the engineer mixed it right down. This track also has a surfiet of different ideas - after about 5 minutes, it begins to feel much too long, and even Metallica references in the riffs (think Creeping Death and One) don't save it.

The spidery intro to Sacred Serenity is cool, and there are some good jazzy flavours as the intro continues - but again, the progressiveness in the music is denied by the riffs, which proclaim Heavy Metal to the world at large, not anything more ambitious. The sonic textures are an interesting expansion on the Egyptian feel first exposed on Scream Bloody Gore - there is certainly an argument for Symbolic being a literal progression from that album, but it's the same argument as the literal progression from Waterloo to The Visitors made by ABBA.

1,000 Eyes is possibly my favourite on the album - but only because of the straightforward headbangery nature of it - it's accessible, modern Metal, reminding me of Judas Priest's Painkiller, but faster and fashionably downtuned. There are some nice Pantera-styled pinch harmonics in the bridge leading to the instrumental, which is a guitar solo based around short sequences. The one thing that annoys me about the instrumental is its brevity and lack of thematic development. Contrast with the genuine complexity of, say, Ride The Lightning.

To be honest, I actually like this album a great deal - it's great to headbang to, and the riffing is chunky, the production crisp, and the soloing inventive, but it won't sit comfortably between, say, Camel and ELP, or Cressida and Eloy.

Without Judgement starts in exactly the same mould - everything as predictable as you'd want from a Heavy Metal album - nice Judas Priest/Metallica/Slayer inspired riffs, but with Possessed-style timing and changes, possibly too many changes for comfort, as the flow is almost non-existent, and the texture-space rather monotonous.

This is a classic example of how complicated does not equal complex - the many riffs do not grow out of each other, but instead overlay ideas, most of which are in one single key, or a closely related one. That's not to say it doesn't sound good - the change around 2:50 sounds excellent, but the idea is a brand new one - the sudden change to B making it sound like we're in a new piece, rather than a new sectio nof an existing piece. In fact, it begins to sound like we're listening to a different band, the style is so different - and then a return to the song. The idea is nothing new - you can dig through heaps of late 1960s/early 1970s rock albums to hear this Interlude idea at work - although generally it just doesn't work, as here.

This sounds like a Heavy Metal band trying hard to be different, rather than a Metal band actually being progressive.

A better attempt at being progressive can be found in Crystal Mountain, where some of the ideas do actually begin to push the envelope - although it has to be re-iterated that the ideas are in the riffs and textures, NOT the overall composition. The general overall sound is still that of the band that produced Scream Bloody Gore - but it's kind of like where Spinal Tap suddenly start playing Jazz Rock - kinda fake sounding.

The techniques used are simply to extend the riffs into different time signatures (the riffs themselves are clearly in the same narrow phase-space, and repeated, not developed), to play those old but extended riffs with different textures - there's a nice Spanish-style guitar towards the end, and some nice 16th work on the kit - but that's the gravy, not the meat. Misanthrope is back in standard metal territory, so let's move on to the highlight - the 8-minute Perennial Quest, which, to my ears, is more like a Perennial Mess.

It doesn't help that the opening riff stinks, which doesn't really invite me in to the piece. The whole edifice seems laboured - it's one of those pieces in which the obvious and the cliches have been deliberately avoided (an approach which almost never works), and to counterbalance this, cliched riffs are used as hooks in between sections of almost incredible boredom, the monotonous (absolutely, literally monotonous) vocals making it even harder going.

The guitar solo is kind of interesting in places, but mostly sounds like scale practice over grossly simplified riffs that happen to work with the scales that need practicing, and this shapes up to what is possibly the worst 8 and a half minutes in the history of Metal.

So a disappointing ending to a very promising - and often interesting heavy metal album that represents a band trying to break away from the style that it, to all intents and purposes, fashioned in the first place. Death were an interesting metal band, in that they did forge a style that could be positively identified as theirs - but there's no escaping the Priest/Possessed/Metallica/Slayer roots still present in this album as in the rest of their discography, and the plain FACT that this is not Progressive music in the same way as either Gentle Giant or Metallica. It still has a LONG way to go to catch up with the latter.

Generally a good to very good album, if you like this sort of Death Metal style, let down mainly by the last track. But don't be misled or fooled by claims of complex compositions!

Certif1ed | 3/5 |


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