With their latest LP, Underworld, Symphony X taps into their neoclassical roots to create one of the more entertaining listens of 2015.
Yep, I’m doing a 180 here. When a band does what they do best, it’s hard not to appreciate their effort. Because, let’s face it, Symphony X lays it all down on their latest studio album, combining past and present influence into one of their more consistent records.
Now, before you get all “Make up your damn mind!” on me, know that this is a record burdened by familiarity, pushing more of an Iconoclast sound over, say, their coined The Divine Wings of Tragedy’s Gregorian, neoclassical epic approach. However, where Iconoclast felt pointlessly heavy, Underworld amplifies that heaviness, all the while grounding listeners with the complex, beautiful, and might I say “cleaner” songwriting of their past. There’s reason to Romeo, Allen, Pinnella, and Rullo’s style again. This is a testament to Romeo’s obsession with Christian mythology. Look at it this way, when a prog metal album’s concept is loosely based on Dante’s Inferno, how can you not make the material heavy as shit?
“Underworld,” with its punchy, galloping chorus, accented by Russel Allen’s binary vocal style, complements this sound realization, reminiscent to Paradise Lost’s symphonic numbers. Now, with that in mind, you won’t get anything new on this album. That’s where this album suffers most. Underworld feels more like a continuation of Symphony X’s newfound appreciation for metaldom, rather than a musical progression. At this point, you must ask: What else do these guys have to prove? They rode Dream Theater’s wake, producing an organic combination of power, prog, and neoclassical metal, then darkened the progressive genre further, incorporating harsher vocals, blast beats, and heavier riffs. And, hell, the blast beats in “Underworld” will most definitely take the casual prog listener out of the equation. But, to say Underworld is uninspired is an insult to the band’s legacy and meticulous effort to separate itself from dreaded Dream Theater imitation.
Does the album feel Nuclear Blast-esque? Metal heads will understand that statement. The LP, as feared, suffers from the band’s overwhelming metal obsession, “Without You,” condemned as more of a sellout, derivative “Paradise Lost” clone, contains some of Russell Allen’s most passionate vocals. So, power prog Symphony X fans listen up. The clean voice has returned! That’s enough to give Underworld a star in itself.
“Without You,” brings back the band’s classical influence to the forefront, replacing complexity with good ol’ fashioned emotional songwriting. Same with “To Hell and Back.” The track’s introduction adds atmosphere to the LP, then leads to guitar, vocal, and rhythm excellence, courtesy to each band member’s famous precision. Again, “To Hell and Back,” is more of a listenable track — oh God, not melody! Melody doesn’t belong in metal! — but the band was known for melody, never brutality. “Swan Song,” continues this trek into melodic territory, alluding to “The Accolade.” Atmospheric, complex, melodic, beautiful, heavy in an ideological sense, rather than in a “smash your face” sense. That’s something I thought I would never hear after Iconoclast.
*On a side note, has anyone ever wondered how chaotic it is when someone asks for Michael in the band?
Meanwhile, Romeo, with his blistering fretboard control, continues to wow listeners in tracks like “Nevermore” and “Charon.” Now, I’m on the fence with these two tracks. Remember that little “Nevermore” single review that Reviews From the Other Side composed a month or so ago? Obviously, Symphony X wanted to continue their “guitar first” philosophy, sacrificing chorus and general appeal in the process. This leads to disenchantment from the source material. I appreciate a kick ass guitar performance, but when everything around that guitar performance is, well, for lack of a better word, boring, then it’s easy to forget said tracks. Disenchantment and boredom is the bane to progressive metal. Even as a fan, I can admit that. Michael Romeo and Michael Pinnella tend to noodle, it’s a known fact! “Nevermore” is a studio single, for crying out loud! For an album that promises a collage of influences, “Nevermore” fails in that the track sounds like nothing more than a Iconoclast bonus track. That’s what is so frustrating with this album. It tries to move past the heaviness of Paradise Lost and Iconoclast, but for every melodic, neoclassical passage, there’s ten overwhelming, “What the fuck? Should I bang my head or air guitar?” metal wanks.
It’s in these metal passages, however, that the band’s rhythm section pulls through. Michael Romeo and Russell Allen are awesome! Who in metaldom doesn’t know that? Pinnella is a little too Rudess for me, but does his part nonetheless. Hell, the guy even has a couple credits to his name, so kudos, good key meister. In previous recordings — especially their rendition of The Odyssey — Jason Rullo’s drums came across as flat, even mediocre at times, but Underworld brings the best out of our little mountain mover. It’s an understatement to say Rullo was made for explosive passages, complemented by Michael Lepond’s, as-always, moving rumble.
Symphony X, with their 11th studio album, Underworld, force listeners to gaze into the looking glass of their discography, exploring their descent from neoclassical, power prog to straight forward, kick ass metal. Fans, indulge. Casual listeners, think of this album as a focused, greatest hits record.
P.S. That album art…
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