Thursday, 3 September 2015

Symphony X's 'Underworld' - Album Review

Apart from Dream Theater, there is probably not another band out there flying the flag for 'traditional' progressive metal more than Symphony X (I am aware that 'traditional progressive metal' is probably an oxymoron, but just go with it!). Since forming in 1994, the band have eight albums of melodic progressive metal, that owes a lot of the greats of both the progressive rock and metal genres, while creating a sound that is recognisable as their own. 2015 sees the release of Underworld, the band's ninth album and first since 2011's double album Iconoclast (I know technically Iconoclast is a single album but, like Marillion's Marbles, anyone who only owns the single disc edition is missing out on hearing the 'full' album in my opinion). Since the touring cycle finished for Iconoclast, Symphony X have been fairly quiet. Singer Russell Allen has been busy with his other band Adrenaline Mob (and various projects for Frontiers Records), and bassist Michael LePond released his first solo album. Drummer Jason Rullo, who had to pull out of many dates on the Iconoclast tour because of heart failure, was busy recovering from his illness; so the combination of these factors led to some downtime for the band. Iconoclast was, and still is, a monster album from Symphony X. While I still feel there are many layers of that album that I have not yet discovered, there are many stand-out songs on that release. It was always going to be hard for the band to top it, at least in a spectacle point of view, so instead the band decided to 'return to their roots' somewhat. Iconoclast introduced a more modern themes to the band's lyrics, and Underworld sees more of a return to the fantasy themes of their past. When I say fantasy, I do not mean the Dungeons and Dragons stylings of Rhapsody of Fire, but songs inspired by mythology and classic literature. Dante's Inferno served as inspiration for some of the songs here, and that epic basis shines through. While Underworld is not as heavy and sprawling as Iconoclast, or as epic and symphonic as 2000's V: The New Mythology Suite or 2002's The Odyssey; it has a real class to it. The melodies are pushed right to the front, and you can tell that a lot of thought has been put into the songwriting and song arrangements. In that respect, Underworld feels to me like a cross between 1998's Twilight in Olympus and 2007's Paradise Lost. Both of those albums are easy to like and are good 'gateway' albums to get into the band's music. I feel that Underworld would also be a good album to show to someone unfamiliar with Symphony X's music, and it is a great album to return the band to the sound that made them famous after the excellent, but slight, detour that was Iconoclast.

As with many of the band's albums, Underworld opens with a gothic instrumental simply called Overture. The orchestral and choral arrangements set the tone for the album, and lead nicely into the first 'proper' song Nevermore. Nevermore is a very typical song for Symphony X, featuring a pacy riff from guitarist Michael Romeo and subtle keyboard arrangements from Michael Pinnella. From the outset, Allen reaffirms himself as one of metal's greatest modern singers. The mix of gruffer vocals with more melodic sections have always been one of his strengths, and this song's chorus is probably one of his most melodic, vocally speaking. He seemed to have focused more on his gruffer delivery on Iconoclast and with Adrenaline Mob, so it is great to hear him back at his melodic best. Romeo's penchant for Yngwie Malmsteen shines through in the song's solo, and overall Nevermore gets the album off to a solid start. The album's title track is up next, and Romeo's simple riff is augmented by a nifty keyboard melody that really harks back to the band's mid-period work. Allen's vocal melodies here are very catchy, and the mythological lyrics create a great mental image to accompany the heavy musical backing. He reaches some rather high notes during the song's mid-section as Rullo's drums speed away behind him, and the contrast as the song moves into a slower, more keyboard-dominated section is powerful as a result. Old school fans of the band should definitely check this one out! Without You is up next, and the pace is reduced somewhat. It is a quasi-ballad, with simple acoustic verses and some really lovely vocals from Allen. It is a deceiving song however, as there is still plenty going on musically to make it an interesting listen for any prog fan. The orchestrations during the choruses are really well done, and give the song a real class. The song gets heavier as it goes through, and is an early highlight on the album. After the relative calm of Without You, Kiss of Fire comes crashing in. This is possibly the heaviest song the band have ever recorded, and there are even slight traces of black metal in some of the riffs and drum patterns. Stabs of gothic strings and blast beat drumming are all over this song, and Allen's gruff but melodic vocals have a slight hint of Ronnie James Dio about them. He hits a great note in the chorus that catches you slightly off-guard, and is the cherry on top of the cake. Any fans of Iconoclast will love this song, and it is one of the most memorable songs on the album for me. Charon kicks off with a seriously groovy riff, and reminds me quite a bit of the material found on Paradise Lost. Romeo's riffs are the star of this song, although a very melodic chorus does attempt to steal their thunder at times. Romeo is one of the modern riff masters, and this song is packed full of great ones. Middle Eastern keyboard melodies cut through the mix at times too, which add other flavours to the song, before Romeo takes off with a great guitar solo that goes through many different movements. This is one of the more immediate songs the band have written, and would be good for new fans to hear.

To Hell and Back is the album's epic song and, while not as epic or powerful as The Odyssey, it still packs a punch. The cinematic, keyboard-driven opening section is fantastic and shows the band's skill for creating something epic, before the crunching verse kicks in which sees Allen sing over a slower riff to good effect. The chorus here shines too, with some delicate vocals and big melodies. Being the album's longest song, it naturally has many sections to it, but strangely it all seems to stick with you fairly quickly. Longer songs always take me longer to get into, but from my first listen to Underworld I loved this song. Symphony X always seem to make their longer, more progressive songs some of the most easy to enjoy of their whole catalogue, which shows their skills in marrying their progressive sound element with their more accessible sound. After the more complex stylings of To Hell and Back, the band then delivers a great simple rocker in In My Darkest Hour, which has some great bass guitar melodies and a soaring chorus. There is nothing complicated about this tune, but it has an infectious nature about it that cannot be ignored. Again, there is plenty of groove throughout, and this helps the song to stay memorable. Run With the Devil is another fairly simple song, but this one does not have the same impact as the rest of the album. It is not without merits however, as the song's main riff has a cool techy quality to it that stands out, but the rest of the song is a little flat. The melodies are just not as strong as on the album's other songs, and this makes it standout somewhat from the pack. It is the only song on the album that feels flat though, which shows the quality of the rest of the material here. The album's closing two songs are a great pair of classic Symphony X tunes. Swan Song mixes guitar and piano together throughout which brings back memories of album's past, and Allen really owns it with an impassioned performance throughout. The downbeat chorus is excellent, and he uses the quieter end of his voice to emphasise the gentler music. There is a piano-led mid-section where he actually sounds quite a lot like Roy Khan, and it makes me wonder whether or not the band are fans of Kamelot. The song's solo is quite bluesy too, which is unusual for the band, and makes it memorable and interesting for that reason. It shows what a flexible and dynamic player Romeo is too. Legend closes out the album in the band's classic style, and they pull out all the stops with this one. Romeo has written another handful of classic riffs for this song, including a speedy opening one that mixes guitar and keyboard well together. There is even a guitar/bass mash-up that sounds like something from David Lee Roth's Eat 'Em And Smile! This is Symphony X song for all seasons, and it ensures the album ends well, and showcases all of the band's hallmarks. Overall, Underworld is another excellent album from Symphony X. I like the fact that the band have returned to their roots somewhat after a couple of heavier albums, and fans of the band who might not have liked their newer style should definitely be drawn back in with this. It is a quality piece of work.

The album was released on 24th July 2015 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for Nevermore.

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