Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Album Review: Symphony X - Underworld

Sometimes there are bands that make choices, which is their artistic right, that can't be explained. They take directions that should have been avoided, abandon what they are best at, and generally self-destruct before your very eyes. What possesses them to do this is hard to pinpoint; whether it's simply artistic boredom and the desire to do something new, or if they genuinely are so unaware of their own talents that they think they are good at things they clearly are not. In either case, a righting of the ship is the most welcome of reliefs, and for Symphony X, we have reached that point.

Their last two albums have seen the band moving from beautifully progressive metal into a hybrid of prog and modern metal that focused solely on heaviness, and reduced Russell Allen, one of the best pure singers in the genre, to a grunting shell of himself. Those records weren't bad, but they were so clearly not Symphony X playing to their strengths. They were a band trying to keep up with the times, which only made them sound flat.

"Underworld" is the sound of a band coming to terms with who they are. Gone are almost all of the gruff moments, and instead they go back to doing what they do better than most anyone; playing soaring, majestic progressive metal.

Of course, returning to form isn't the same thing as firing on all cylinders, but we'll get to that in a moment. First, let's talk about what is great about this record. The guitar tones are fantastic, and Michael Romeo spends the entire hour of the record shredding through riffs and runs that will make a lesser player weep. As someone who dabbles with the instrument, I wouldn't even dare think about learning anything here, because Romeo plays with the technical perfection of a robot.

Likewise, Russell Allen here reverts to his cleaner voice, which is still among the best in all of metal. Hearing him in his comfort zone is a joy, and he is the anchor that keeps these songs from veering off too far into the world of musical overkill. They lock into place best on the power-ballad "Without You", which dials back the technical aspects just a bit, and gives Russell a bit more space for his melody. The result is a song that drips with melody and emotion, and is a surefire highlight of the record.

The longest track here, as was the case on the previous record, is probably the best song on the entire record. "To Hell And Back" goes through a few distinct sections, all of which fit together into a beautiful whole. That is the kind of song where all of the band's skills are put to perfect use, and the song gets elevated above even the massive talents on display.

That being said, there is one choice here that I don't quite understand. Amidst the technical onslaught of the music, Russell has his place to chime in with what are some solid hooks. But for some reason, he sings most of them with a soft tone, and without the usual power he puts into his material. It might be a choice to try to juxtapose hard and soft, but it makes his parts feel a bit too low-key for the epic sweep of the songs. They would hit harder if he sounded more invested.

But that complain is minor, as the songs are mostly rock solid. There is the occasional misfire ("Kiss Of Fire"), but songs like "In My Darkest Hour" and "Swansong" are better than just about everything from the last two record. Overall, "Underworld" might not make the same impact that "Divine Wings Of Tragedy" did, but it's a very good record, and it's resetting the stage for Symphony X to make another grand statement in progressive metal.

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