July 20, 2015 Symphony X – Underworld (Album Review)
Four years is a long time to leave Prog Metal fans hanging. Especially when you are New Jersey’s Symphony X, one of the most revered acts in the genre this side of Dream Theater. It began in 1994 with the release of The Dark Chapter, a solo album from guitar wizard, Michael Romeo, and accompanied by keyboardist, Michael Pinnella. The album was a collection of Neo-classical, epic instrumental Metal; full of heavy riffing and shredding alongside Symphonic elements that would become the foundation of Symphony X’s sound. That same year, Romeo would recruit bassist Thomas Miller, Jason Rullo (drums), and vocalist Rod Tyler to record and release 1994’s Symphony X self-titled debut album.
Within six months of the debut’s release the band would follow-up with The Damnation Game in 1995, but by then Tyler had exited the band and was replaced by the charismatic, Russell Allen, whose strong vocals would round out the band’s powerful delivery for years to come. Now in 2015 Symphony X stand strong and are set to release their crushing new album Underworld on July 24th via Nuclear Blast. Their ninth overall album, it comes four years after Iconoclast with eleven new tracks fans will find was indeed worth waiting for.
Opening Underworld is “Overture,” a sprawling Symphonic piece complete with horns, strings, huge guitars, and eerie Latin operatic vocal embellishments. This intro showcases Romeo’s talents for dense orchestration and arranging that gives it a movie soundtrack quality. If Metal stops paying the bills, he could easily move into film scoring. Using the build up and fade “Overture,” the band leaps into “Nevermore,” its relentless torrent of syncopated riffs, unison guitar/bass/keyboard runs, and double bass drumming almost acting as a statement by the band that they certainly were not being complacent during the past four years. Allen’s vocals skillfully soar over the extremely busy musical arrangements and drummer, Jason Rullo, having recently recovered from heart failure would probably give his doctors the same condition if they heard how ferocious he was playing on this track.
The intensity continues into the title track,”Underworld,” Allen’s vocals going from an angry rasp to emotive clean while staying atop the rock slide of Romeo’s riffing. “Without You” sees the band dancing close to ballad territory with its use of acoustic guitars and emotional vocal hooks, but it still has enough guts and crunch to keep it from being a total lull in the album. Particularly impressive is Romeo’s solo on “Without You,” proving he is more than just a soulless guitar technician; his teeth-gritting string bends, deep vibrato, and often bluesy phrasing shows he has as much in common with Neal Schon as he does with Yngwie Malmsteen.
One thing that sets Symphony X apart from their Prog-Metal contemporaries is just how unusually heavy they are. The thrashy “Kiss of Death” and exotic sounding “Charon” showcase that side nicely, but perhaps a better example is on “To Hell and Back.” The song starts off airy and atmospheric but does not take long to dial up the pummel factor in the bridge sections. Where the track really gets dirty is at the 4:30 point where, after a mellow interlude, the music drops away completely except for what might be the most evil guitar riff off the album. Romeo’s dry crunch and the tightness of his rhythm playing can almost suck the air out of the room — that is good.
Underworld sees the band shifting from long, epic songs to more hook-driven tunes that all fall below the ten minute mark. There is also a feeling of the band really trimming the fat from what they may have been more inclined to do musically in the past. There is still plenty of pomp and lush orchestration, but performed with maybe a little more reserve; the piano-centric “Swan Song” being a nod to that aspect of their sound. Symphony X is doing on Underworld what they do best, and that is create crushingly heavy, orchestrally dense Progressive Metal with stellar musicianship. Not many artists do it with as much consistency as this band, and this is as good as anything they have done — if not better. CrypticRock gives Underworld 5 out of 5 stars.