Symphony X
Underworld

Russell Allen’s vocals have always been one of the elements I’ve loved best about Symphony X: he’s powerful and stunning in big choruses, rousing in the verses, and never so goopy or overcooked that my enthusiasm turns to embarrassment (as is the case with a lot of power metal bands, hence my very picky attitude towards the genre over the years). So it was with some disappointment that I started to hear his vocals change over the last thirteen years, though not in the way I would have expected.

Starting with 2002’s The OdysseySymphony X started working with darker themes and more aggressive, groove-oriented songwriting. Aside from a few shining moments, these albums were far less airy and captivating than the band that penned power-prog anthems like “Evolution (The Grand Design),” the heroic “In the Dragon’s Den,” or the cinematic and gorgeous “Egypt.” 2006’s Paradise Lost was my least favorite of these; aside from the beautiful title track, its songs felt overly heavy and weighed down (despite the deluxe version of the album actually having fold-out wings). 2011’s Iconoclast fared much better, with more listenable songs and a dystopian/futuristic concept that warranted the rougher attitude.

Allen’s vocals were the most noticeable difference throughout this period; they grew coarser and more growly to match this new and fiercer tone. The grit and roughness are really nothing new, as he’s worked them into his delivery since as far back as The Divine Wings of Tragedy – but over the years, it’s been sometimes so pronounced that it sounds forced.

Underworld‘s first single “Nevermore” opens with more of these overdone growls, and when I first heard them, I cringed. Not a promising start, and given the dark mythological theme, likely to be used throughout the album. However, the growls are only used at the start of the verses on this song (and a few others), and when Allen reaches the chorus, his voice brightens and becomes more buoyant. Whew. Rougher vocals aside, “Nevermore” is another Symphony X marvel of frenetic melody and syncopated, technical rhythm work, and I’ve played it a lot since. Still don’t care for its intro though.

There are more gravelly snarls in “Underworld,” even more pronounced than before, and yet they work a little better. Allen even cranks to some genuine roars and those work much better. The track has a meaner, more wicked sound than “Nevermore,” but they’re offset by fantasy synths, a classic Symphony X gallop, a dramatic chorus, hellfire choirs, and a dynamic prog-metal second half. And the growls return once again, heaviest of all, on “Kiss of Fire,” at which point I thought, well, why not just go full-on death vocals? The rest of the album’s vocals, I’m happy to say, are a cleaner throwback to the Symphony X of old – and the songs feel that way as well.

They still have the heaviness and aggression of their last few releases, but they also feel lighter, more nimble. More neoclassical hooks and fireworks like in the old days, and above all, more brilliant melodies and appealing, catchy choruses. “Charon,” about the legendary ferryman of the Styx, has a serpentine, Middle-Eastern inflected verse, and its chorus could be the sinister cousin to “Egypt,” while “In My Darkest Hour” (no Megadeth cover here) and the rock-radio-ready “Run with the Devil” are both tightly-crafted rippers with killer hooks. Just before them, album centerpiece “To Hell and Back” (a trim 9:23, which is short for an opus), kicks off with a shimmering synth-and-guitar duet that wouldn’t sound out of place on a mid-80s Foreigner album. It turns dark and groovy as it spirals down into, well, you know. Once there, it becomes contemplative, soothed by Russell’s crooned vocals, and then begins the climb back up to the light with a kick-ass second chorus (“On and on and on, no quarter asked, no quarter given”) and more trade-off pyrotechnics between Romeo and Pinnella.

There are also two excellent ballads. Symphony X‘s slower tracks are usually sumptuous and delicate, like their classic “The Accolade.” “Without You” (thankfully not a Motley Crue cover) instead starts as an early ’80s AOR piece, with its stripped-down acoustics and addictive chorus, and soon transforms into a mid-paced rocker. “Swan Song,” much later in the album, does sound like it could be the fourth part to “The Accolade” though (Part II is on The Odyssey, and Iconoclast‘s fantastic “When All is Lost” may as well be Part III), as it opens with the same gentle piano lines. Instead of cresting to a triumphant chorus, it remains muted and somber, except for a hypnotic, Rush-like prog-odyssey in the bridge.

Then there’s closer “Legend,” a song so majestic and satisfying – with a chorus that’s nothing less than ebullient – that I had to listen to it three times in a row on my first album playthrough. Anyone yearning for the rhapsodic days of ’90s Symphony X will be very happy.

Symphony X has long been one of my favorite power/prog bands. They tick the necessary boxes off for dizzying technicality, pummelling rhythms, and a self-aware and shameless sense of grandeur and fantasy, but above all, they’ve always been able to write catchy, tightly-crafted songs that are as effortless to listen to as they must be difficult to write and play. However, the last fifteen years’ worth of darker, more intentionally aggressive albums (and the exaggerated, rougher vocals that came with them) weren’t as satisfying as the albums that made me a fan in the first place. Hopefully that phase is over now, because it’s been too long since I’ve heard a collection of their songs that has delighted me as much as Underworld. Ironic that I expected it to be more dark and forbidding than ever, and yet it’s turned out to be their most dazzling album in years.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Jordan Itkowitz
August 7th, 2015

Comments

  1. Commented by: Zach

    Fantastic album!


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