Underworld review by Symphony X

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  • Released: Jul 24, 2015
  • Sound: 9
  • Lyrics: 9
  • Overall Impression: 9
  • Reviewer's score: 9 Superb
  • Users' score: 7.7 (24 votes)
Symphony X: Underworld

Sound — 9
"Underworld" is the 9th album by prog-power metal champs Symphony X, one of the more prolific and veteran acts of the current metal era. The follow up to the frankly excellent "Iconoclast," expectations are always high with the amount of talent that goes into each of their albums, not to mention the massive gaps in time between each recent release.

Although often simply described as "prog metal" or "neoclassical" and rightly so, there's a lot more to their sound than simply genre tags. Virtuoso players in all fields, excellent and well-honed vocals courtesy of Russell Allen and a sort of innately engaging song-writing method that many bands struggle to ever make on their own.

Add to that, a healthy respect to classical composition, the whole field of prog rock and prog metal and a few sprinklings of previously unheard influence and what this album offers sounds like a delectable eleven course meal.

And frankly, the boys have pulled it off again. It's easy enough to discern some patterns with each release: there's always a dual track/really long track opener filled with a glorious guest choir and an intensely cinematic build-up, there's always a ballad of some kind and there's always a song outwardly referring to a hypothetical love interest of some sort. This isn't a negative thing: what works for Symphony X is their cohesiveness in laying out and writing an album. It works as it always has since "Paradise Lost," and they've changed their game again by bringing in some little nuggets of progression here and there without compromising anything integral.

So what exactly are these bits and pieces I'm blathering on about? The chords are slightly darker, the progressions are equally as new sounding and dramatic, almost out of character for the genre. Michael Romeo has included some riff ideas and playing styles that are unheard on earlier releases and feel pretty new on a Symph-X recording. The synths and backing keys of Michael Pinnella feel more modern and inventive than before. They've solidified a direction to go towards.

The nadir of the first example comes immediately from the track "Kiss of Fire." We're greeted with this dramatic, crushing swing of a minor chord riff, accompanied by stabs of choir and rolling underneath is the burst of blast beats and kick drum patterns that you'd never expect to find in this sort of genre. Not to mention the ridiculously heavy polymetric riff that forms the bridge and a really interesting vocal delivery from Russell Allen. Definitely the "most metal" song they've written thus far.

"Charon" is similarly interesting as it messes around with both rhythmic ideas and slightly stranger-than-normal chord modulations that belie its rather simple opening.

One of the definite highlights of this album is ending track "Legend," one that's a little bit different because it is an absolute technical powerhouse of musicianship. That may be an odd sentence considering every Symphony X is a powerhouse of musicianship, but this is the powerhouse that every other powerhouse wishes it was. I won't spoil it too much, but everything from the sublimely smooth bass guitar to the vocal performance to the astonishingly infectious melodic ideas means that it forms one of the best endings to a metal album you're likely to hear for a good while.

Are there some bad parts? One could argue that there's a bit of padding here and there (most glaring one would be "To Hell and Back," a good song but moves along in a very plodding manner and is somewhat mired in its own melted cheese). But, the album still makes up for it in the sheer quality of the content it brings.

Production wise, fantastic mix, great instrument tones, very comfortable fusion of all the extra-personnel elements (choir and so on). In other words, still as impeccable as all their post-"The Odyssey" albums have been, thanks again to Michael Romeo's skill as producer. It's truly a fantastically presented record, topped with all the little tweaks to things like synth sounds and crispness of the mix that just add to the nicety of it all.

Lyrics — 9
Russell Allen is a frickin' beast. Just goes without saying. As soon as you've heard him singing, you just feel that "yes, this song is going to sound great." And despite being quite into his 40's, his voice has not wavered in power or delivery. Interesting developments: Losing some harsh edge on some of his vox that could be heard on say, "Paradise Lost," a lot of the album features more of his pure and emotive singing voice. He'll delve into pitches that we've yet to hear from him before. And oddly enough, there's a few instances in the title track where Allen summons his inner harsh vocalist, especially at the end of the where he goes full beast mode, bringing out a harsh snarl to the words of "IN HELL."

Lyrically, "Underworld" differs somewhat from previous offerings. Their previous albums have revolved around a narrative concept, one which was easily summarized in the reespective album title. "Underworld" has no unifying concept, but a theme that ties the songs together while allowing them to retain separate narrative identities. This actually reflects well on the songs themselves, as each theme colours the music, hence the extreme metal edge of "Kiss of Fire," the smooth dynamics of "Without You" and "Swansong" and the journeying feel of "To Hell and Back." Sure, there's some cheese, but this is prog metal: All is cheese.

Overall Impression — 9
A great follow up to "Iconoclast," moving a little slowly but definitely surely forward with new ideas added to their formula, Symphony X treat us with a brilliant addition to the neoclassical idea. While the overall length might mean it outstays its welcome for some, there's still a lot to love here, equally reflected from the amount of love poured into it by the band themselves.

Songs to look out for: "Underworld," "Kiss of Fire," "Run With the Devil," "Swangsong," "Legend."

24 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I've listened to this album about 9-10 times through now, and as a Symphony X fan from near the beginning, I can say that it's definitely good, but there are issues, too. The most glaring has got to be the lyrics. Some of them are downright atrocious. "The truth of the moment cuts like a knife" on Run With the Devil stands out. Gahh. Don't ever use that cliche. That's not to say the lyrics have been good in the past, but they haven't improved either. The other big issue for me is that this sounds and feels like Paradise Lost 3. Iconoclast sounded and felt like Paradise Lost 2. I get it. They found a sound that they liked with Paradise Lost and have stuck with it. That's great. It's starting to get old now. All three albums have similar production value and a similar sound overall. Compare that to every single album before this, and each one was unique with an identity. Again, I'm not saying it's bad, but it's just more of the same. Everything else is what you'd expect from them. If you liked any of their previous albums, you'll probably dig this. It's got good tunes on it. I wish there were a few longer ones, but that's just my opinion. I did enjoy listening through to find all the references to the number three that they hinted at by saying it was based on the Divine Comedy. So there's that.
    Definitely not their best work, But still a strong release. Overture is a fantastic opening, dark, menacing, and evil as hell. Nevermore is actually really growing on me and the guitar work in it is just ridiculous. great solos, riffs, drums, needs more bass/keyboard tho. Underworld i think is actually a really strong track, heavy as f**k, a side of Russel I have never heard before. great mix of keys and guitar though and some great bass/drum work as well. Really gets me pumped up when i listen to it. And the Riffs! Without You is a pretty standard ballad in the vein of paradise lost/sacrifice. great vocals and happy to hear Russel really sing on it. Solo is spectacular and solid key work throughout the song. Kiss of Fire is probably one of the heaviest songs they have ever recorded. Would fit perfectly in Mad Max Fury Road. The riff work on this song really stands out and Russel sings in the lowest register I think I have ever heard "It's me against the world!" part. solid solos hope they play this live when i see them in Sept. I am sure it will get the people going! Charon is the groove oriented song of the album, really interesting riffs and note choice with a great chorus makes this song a really enjoyable listen. Eastern vibes shine through in the solo and outro makes you think back to songs like Egypt and Pharaoh. Solid song wish it was longer, like 10 mins or so. To Hell and Back is the "epic" of the album, not very epic though. Good song but i lose interest about halfway though, but then it picks back up at the end pretty well. Great solo work for Romeo and Pinnella really save the song. My Darkest Hour I think is the real single on the track. great riffs, short and sweet at 4:22, solid solo (some good use of a whammy pedal) and good balance of all the band members. The lyrics actually stand out in this song. I love Russels vocals. nice outro as well some great moments from all the members. Run with the Devil really has a Van Halen vibe to it. good track, but seems a little out of place on this record. Fun/interesting riffs(check out the break down riff) and Russel/Romeo/Pinnella delivers the goods on this one. Swan Song is the other ballad. Love the use of keys in this one. The lyrics are pretty good for SX on this one. I really enjoy the atmosphere this song creates. Very sad and remorseful. The solo is quite good here as well, seemed a little sporadic at first but has since grown on me as I have dissected it a bit more, Romeo is still one of the greatest guitar players alive, or dead for that matter. Great clean vocals from Russel and a nice use of the choir. Love the intertwined vocals and guitar at the end, quite a dance of skills, then Pinnella beautifully closes the track. Legend is the final track. A blazing opening riff with the bass really showing through on this song, which is nice. This song makes me hopeful that symphony X still has it. Great lyrics, guitars and bass dancing around each other rather than just matching each other. some creative drummer and not an overkill of double bass metronome playing. great keyboard melodies and leads. also the guitar keyboard/guitar part during the "awwww awww awwwww" singing is just mind blowing. followed by a great pinnella solo, followed by romeo, then pinnella, then romeo makes for a great solo section. Builds up to powerful close to the album! 9/10 for me, the weak point being Hell and Back, just needed more cohesiveness and a bit more of an epic feel to it.As always happy to have new Romeo stuff to attempt to learn.
    The last time Pinnella really got to show off his keys wizardry in a consistent way was on V , which remains my all-time favourite SX album. Beyond that, the last really great album they put out was The Odyssey . I agree with GuitarGod610 in that Underworld feels like Paradise Lost 3 . It's still brilliant music, but doesn't have that magic which makes me adore almost everything from V and prior (well, the self-titled debut is kinda shit, but still has a novelty about it). I will say, however, that the last track has a 'feel' about it which reminds me a lot of The Odyssey . Less growly vox by Allen, and that 'soaring' quality they used to have. Really, really great track.
    Like Oculus Ex Inferni, Overture was a great start, set the tone quite well, Nevermore kinda grew on me, I love the prechorus and the tighttttt riffing, Underworld is probably my favorite track on the album, I was blown away hearing Allen freaking belting out roars, and I looooved the composition to the track, really, everything about it was 'This is what I've been missing!' Russell's vocal performance on this song is probably my favorite of his, it shows off just about every facet of his chops and damn... I'd almost forgotten than he's been my favorite singer for the last 10 years Without You was great, I typically don't really care for these types of Love Lost songs, and the line where they quote 'It is better to have loved than lost than to never have loved at all' makes me cringe, but between the vocals and instrumentation... At the acoustic guitar part with the sample? keys?, I teared up; none of Symphony X's songs did that to me before and thus it bears mentioning, hah. It reminded me of how they keep the melody from Divine Wings of Tragedy alive here and there (like the outro to Divus Ex Tragodeia) and I thought it was great. I think to me, it's the most beautiful song in their repertoire. Kiss of Fire wasn't entirely unexpected, Symphony X has flirted with extreme metal before, but it was great hearing it presented in full force! Tremolo picked notes and blast beats holy crap! I thought that the verse riff was a bit uninspired, but the rest of the song is good Charon... It's still growing on me, I like the sly sounding vocals and the prechorus with the organ- the chorus doesn't do much for me though, too much '-aron' sounds, to me, it feels a bit awkward. To Hell and Back. Upon my first listen, I agreed with what I'm seeing people say there, that it's uninspired and padded, but upon like the 3rd listen, I found myself really enjoying it. It doesn't really fulfill the 'Epic' track I was hoping it to be (though its first 2:30 are great) I think mainly what stops the song from achieving 'epic' status is the chorus, once again. It felt like they were building the song up, but then the payoff just... Fell flat to me. The solo that came right after, then the delay guitar part though, those were fantastic. The riffage after was furious but once again uninspired, though I think the 'on and on and on...' parts made it work. The outro was great too. In my Darkest hour... The verse sounded dark and I think it was the only part of the song that really made it live up to its name. Everything else to it just wasn't interesting to me. More of the same. Run with the Devil, I read the title and chuckled, because of Van Halen. I half expected the song to start of with the same sound, instead, I got treated some of the fastest, most technical riffing I'd yet heard from SX. One of the choruses I enjoyed, haha, they built up and released tension like it wasn't no thang. The whole thing felt effortless and I hate them for it as a musician- I mean, I'm inspired by it. Swan Song reminded me of The Accolade II, and unfortunately... There isn't much that Swan Song did that the Accolade II didn't do better. I enjoyed the guitar solo but the chorus dragged on too long I felt. It did well on its namesake, bearing finality in it, but then we got treated to Legend. This song holy crap, within the first 10 seconds you KNEW it was gonna be great. I think my favorite aspect of the track is how driven the verse is. 3:30 was mind-bending, Romeo... I had other words, just they fail me. Pinella and Romeo's lead trade-off is something I found myself missing. The last minute and a half, though leading its song to an end, feeling like it's leading to a new beginning. The Legend Never Dies indeed. All in all, I think what they did with this album was great, they brought Old School Symphony X back but with modern, technical riffing, production and I know I didn't mention it aside from Kiss of Fire, but so much of drumming was spot and and great. I'm glad to hear Rullo back and, well, better than ever. Everyone just freaking kills it. Though marred here and there by bouts of filler riffs, choruses I didn't quite care for and some... Really questionable lyrics (thought Russell Allen is such a good singer he can usually make you forget the lyrics are so cheesy) I thought that this album was gold and is now easily my favorite next to Paradise Lost. More of this, please!!
    I have not finished listening to the whole album yet and I have to listen to it a few more times before I can rate the album. So far, I am impressed by how Symphony X evolve in their sound. As mentioned by EpiExplorer, Kiss of Fire is a very refreshing tone for SX and I have never imagined that they would write songs like that. Of course, you still got some classic SX's tone like Nevermore. All in all, I am halfway through the album and it seems pretty promising from what I have heard so far.
    A couple other things to mention that I wanted to include in my last comment: This has been happening for awhile now, but I've started noticing it more and more with every new album they put out: Michael Pinnella never has anything to do. There's always lots going with the guitars/bass/drums, but all the keyboard ever does is lay down textures. It's fine, but he rarely gets any opportunities beyond that. Most of the solos are just guitar. I'm thinking back to albums of theirs like V where there were at least a lot of guitar/keyboard unison lines that just don't occur as frequently anymore. The one last thing I have to comment on is the ending. This is again moreso my opinion, but it was an issue on Iconoclast as well. Both of the final songs on these albums don't conclude anything, especially on Underworld. Not only is there just a hard stop, but the lyric doesn't even finish. "The legend never--" The albums don't end. They just stop. At least on Paradise Lost, you had that nice bookend with the song at the beginning to close everything out (plus a reference to Divine Wings which was cool). In my opinion, they would have been better off going with a longer, more involved ending that finalized everything. There was an overture, and while some of those themes contained within were referenced throughout the album, there wasn't anything to conclude it with or reprise them at all. But that's just my opinion.
    I like the old SX. Since Paradise Lost they lost the "atmosphere" and melodic sense (IMHO). This is like Dream Theater with the new stuff, i prefer the attitude of the nineties of those bands I don't know if is it nostalgia or what.
    Really couldn't get into it. The melodies are uninspired and boring. Seems like they ran out of ideas awhile ago.
    I'm a big Symphony X fan, and have been buying their stuff since I got Divine Wings of Tragedy in '96. I even got to meet Russell once by accident before a show. I was really looking forward to Underworld. I've loved all their stuff, and Paradise Lost really grabbed me. Iconoclast was okay, but not as good as PL, in my opinion. Underworld brings it all back. I've been listening to this album nonstop for the last week. I love it. I agree that it has the same general sound as Paradise Lost and Iconoclast, but that's okay with me.
    Found it very disappointing. Same generic metal than on Iconoclast. The songs are not bad, but nothing stands out or is memorable. Just a bunch of songs with catchy riffs and a shit ton of guitar wanking that to me served to purpose. The band said we'd feel a ''The odyssey'' vibe, really didn't find it. Lyrics are some of the worst I ever heard, but vocals are solid as always. 5/10
    Exactly, not one thing really stands out. Its just bland metal wankery for the most part.
    Not a bad album. It's more of the big and balls-y wibe that was on Paradise Lost and Iconoclast, but it's nowhere as emotional or sophiticated-sounding as say "The Oddysey" was. Solid 7/10. Charon, Swan Song, Underworld and Kiss of Fire are interesting listens.
    I'm just over here listening to Divine wings, V, and The Odyssey. I'm not interested in an album that sounds like Paradise Lost and Iconoclast, that isn't the Symphony X I fell in love with.
    Good review. I personally love the album. I love all of their albums, and enjoy the fact that every album is different. I don't understand the hate they got for Iconoclast - The Odyssey, Paradise Lost and Iconoclast are my top three albums from them - but I still love chucking on their older albums. My only gripe with Underworld is some of the cheesy lyrics that give me that little cringe. Such as rhyming evermore with nevermore and 'bring down the hammer, with serious anger." Other than that, love it. Kiss Of Fire is a standout.
    It's "with furious anger" but yeah I agree the lyrics get a little cheesey at points. Kiss of Fire is still an amazing track though.
    The truth is that album hasn't left me satisfied, compared to other discs symphony x. I have heard several times ... but I am not convinced.
    By the way, error on my part: I forgot that the word 'nadir' is the exact opposite of what I wanted to describe for 'Kiss of Fire'. Instead, when reading, think 'high-point'.
    The Odyssey and Paradise Lost were pretty good, but I haven't heard this or Iconoclast yet, and frankly, I almost feel like Adrenaline Mob has ruined Sir Russell Allen's voice for me. I dunno, I just feel like I can't associate his voice with neo-classical prog-metal anymore, just rock radio shit. And it has me worried that they've taken that approach on this album. But maybe I'll spin it and prove myself wrong.