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."