Album of the Week 31-2015: Symphony X – Underworld

Upon first listen, I thought ‘Underworld’ suffered from the same flaws as Symphony X’s previous album ‘Iconoclast’. While the latter was an enjoyable album, it sacrificed a lot of the band’s melodic sensibilities in favor of a heavier approach. For instance, Russell Allen, one of the best Rock singers on the planet, focused on a gruff delivery rather than the soaring melodies of the past and Michael Romeo’s riffs were the focal point of the music. Whether it’s because of the increased input from the rest of the band is unclear, but the more varied approach of ‘Underworld’ makes it likely the best post-2000 album of the band.

Of course, Romeo’s riffs are still all over the place and Allen will always have a raw edge to his voice, but there’s a greater sense of space on ‘Underworld’. Also, keyboard player Michael Pinnella finally gets a little more room to shine here and all the songs have a much stronger character than on ‘Iconoclast’, on which the songs tended to be a bit samey over time. Symphony X was always miles ahead of the rest of the progressive Metal scene in terms of songwriting and ‘Underworld’ is more evidence of this.

While the first half of the album mainly focuses on the heavy side of the band, the latter half has a stronger emphasis on melody and dynamics. Though there’s still heavy riff work, it often takes a backseat to Allen’s – once again truly amazing – vocal work, atmospheric passages and great soloing by both Romeo and Pinnella. ‘Swan Song’ even has a romantic sound with a prominent role for the piano and the best lead vocal performance on the album. Truly the album’s highlight. Closing track ‘Legend’ even has a slight eighties vibe and halfway through the album, ‘Charon’ does a fantastic job combining both sides of the band.

Because of the greater amount of variation, the heavier material is much more enjoyable this time around. The title track has a vicious, galloping riff courtesy of Romeo that drives the song forward in a simply delightful manner. The chorus is the perfect climax for it as well. Opening track ‘Nevermore’ almost sounds on its way to become too ‘Iconoclast’ for its own good, but a beautiful chorus breaks it open quite nicely. And sure, the band is prone to self-plagiarism – listen to that acoustic guitar part in ‘Without You’ and compare it to ‘The Divine Wings Of Tragedy’ – but the greater picture is one of success here.

Symphony X has never made a record that was less than good, but this is for the first time since ‘V: The New Mythology Suite’ that I’m actually hanging on to every note they’re playing throughout the album. ‘Underworld’ is a triumph for Symphony X as a songwriting progressive Metal band and that is exactly what made them better than most bands in the field anyway. If this amount of variation is kept for the next album, the band is finally back at the level they were at fifteen years ago. ‘Underworld’ is a must-hear.

Recommended tracks: ‘Swan Song’, ‘Charon’, ‘Legend’, ‘Underworld’

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