Even in just the past five years, the meaning and idea behind what it means to be a progressive metal band has completely shifted. A genre once firmly rooted in neoclassical fretboard acrobatics and Halford-fueled vocal performances has now turned towards the more extreme, the more unpredictable, and the much more rhythmic. The desire to pay tribute to the godfathers of the genre seemed to slowly disappear, and maybe that’s only because of the generational gap and context of the genre on its forever-youthful fanbase. Whatever the reason may be, fans out there simply aren’t exactly seeing a lot of bands that remind us why bands like Fates Warning and Queensrhyche were so flippin’ sweet in the first place. It may already be four years since Iconoclast dropped, but Jersey’s Symphony X is back with Underworld, their most consistent record in over a decade.
Now on their ninth studio album, Symphony X is successfully doing what so many bands claim to try but ultimately fail at: synthesizing their entire back catalog while still managing to toss in a few new ideas. Underworld feels like way more of a throwback album than the heavier territory they have been going for since 2007, whether it’s the clear nod to their self-titled debut’s cover art, lyrical references to “divine wings” or the 80s power ballad “Without You.” Maybe it was because plenty of the band’s members have been exploring other projects for the past few years, but everything about this record definitely sounds like a band feeling completely rejuvenated even this far into their career. Russell Allen’s vocals have generally strayed away from his gruffer aesthetic and reverted to their original style, focusing much more on delivering some of the best vocal hooks the band has seen in some time (“Underworld,” anyone?).
Right down to the choice of keyboard patches, slick digital production and the insistence of including a fucking massive chorus in practically every song, the entire album definitely sounds like the band revisiting their early influences and still managing to find some new magic in them. While a lot of Symphony X’s peers are more concerned with outright technical chops and writing the most unpredictable pieces imaginable, Underworld is the sound of a band that doesn’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone, other than the fact that they can still write songs to get the blood pumping and the mind racing, but also be able to hum it right back.
Symphony X’s knack for making difficult parts sound easy is perhaps their biggest strength this time around. Sure, there are a few “check this out” sections and Michael Romeo’s guitar solo in “Swan Song” is absolutely bananas, but the majority of the band’s riffs are greatly understated compared to stuff the band may have touched on in records like The Odyssey. The album’s first single “Nevermore” is the prime example of this; the song’s chorus features an absolutely blazing guitar riff that will surely satisfy Romeo fans the world over, but it never feels like the focus of that particular part. It’s all meant to create atmosphere, not to have the front row of the club’s jaws drop. Underworld is an album that sounds designed to be played at big outdoor festivals where thousands of people can latch onto the parts while still being awed by the musicianship. Many of prog-metal’s contemporaries can’t manage to accomplish this, or may not even be interested in it, but Symphony X is still looking to the stratosphere. Moods vary from the (dare I say) cheesy chorus of “To Hell and Back,” the blast-happy ferocity of “Kiss of Fire,” or the band even occasionally dabbling in breakdowns, it’s all crafted to provoke a massive reaction from a massive audience.
This album may not win over heaps of new fans, especially those who preferred the band’s more abrasive tendencies, but Underworld is still a resounding success. Even at a lengthy 64 minute runtime, things rarely overstay their welcome and will definitely warrant repeated listens. In a modern world where Dream Theater does practically everything wrong, it’s nice to know the universe provides us with a balance in which Symphony X does the exact opposite.
Symphony X’s Underworld gets…