It’s been a while since we’ve posted an 8 Track post, so let me remind you what this is all about. The idea is to choose 8 tracks from a band’s career that exemplify their growth and their style for those who might not be aware of them at all or just aware of a very specific part of their career; as such, the series works well for big names, especially those with diverse discographies. Funnily enough, Symphony X answer this definition while at the same time being criminally underrated. The band influenced a whole swath of modern musicians, outside of progressive and power metal as well, and yet, their name doesn’t seem to creep up that often.
And that’s a damn shame. Perhaps it’s because of power metal’s maligned role within the history of power metal or just because the “aesthetic mode” which informed much of the band’s career is no longer in fashion. Regardless, it would do us all a bit of good to remember how great Symphony X really was; it contained (and still does contain!) Russel Allen, one of metal’s finest vocalists, and Michael Romeo, one of its finer (and most flamboyant) guitar players. Last but not least, underrated within the underrated, Michael Lepond’s bass playing on pretty much every album he was featured on is the stuff of legend.
So, we invite you to shed your prejudice and come with us on a journey through an illustrious career, filled with more notes than your heart can take, epic mythology and stories, and a force of expression not often rivaled in metal or, to be honest, in any other genre. Let’s get going!
The Damnation Game (1995)
The Edge of Forever
Ah, the early days! While not their first release, The Damnation Game is arguably the first Symphony X release which feels cohesive (there’s a reason the self-titled is absent from this list). And yet, it still feels very much like a raw exploration of the ideas that would later bloom into one of the best prog-power/neo-classical bands ever and one of the best metal bands. Here, these ideas still feel somewhat insecure and pre-mature, lacking some finesse and cohesion as a whole. But in certain moments their power is certainly felt and the promise which this style holds, a promise then yet-to-be-explored, is definitely there.
“The Edge of Forever” is a fantastic example of that presence. First of all, Russell Allen already sounds great on this album, his first appearance with the band. His voice, at parts, lacks a bit of confidence but what will become one of the most recognizable voices in metal is very much in effect. On “The Edge of Forever”, it blends extremely well with the bass role of then bassist Thomas Miller. This latter role is also strengthened by the unrestrained composition and playing of one Michael Romeo, who hasn’t embarked yet on his legendary career but is very much already confident in his playing and role in the band.
Overall, none of the tracks from this album are very much present in my daily rotation. But revisiting them is an interesting exercise, more for what is already there than for what is missing. It’s an exercise which reminds us of the power of the band’s original vision and grants us a deeper appreciation of how they would later come to flesh it out and refine it.
The Divine Wings of Tragedy (1997)
After the unshakeable primacy of The Odyssey, The Divine Wings of Tragedy is, to me, the best Symphony X album. This probably has to do with my roots in Dream Theater (one of the first bands I was ever a die-hard fan of); Wings has an unmistakable air of the same kind of influence, perhaps the band’s most progressive album and one of the cheesiest as well (I say this in the absolute best and most loving way). “The Accolade”, especially on its opening segments, is a perfect example of this; from the groovy as all hell drum/bass parts, through the cheesy synth tones, and right down to the guitar tone (and the riff, which is just a few notes away from “The Mirror” at points), the track screams Dream Theater.
But it also screams Symphony X; it has their mark all over them, presenting the most refined version of their earlier sound. The rougher vocals, bearing the Russell Allen staple inflection and timbre, the different mode in which the synths are played (more participatory than backing), the neo-classical flourishes on the piano, Michael Romeo’s unique, neo-classical style, and more all lends this track a distinct vibe of its own. The beauty is that this vibe works beautifully with the progressive metal vibes, creating what is perhaps the quintessential sound of early Symphony X, the exact definition of their neo-classical prog-power.
At the end of the day, the formula just works; “The Accolade” moves me to this day, channeling as it does a fight for self-actualization and for recognition through moving and over the top music. It contains, in microcosm, the blending of styles that will come to define Symphony X over their long career, a blend which will also stand at the core of the prog-power genre itself. Here is its most early form as a complete unit, with all the parts neatly arranged before future albums started to tweak with it. It’s one hell of an album and one hell of a track.
Twilight in Olympus (1998)
Lady of the Snow
Twilight in Olympus is probably Symphony X’s most overlooked album. The band themselves have admitted to cannibalizing the album’s title tracked for the album which followed it. The name probably plays a big part in that as well; it seems like a knock off of The Odyssey and not as unique and filled with personality as V: The New Mythology Suite. However, one can point out to a maybe more salient and meaningful reason this album was overlooked and that is its transitional role. Where the previous album represents the culmination of the early sound for the band and the next marks the shift towards their middle era, Twilight in Olympus stands in between.
Nowhere is this more visible than on “Lady of the Snow”, a track which retains the expressive aesthetic of the first few albums while already hinting at the more progressive and heavier sounds of what is to come. The result is a track that can sound bland but actually contains much that’s endearing. The guitar/vocals buildup at the beginning of the track proper, leading into that over-the-top Romeo lead, is one of the best points on the track and definitely contains hints on what’s to come for the band’s career. Likewise too the main, meandering lines of the track and how they interact with Allen’s vocals should immediately spark comparisons to The Odyssey.
Overall, “Lady of the Snow”, like Twilight in Olympus in general, is a bit unjustly forgotten. It definitely sounds like the band are reaching in the dark a bit, looking for a new purchase off of which to base their sound. But that moment is interesting in and of itself and produces some powerful moments. What’s more, it’s an integral part of the Symphony X story and for that if nothing else, it deserves to be remembered.
V: The New Mythology Suite (2000)
A Fool’s Paradise
V: The New Mythology Suite is the album where the three semi-disparate, yet intimately related, parts of Symphony X’s DNA – their progressive metal, power metal, and neoclassical sounds – all come together in the most impactful and bracing ways. Their tendencies towards complex and impressive instrumentation that emerges from the interplay between Michael Romeo, Russell Allen, and Michael Pinnella, who have virtuosic talents and a well-utilized stylistic range on guitar, vocals, and keys respectively, blends perfectly on this record with the theatrical vibe of their music for something that is always dancing on the knife’s-edge of being bracing and melodramatic without going into full-blown schmaltzy territory.
“A Fool’s Paradise” showcases this perfectly; all three members of this illustrious triumvirate transferring with wild speed between high-octane progressive metal instrumentation, choral breaks, and fire-slinging solos, deftly showcasing their ability to find the common point between three distinct and sometimes opposed genres of metal in just a hair under five minutes. Damn!
The Odyssey (2002)
Inferno (Unleash the Fire)
In contrast to the other track from this album we’re speaking on, “Inferno (Unleash the Fire)” represents Symphony X at their most straightforward in the first half of their career. This is the opening track of The Odyssey, and the band comes out all guns blazing: Michael Romeo deftly weaves a melodic tapestry that is both easy to follow and impressively technical, and Russell Allen shows off his chops as a stellar metal frontman. Although there are some definite shenanigans on this track, which mostly take the forms of brief moments where the keys and lead guitar accompany one another, “Inferno (Unleash the Fire)” is a solid, no-bullshit track, showcasing a side of Symphony X that we rarely see, especially this early in their career: a band that can easily hunker down and write a straight-up metal banger when they so choose.
It is hard to describe this track – the crown jewel of Symphony X’s career – without devolving into hyperbole and sentimental cheese. Which, you guessed it, means I’m not even going to try: “The Odyssey” is one of the best songs recorded in the history of rock-based music, up there in a luxurious firmament 70-some years in the making alongside the best songs of King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Radiohead, The Beatles, Nirvana, Black Sabbath, Metallica, whoever. “The Odyssey” is a truly one-of-a-kind piece of music.
To call “The Odyssey” a tremendous undertaking would be an understatement of massive proportions. It is an unbelievable achievement: 24-and-change minutes of music that ranges from progressive rock, to symphonic arrangements, to power metal, told across seven suites that relay, in broad strokes, the plot of the epic poem from which the track and album take their name.
The music moves in tandem with the events of the story, too: when it recounts the tragedy that befalls Odysseus and his men on the island of the Cyclopes the song is dark, brooding, and violent; when the band take to the events surrounding Circe’s island the music is adventurous and daring; when Odysseus finally returns to Ithaca after two decades away the music is wary and pensive, mirroring our hero’s stealthy return to survey the changes to his kingdom, before giving way to the sounds of unbridled triumph as Odysseus reclaims his throne in battle against the suitors who have come to woo his wife in his long absence.
At the risk of beating a dead horse here, my god, this song is so fucking good. It’s the diamond in the gem-studded diadem that is Symphony X’s corpus; it is one of the best examples of applying a concept and narrative to music and the fact that they managed to do justice to one of the greatest works of literature in the history of the human race is stunning. If you can listen to this track and not be knocked on your ass every time, maybe music just isn’t for you.
Paradise Lost (2007)
Set the World on Fire (The Lie of Lies)
It took me a while to “get” Paradise Lost. In the five years which elapsed between it and The Odyssey, I think the band recognized (rightly) that the reign of their previous prog-power formula was at an end. Metal was doing other things and moving away from much of the energies that informed the beginning and middle of Symphony X’s career. Paradise Lost was their answers to this, presenting a more directly power metal face to the band. Much like the following Iconoclast, Paradise Lost is more direct and aggressive. However, it still draws on the break-neck speed of the band and the inherent flamboyance of their style.
“Set the World on Fire (The Lie of Lies)” is a perfect example of this. Listen to the more straight-forward but nevertheless still powerful guitar chords, bordering on chugs. The transitions are slick and memorable, perfectly feeding into the over the top chorus. Throughout, the old-school synth tone can still be heard, even if it is more restrained at points. The bass draws a classically power metal galloping tempo, backing up the rest of the instrumentation and adding in some much needed urgency. Of course, all of this eventually falls away in favor of some absurdly sweep-y and over the top solos, both from the synths and the guitars.
After the solos, and a quick chorus, comes the furiously heavy outro, backlit by incredible work from the vocals. Here, at the outset, Russel Allen still rules supreme. On these latter releases, his vocals become even more crucial to the band’s sound, carrying forward much of the expressiveness and force of the release. It’s also one of the most recognizable elements of the band’s sound, tying these latter releases into everything that’s come before. What remains is a more immediate, but still intimately Symphony X, version of the band’s sound, a more modern, polished, and aggressive take on the prog-power formula. And it works; instead of slinking off into dad-prog territory, with Paradise Lost Symphony X proved that they were willing to tweak and change their sound to stay both relevant and enjoyable.
Children of a Faceless God
On Iconoclast, Symphony X’s eighth (and second-most-recent) album, we see what they’ve matured into: the band’s taken a step back from the Mach-V theatrics that defined their early work, and harnessed the same level of complexity and technical knowhow into writing songs that are more focused, straightforward, and powerful. “Children of a Faceless God” is a perfect example of the songwriting that characterizes Iconoclast and 2015’s Underworld. A central melodic motif forms the backbone of both the verse and chorus riff, there are only a couple solos, and the song has a fairly standard verse-chorus-verse structure.
Although the sweeping keys and mile-a-minute fretboard wizardry are still present, they exist in a punchier form; the lithe and slippery songwriting of their early days has been grafted onto chunky, hard-hitting riffs for a sound that is no less impressive, but far more – dare I say it? – digestible than their earlier work. Although some fans are, admittedly, turned off by this turn towards a more pedestrian methodology, arguing (not without merit) that it robs Symphony X of some of their neoclassical and progressive bent, the group has lost little of their characteristic sound.
In fact, I’d argue that by choosing to focus more on writing songs that function on their own rather than suites and conceptual records, Symphony X has matured far better than some of their prog-power compatriots. Regardless, this is where the band stands now: long in tooth and far wiser than when they started, they’ve aged gracefully into a finely-tuned group of songwriters.