Welcome to Day 27 of my ‘Album of the Year 2015’ top 30 countdown. Be sure to check out my choices from 30 down to 5 via the links at the bottom of this post if you’ve yet to do so. Or, if you’re a longer-term reader, thanks for your continued support. And remember, please keep the comments coming – I love them all, both positive and negative and will do my best to reply to them all.
And, with that, I give you today’s main event:
Symphony X are one of those bands that just polarises opinion. Just about everyone who likes progressive metal will agree that the American band are one of the very best at what they do and that they are comprised of some of the most talented musicians in their field. However, where the disagreement comes is with regard to the musical direction that Symphony X have undertaken during their eight album, 21-year career.
It goes without saying that each and every album contains within it some stunning music but there are those that much prefer Symphony X’s earlier, more neo-classical style output and will hail ‘Divine Wings Of Tragedy’ as their masterpiece. Others prefer the heavier, angrier and grittier output that has typified more recent releases such as ‘Paradise Lost’ or ‘Iconoclast’. And it is rare that those in either camp will budge or concede any ground.
I may have got it all wrong but I appear to be one of those apparently rare beasts that enjoy both and is relatively non-committal when it comes to picking a favourite Symphony X album. For me, I enjoy tracks like ‘The Accolade’ as much as ‘Children Of A Faceless God’. I make no apologies for it as I can hear the brilliance in either. But that might change now with the release of ‘Underworld’ because to these ears, it is the almost perfect blend of the two styles, creating an absolutely monstrous album in every sense of the word. As such, I’m beginning to think very strongly that ‘Underworld’ may be Symphony X’s tour-de-force.
With ‘Underworld’, guitarist Michael Romeo approaches the status of genius thanks to his song writing ability and the way that he commands absolute obedience from the guitar whether it’s via his riffing or lightning fast solos. Messrs LePond (bass), Pinella (keyboards) Rullo (drums) are all highly talented and then up top, Symphony X are blessed with one of the best voices in heavy metal. Russell Allen is the kind of frontman that most bands can only dream of. Allen can sing beautifully and with genuine power one minute and, at the flick of a switch, can produce a much grittier, snarling vocal delivery. This is one of the areas of most contention amongst fans – melodic Russ versus ‘angry’ Russ. Again, I don’t understand the militant opinions either way because both deliveries have their merit and, on ‘Underworld’, they are both showcased to magnificent effect. Allen offers plenty of melody and understated subtlety where the compositions require it but also gives it some ‘oomph’ when the heavier passages demand a less relaxed delivery. What a combination.
When you listen to ‘Underworld’ properly and carefully, it quickly becomes clear why some of the band members themselves have been quoted as suggesting this is the best album of their career and I find it very hard to disagree with this assertion. ‘Underworld’ delivers absolutely everything that is so great about this band and a lot more. ‘Angry’ Russ compliments the heavy and uncompromising riffing within ‘Kiss Of Fire’, one of the album’s heavier tracks. That said, for all of the other moments of brutality and aggression, the overwhelming tone of ‘Underworld’ is altogether smoother and more melodic than it’s direct predecessors.
One of the possible reasons for this is the slightly greater prominence this time around of Michael Pinella’s keyboards. They’re not always front and centre or in-your-face, but they do lend the compositions a marginally softer edge whilst increasing a sense of sophistication and majestic, theatrical intent.
Naturally, for a Symphony X record, there are plenty of Michael Romeo’s blazing solos that light up the songs and delight listeners who, like me, have a real weakness for the excesses of the six string, particularly when executed as impressively as this.
But arguably the strongest aspect of ‘Underworld’ is its melodic sensibilities. Aside from a couple of the more aggressive songs on this record, the compositions are littered with wonderful and memorable melodies, be they within the choruses, via an imaginative lead line or courtesy of Allen’s vocals.
The album’s lead single ‘Nevermore’ displays an upbeat tempo underpinned by great rhythm work from drummer Jason Rullo and bassist Mike LePond that gives way to a huge chorus that genuinely grows with each and every listen. In the tradition of the likes of ‘Accolade II’, ‘Without You’ is one of the best ballads that Symphony X have ever committed to a record whilst ‘Charon’ is deceptively catchy given time to work its subtle charms. Then there is ‘To Hell And Back’ which is simply stunning. It is nearly ten minutes long and yet it flies by in a blur of great riffs, an abundance of neo-classical ingredients and a chorus to die for.
It feels almost unfair to not mention the remaining tracks but aside from the marvellous ‘In My Darkest Hour’ which plasters a goofy grin across my face, suffice to say that there simply isn’t a weak moment to be heard anywhere on ‘Underworld’.
Could ‘Underworld’ be the album that finally unites all of Symphony X’s fans both old and new? I don’t know and, to be honest, I don’t care. All I care about is how unbelievably good this album is. There is an almost tangible magic to be heard as if the stars have aligned and bestowed their celestial powers upon Symphony X. And, if I might be forgiven for directly quoting a review I wrote for this record in another publication, ‘‘Underworld’ is a gargantuan body of work by one of the very best bands in the progressive metal genre. Quite simply, it’s a joy to have bands like this is our lives and we should lose sight of this at our peril.’
Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 5
Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 6
Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 7
Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 8
Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 9
Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 10
Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 11
Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 12
Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 13
Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 14
Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 15
Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 16
Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 17
Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 18
Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 19
Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 20
Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 21
Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 22
Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 23
Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 24
Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 25
Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 26
Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 27
Album of the Year 2015 – Number 28
Album of the Year 2015 – Number 29
Album of the Year 2015 – Number 30
And from previous years: