Symphony X are a class act. Surely one of the best Progressive Metal bands in the world – THE best for many. And in an inward looking genre, seemingly dwindling in popularity, they’ve ceaselessly turned out album after album of pure quality, giving their existing fans everything they could ask for each time, whilst repeatedly tempting newcomers with each release. There are probably better albums than others – we all have our particular favourites – but I was starting to wonder how long the band could keep up that quality whilst not deviating from their trodden path.
The answer is to just change things a little bit – not much – almost imperceptible to the casual listener, but just a slight shift with some releases. Sometimes darker, sometimes even more complex, sometimes heavier…just…something. This time around there is a particular leaning towards vocal melody, in fact the vocals are shifted noticeably towards being almost the bedrock or focal point of many of the songs. On hearing this news I’m sure Dream Theater’s James Labrie will shout “I KNEW it was possible, those bastards have been lying to me all along!”, for yes, even though there is plenty of musical acrobatics on offer, there is an equally large amount of memorable vocal melody too.
Symphony X have always been able to pen a decent hook, but usually they are spread thinly over an album, where as this time virtually every song has a vocal of some sort that demands to be remembered. There’s still a grandiose instrumental intro and countless intricate musical twists and turns, but a greater variation to the song styles and that definite leaning towards memorable melodies. ‘Nevermore’ is the first track proper for a reason, as it encapsulates everything Symphony X are trying to put across this time around. Great riffs, stunning musicianship (as we come to expect), but also a great chorus. Vocalist Russell Allen has been proving for years what a versatile and adept singer he is, but it seems like Symphony X have finally allowed him to really step up and carry the songs a bit – and step up he has. ‘Nevermore’ is the blueprint for the album really, though there are many fabulous twists and nuances unleashed at every turn. The title track is slightly darker than usual, ‘Kiss Of Fire’ is like a technical speed metal offspring of Sabbath’s TV Crimes (enhanced by Allen’s excellent Dio-esque delivery), ‘In My Darkest Hour’ has a surprisingly strong Judas Priest feel to it, and yet ‘Without You’ is a melodic metal masterpiece that played on it’s own I maybe wouldn’t have picked as Symphony X…yet within the context of album it works perfectly. ‘Run With The Devil’ and ‘Legend’ in particular have some amazing bass-work on them, which seems almost unfair to pick out when you hear the ability and prowess of all the musicians within Symphony X. Nope, there really is too many to point out on “Underworld”, you’ll have to discover them for yourselves.
But I do think Symphony X have found a balance – and in doing so have released the progressive metal album of the year I’m sure. I’m pretty certain this will turn out to be my favourite album of theirs, and it’s up against some very stiff competition, but of course I’ll have to live with it for a good while longer to know for sure. So really, from a personal point of view, the only disappointing thing about “Underworld” is that it’s so good it ruins my opportunity to childishly refer to it as “Underpants”. Gutted.
(8.5/10 Andy Barker)