After four long years the Progressive Metal Kings of New Jersey have returned with their 9th studio album, Underworld. In the four years since the bands last effort Iconoclast, vocalist Russell Allen has kept himself busy with a myriad of side projects including Adrenaline Mob, Level 10 (with Primal Fear/Sinner/Voodoo Circle bassist Mat Sinner), a fourth Allen/Lande album, and some others I’m probably forgetting! Bassist Mike Lepond has released his straightforward metal band Mike Lepond’s Silent Assassins and self-titled debut album (featuring Watchtower vocalist Alan Tecchio, ‘Metal’ Mike Chlasciak of Halford fame, and input from Lepond’s Symphony X bandmates guitarist Michael Romeo and keyboardist Michael Pinnella).
Although the bands fans are split into two camps, one, being the “traditional” old school prog fans who live and die by the bands early work (most citing 1997’s The Divine Wings of Tragedy as the bands finest achievement). The other camp belongs to fans of the bands recent heavier prog metal material starting with 2007’s Paradise Lost and continuing with 2011’s Iconoclast, which find lead vocalist Allen taking a more agro approach to his vocals.
Regardless which camp you side with (my personal opinion is, “why can’t we have both?”), Symphony X fans have been salivating for a brand new album from their progressive metal heroes and their patience is about to be rewarded as Nuclear Blast records is set to release Underworld on July 24th.
On my first listen to Underworld I am amazed at the way the album balances their melodic prog past and blends it perfectly with its heavier present. In comparing the album to Iconoclast, it seems as though more attention was given to melody and memorable hooks this time around.
The album opens with the grandiose instrumental intro track Overture has a dark, gothic, and cinematic metal feel, the music swells and builds, rising to a massive crescendo which leads into the albums first “single” Nevermore. This song is a tour de force of blazing guitar riffs, powerful drums, and Russell Allen alternating from a vicious beast during the verses and turning on a dime as his vocals soar into the stratosphere during the bride and chorus. The chorus is massive and catchy as hell and instantly becomes etched into the listener’s brain. There are lyrical nods to the past throughout this song as well as the album as a whole finding inspiration from the literary classic Dante’s Inferno.
The albums title track features the majestic keyboard work of Pinnella and some tasty guitar licks from Romeo. This song has all the trademarks that Symphony X fans have come to expect from the band. Allen’s vocals are laced with venomous rage during the verses and he shows his range and melodic side during the bridge and chorus. Michael Romeo’s guitar virtuosity is on full display with his neo-classical style and ability to shred and trading leads with keyboardist Pinnella.
The next track, Without You shows off the bands softer side, without fully venturing into power ballad territory. The song has a huge, epic chorus and interweaves acoustic and electric guitars seamlessly with Allen’s flawless emotive vocals to create a song that is both powerful and heartfelt. For any of the prog snobs out there that complain about “Angry Russ”, just listen to this song and you will eat your words.
One of the biggest surprises on the album comes on the fast, and heavy as hell Kiss of Fire. Drummer Jason Rullo gets to flex his metal muscles with some incredible drumwork, even pulling off some blast beats, much to my surprise, yet they fit the song perfectly! Bassist Lepond and Rullo hold down the heavy bottom end proving that they are one of the best rhythm sections in progressive metal today. Sir Russell again shows his diversity switching from ultra aggressive, yet melodic vocals and soaring high range screams.
Charon has a slower more deliberate pace with a Middle-Eastern vibe. Allen’s vocals carry this song, overall though this is my least favorite on the album (not enough to deter the 5 star rating) but it still managed to hook me in with a fantastic melody line during the chorus.
To Hell and Back takes a more melodic approach. The lyrics deal with Orpheus’ journey into Hades to save his wife. Allen does a superb job at conveying the emotion that Orpheus is feeling, pulling us into the story. The song also features a tremendous and huge sounding chorus which ranks up there as one of the best in the Symphony X catalog, which is no small feat. Romeo shines as well with some incredible melodic soloing.
In My Darkest Hour hits the listener life a freight train with powerful quick drumming, and heavy riffs combined with a killer chorus. Run With The Devil is another fast and furious song with some great riffs and a classic rock feel with the gorgeous chorus, which shows Sir Allen in fine voice. The guitars are more understated during most of the tune, letting the melody carry the song.
Swan Song is classic Symphony X with a beautiful neo-classical arrangement, haunting melodies, and powerful heartwarming vocals. This song has everything that fans of Symphony X have come to expect with some nods to past work like When All Is Lost from Iconoclast, yet still sounding fresh, vibrant and new. Romeo’s lead work here is stellar and shows why he is regarded as one of the best guitarists in all genres of metal not just prog music.
The albums final track, Legend has a guitar intro that brings back memories of classic Eddie Van Halen with flash and energy, a triumphant song drawing inspiration from classic metal and hard rock bands such as Rainbow and Ronnie James Dio with Sir Russell Allen carrying the torch from his fallen idol with class and honor.
In the final analysis, with Underworld, Symphony X has created an album that honors its past and builds upon its future legacy as one of the greatest progressive metal albums of all time. A sure fire bet to end up on top of most metal fans best of 2015.