Released by: Nuclear Blast
Release Date: 24 July 2015
Genre: Progressive Metal
4. Without You
5. Kiss of Fire
7. Hell and Back
8. In My Darkest Hour
9. Run With the Devil
Michael Romeo – guitar
Russell Allen – vocals
Michael Pinnella – keyboards
Michael LePond – bass guitar
Jason Rullo – drums
Is it really four years since Symphony X’s last album ‘Iconoclast’ was released? A release that I personally struggled with as I found Russell Allen’s vocals to be too gruff too often rather than hitting the highs that I know he is more than capable of. Colleagues too had commented that something was perhaps lacking in the songs so it was with some trepidation that I approached this, their 9th release, ‘Underworld’.
After an epic, choir fuelled two minute introduction to the album with ‘Overeture’, ‘Nevermore’ opens the album proper and although there are some initial heavy growls from Russell Allen, by the time the chorus is reached that stunning smooth pitch perfect voice reappears and a sense of calm and relief descends upon me as I settle down to enjoy the album.
Allen sings about “darkness and light” on ‘Nevermore’ and the track presents the same two shades in musical style as well. At times he dips, along with the music into the dark side of his range and then transcends beautifully back in the light in another moment as he reaches the choruses. All the time Michael Romero’s guitar work, rises, falls, dips and swirls around the vocals helping create a magnificent soundscape ably supported by the rest of the band. It bodes very well for the remaining 9 tracks still to be aired, if only I could get to them. ‘Nevermore’ resonates so strongly multiple plays of that one song are needed before reluctantly moving on.
The tracks themselves are mostly around the five minute mark, something the band has acknowledged was needed to deal with “an era cursed with shorter and shorter attention spans“.
Although not a concept album, Romero has confirmed that there is an underlying theme, with him studying Dante, and the Greek myth of Orpheus, where the hero is going to attempt to save Eurydice from the Underworld. So, a cheerful theme then, underpinning the songs, of going to hell and back for a loved one. This is no more apparent than on title track ‘Underworld’ with solid dynamic riffing assisted by a roaring Allen.
Contrast the style then with ‘Without You’ which delivers one of the best ballads of recent years and is filled with stunning arrangements, harmonious vocals and intricate but powerful soloing whilst still managing to maintain the progressive time stamp that the band is so well known for. Progressive Metal can sometimes be tarnished with a brush that assumes quality, extended musical interludes and interplay from the musicians will deliver a 25 minute epic that ultimately will be boring. What Symphony X have achieved here is an album (which is still only 4 tracks in) that manages to straddle perfectly the accessibility of shorter catchy metal classics whilst keeping their Progressive Metal fans happy with the complexities of the arrangements of the tracks.
In short, by the half way point in the album, there is something for everyone.
‘Kiss Of Fire’ reminds us that they can tear it up when they need to and ‘Charon’ maintains that energy whilst providing the opportunity for also allows the guitar and drumming interplay to really shine and, line a fine wine, proves how good Progressive Metal can be when it is allowed to breathe.
‘To Hell And Back’ allows the listener to sink into the song thanks to the wonderful tones supplied by Michael Pinnella’s keyboards. Allen’s vocals are flawless and overall deliver an album that shows off his power and range perfectly. In a world where a lot of progressive metal vocalist steer themselves towards the higher end of their ranges, it is refreshing to hear Allen move effortlessly up and down, echoing the dark and light Romero is striving to achieve on the album.
‘Legend’ wraps the album and sees all of the musicians stretching themselves presenting a soundscape that is multi-layered and ensures everyone gets their moment in the spotlight. It also sees harmonious backing vocals supporting Allen and that alone gets an extra rating point from me.
Recorded at Romero’s ‘Dungeon’, the state of the art studio used to add the band’s famous symphonic and orchestrated touches it’s clear that the four year wait for ‘Underworld’ has been time well spent by the band.
A triumph and a welcome return.
Written by: Adrian Hextall