Released By: Music Theories Recordings
Release Date: July 27th, 2018
Genre: Progressive Metal
Michael Romeo – Guitars, Keyboards
Rick Castellano – Vocals
John “JD” DeServio – Bass
John Macaluso – Drums
Fear the Unknown
Whenever I listen to a metal album, the one instrument I tend to pay the most attention to is the guitar, as I’ll always love a good, crunchy riff, a killer solo or some awesome melodic leads whenever I hear them. One of my favorite guitarists of all time is Symphony X guitarist Michael Romeo, who has established his own signature sound over the past two and a half decades, and while his style has certainly evolved quite a bit over time, becoming a bit meaner and crunchier and a bit less neoclassical, whenever I hear anything with him performing on it, I can notice his distinct sound immediately. So obviously, I was beyond excited when I heard he was working on a new solo album, with his main band being on a bit of a break at the moment. He did previously make a solo record titled The Dark Chapter, back in 1995, but that was right at the start of his days with SX, and so his sound has changed a lot since then, making a new solo album all the more appealing. He has brought together a talented supporting band to create his new release, War of the Worlds / Pt. 1, an amazing release which promises more to come, based on that title.
Anyone who’s heard a Symphony X album before should have a good idea of what to expect here, as Michael hasn’t strayed too far from his normal style here, offering up the kind of aggressive, epic and at times melodic and relaxing progressive metal his band has become known for. There’s a bit of something for everyone here, with some crunchier, fast-paced tracks with power metal influences, which could have easily come from any of the past few SX albums, while other tracks in the second half of the album are a bit softer, some of them being more complex and having more layers to them, as expected. There’s a couple of tracks in particular that probably comes the closest to Michael’s classic sound than anything else he has done in recent years, which is pretty awesome. At the same time, there’s definitely some new elements here as well, with the album being surprisingly a bit more symphonic than anything he’s done in the past, even getting a bit cinematic at times. There are quite a few softer instrumental portions that have very little to do with metal, instead of being dominated by keyboards, orchestral sounds, and even some electronic effects, so those sections offer up a nice change of pace from the usual material. While Michael is clearly the star here, the other two musicians do a great job as well, with the drums especially sounding excellent, and everything is performed flawlessly, and of course, the production is perfect. Songwriting is quite varied and offers up a nice mix of more straight-forward material with strong vocal melodies, as well as some more complex tracks and a few tracks that are mostly instrumental, including two full instrumentals (one of which is the expected intro track, of course.)
Perhaps the most surprising and impressive thing about this release, though, is the vocals. It’s not like the vocals here are anything radically different from what fans would expect with this sound or anything. In fact, vocalist Rick Castellano manages to channel all aspects of Russell Allen’s vocal style so well, it almost feels like Michael specifically told him to listen exclusively to SX for several hours, focusing mostly on the vocals, so he could perform the vocal melodies on this album exactly how Russell would have. I’m not sure if that actually happened, but either way, Rick certainly pulls it off perfectly, with everything from the gruff, aggressive vocals on heavier sections, to the softer, more emotional vocals during more melodic portions, as well as even the huge backing vocals towards the end of tracks, all being performed to perfection, and certainly sounding familiar but in an amazing way. If I hadn’t been told this was a solo album, I probably would have mistaken it for a new album from Mike’s main band, that’s how similar the vocals sound at times, which is highly impressive, considering Russell Allen is one of my all-time favorite singers.
Of course, the quality of the performances wouldn’t matter a whole lot if the actual songs were no good, but thankfully that isn’t the case here, not in the least. Michael has produced an excellent batch of songs here, which flow together perfectly and certainly feel like they belong together, as expected from the first part of a multi-part concept album. The intro track is pretty impressive, opening up with epic orchestral pieces that certainly have a very cinematic feel to them before the full band kicks in and unleashes a couple minutes of epic instrumental metal. After that, the first full track comes in the form of “Fear the Unknown”, the shortest but also the most explosive of the full-length tracks on this album. It comes firing out of the gates with some epic shredding from Michael before Rick quickly steals the show with some excellent soaring vocals, which carry over into the chorus. There are some excellent riffs and shredding throughout the track, and it’s a very fast-paced, energetic track with a perfect mix of heaviness and great melodies, as well as an excellent instrumental section, as expected. Next is “Black”, the first single of the album, which starts off slowly with some heavy guitars and epic orchestral elements in the background, before the guitars take over after a bit and the music speeds up, becoming another hard-hitting and speedy track. This track is a bit more complex than the opener, mixing in some slower sections to go along with the frantic verses, as well as having some excellent rhythm guitar work at points, but it’s still a pretty speedy track with an excellent chorus, while having several sections where Michael gets to steal the show with some awesome guitar work, as expected. It’s probably the most aggressive track on the album, as well as my personal favorite.
The first surprise of the album comes in the form of “Fucking Robots”, a hilariously named track, which isn’t at all what I would have expected based on its name. Instead of being overly heavy or filled with profanity, it’s actually a fairly light, largely instrumental track with a very cinematic feel to it, as well as having some futuristic sounding keyboard effects and quite a bit of electronic elements. There’s a couple of very melodic vocal sections in the middle, but for the most part, it’s largely instrumental track which doesn’t feel particularly metal, though it’s definitely nicely done and serves as an interesting change of pace. Next is “Djinn”, the most complex and most progressive track on the album. It starts out pretty heavy, with some aggressive riffs, and it stays rather mid-tempo for a bit, before opening up with some huge vocal melodies, and then shifting gears with an extended instrumental section in the middle, which alternates nicely between soft and heavy sections. The track goes through different moods throughout and certainly brings to mind some classics from around the middle period of SX’s career. Speaking of which, “Believe” is a very classic SX feeling track, except with a slightly more cinematic feel to it than normal. It opens up with some nice piano work, which stays there throughout the track, and it’s easily the softest and more emotional track on the album, with some very powerful vocals from Rick. It stays mostly soft throughout, without feeling like a full ballad, instead of being a relaxing track with just a slight metal edge to it, while being very vocal driven, with the guitars mostly playing a secondary role, aside from an epic solo towards the end. Basically, the track reminds me a lot of the two “Accolade” tracks, which have always been among my favorites, and this one is definitely worthy of being mentioned alongside those masterpieces.
The heaviness picks up again with “Differences”, a slightly speedy track with some pretty heavy riffs, which alternates between speedy, energetic verses, and a softer but very powerful chorus where Rick really shines, once again. Next is the full instrumental track “War Machine”, which has some epic guitar work early on, though it’s mostly a very symphonic track, where the orchestral elements dominate and it again has a very cinematic, almost film score like feel to it, particularly reminding of Star Wars at a couple points, except with some heavy guitars added in to make it feel even more epic. The last heavy track is “Oblivion”, a slow but hard-hitting track which feels along the lines of “The Serpent’s Kiss”, with a dark atmosphere as well as some very crunchy riffs and aggressive vocals, mixed in with an excellent chorus, and of course an excellent solo section in the second half. The speedy part in the middle is my favorite moment, but the entire track is excellent. Closing out the album is “Constellations”, a soft and largely instrumental track, which brings back some melodies from the intro, and while Rick doesn’t sing a lot on this track, when he does he sounds incredible and gives perhaps his best performance on the entire album. It’s a very epic and beautiful track, which closes out the album on a definite high note.
Overall, War of the Worlds / Pt. 1 is an excellent solo album from Michael Romeo, which delivers plenty of great riffs and plenty of great moments that will remind listeners of his main band, while times stretching out a bit and going for a more cinematic sound than expected. While Michael is clearly the star, the album also represents a major breakthrough for Rick Castellano, who really excels throughout, and I’d certainly love to hear more from him in the future. The album is obviously recommended for all fans of Symphony X, as well as for anyone looking for some aggressive and fun prog, with some nice melodies to go along with the expected huge instrumental sections. I certainly look forward to hearing Pt. 2, whenever it comes, and hope for it to be on par with this one.
Written by: Travis Green