Symphony X have managed to build up a staunch cult following throughout their career and are widely regarded one of progressive power metal’s seminal and most revered acts. Throughout their eight albums between 1994 and 2011, the Jersey boys manifested their status through outstanding albums such as The Damnation Game and The Divine Wings of Tragedy up to their latest effort Iconoclast back in 2011. Now they are back with their latest effort, titled Underworld and there had been some expectations and rumours floating around that did not necessarily bode well.
And indeed the musical direction that had been hinted at on their last album sees a strong continuation on Underworld, further away from the neoclassical influence and on towards a more modern guitar sound and rhythmic foundation and even Russell Allen’s vocals, which always had been one of the band’s outstanding performances, but it seems as if his involvement with Adrenaline Mob and his far more aggressive and less melodic vocal approach have found their way into Symphony X’s sound by now as well.
“Nevermore” is kind of a hybrid, with the guitars being distinctly more modern, while Allen’s harmonies only shine through in the chorus (and compared to the chunky verse sounds almost sugary sweet), but other than that mostly relying on the grittier approach, something that is even more pronounced in the following title track, where Allen’s aggressive vocals even bring in a few borderline growls, which technically go along fairly well with the modern riffing, but only when he lets his voice soar in bridge and the great chorus, the true essence of Symphony X (at least the one the fans are used to) comes through.
Oddly enough the ballad “Without You” is one of the highlight of Underworld, with great harmonies, excellent interplay between acoustic and electric guitar, but when it is being bulldozed over by harsh riffing and borderline blastbeats on “Kiss of Fire” right after, the listener is rudely awakened and the symphonic keyboards underlying the frenetic instrumentation are just some relief. “Charon” is a mix between the modern and their past, whereas nine-minute “Hell and Back” takes a far more relaxed approach, dominated by harmonies and Allen displaying the melodic side of his voice throughout, but it has lost some of the ease it reached the heights before and seems a bit more strained to achieve the same peaks as before.
What is striking, though, is that towards the end of Underworld all of a sudden seems to be veering towards their older sound, even with some modern undertones, showing in the highly harmonic chorus of otherwise quite chunky “In My Darkest Hour”, “Run with the Devil”, which is almost pure progressive power metal or “Legend”, the maybe most “old school” Symphony X track on the album. An interesting fact is also that the two ballads are the strongest tracks on this album, whereas “Without You” is more the traditional kind of ballad, and “Swan Song” bringing in the piano into a very emotional track with outstanding melody and atmosphere.
For most bands standstill is a career killer, but when a band takes a rather abrupt turn it takes a big risk in potentially alienating their old fans. Underworld is one of these make or break albums that will test the resolve of the band’s fanbase, because both the more modern orientation and vocal differences are quite the departure from the sound they helped shape and bring to (relative) fame. No doubt that the performance of the musicians is anything but top notch, yet the question is valid: How much does this still sound like Symphony X?
Two of the most defining factors of Symphony X’s rise to fame have taken a severe hit over the last few years, this being Russell Allen’s formerly soaring and powerful vocals as well as the uncanny ability to combine intricate progressiveness with accessible and at times furious power, resulting in Underworld being an overall underwhelming experience that will leave many fans of old wanting. While some of the musical deviation can be put down to the album’s very dark lyrical matter, the lack of freshness and spark is what ultimately is Underworld’s demise and one can only wonder, if the title of the track “Swan Song” might not be an involuntary prophecy after all…
Another nail in the coven.
Cradle of Filth has been on a pretty impressive run. With the exception of the off kilter punk tones that crept into their last album The Manticore, the band has seen a resurgence of quality in their material with just enough nuance to distinguish each record. The same goes for their latest record Hammer of the Witches. This time around the British extreme metallers incorporate a bit more melody into the mix without pulling away from the dense and epic sound that they have been riding since Godspeed on the Devil’s Thunder. The results? Their most easily consumed album in over a decade.
Cradle of Filth has remained something of a controversial band in regards to their own fan base. When the band has toyed with adding commercial hooks into their sound on Nymphetamine and Thornography, fans reacted in furious ways. Hammer of the Witches is the kind of record that may illicit some of this overreaction from fans. It’s not nearly as radio friendly as either of those albums, but when the Iron Maiden inspired guitar melodies come sliding into “Enshrined in Crematoria” or the female operatic vocals some soaring into “Right Wing of the Garden Triptych” there might be some of those same issues that arise with fans claiming ‘sell out.’
For Hammer of the Witches though, those potential overreactions to the consumable nature of the album are fairly unjustified. Similar to the previously mentioned Godspeed album or even Damnation and a Day, this eleventh record (twelfth if you count the orchestral release Midnight in the Labyrinth) from Cradle of Filth is a solid blend of old school extreme aspects and those modern melodies mentioned above. The band continues to add in plenty of orchestral elements that thread through every track, the intro, the outro, and the interlude. While the band doesn’t use a lot of the female vocal accompaniment to balance out of the shrieky, snarly, and raspy vocals of Dani Filth, they occasionally pop up and promote a bit of diversity. Cradle of Filth also continues to utilize lots of layers for their songs. Not only are we getting those melodic guitar lines, but you’re going to hear plenty of galloping rhythms on “Deflowering the Maidenhead, Displeasing the Goddess” and just enough of that black metal influence from their early days in the more chaotic sections of songs like “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
The true reason why Hammer of the Witches works so well though is how thoughtfully arranged the songs are and the very effective flow that Cradle of Filth has when navigating the modern chunky rhythms, the melodic guitar leads, and the more extreme elements. The band has always layered their music well, but for this record it seems less intentional and far more natural in how it plays out. The album is just shy of an hour long and never does it feel this length. The blend of style just pours forth. It’s not shockingly drastic in its changing structures and it makes it one of their most enjoyable full album listens in years.
For this long time fan, Hammer of the Witches is a nice blend of eras for Cradle of Filth. It’s still the layered and epic tone of their most recent output, but it retains just enough of that commercial viability to be a great record to introduce new listeners to the expansive (and often controversial) career of these extreme metallers. This may not be the record to change the minds of the more stubborn folk that believe the only good Cradle of Filth is pre-Midian Cradle of Filth, but it’s certain to appease the mass of their fan base.
In nomine patris…
Powerwolf are, well, Powerwolf. Having found their formula a couple of albums ago, their sixth effort Blessed and Possessed technically follows down the same road and to some their image with the ghostlike makeup, religion-laced lyrics and pseudonyms may seem overblown, but despite the corniness of their lyrics and relative predictability of their music, Powerwolf’s formula simply works and it works well.
Having long eclipsed the success of the Greywolf “brothers”’ original band Flowing Tears, Powerwolf’s brand of epic, bombastic, yet still heavy power metal works hand in hand with said image and say what you may, these Germans just have a knack of finding the right balance between catchy melodies, the right amount of grit and heaviness, an unholy atmosphere and Attila Dorn’s trademark voice with just enough divergence from the standard vocal melodies and lines to set them apart and give them this distinct Powerwolf touch.
And without giving the listener much time to get settled in, the title track blasts out of the speakers and will do to Blessed and Possessed what “Amen and Attack” had done to Preachers of the Night, and either reel in or repel the expecting metalhead, with dynamics and energy it leads into an epic/atmospheric bridge to culminate in a very catchy chorus that you will be able to at least hum along after the first listen. And with that they kick loose a whole string of highly catchy, but never shallow songs, be it speedy “Dead Until Dark” (maybe the best track of the bunch), compact “Army of the Night”, stomping “Armata Strigoi” (Romanian for “Undead Army”) and they kind of continue the pattern of fast, mid-paced and varying degrees of dark atmosphere throughout the remainder of the album, with only rockier “Sacramental Sister” falling off a bit, the rest, though, shows high quality throughout.
As formulaic as the above now may sound, it is what it is, high class power metal that is original (as in instantly verifiable as Powerwolf) and just has the right qualities in the right areas to stand out from the rest of the power metal pack. And as mentioned above, as corny as the lyrics and image are, if combined with the music and the atmosphere, everything just makes sense and makes the German band one of today’s top addresses in the genre. And while corny, they still avoid a lot of the standard cliches that many people hold against power metal bands, since they are neither happy, nor regurgitating melodies heard a million times.
What is power metal supposed to be? Powerful? Check. Melodic? Check. Epic? Check. Heavy? Check. Original? Check. While not fully reaching Preachers of the Night, Blessed and Possessed still is a genre highlight of the year!
A month low on bigger releases finds the force strong in many smaller ones.
It’s not every day that a Francophile vampire from Japan with an unhealthy obsession with roses decides to put on a concert in the United States…
Live at Beyond the Stars in Glendale, California on June 4, 2015.
Buckethead – Colma
Highlights from the powerful month of May.
Guest interviewer, Antoine Richard (operator of Metantoine’s Magickal Realm), sits down with Jean-Pierre Abboud, an American musician known for his involvement with the excellent heavy metallers Borrowed Time and, more recently, the Canadian epic doomsters of Funeral Circle. I’m glad he took the time to answer these questions.
Selections from all over the metal map make up this month’s best offerings.
Yob conquers Tucson. Neill has the lowdown on a night of heavy hitters.
Inferno Festival Day 4, April 4th 2015