Symphony X - Underworld - (6.5/10)
Published on July 4, 2015
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…