If New Jersey is home to anything, it is home to the underdog who strives to defeat the odds and, once in a while, prevails. In this case Symphony X has prevailed. The New Jersey progressive metal masters are set to release their ninth studio album, ‘Underworld’ on July 24th via Nuclear Blast Records, and it is an outstanding piece of work that will earn the X some well-earned plaudits.
Dubbed the ‘fantasy-based version of Dream Theater,’ an admirable comparison by any standard, ‘Underworld’ grabs you from the outset. Following an intro laced with chilling, operatic vocals, we are met with the opening track and first single, “Nevermore”. This powerhouse of big guitars by chief songwriter Michael Romeo is countered by the epically delivered vocals of Russell Allen. “Nevermore” has already come as somewhat of a shock to SX die-hards, being seen as power metal as opposed to the neo-classical material they’re used to. But there is far more going on in this opener than straight-up power metal as new, strong songwriting choices take hold.This richness is evident throughout ‘Underworld.’ The synth-based title track “Underworld” sways through a collective of riffs, vocal phrasing and operatic movements until Romeo and keyboard player Michael Pinnella bring us to the final, blast beat chorus with dual solos.
“Without You” stands alone on the album as a contemporary ballad of sorts. Though writer Romeo is not entirely settled on the idea of the track as a ballad, he should take the credit, for he has written a pretty good one! From the acoustic and electric interplay between verses, to the chorus with its big hook line, “Without You” could be seen as the stand-out track on this album. The underdog, if you will.
Soon though, we’re back in familiar territory as “with a mighty stride the horsemen ride” through “Kiss of Fire.” With guitars riffs on point, Michael Lepond proves that bass is far more than root notes, with his own unique riffing thrown into the mix. Similarly with “Charon”, the guitar riffing is at its best from start to finish, with a hint of underlying acoustic and open hi-hats bringing another dimension to the track. In “To Hell and Back” we appear to be met with another ballad of sorts, or so the intro suggests. As we go further into the song however, the direction changes dramatically into an almost repetitive set of verses. Unusual, considering the band, and maybe not as successful as it might have been. But all is quickly forgiven as Allen eventually delivers the chorus, with Romeo also leaving his mark on the track. The band’s unity is at its strongest in “Run with Devil”, as drummer Jason Rullo drives the track through smashing verses and an epic chorus that would make Maiden envious.
‘Underworld’ closes with a two-parter. The piano-based “Swansong” strays away from storytelling and instead touches on a more personal level as Allen sings “for you I would do most anything, but now you’re gone and my swansong goes on.” This well placed, moving piece comes just before the closing track “Legend”, where the album comes full circle, packing a punch as strong as at the start and signing off with solos from individual members as if each one was saying their last goodbye.
In ‘Underworld’, a change in direction will undoubtedly be clear to SX fans. But this seems to come more from a sense of growth than from any rejection of the band’s original integrity. With material ranging from fantasy epics to raging powerhouses and powerful ballads, there’s a lot on offer here. In an age where music listeners suffer from ever-diminishing attention spans, it is encouraging to see Symphony X refuse to dumb down while delivering an album that takes creative risks. With ‘Underworld’, those risks pay off. “The legend never dies” and the legacy continues to grow. And greatly may it grow if Symphony X continue to create albums like ‘Underworld.’