Symphony X’s Underworld is Inhabited by Familiar Demons


The book-jacket synopsis of Symphony X’s 2015 album Underworld comes neatly packaged right at the beginning of the 65-minute release. The New Jersey power-prog stalwarts have never been known for their subtlety, and the campy operatic soundscape that opens the album with “Overture” clearly denotes the flavor of Underworld. The symphonic wash of the track spills over into a cinematic mid-tempo groove that sounds like the members of Septicflesh started playing World of Warcraft, and by the time the jagged stop-and-start riffage of “Nevermore” rolls around, you probably know whether or not you’re going to finish the rest of the album. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it just depends on where you stand on Symphony X. Another solid yet unsurprising step in Symphony X’s career, Underworld will likely see all sorts of mixed reviews, with innovation-thirsty neurots (not unlike the perspective yours truly often adopts) denouncing its failure to change a long-established formula and zealous devotees hailing it as yet another masterpiece.

In reality, as is usually the case, the loosely conceptual Underworld falls somewhere between platitude and piece de resistance. In defense of the latter: hyper-technicality abounds, but unlike some of their brethren, Symphony X don’t have to force themselves to sound heavy. The band’s continued fling with more extreme forms of metal shapes a malevolence here not often heard in traditional prog, evident in select ultra-brief blasts (“Kiss of Fire”), in the numerous triplet-heavy grooves, and in the needling, diminished dissonances that subtly but surely permeate the entire album. Though Symphony X have been historically dwarfed by the long shadow of Dream Theater, their song quality over the last decade has arguably been better than that of the Boston prog overlords, and the tracks on Underworld are no exception. Symphony X know how to write a memorable riff and how to spend the right amount of time with it, as the catchiness of songs like “Nevermore” and “Legend” prove. The band rarely overextend, sticking to a concise 6-ish minutes for most of the tracks and upholding their reputation for good album organization.

On the flipside: you’ve heard this before. In my recent review of The Congregation, I called out Leprous for being too “safe,” and while I still don’t think I’m being a sellout-fearing reactionary in my dislike of that album’s commercial elements, the criticism might have been a little myopic when I think about The Congregation in direct comparison to another contemporary prog release like Underworld. The Congregation was safe because of its use of elements that generally appeal to wider non-metal audiences, but it still takes more balls to pull a radical change on an established fanbase than it does to release music that keeps utilizing the same styles and practices a band has been associated with since its inception. Ultimately, despite their obvious flashes of inspiration, neither that record nor Underworld are particularly dangerous collections of music.

And while that’s a bit of a disappointment, only an impatient idealist would expect Symphony X to deviate from their long-established trend of writing pop structures – we’ll have to simply settle for strong, safe tracks. I understand that it’s not fair to ask Symphony X for drastic change, but I can’t help but wish that Michael Romeo’s compelling mix of neoclassical shred and Guthrie Govan-esque fusion wasn’t constantly being undermined by the accessible power-chord breaks used to reinforce every chorus, and that token ballads didn’t always have to take up fifteen minutes of a new album. “The legend never dies,” vocalist Russell Allen wails over an exultant gust of shredding towards the closing minutes of Underworld. Whether or not you think Symphony X are deserving of such a lofty designation, there’s no debating that the band aren’t relinquishing their legacy without putting up a decent fight.

Symphony X’s Underworld comes out on July 24 on Nuclear Blast. You can stream the track “Nevermore” here and pre-order the album here.

Show Comments
Metal Sucks Greatest Hits