Symphony X is New Jersey’s answer to Yngwie Malmsteen. That’s not just a funny blurb: the more I think about it the more I realize that that’s actually a surprisingly good description of the band’s development. My relationship with the band started in 2000 with the release of the band’s perfect V: The New Mythology Suite. At the time, I described them to friends as being “Malmsteen—if he could write songs and had a good vocalist.” Since then the band has released some excellent records, but they’ve also taken a turn for the heavier, and edgier, moving further away from the traditional progressive/power wheelhouse and straight-up neocassical stylings. The orchestral approach on V never quite disappeared—they’re a ‘neoclassical’ progressive/power band ffs—but from Paradise Lost on, the band’s heavier attitude has continued to develop; embodied by Allen’s full-throated Jersey rasp.
Unlike its predecessor, Underworld isn’t a concept record, exactly, but the album has a theme running through it that is loosely related to Dante’s Inferno. The record is set up in phrases of threes, sixes and nines1, and the band is proud of having produced a record that they call “album rock.” That phrase—as long-time readers are surely aware—is music to my ears [Hey! Shitty puns are exclusively MY territory! – Steel Druhm]. If album rock was the goal, then Underworld is a qualified success: it bursts out the gate with an epic overture, which segues into the crushing opener “Nevermore,” and the title track; both are excellent progressive compositions with speed and an edge to them. That hard edge still is the first foot forward for Symphony X on Underworld.
Even when the band moves into mid-pace and ballad-y territory, such as “Without You” and “Swan Song,” the record flows brilliantly and with serious quality (the two named tracks are reminiscent of “The Accolade” or “Communion and the Oracle”). And though Underworld does end up in that mid-paced territory—”To Hell and Back” is the 9-minute slog which qualifies the record’s completeness—it also pushes the boundaries of Symphony X‘s heaviness. “Kiss of Fire” features wicked blast beats and Allen’s controversial growls, and even feature him sporting a low register I don’t remember having heard before. Underworld doesn’t miss a beat in showing off the band’s modern edge, with speed metal bleeding through more than on Iconoclast, and marking two of my favorite tracks: “In My Darkest Hour” and “Nevermore.”
Most surprising, though, is the genuinely ’80s hard rock sound that bleeds through on this album. My least favorite song on the record is “To Hell and Back,” but Pinella’s ’80s keyboard sound evokes Rage and action flick themes from better times. “Run with the Devil,” another of my favorite tracks, isn’t a crusher, but it’s got a crunchy sound and in the ’80s hard rock register that works well. The song’s “balls to the wall circa 1989″ sound gives way to a prog rock chorus that features Allen showing off his old, cherubic vocals before giving way to Romeo’s (sick) riff and Mike LePond’s ridiculous bass noodling. Even the final track on the album—”Legend,” which features Romeo at his absolute best—has a tonality that makes me think of ’80s Rush and Yes blended with the best of good ol’ fashioned hair metal: prog meets Yngwie meets New Jersey.
Underworld, ultimately, is an epic and beautiful record. While it’s littered with Symphony X‘s signature sound—it has more pre-V SX than anything they’ve released since—I was surprised at how well they balanced the progressive tones with their genuinely heavy sound and development. Moments like the bridge in “Swan Song,” or the amazing intro riff to “Run with the Devil,” or quoting “The Accolade” are genuinely inspired, beautiful, and thoughtful. In fact, the only stumble on the record is “To Hell and Back,” which dragged Underworld down in the middle. But even at 64 minutes the record flows well and the arrangements are sharp. And while it’s overloud2, I’m impressed with how well Bogren managed to balance out the band’s sound—with LePond’s bass tone and incredible skills being on display throughout. The only disappointment in tone, for me, is that Rullo’s drums sound like everything produced on the power metal scene since 1999.
I’m not sure what progressive metal would even be without Symphony X. These guys turn cheese into gold, and have never stagnated. In some ways, every superlative I utter about their talent feels dull in comparison to the visceral joy I get when hearing these songs. The musical brilliance in this band is breathtaking, and Underworld does a great job of balancing superb musicianship with songwriting alacrity that will make your music theory teacher weep. Underworld is just one more piece of evidence for my confirmation bias that Symphony X is simply among the best progressive metal bands of all time.