Symphony X - Underworld 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 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.

SymphonyX2015a

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.


Rating: 4.0/5.0
DR: 5 Format Reviewed: v2 mp3
Label: Nuclear Blast [EU | US]
Website: symphonyx.com | facebook.com/symphonyx
Release Date: Out Worldwide: 07.24.2015

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Pay no attention to the 11 tracks and the 64 minutes of music
  2. I mean, it is on Nuclear Blast. Dio forbid they release anything that isn’t smashed to a crunchy mess.
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  • El_Cuervo

    It’s decent but never a 4 imo. Fight me

    • Roquentin

      We, the oppressed, must stick together (unionize!), so I’ll side with you.

      But seriously, it’s an OK record that just stands to remind me what sort of awesome stuff they used to put out. On “Underworld” they feel halfway between regurgitating their earlier selves and moving towards something heavy, but bland.

      My verdict: 3.5, better than anything they’ve released since The Odyssey.

      • Given that Paradise Lost is one of my favorite SX records and The Odyssey was the big letdown for me, I’m not really sure that I can even understand how you write here. :p

        • El_Cuervo

          I’m with you on Paradise Lost. Great album, it’s maybe my favourite. But this is… eh

        • Dr. A.N. Grier

          I love Paradise Lost but I am also a huge fan of The Odyssey. Those are probably my two favorites of Symphony X. In their own special ways.

        • Jón Aldará

          Vice versa for me. The Odyssey is the last consistently great record by these masters, although there are a few monumental moments on Paradise Lost. Iconoclast suffered seriously from riff salad syndrome as well as Allen’s powerful yet monotone hard rock delivery.
          I’ve had a quick listen to Underworld and the impression is: Better than Iconoclast. But I’m waiting for the vinyl before delving deeper. Should be at my doorstep one of these days…

          • Steve

            Iconoclast is better unfortunately. Allen actually sings a lot more, rather than grunting, but the songs aren’t even as good as the best moments on that album.

          • The Odyssey has grown on me, honestly. And I love Paradise Lost still. Iconoclast is weak, and weaker than I reviewed it. That might be the case with this one, but actually this record grew on me. I would’ve given it a 2.5 on the first day.

          • Jón, did you end up delving deeper yet?

            I’m a few re-listens in, and I think it’s superior to Paradise Lost. Its ballads are way more interesting, its “middle-easterny” track is a mile ahead (Charon over Walls of Babylon), the finale is better (and has a correctly-tailored length), and the rest of the tracks just have more variety and surprises on average comparison.

            Where I stand on previous releases: Iconoclast was pretty lame, Paradise Lost was good, The Odyssey was uneven but had stunners, and V remains my favorite.

          • Jón Aldará

            Hi Stan,

            I’ve kept an e-mail notification of this comment for 5 months now, and in that time I managed to have a few more listens. I think that elicits a response, even though it might go unnoticed.

            I’ve come to like the album quite a bit. Not sure if I agree with the superiority of Charon over Walls, but it is a very good song!

            As a whole, I think the album is very front-heavy, with the first half being much more engaging than the second. It’s specially the hard-rock vibe that kills ‘To Hell and Back’ and ‘Run with the Devil’ for me and ‘Swansong’ is quite a dull affair. ‘Legend’ picks up the excitement and adventurousness a bit and ends the album on a decent note.
            A varied album in material and quality, luckily with a bit more hit than miss.

            PS: They could find another way to start their albums than latin choir overtures by now. This one was particularly bland.

        • Roquentin

          ¯_(ツ)_/¯

        • Regardless of which Symphony X album is better than the others, they’re still an immensely talented bad and infinitely more interesting to listen to than the hordes of generic power metal bands that amount to little more than musical masturbation *cough* Dream Theater *cough*. Russell Allen has one of the best voices in metal today, and its a pleasure to hear anything new from them, even if it’s not perfect. I’ve seen Symphony X twice live and they literally blew me away (like I fell down) and it was awesome. I encourage any of you who are on the fence about this band to see them live.

    • I win.

    • Here’s Johnny

      bullshit, it’s a definite 4, maybe even 4.5.

      • El_Cuervo

        Strong

        • sssgadget

          DR 4 is just awful.

    • Dan

      Your words are wrong and the music is right. 4.0. Fatality

  • Kevin Dillon

    I love Allen’s vocals on this record. It felt like he was bored or just not into it with Iconoclast but here it sounds much more lively. I think this is their best work since V for me, but then I prefer their more classical stuff as opposed to Romeo showing off for 60+ minutes.

    It’s not their best work but it’s definitely a 4 for me as well. Love it.

    • chris

      Absolutely. Brilliant comparison.

  • Feu Arsenault

    So far i think it’s easily the best of their last 3 records. Paradise lost was good but iconoclast felt like a huge let down for me, i rarely listen to it. Underworld is fantastic.

    • AstralkinG

      Agreed. I’ve listened to every single album except Iconoclast more times than I can count. This is a massive improvement!

      But if a band wants to change their sound who am I to tell them otherwise?!

    • nunka

      Absolutely. Paradise Lost had some good moments. Iconoclast was dreadfully dull and caused me to fear for the future of the band. But this is great! Sorta reminds me of V…

  • Monsterth Goatom

    Streaming it now, and I like what I’m hearing. Reminds me of Angra’s sound in places, for what it’s worth. Great vocals, as Kevin mentioned.

  • El Lado Oscuro

    IMHO I did not like the record, it laked of good songwriting, and Allen did not sound as good as he used to be. I’ll pass on this one

  • That embedded track sounds great. I’d given up on Symphony X albums ago, but I might get this one.

  • Kalsten

    I did not like it the first two times I listened to (I have only listened to it two times, honestly). It sounds too artificial, without songs that really excels at any of the characteristics I look in Symphony X: good songwriting, a good balance between melody and anger, Russel Allen variety of tones…

    I don’t know, everything since The Oddyssey sounds so uninspired and boring…I am always coming back to V and Twilight in the Olympus. Those are the Symphony X I really love.

    • aabeba

      I thought Iconoclast really missed the mark but that Paradise Lost was thematically almost perfectly coherent and brimming with energy, with a musical consistency on par with that of Divine Wings and greater than that of The Odyssey.

      I really hope the rest of this record has more purpose and verve behind it. It’d be a shame to succumb to the belief that my favorite band is completely over the hill

  • CarvedInStone

    What Yngwie Malmsteen records are you listening to? The guy always had top-notch singers. Even Jorn had a short stint with Yngwie. Unfortunately that never lead to an album because of Yngwie being Yngwie and Jorn being Jorn. The only bas singer Malmsteen had was Tim Owens and their current guy who is also their keyboard player. And that isn’t becasue they’re bad singers. Their Halford-esque vocals just don’t fit the music.

    And what Rage are you referring to? If you’re talking about the German band, apart from “Reflections Of A Shadow” and their Symphonic work they never used keyboards. If you’re talking about the early 80s Glam Rock band then you might have a point.

    • Mauro Bossetti

      Uhm I do love Mark Boals but I got back to Magnum Opus and I’ve never heard him singing so badly, almost off pitch. Apart from the brief experience with Joe lynn Turner, who couldn’t go very high and hence he didn’t ruin Odissey, Malmsteen has always required everyone to sing in falsetto most of the time and it’s something which makes his music even more unbearable to my ears.
      No offense if you love him, BTW.

      • CarvedInStone

        Well, that might be because Mark Boals never sang on “Magnum Opus”. He was with Yngwie from 1985 to 1986 when he recorded “Trilogy” with him and then again between 1999 and 2001 which resulted in the two albums “Alchemy” and “War To End All Wars”.

        The man who sang on “Magnum Opus” and “Seventh Sign” was a gentleman named Michael Vescera who before joinging Malmsteen made a name for himself singing with Loudness for a short period of time in the late 80s/early 90s.

        And yes, I like both of them and never had any problems with the way they sang. They were perfect for the music Malmsteen was writing.

        • He actually made his name with 80s metal act Obsession before going on to Loudness later on.

          • CarvedInStone

            Was Obsession that popular? I know he was in there but I always thought being the one english-speaking singer in Loudness was a bigger deal for him.

          • They were kinda big near me at least, living as I did near their home base of Connecticut, and they had albums on Metal Blade and a video on MTV.

          • CarvedInStone

            It’s a shame that he never had another break after Malmsteen. The only other things of him I know other than Malmsteen, Obsession and Loudness are the records he did for poor man’s Malmsteen Joe Stump and his stint with Roland Grapow’s solo band.

          • It is a shame. Those early Obsession albums are some of my favorites of all time and his singing is a big reason why. Talented guy.

        • Mauro Bossetti

          Oh ahit, I had delusions then ah ah but yeah, it comes down to tastes. For me Vescera is not a singer. BTW I love Mark Boals so much that I can even listen to Iron Mask :-D

          • CarvedInStone

            Dushan Petrossi projects are great! How dare you insult Iron Mask? Or Magic Kingdom? Whatever name he is using right now. Seriously, Magic Kingdom and Iron Mask are basically the same band. Why he uses different names is beyond me.

    • Juan Manuel Pinto Guerra

      Agreed. Yngwie never had a bad singer. Never had a bad musician in his band.

    • I basically hate all the vocalists Yngwie worked with. And the Rage reference may be a tad misleading: Rage has a tone that sounds directly translated from the ’80s without having missed a beat. The way they produce their later records is almost anachronistic, which is what these moments remind me of.

      • CarvedInStone

        All of them? You don’t even like Mats Leven or Jeff Scott Soto?

      • I loved Soto’s work (hence why Yngwie’s first solo effort is always somewhere in my CD changer or mp3 playlist.)

        The weakest (for his music) singer would be Ripper Owens. He is a great singer, but not for this style of music.

        As for the other singers… they never disappoint (perhaps live some do..)

        • Soto was the man, especially on Marching Out.

          • CarvedInStone

            Soto was good. My favorite Malmsteen vocalist who recorded an album with him is Joe Lynn Turner. I have a huge soft-spot for that guy. I just wish he would take off his obvious toupee.

          • I agree 100%.

            I love JLT-era Rainbow almost as much as Dio-fronted Rainbow. I thought Odyssey was a good album and have been playing Marching Out regularly since its release.

          • CarvedInStone

            If you like JLT I recommend you check out the album he released with his new project Rated X last year. It’s a collaboration between JLT, Tony Franklin, Carmine Appice and Carl Cochran. Top-notch Hard Rock. Really good.

      • Kronos

        “The guy always had top-notch singers. Even Jorn had a short stint with Yngwie.”
        I can hear the little pop made by a bulging vein in AMG’s forehead right now.

        • AMG has been listening to Jorn’s Dracula a lot lately. I knew he’d come around eventually.

    • Dan

      Ask yourself this though, did he ever have a Russell Allen?

      • CarvedInStone

        He never had Russell Allen. So? He did have Jeff Scott Soto, Joe Lynn Turner, Mats Leven, Mark Boals and for a short time even Jorn Lande.

        • Dan

          Didn’t mean that he didn’t have “Russell Allen”, but that he didn’t have “a Russell Allen” level vocalist. All I meant

          • CarvedInStone

            Yeah, I get what you meant. I’m simply not agreeing with your notion that all these singer are inferior to Russell Allen.

  • Aaronc50

    I guess I’ll check it out. I wish it wasn’t the case, but Iconoclast and Paradise Lost both bored and disappointed me.

  • Brian Kelly

    ive listened to all their cds except the first one and iconoclast probably a thousand times combined, i would probably prefer if they went back to odyssey/pre-odyssey sound, which isnt gonna happen, but this is definitely better than iconoclast and possibly as good as paradise lost, have to listen to it a lot more to know for sure. definitely a 4/5 or better id say, much catchier than i remember iconoclast being.

  • JL

    Interesting review. Most of the long-term, die hard SX fans over at their official forum have expressed some disappointment with the record, especially in the more generic nature of the song structures. I haven’t heard it myself as I’m debating whether or not to buy it. I’m still on the fence. Perhaps I’ll download it and if I like it I’ll buy it.

    • Steve

      If you take 5 years between an album, atleast make it sound original. This sounds just so phoned in.

  • I was waiting for this! I hope it’s really as good as the review (and that I’ll soon have time to listen but alas life gets in the way).

  • ronin1572

    I love the fact that Symphony X is always consistent. While I may like one album more than another, the quality is always there.

  • I think it’s a 4, if for no other reason than the band’s still solidly able to make an album with no fluff. There’s no filler, and let’s face it, all the greats are doing their level best to go back to single-oriented music.

    I don’t think it’s anything less than their best work from the past. If anything it’s tighter, more focused, and less likely to wear thin on repeated listens (rather like Yngwie’s first two records in that regard.)

  • Levly

    What struck me the most is how much more varied and complex this record is compared to the last one (notably where Russel’s vocals are concerned). This is why I agree with AMG, it’s more reminiscent of their earlier work, much better overall, and has many killer tracks.
    But I also loved The Odyssey, both the song and the record (although it was indeed not as good as V).

  • OzanCan

    So AMG..uuhh..if you liked it so much, why didnt you give a perfect score?
    What gave away that one point down?
    I mean after I’d read the review, I was surprised to see a 4.0 here…

    • The production. The song I don’t like.

      • sickbroski

        The cover art.

  • Dr. Scorpion

    I miss Adagio.I do.I do.Underworld.

  • Carlos Marrickvillian

    A welcome and rare AMG review!
    Certainly interested after this. I would agree that I was expecting a slightly higher score after reading. It’s good to hear these guys are finding new ways to stay at the top of their game.

  • Juan Esteban Mendoza

    I’m still not convinced with this record, the first listen wasn’t particularly exciting. However some individual tracks are amazing, so far “Without You” and “Swan Song” are my favorites. Maybe it will grow on me as Steven Wilson’s album has.

  • Patricio Mainero

    I really love SX, I tried to listen Underworld several times and… nothing happens. Not so special album to me, comparing to Paradise lost, even Iconoclast. For me it’s a 3/5 (mostly 2.5/5)

  • Steve

    It’s a disappointing album given that with the likes of The Odyssey, V and Divine Wings it’s clear they can do a lot better. Plus the fact there’s usually a 4-5 year wait between releases.

    Atleast with for example Blind Guardian who usually take the same time period between albums, you get the feeling they’ve spent ages writing and recording and pouring themselves into their art, this sounds like it was written and recorded in 6 months tops, with it’s recycled solos and lyrics that sound like they were written in power metal 101. It’s not a bad album, it’s just that it’s an initial letdown. Not doubt it’s a grower, but it won’t touch the best in their catalogue. Iconoclast is still the best of their post Odyssey releases.

  • JimminySnakeTits

    I remember listening to one of the teaser songs (don’t remember which one) and not having high expectations, but I really am enjoying this album. Put in context with the entire album, I agree that the songs masterfully flow together – it’s one of the better examples in recent memory. I think what you mentioned about the 80’s hard rock sound is one of the things that has me enamored with the album. Excellent review!

  • mtlman1990

    It’s no Odyssey or Divine Wings Of Tragedy… Thats for sure

  • JCCFP

    Sadly, I feel that Symphony X’s best albums are behind them. This album has done nothing to dissuade me from that opinion. Are there some very good songs on here? Yes, but the last two albums suffered the same fate, in my opinion. Real good songs mixed with crap. Paradise Lost, Set The World On Fire, and Revelations were great songs. Seven, not even listenable. Electric Messiah is a great tune. Sadly, there aren’t as many good ones there, either.

    I notice the recurring theme is that Romeo tends to write most, if not all the songs now. Well, that is problematic. When one guy rams his ideas down a band’s throat all the time, you get Cookie Monster vocals in Dream Theater, and you get masturbate on guitar parts like in Symphony X. Also, Allen can still sing. Anyone who listens to his work with TSO live can hear that. Why must he resort to the growling lyrics still when he has Adrenaline Mob for that?

    Honestly, after a four year wait, I was expecting more. Hopefully it will grow on me more.

  • Grawmps

    Symphony X never fail to disappoint, but I expect Queensryche’s Condition Human is going to be the best metal album of the year. Just a hunch. :)

  • Beau Kemp

    I’m loving this album. It’s a grower. Songwriting is superb. But that album cover, WTF.

  • ghost whistler

    This is a great record. It is unapologetically uncool and fucking awesome with not just great shredding, but great melodies. Russ reminds me of Tony Martin (the singer, not the crazy farmer) who fronted Black Sabbath in the late 80’s between Iommi creative shit fits. His output with the band was also decent.

  • Vapotrini

    Maybe I’m alone, and I’m no expert by any stretch of the imagination but To hell and back is a fantastic song. Having listened to this album religiously for the past few weeks, for me, it’s the song with most staying power.

    Definitely not the tragedy it’s made out to be in this review.

  • Ben Carbery

    Thank you for being as superlative about this album as I am. It’s true this is not revolution, but grand evolution. Grand design you might say.

    But WTF, 4 stars??!? 4.5 clearly by your own words

  • disqus_IeDSkkzRXc

    Just saw them live last weekend. Pretty great. Russell Allen sounded pretty much perfect. The man knows how to sing.

  • Rynn Esfarra

    Being raised by parents who mixed rock and roll and musicals for my entire childhood I fell in love with SX from the first song I ever heard by them. I believe it was actually the titular track Paradise lost. Then iconoclast releasedo and blew me away. And seeing them live here in Niagara Falls NY on their underworld tour made my life. I wholeheartedly agree with your review of underworld it is indeed yet another masterpiece. (I am writing this jamming to end of innocence) I would give it a 4.5 myself

  • Tom Hysteria

    Symphony X suffers from Star Trek sequel syndrome. One must suck until one rules. PL was awesome, Iconoclast sucked thus…

  • Stuart Lambert

    To Hell And Back is the best song on the album, for me! And one of their best songs ever. Just goes to show how subjective music is. Either way, the album is 10/10.

  • Gorance Trpe

    Well, i love this album a lot. Tbh i like all their albums, even iconoclast, but this album is probably in my top 3. I dont know however, why do you classify To Hell And Back as a let down. In my opinion, To Hell And Back and Underworld are my favourite songs on the album, tho the rest are very close contenders. I thought the story and emotion in those songs were very powerful and made them my favourite