Michael Romeo is one of prog/power’s finest genii and is deservedly renowned for his day job as the guitarist and primary composer in Symphony X. Little known, however, is that Romeo released a solo album called The Dark Chapter in 1995. Only available on YouTube, the album is a mind-blowing display of, on the one hand, Romeo’s virtuoso talent and, on the other hand, just how far recording has come in the 23 years since its release. The Dark Chapter‘s first followup record is entitled War of the Worlds, Part 1 and on the surface, these two albums have little in common. War of the Worlds is not just Romeo, a drum machine and all the eye-melting guitar gymnastics you can eat. Instead, Romeo’s latest soiree sounds like a damned fine Symphony X record, with a band filled out by bassist John DeServio (BLS), drummer John Macaluso (Labÿrinth, ex-Yngwie Malmsteen, and many more), and the voice of surprising newcomer Rick Castellano.
War of the Worlds clocks in at a hefty 54 minutes and is comprised of ten movements seamlessly weaved together by Romeo’s orchestral compositions. From the overture to the album’s final strains, the orchestra bolsters Romeo’s frenetic, thrashy—and maybe a bit tech—riffing, linking ideas, buttressing rhythms and adding tension and drama. While the guitars and orchestras are center stage, Rick Castellano’s power metal tenor and an adroit, adaptable rhythm section fill out War of the Worlds‘ sound. The songs chug, wind and soar as necessary; held together—or aloft—by Romeo’s deft compositions.
There’s a cinematic feel to War of the Worlds reminiscent of Symphony X‘s The Odyssey. Romeo establishes his themes in the overture and evokes John Williams’ feel for majestic, memorable melodies. As the themes are recapitulated throughout the album, they further establish an energetic sound—bold, bombastic; like Gustav Holst composing power metal. Even when Romeo branches out beyond the orchestra, War of the Worlds retains a soundtrack feel. “Fucking Robots,” for example, features Romeo wandering into EDM-soundscapes that evoke the ROBO-BLAAAAAAATS from Mass Effect 3.
Nestled comfortably among the violins, horns and timpani are great metal songs. From start to finish, War of the Worlds demonstrates Michael Romeo‘s best qualities: smart, techy riffing; catchy, anthemic choruses,1 and subtle, tasteful—but fucking ridiculous—guitarwork. Romeo is both ‘tech’ and ‘prog,’ but unlike Obscura, who make the simple seem complex, Romeo has a way of making the complex seem simple. At first blush, for example, War of the Worlds‘ choruses seem like straight power metal fare: sustained power chords letting Castellano’s clear tenor carry the melody. Start counting, though, and it turns out that “Black” and “Differences” are in 7/8, “Djinn” is in 11/8, and “Oblivion” has a rotating feel that caught me off guard. Even “Believe,” the obligatory ‘uplifting power ballad,’ knocks out sections in 7/4 before giving way to a techy bridge. And despite (but also because of) the subtle complexity the songs are fun. A rogue AI *BLATS* the verses in “Fucking Robots,” leaving just the chorus to the HU-MAN. “Black” thrashes out Romeo’s trademark, eminently groove-able riffs and “Djinn” features gorgeous, subtle sweep arpeggios that soundly disprove the Malmsteenian Theory of Value.
War of the Worlds is also bolstered by excellent performances. Chief among them, Rick Castellano’s debut is lights out. Castellano has a brassy vocal timbre that’s common among my favorite metal vocalists—including pre-Paradise Lost Russel Allen. While the vocal compositions aren’t operatic in difficulty, Castellano shows off both power and touch. He works very well with cleaner tones (like “Believe,” or choruses like “Black”), he can also add a healthy growl for flair and his soaring upper range is impressive.2 The outstanding vocals are bolstered by a world-class rhythm section that hits all the right beats. Or Macaluso does. JD’s bass is, unfortunately, buried beneath a dense-as-hell master and gets lost—one of the album’s only drawbacks.
The Dark Chapter and War of the Worlds may not share much, but even separated by nearly 25 years, they demonstrate that Michael Romeo is a double threat—a virtuoso guitarist and metal’s finest symphonic composer. War of the Worlds nails the sweet spot between memorable songs and techy and proggy goodness. This guy doesn’t just shred or craft riffs, he composes metal symphonies that one can either admire for their depth or just bang your head to. And to top it all off? The promo sheet says that War of the Worlds Part 2 is almost ready to go.