Symphony X is a progressive metal band, and for the majority of their two-plus decades as a band, they’ve been pretty good at that whole “progress” thing. They’ve explored time and feel changes in their songs, constructed concept pieces about works like Homer’s Odyssey or Milton’s Paradise Lost, and generally made a good effort to keep their sound fresh and captivating. Which is why album number nine, Underworld, can’t help but feel like a little bit of a let-down.
Rather than looking forward, the band seems content throughout Underworld to remain in neutral — or worse, to retread older ideas from their back catalogue. One can never deny Symphony X’s collective musical abilities, but at times, it’s hard not to question the ways in which they’ve applied them here.
Take “Kiss of Fire,” for example. A mostly bland number from the middle of the album, the song takes a handful of interesting elements — a powerful vocal performance from Russell Allen; some admittedly terrific interplay between guitarist Michael Romeo and drummer Jason Rullo during the bridge — but combines them all so haphazardly that it feels as though they’ve been plucked directly from other songs. (This is especially true of the chorus, which feels eerily similar to the “dominator / subjugator” line in the later track, “In My Darkest Hour.” Hmm…)
And unfortunately, that kind of repetitiveness is all too common throughout Underworld. Where the band’s normally so adept at offsetting their supply of intense, technical tracks with more melodic, change-of-pace fare, the balance has been tipped this time out in favor of the shreddier fare. You can only hear so many thickly-distorted, oddly-metered Romeo riffs before things start to blend together — which, sadly, is what ends up happening here.
Still, the album does have its moments. Its first proper tune, “Nevermore,” is prog virtuosity done perfectly, and the combination of Allen’s soaring voice, Romeo’s intricate arpeggios and Michael Pinnella’s ever-so-slight keyboard flourishes during the song’s refrain make for one of the strongest passages on the album. In fact, Underworld‘s chorus parts end up being its strongest asset in general. They’ll elevate otherwise average tunes like “Charon” to earworm status, and turn solid tunes (“Without You,” “Legend”) into really good ones.
It’s “Legend” in particular where that enhancement really pays dividends. The song closes an otherwise underwhelming album with an absolute firestorm. There’s a little bit of Rush-worship in the intro, a nice trade-off between Romeo and Pinnella during the bridge, and yes…a killer chorus from Allen. It ends things on a high note, and renews our interest in what’s to come from Symphony X. It doesn’t quite cover for the rest of Underworld, but it’s enough to convince us that, perhaps, the disappointment’s just a fluke.
Keep it heavy,