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Arguably a Return to Form - 98%

ArnoldHablewitz, June 25th, 2011

I am in the minority. Unlike many of my headbanging peers I tend to view the album that preceded this one, “Paradise Lost”, was an over-ambitious effort that to these ears saw the band having a slight identity crisis. The mix (in particular the guitar tone) was too digital, the performances seemed uninspired, and Russell Allen was not in top form by any stretch, and seemed to be really trying to be as “metal” as he could be, and with disastrous results. So to say I had high hopes but low expectations for this album would be an understatement.

Imagine my surprise, when I hear a blistering guitar tone coming from the speakers, not to mention a mixdown that is truly worthy of this sonically-exciting band. Michael Romeo is one of the few guitar heroes of that past 15 years who upon hearing a few notes you can instantly tell it's him, but sometimes his technique has been slightly mushed on recordings of the past where he fully-embraced what we guitarists refer to as digital amp-modeling; a novel idea that to some ears offers a give-and-take between the convenience of switching amplifier sounds on one amp and having to contend with solid-state-brittleness in a guitar amp's tone. Here on this record however, his tone is full and warm; the highs are crisp, his palm mutes resonate with low-end oomph, and his inventive solos truly cut. Michael Lepond even gets to less loose a bit more than on past releases. A not-very-well-kept secret in progressive metal is that Michael Lepond is an amazing bass player who has the class to hold down the low-end and retain a song's structural integrity tying everything together like the best bass players in rock have always been able to. But the man needs a chance in the spotlight on occasion, and some downright impressive bass noodling creeps through the mix on more than one occasion here (4:02 of “Bastards of the Machine” comes to mind quickly). As for the aforementioned Russell Allen, I think he finally realized that we've been calling him one of the best voices in heavy metal since probably about '98, so he left out a good amount of the unnecessary gruffness that ruined his performance on the last disc, and he brought back that smooth rock tone that he's always had and that we loved him for. As for the gruffness, it is here, albeit where it ought to be...on the absolutely most metal moments of these incredibly heavy tunes, and even there it's been toned down slightly to make it a decidedly musical weapon of the man's vocal arsenal.

As for the songs themselves, these tunes aren't simply catchy...they are force-your-ear-to-the-speaker-catchy! These are some of the strongest songs that Symphony X has recorded in their entire almost-20-year career. “Iconoclast” is a 10-minute romp of progressive metal greatness complete with a solid chorus and an intense instrumental jam that would make any Dream Theater fan pay attention. “Electric Messiah” has deceptively simple moments of riffing that give Russell a real chance to shine in the pre-chorus and especially in that big rock chorus section. That's just a tip of the iceberg...one really needs to take the album as a whole and digest it all to truly appreciate it. It's been a long time since an album has truly been this great as a sum of all its parts.

I think we have a contender for album of the year here.