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Symphony X just keeps getting better and better. Paradise Lost was a masterwork with powerful riffing and the unstoppable vocals of Russell Allen, and so the pressure was really on for them to come back with something stellar. And with Iconoclast, they truly have created something special.
In the past Symphony X crafted meticulous, celestial slices of heavenly progressive metal with soaring vocals and crunchy guitars contrasting against one another like night and day, and yet still coming out to sound quite majestic and magical. These days they honestly haven’t changed that formula too much, despite what some people might tell you. The soaring vocals don’t soar so much as bellow, and there aren’t as many elaborate prog-isms in the songwriting, but those are pretty minor changes overall, as the band always had the dark, heavy riffing and attention to hooks and choruses that they do on here. The songwriting is not too much different overall. It’s just that before, they never sounded as sure of themselves as they do on Iconoclast.
This album is about 90 minutes long. Oh, sure, there’s the lesser version with only 9 songs instead of 12, but that’s not really getting the full experience – it does not allow the listener to understand why this is so great. Iconoclast is a masterclass in heavy-assed, balls to the wall riffing, powerful Dio-esque vocals and intricate, progressive songwriting that doesn’t need to constantly show off in order to be good. The huge running time at hand might seem intimidating, but really it’s the reason why this is so good, because the band always keeps you interested, even through multiple 6 minute songs that seem like they’d get boring one after another, played for so long. But this is a band with talent and vision, and they attack the long runtime and conceptual lyrical ties with ferocity and unified vision pretty much untouchable by lesser bands. Each song is completely singular and captivating, and the whole album experience is something amazingly gratifying once it sinks in.
And it is quite a grower. There is so much material on this album that it seems unfriendly and obtuse at first, and some songs get lost in the mix, but with time they reveal their powerful hooks and get lodged in your brain as if stuck there with magnets. At first, as on Paradise Lost, the band’s newer sound appears to be less complex, but really the band just learned the virtues of writing more concise, tight songs – and the ones on here are simply the hardest, heaviest and most metal the band ever wrote. Symphony X sounds completely possessed by this huge world-crushing energy. Everything about this is super-charged, and the guys have a newfound dedication to stripping their songwriting down to its bare essentials. Symphony X have not simplified their sound or changed too much at all, beyond simply writing songs that are more visceral, more powerful and just all around better. There isn’t a boring moment on here. None of these songs has left my head all week.
I just can’t see why people would dislike this if they like metal at all. Everyone loves to tout metal as supremely heavy, ballsy, loud music, and Iconoclast is a distillation of those traits. It is supremely heavy, unnaturally ballsy and as loud and proud as it gets – isn’t that by DEFINITION heavy metal in the flesh? I think it is. People will complain endlessly about power metal not being heavy enough – well, here’s some really heavy-assed power metal for you! It’s practically like the band just sat down and decided “we’re going to make the most metal thing we can possibly think of, and it will be completely and utterly awesome.” Iconoclast takes no prisoners. It is always ruthlessly heavy and unbelievably powerful. But also complex enough to stay interesting after many, many listens.
Conceptually this is pretty much a story about machines dominating mankind in a Terminator-esque plot. The lyrics aren’t terribly focused on characters or anything, but each song paints a portrait pretty well, even if a lot of them say the same thing. I don’t know – I kind of think of it not as a linear progression between ‘chapters’ as some other concept albums are, but as a more unified, overall painting; a portrait of what this sort of chaotic, desperate war between man and technology would look like. Sometimes the lyrics are a bit sparse, but they’re delivered with passion and might and they do their job sufficiently enough – which is to get the message across. So I’ve got no complaints there. And notice how the mood of the album shifts over time, telling the lyrical story – at first with the title track it is defiant and warlike in a structured manner, but as it moves through the ravages of mechanical takeover, it gets progressively less structured, less upbeat and less optimistic, with “When All Is Lost” representing the sort of ‘turning point’ in the story, a chilling reflective piece on mankind’s fall from grace. By the second disc, all hope is just about lost, and the remaining songs sink deeper and deeper into despair until the all out insanity of “Reign in Madness” shows a humanity with nothing left except their primal, animal instincts to fight with. Masterful atmospheric songwriting and a great attention to detail. These guys are geniuses.
The musicians are all on point, with Mike LePond and Jason Rullo forming an ironclad rhythm section and Michael Pinella’s keyboards being pretty damn awesome when they’re given the spotlight. Russell Allen’s vocals are simply jaw-droppingly good. He has that excellent grit and tone that he had on the last one, which I just love and wish more bands would do. Every song on here has stand-out vocal lines and hooky moments galore due to his impenetrable snarl. Dio would be proud. And Michael Romeo’s guitar! The tone is dark, punishing and heavy as fuck. Frankly the band has never written better riffs. Check out depraved closer “Reign in Madness” – they thug out some of the most pugilistic, nasty galloping riffs you’ll hear this year, especially with that excellently vicious pre-chorus. Or the housebreakers “Heretic” and “Electric Messiah,” which both pack a set of riffs determined to render you and your wife impotent. “Bastards of the Machine” is a fast old-school power metal tune with a speedy tempo and wry, crackling verses, spliced up with a big shout-along chorus. “You’re the BASTARDS…OF THE MACHIIIIIINE!” Hell yeah. “Light Up the Night” is another old school power metal tune, with buzzing guitar harmonies and a screaming chorus for the ages. And let’s not forget the power metal bombast of the lead single “End of Innocence,” with its catchy chorus and inviting harmonies.
The rest of the songs are a lot more atmospheric and bleak, like (one of my favorites) “Dehumanized,” which varies from an angry, fickle burst of aggression in the verses to a somber, sad tune for the incredibly depressive chorus, along with a particularly invigorating interlude before the climax. “Prometheus” and “Children of a Faceless God” are hypnotic, swirling stomps with big, mesmerizing choruses and creeping keyboards formed around the walls of sound of the guitars. In between those comes the drone of “The Lords of Chaos,” with its almost zombie-like chorus creeping up from the bowels of the dead Earth, and subtle dramatic moments making it almost Thespian-like. The opening salvo of the title track shows the band’s progressivisms in full, and the 9-minute half ballad “When All is Lost” has a pining, longing chorus, some delicate pianos and also some of the band’s most grandiose moments ever. Its place in the album’s concept is just all the more tragic – “Is this all they’ll ever know?” I just find that so powerful. It’s the cry of a despairing old-timer looking at the devastated world and lamenting the tragic fate of those yet to be born, who will never know the beauty of the Earth as it once was. The fact that this is the only song on the album like that really makes the poignancy stick out. They don’t have to have two or three long, saccharine ballads – by lowering that count to one, they make its emotive power really count.
I can’t give this masterpiece anything less than a perfect score. It gets a perfect score because the songwriting is second to none, with subtlety and care balancing out the angry tempos and violent riffing tendencies to create the best of both worlds. It gets a perfect score because the sheer number of amazing songs and the long length make it proportionally better and more exciting to listen to. How can I argue with that? The only logical score to give this is 100, because it is simply that good. Symphony X is a fantastic band with seemingly limitless power, and even if they never produce something this good again, the power of Iconoclast is as great as its name suggests. We’re only halfway through the year but I’m calling this as album of the year. If you only like frilly, elaborate prog, then you won’t like this, but if you like good music, then you will treasure it just as much as the older albums from the band, and maybe moreso. A songwriting gestalt and a powerful, vital statement of true metal in 2011; I see no reason to miss this for the world.