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Symphony X's previous album Paradise Lost finally succeeded in putting the band into more mainstream metal areas, uncharted territory for the band. Thanks to that album and exposure via some massive world touring with the likes of bands like Dream Theater and Megadeth, Symphony X is now a band that really everyone and their brother who's into metal can say that they at least know about. And that's a good thing, because this band does deserve some real recognition. But at the same time, I did find myself to be a bit disappointed with the product in Paradise Lost. The songs were a bit too long, Michael Romeo seemed to be lacking in the solo department, and generally it was an overtly bombastic affair that seemed to kind of just drag on and on. Despite these issues, Paradise Lost did a lot of things very good and I wondered if Symphony X could build on some of those good qualities exhibited in Paradise Lost while reigning in some of the other issues on their next outing.
Well, it's pretty safe to say they did. Iconoclast is a much improved album over Paradise Lost in most categories. The songs are shorter and more concise, the atmosphere has been given great attention to a huge payoff, and it is a more consistent album throughout than it's predecessor. In that respect, Iconoclast does build off of many of the good things that happened on Paradise Lost, but in some other ways it does fall short from being an amazing album by arguably the most accessible progressive metal band out there to date.
If I could pick one thing that really jumped out to me about Iconoclast on my first real listen through the entire album, I would have to say it's the atmosphere and how Symphony X went about constructing it. Atmosphere is not something I typically care about, but on concept albums like this one it is something that must be considered. Does the music immerse me in the story world? Dare I say does it live up to the cover art? Well yes, it does. For album that's rife with a sort of Terminator-esque storyline and talks about man's fusion with machine, one must say that Symphony X did create really the best possible atmosphere for this album. It's loaded with synthesizer sounds and mechanical riffing with synchronized drumming to boot. Sounds kind of like Fear Factory, but it's not. It's much better than that. While Fear Factory and other bands that take up the whole "mechanized' feel to things, the atmosphere on Iconoclast is rife with life as if this album is a cyborg that's trying to show it's a lot more human than it is machine.
The result of all this attention to a mechanical atmosphere is the most keyboard driven Symphony X album to date. Michael Pinnella clearly had a lot of freedom on this album when it came to what exactly he was playing and the composition of the album. It's rife with the sounds of machines and samples that make you feel like you're in the Matrix or Terminator. That's a good thing to, as the last album had such a broad concept that making it sound believable but not over the top was extremely difficult. Here though, the fact that there are so many synths and there are so many samples really enforces the atmosphere of the album to the utmost degree. Not to mention Mr. Pinnella has not taken a back seat in the technical department either. The lines are all rife with scaling runs and arpeggio patterns that will make your head explode from repeated exposure. But it's never really overwhelmingly technical and it never really gets boring like you think it would. It's done so well that you really feel you're in the world of this music.
However, there is a drawback to this. It does rather negatively affect the guitar work. While I will say that as a whole the guitar work here is better than it was on Paradise Lost, I do think it comes in part due to the fact that the band clipped the song times rather than that Michael Romeo actually got better with the riff composition. But that's unfair to say because in reality, he did get better in that area on Iconoclast. The moments where the guitars just take over, like Light Up The Night and Electric Messiah. But it's the moments where he just kind of plods along with the keyboards that really show where things are lacking. Thankfully those moments are in general shorter and not as easily apparent to the casual listener as they were to me. The parts where the riffs do drive the songs really do stand out as well in comparison to Paradise Lost, and I feel like those parts are in general better on Iconoclast then they were on it's predecessor. Not to mention the guitar solos on this album are ripping and seem much more up to par with what Romeo can do that they did on the last album. No all out shred fests, but the solos are all extremely strong in their own regard.
Iconoclast is a bit less bassy than Paradise Lost, but actually it's a bit more rhythmically advanced than it's predecessor. I find it so impressive that the band can have some really great beats from Jason Rullo and have them be so advanced. This is a very fast album in the drum department, which a lot of double kick and some great drumming throughout consistently. Jason appears to have really stepped it up in the technicality department on Iconoclast, which I think is good because the past few Symphony X albums have something to sort of be desired on that side of the drum department. I like this, because he finally seems to becoming a true force behind the kit to go with the other members. Michael Lepond's bass lines are as tight as ever, and I'm very pleased with the majority of them. No real bass solos on this album, but the bass work here is more than you'd expect. It's very pleasing.
Russell Allen had his work cut out for him after putting up a great performance in Paradise Lost. And to say he matches it well, is not really accurate. But saying he fell short is as well. He sounds a little less emotional and angry when compared to Paradise Lost, but he loses next to nothing on his overall ability when compared to Iconoclast. I have to say that the choruses on this album are overall much better than it's predecessor. Many of them are much more catchy and I think in general contain better and more stronger hooks to make you want to keep on listening. Not to mention there are few moments where I feel there could be some singing when there isn't. That is perfect. As stated, the lyrics about man's fusion with machine and humanity's consumption by the technology it created is readily apparent throughout Iconoclast. The lyrics are written well, a bit more abstract and less in your face when compared to Paradise Lost. The one downfall though is that the lyrics do not seem to connect, as while they all have an overarching theme they do not seem continuous in regard to a story.
On top of that, the mixing and production of Iconoclast is awesome. It does not sound as loud and overpowering when compared to Paradise Lost, but it has a similarly mixed sound overall. It is much better equalized and clear, and I think it definitely enforces the mechanized theme of the album without making it sound too cold. Everything gets pretty good attention and nothing overpowers anything else. I'm very pleased with the job in the studio this album was given.
Iconoclast solves many of the issues of it's predecessor and is definitely worthy of being considered a strong effort in Symphony X's catalog. Just as advanced musically as anything they've done but better composed throughout, Iconoclast outdoes it's predecessor and is another worthy addition to a great resume of awesome progressive albums. This album is a lesson in how to upgrade musical mechanics.