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Symphony X's "Iconoclast" is the latest in a series of albums by formerly more melodic style metal bands where they put much more emphasis on heaviness than they did previously. This isn't exactly a bad thing per se, except when trying to be heavier they always opt for more the groovy, Pantera influenced kind of heavy as opposed to a more thrashy or doomy kind of heavy, but even when they opt for the latter, it never seems like they are totally comfortable with it. Plus, to me at least, it usually seems like they are only doing it because of the frequently negative reactions and accusations of "gay" that are often thrown at more melodic, progressive, or symphonic forms of metal.
In Symphony X's case, it may be they are just in the mood lately for this heavier style, but it does seem like they might be trying to widen their audience a bit. Certainly I can't fault them for this but think about it. They have dropped the fantasy/mythology/literature themed lyrics of the past for a more technological, and dystopian theme which certainly seems more digestible to the majority of metal fans who often find the former style of lyrics cheesy or pretentious, which in addition to their heavier sound seems like it's catering a bit.
So yeah as you may be able to tell, this is my main problem with this album. Yes it is true that Symphony X have been putting more emphasis on guitar riffs, groove, and heaviness since "The Odyssey", and it is also true they have always had groove riffs thrown in her and there but never as much as they are doing here, and "The Odyssey" and "Paradise Lost" were certainly a bit more in tune to their old sound than this.
But enough of that, how about the material itself? For me, along with the stylistic and lyrical changes, the band also seems to have put far less emphasis on melody than they did previously and for me this REALLY sucks out the mood and feel I get from listening to Symphony X and so I have to take away a few points for that alone. But as for the actual songs, the opener "Iconoclast" is easily the best here. This is one of the songs on the album where the heavier, darker approach works because the riff really feels like a signature Michael Romeo riff, and when accompanied by Pinnella's haunting keyboards, really helps support the futuristic conflict the lyrics describe. Russell Allen gives one of his most remarkable performances here, and the rather catchy chorus in addition to the heavier feel reminds me of one of the better songs from "Paradise Lost", which is always a good thing. Not to mention that the solos by Romeo and Pinnella are amongst the best I have heard all year, and perhaps in their entire career. Another song in this category is the nearly as fantastic closer, "Reign in Madness" which has some extremely metal lyrics ("treads of iron crush the skulls of the damned") and appropriately headbangable riffage, but also manages to balance in the symphonic edge of their old sound, and of course the great solos. It also has a captivating clean section reminiscent of "Burnt Offerings" era Iced Earth, of which I almost never get tired of hearing. Then in a similarly awesome move, we have the ode to musical chops on the album with "Bastards of the Machine" which will certainly go down as a crowd favorite I imagine.
So that's one side of the album being the songs that still sound like Symphony X just with a bit of a heavier emphasis and a more technological feel. But on another side of the coin you have songs like "Heretic", "Dehumanized", and "Lords of Chaos". Other than the obligatory brilliant solos (Romeo is easily one of the most interesting, original, and exciting guitarists in metal these days, and Pinnella has little competition in the prog metal scene as far as keyboard arrangement goes), are rather annoying to listen to, due to the extensive groove riffage and "tough guy" vocals, even if they are decently constructed. Plus we also have a fair amount of filler that drags on far more than it should like "Children of a Faceless God", "Prometheus(I am Alive)", and "Electric Messiah".
I feel I should take a moment to discuss the rhythm section. It's easy to forget about them, but one of the best elements of this album is Jason Rullo's and Mike Lepond's performances here. I think this might be the best rhythm section performance of any Symphony X album. Just listen to the thundering double bass and odd meter control heard in the title track by Rullo, or the commanding bass lines in "Bastards of the Machine" to name just a few examples. They really brought their game up a notch or two for this album and it's all for the best in the end.
For the people like me who walked into this desperately hoping there would some song resembling classic albums like "V: The New Mythology Suite" or "The Divine Wings of Tragedy" your in luck. "When All is Lost" and "Light up the Night" have very strong choruses, plenty of melody, and some subtle twists and turns that stop them from being repetitive which is what Symphony X has always been great at. The former is a 9 minute pseudo-ballad sort of along the lines of "The Accolade" though not nearly as good. Despite that it does include Russell singing in a more clean vocal style for a change, and a bit stronger symphonic edge which is refreshing to hear on this album. The latter track is a fast paced heavy song with a very good chorus, and just a touch of a power metal feel.
So yeah, it's not a bad album at all and half of the songs are certainly worth revisiting. However I really miss the more neo-classical feel of old, and I also feel that the overt attempt at heaviness negatively affects the songwriting of the band in some of the songs (see the aforementioned filler tracks for example). But overall I would still say the band hasn't broken their track record of never putting out a bad album and I look forward to their next one.