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Concering machines and expectations. - 88%

hells_unicorn, August 16th, 2013

Expectations can often make the difference in how an album is received, and anyone who doubts this need only look at the varied (albeit largely positive) responses to Symphony X's 2011 excursion into familiar territory in "Iconoclast". While what defines a typical album by a band like this can be a bit difficult to fully explain, this album basically embodies what can be expected out of Michael Romeo and company, and while evolution tends to happen regardless of style, Symphony X has had a consistent template from which each album has been drawn. The praise and complaints heaped upon this album are pretty much the same, namely that it sounds a lot like other albums that they've put out, but where the naysayers miss the boat is that limited variation is extremely commonplace where a truly great band is concerned, whereas rapid evolution rarely tends to work out as intended.

While a name like "Iconoclast" might indicate a continuation of the religious character of "Paradise Lost", a close examination of the album art reveals a Sci-Fi oriented approach on congregated single-mindedness that reminds heavily of the singular epic powerhouse of a song "Church Of The Machine", itself tied to an album largely dominated by imagery pointing to Greek Mythology in "Twilight In Olympus". It all ties together quite well given that the bulk of this album's contents largely sticks to the heavy, methodical character of that single song, as well as the groove oriented aggression that dominated all but the title song of "The Odyssey". This is not a concept album in the stylized, symphonic sense that its predecessor was, and it is arguably the least symphonic offering out of Symphony X since the late 90s. It comes off as one of the simpler offerings conceived in this band's history, yet it should be noted that this band's version of simplicity is heavily steeped in a blending of Malmsteen and Dream Theater influences that includes heavy emphasis on guitar and keyboard solos, not to mention elaborate rhythmic shifts and grooves that are all mixed together to create a multifaceted, yet still song-oriented result.

Unlike a number of solid offerings of late where things tend to flow together as one cohesive whole, "Iconoclast" is more of a continual contest between songs for the honor of absolute highlight, each one with its own unique character. Often elements of older styles factor in, such as old Judas Priest styled speed metal on "Bastard Of The Machine", though a band like this tends not to dwell on singular approaches for very long and this generally shorter song is still chock full of variations in tempo and guitar work. Other times things tend to be a bit more punchy and groove oriented, such as the chorus-emphasized and somewhat melancholy "The End Of Innocence", which features Russell Allen with a powerful blend of triumph and gruff that gives an already densely layered yet catchy song even more depth and appeal. Even the serene and all too typical closing ballad "When All Is Lost" has a special brilliance to it that, in spite of sounding heavily similar to the token balladry of the last 2 albums, shines as brightly as ever.

One thing that could be granted to the critics is that this album does not really break any new stylistic ground per say, whereas the last two had some clear moments of leaps in evolution from what preceded them. Even when hearing the chaotic mayhem that kicks off "Light Up The Night", which would seem to be a new pinnacle in Romeo's continuing quest to get heavier and flirt with thrash metal territory, can't help but sound remarkably similar to another "Twilight In Olympus" song "In The Dragon's Den". Likewise, the ambitious epic of a title song does have some degree of commonality with "Church Of The Machine" in overall structure, though it moves around a bit more from one section to the next and is not quite as catchy. Then again, all of the familiar sounds that characterized this band's 2002 killer of an album are on full display on the crushing speed/groove monster "Heretic", which turns out to be one of the most infectiously catchy yet also technically brilliant concoctions ever put out by this band.

It's definitely a stretch to call this the greatest album that Symphony X has ever put out, but it is understandable given that it does listen like a distilled combination of all their best works. Anyone who has liked anything they've put out since after their debut and the introduction of Russell Allen to the fold will derive a lot of enjoyment from what is contained here. While it functions quite well in its traditional 9 song release, the special 2 CD edition is a must have as it showcases a longer, yet far more varied experience. This goes for anyone with an interest in the album too, not just the hardcore fan base. Machines may or may not rule the world tomorrow, but as of now it's pretty well stipulated that Symphony X is running things on this side of the power/progressive equation.