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Classic movie feels - 88%

gasmask_colostomy, March 18th, 2023

Although I've only come into contact with Symphony X on relatively few occasions, one of those was at an outdoor market where I saw a second-hand copy of The Damnation Game and I goddamn bought it. I certainly knew the band had a good reputation, but the only release I was really familiar with at the time was Paradise Lost, which certainly lands in the "newer, heavier" category of the Americans' catalogue. As a result, I could see that this early album had something to it, while also sort of pushing it under the carpet in my bid to find more immediate, riff-heavy power metal. In the last few weeks I've come back to The Damnation Game and just kept on listening to it, probably clocking up a full playthrough about twice a week, and that's allowed me to get more intimate with the compositions and begin to peer past the difficulties that first presented themselves.

The main difficulty I'm speaking of is obviously the production, since 1995 didn't really have any standard for those "newer, heavier" power metal types, as you can see by glancing at a comparable act like Stratovarius, who got there later than Symphony X in any case. I'll explain myself: this production packs none of the crunch of Paradise Lost at all, making Michael Romeo's guitar far less dominant in terms of riffing, in part because the quintet was utilizing faster sections from classic power metal, so that the instruments tangle together melodically and accentuate some of the subtle shape of the drums and especially the bass. That contrasts the later trend, which was to make those instruments "all edge", thus bolstering the crunch and heaviness. I say all this without touching on the progginess that is thoroughly evident on more laidback tracks such as 'Whispers' and 'The Edge of Forever', both of which display the same kind of preoccupations as mid-1990s Dream Theater, with some piano balladry, mazy noodling, and gentle vocals. If you've heard much of what Russell Allen did on later albums, his lack of grit for the most part of The Damnation Game should be of interest as it was to me, with the application of hardened aggression only at very specific moments. Clearest (and kind of funniest too) is his emphasis out of the final chorus of the title track, where the last word is pronounced "gaaaa-aaaa-ay-aayy-yeah-eah-eah-ame yeah," all with that electric belting power he can suddenly turn on. Could have gone more for eloquence perhaps, as the triplet of rising "damn"s is pretty amusing too, like he's the hapless dad in a family comedy.

So, in essence, the greatest distinction for me between the Symphony X I expected and the one I got was instant heaviness and excitement. However, under the sonic complexion it's not such a vastly different experience as all that, since I tend to shy away from extended ballads, lack of pace, and excess sappiness, but most of the songs keep their foot on the gas more than the brake, plus the delivery of power is focused more on classical tropes than outright massive sonority. I do actually mean classical tropes in both senses, because not only have the songwriters structured these concise proggy numbers into solid workouts of drama, vocal hooks, and lead flair, they often do that through use of functions from European classical music. Romeo's guitar licks have much in common with Timo Tolkki's, both of them peeling off baroque runs as transition pieces, while the understated solo in 'Whispers' absolutely feels like it was written by Beethoven for piano. Besides all the virtuoso work from Romeo and Michael Pinnella on keyboards, the vocal focus can be built up with vaguely operatic techniques, sometimes in terms of choir accompaniment, though more particularly in the manner Allen shifts through very specific runs of notes that have stuck fast in my mind between listens. He doesn't jump into massively high areas as often as some of his power metal brethren, although he does play with volume as another option, coming right to the fore in the stickiest and most dramatic sections, such as the crescendo of the chorus in 'The Haunting', the vicious pick up of pace and intensity in 'Dressed to Kill', and simply a bit of it all in 'Secrets'. The smoother yet still powerful hook of 'A Winter's Dream pt. 2' has similarly given me things to sing at the cat while I'm collecting his poo.

On that topic ('A Winter's Dream' I mean), the bipartite construction is precisely one of those unnecessary proggy things that '90s Symphony X just loved to do, while the modern incarnation wouldn't bother to build up the delicate background of the initial part and would instead go for the emotional jugular with the conclusion. That way of thinking gives The Damnation Game an odd kind of luxury, because this is neither an overdone album nor one with much flab, hitting only 46 minutes in total and never going past 6 minutes in a single song except the much longer 'The Edge of Forever'. As I previously mentioned those classical music tropes and influences, it seems fitting to compare this full-length to older movies too, perhaps one from the 1950s or 1960s, especially that kind shot in high-quality black and white, where objects can be picked out all the more distinctly due to the monochromatic aspect. Moments come when the band take their time, add in character details, and deviate from the fairly well-worn yet still sprightly storyline, and those little relaxations add something to the experience that most people agree is missing from big budget modern flicks, with all their explosions and life or death attitude. Yes, I could have done with a bit more definition on the rhythm instruments, particularly the clicky parts of the drumkit, though I also enjoy seeing the instruments all exposed, a bit of space between them and light and shade clearly defined. In a word, this kind of drama gets better the more you rewatch it.