Register Forgot login?

© 2002-2019
Encyclopaedia Metallum

Best viewed
without Internet Explorer,
in 1280 x 960 resolution
or higher.

Privacy Policy

Learning to fly - 91%

Empyreal, August 12th, 2015
Written based on this version: 2015, CD, Nuclear Blast

You know, I really think Symphony X was what I pictured 'metal' sounding like back before I really got into the genre and knew what I liked – big, heavy, thick guitars, gruff vocals, epic lyrical themes. Their modern sound pretty much encapsulates what I envisioned metal as a whole being like back as a teenager – it's like someone just asked them 'what do you think is the most metal sound ever made?' and they just started cranking out albums in response. This new album Underworld is more mastery along the lines of what they've been doing lately.

This is a very calculated album, where every song is different and fits together in a satisfying whole. Russell Allen is a force to be reckoned with – he growls, he shrieks, he croons and he powers out in a gritty midrange. He does everything. Michael Romeo's guitars are a pastiche of the band's career up to now, with technical, pounding riff sets and long, flashy leads – if they come off as a bit too familiar, it's just because the band's sound has been so firmly entrenched and trademarked by now. The rhythm section is tight as a well-oiled machine and the keyboards are celestial and atmospheric. The production is heavy and clear – probably the best production job they've ever had.

This is the most straightforward the band has ever been, with songs that are built on catchy, hook-driven choruses and powerful, thrashy riffing. “Nevermore” isn't one of their more dramatic moments, but its subtle riffing changes between verse and chorus and the way Allen's vocals seamlessly shift styles is deft and more complex than it initially seems – it's a good introduction to the album. After that it's a carnival of contrasts and drama, with the Grave Digger-esque chorus of the title track offset by that very same song's more dramatic, atmospheric clean vocal part in the bridge. “Without You” is a heartfelt power ballad, and one of the album's most emotive moments, but it's contrasted brilliantly with the vitriolic venom of “Kiss of Fire” - perhaps the band's most aggressive song yet, and where they show the most confidence in themselves.

The real album centerpiece is “To Hell and Back,” a 10-minute epic that comes off as the band's answer to “Stairway to Heaven” - a huge song that opens up with ominous synths and then goes into a serpentine coil of chugging riffing, lots of different parts to it and a soaring chorus to wrap it all together. I can't praise this song enough, as it is a huge dramatic opus that grabs you by the balls and forces you to pay attention – this, pure and simple, is what I want out of music as a whole; a tremendous, engaging epic rock song. It shows how far the band has come and how much they understand what makes a great song – tension, build up and release. The album as a whole is excellently paced with lots of emotional crests in between thrashy bouts of aggression and moments of celestial beauty, and “To Hell and Back” is the rightful centerpiece – the album's greatest peak.

If the rest of the album can't measure up to that song, it's no crime, and the songs are still good anyway. “In My Darkest Hour” won't ever be lauded as one of the band's most stirring or intense moments, but it's actually a rather clever song, seeing the band dialing back their guitar/keyboard duels and going for the throat with a simple, anthemic chorus done far better than many of their contemporaries manage. Likewise, “Run with the Devil” is a more 80s metal-oriented song than we're used to from them, with Allen digging into a David Coverdale-esque croon and forsaking his usual grit and muscle – an addictive song that grows on you, complete with pounding, resonating guitar riffs.

“Swansong” is a beautiful, heart-aching song, and closer “Legend” initially threw me off, as it's one of the most direct and traditional tracks the band has ever done – more in line with older Euro-power metal, except done up with the band's rhythmic tightness and instrumental proficiency far beyond what most of those bands had.

While there aren't as many surprises here as on the last two career-defining albums (and overall, it isn't quite as good as their last two), Underworld is as good as any album the band has done over their career. They might have lost the prog-rock instrumental parts old fans loved, but it's a trade off, as they instead gained a powerful, iconoclastic songwriting command and have mastered the art of writing immediately pleasing yet tight and clever songs, with no filler moments as there sometimes were on their classic albums. Their past as an ornate prog band is what made them so good at writing the kinds of songs they do now. This, I think, is what every prog band should aspire to – an even mix of instrumental proficiency and stadium-pleasing bravado, making an unstoppable sound.

Fans of their older albums might never be happy with their new direction, but fans of kick ass metal music should find much to love here. They are more than an instrumental showboat band – they're just a great heavy metal band. Go get this one, it's top five material for this year easy.