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Underachieving - 55%

NoSoup4you22, September 15th, 2015
Written based on this version: 2015, CD, Nuclear Blast

It's not just me, right? Apparently I'm in the minority here, but I never liked post-Odyssey Symphony X. They've been doing this "simpler and heavier" thing for nearly a decade now, and what should have been just a phase is now the defining character of the band. It's worked out quite well for them in terms of popularity, so I can't blame them for sticking with it, but I feel like the kid in The Emperor's New Clothes. Apart maybe from the title tracks of the last two albums, no SX song since The Odyssey has wowed me like an Egypt or a Candlelight Fantasia. The creative spark just hasn't been there. Nevertheless, I was feeling optimistic for some reason, and wanted to legitimately try and get back into my former favorite band. Enter Underworld...

Speaking frankly, the cover art and song titles didn't do a lot to raise my hopes, but otherwise the album makes a good first impression. The mix is huge, the best they've had thus far; the intro is epic; the songs generally have strong momentum and choruses. Stylistically, you pretty much know what to expect if you heard the last two albums: Michael Romeo thrashes, shreds and rehashes the riff from Evolution two or three more times, Russell Allen still growls through the verses, and presumably Mike Pinella does something also. We do get some occasional soaring vocals and lead keyboard work, e.g. on "Underworld" and "Legend", which incidentally are two of the better tracks on the album. I also appreciate the more mainstream sounding power ballad, "Without You", which is a bit of an oddity for them. It's not my usual cup of tea, but it's got a fantastic chorus with some subtle musical depth for good measure, and it's just nice to hear Russell Allen sing cleanly and break things up a bit. Overall, I was enjoying myself for the first half of the album, even though it wasn't life-changing.

Unfortunately, things started to unravel for me around "Kiss of Fire," a Symphony X-goes-brutal gimmick song which is more memorable for what it is than its actual musical ideas. Following that, we have the boring filler "Charon," and at this point I started to get very weary of the monotonous riffing style. Probably about 3/4 of the album is the same style of groovy phrygian riffs. They might have some extra notes compared to other bands' riffs, but they're all the same, and they lose their impact and get really mind-numbing after awhile. Just as "To Hell and Back" promises to alleviate things with an epic and inspiring intro, it dumps us right back into the same nonsense for its second half. This is precisely the moment where I stopped giving a shit. The rest of the album just sort of went in one ear and out the other until "Swansong," an OK ballad in the vein of Paradise Lost, and the final track "Legend," a nice blend of old and new SX that actually sounds distinct from the other songs and doesn't try too hard to be heavy.

Let's talk about lyrics for a second. Normally I wouldn't care, but these are really insipid. Symphony X never had the greatest lyrics after Thomas Miller left, but the more epic-themed music could support some cheese back then, and at least they were never actively distracting for me until now. These lyrics are so vacuous and riddled with cliches that they actually bring the music down a bit. There was some talk in interviews about themes of sacrifice and loss, etc, but upon listening, I'm painfully aware of middle-aged dudes trying to string together metal-sounding phrases. Take a look at "Run With the Devil:"

Run with the devil, run for your life
The truth of the moment cuts like a knife
Chasing a shadow, still chasing a dream
When it's do or die, you know there's no inbetween

What ideas or imagery does this chorus conjure? It's an album about nothing - the musical equivalent of Seinfeld.

Overall, I wouldn't say Underworld is a bad album; they can still play like nobody else (even though Romeo is recycling stuff too much - That octave-jumping lick from Rediscovery gets rehashed in two different solos, and I could name a few others,) Russell Allen can still kill it when he wants to, the production's excellent, the individual songs don't have any glaring flaws... I just can't make it through the whole thing at once. It's too samey, and - even though I tried to judge it on its own terms, I have to say it - lacking in creativity compared to previous albums. I might revisit a couple of the songs from time to time, but overall this is another "meh" album from modern Symphony X. Go listen to Adagio's "Underworld" instead.