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The Legend Never Dies! - 98%

andreipianoman, November 22nd, 2017
Written based on this version: 2015, CD, Nuclear Blast

Symphony X is a legendary name in the prog metal scene with over twenty years of activity and a very dedicated fan-base that I am more than proud to be part of. These people are to me as immortal as the mighty Dream Theater and even better. And after such a massive history, in 2015 they released one of the most controversial albums of their entire discography, making discussions and frustrations that showed up after their change in style back in 2007 even more accentuated.

Underworld is a very important album to me, personally, not only because it's the first thing I heard from them just two months after the release, but also because it's one of the albums that opened my way towards progressive metal, something that I am most grateful to have in my life right now. The main reason why this album received so much criticism from fans of their old stuff back in the 90's and early 2000's is the undeniable commercialization and the overall aspect of a generic heavy metal album. It is only normal for fans of such a band to look for originality and show really high standards but the way I see it, they are all WRONG. And there's a good reason for that. I know that with a title and concept like "Underworld", you're more than inclined to think that your favorite (and my favorite as well) progressive and symphonic metal band has degraded to the point of just making music for money and for the label. Adding the typical heavy metal sound of the single to that may look like a confirmation of those assumptions but if you dig into the album you'll see that it is entirely not the case. Underworld is a fantastic and perfectly balanced mixture of emotion, power and jaw-dropping virtuosity. It is also probably the darkest album they've released to date and it is very typical heavy metal in sound. And to understand it and enjoy it you have to listen to it for what it is, not for what you want it to be. I know that heavy songs about hell and darkness have been done and overdone, and that gets you thinking that it's not original but always remember: Original does NOT mean good. And it also goes the other way around. There's nothing wrong with bringing the classic heavy metal atmosphere if you do it right. Symphony X have tackled this task in their own way, put their own print on it and turned it into something completely new.

The guitar sound is heavy, crystal-clear and might I add, awe-inspiring on the lead parts. As commercial as they could go, Michael Romeo is still Michael Romeo, and that means total epicness in the solos. And the duels with the keyboard are still here. Listening to those fantastic leads has to get something going on inside you. What I always loved about Michael Romeo and Michael Pinella is the unbelievable and unique feel that they bring to the music. Whether it's an old or new song or even a guest solo on some other thing, once you hear it, you hear it good and you know it's them. They never disappoint! And I actually love how what so clearly resounds as Symphony X takes a completely different face. The songs are very beautifully put together and despite the typical structure of verses, choruses, a bridge and a solo, they do sound amazing and complete each other very well. And despite the fact that there's no 20+ minute long colossus of sheer genius poured in millions of perfectly crafted notes like they did on the legendary "The Odyssey" and "The Divine Wings of Tragedy" the genius is still there, scattered across the creation and building up inside you as the album streams through your senses. In the end you will get to a very similar mood. And the one and only reason for this is that, in concept, the album actually does return to their roots and proves the very thing that people think it lacks! Am I crazy? No! You just didn't dig into it. This isn't a cheesy album about hell. It's a fabulous interpretation of ideas from "Dante's Inferno" and "Orpheus in the Underworld". And the main idea that they extract from these and manipulate into their own theme is "going to hell and back for something or someone you care about". That's Romeo's statement, not mine. So if you go through the lyrics you'll notice this. In the title track, the part where it says "Wrath and might - get me though this night Can I make it right? Or will you remain... Remain in Hell?" is a very accurate reference to Orpheus's descent into the inferno to free Euridyce. I also think that "In my darkest hour" could be a reference to the scene where he tries to convince Hades to free Euridyce and then "Swansong" could represent her descending back into the Underworld when Orpheus fails to look forward and turns to see her. This just might be me but do check out the lyrics. Maybe you see it too.

And who could possibly illustrate all the emotion, fantasy and adventure put into this concept better than Russell Allen? He can bring a downright explosive and apocalyptic feel in songs like "Underworld" and "Kiss of Fire" while going for the melancholic and quite romantic tone in "Swansong" and a fiery blaze of charisma in "Charon" or "In My Darkest Hour". His versatility is overwhelming and his range is phenomenal. He also seems to be singing everything from almighty rage to soothing emotion and even a few screams with ease and relaxation as if it was nothing. And the fact that he's getting older doesn't seem to be heard in his voice. Russell can do pretty much anything and it will sound very credible. He may very well be the best vocalist in metal.

Another lyrical aspect that I found really amazing is the crazy idea in "Nevermore" where the use of the number three from Dante's Inferno is twisted in a sick way as a reference to the third Symohony X album "The Divine Wings of Tragedy". Three songs from that album are mentioned in the verses of the opening track and I did find them but I will not ruin your pleasure (or frustration) in trying to find them. Just look close and you'll see them. Also on the cover artwork there are symbols for the nine circles of hell, also from Dante's work. This is also mentioned in the lyrics of the last song: "From the nine realms of woe I arise". Beyond all this, I've got a feeling like there are still a few stuff I haven't decoded yet about the concept of this album but I did get the main idea and it's fantastic. The artwork of the album as well as the pictures/arts/whatever that you can find in the digi-pack are really good and will totally complete the experience, making it feel like a fantastic adventure. And in the end, "Legend" comes as a closing track to prove that even if you sink into the darkest depths of hell, you can still find a way to rise back up. This song has a glorious and uplifting feeling and after the first half of the album seemed like and ongoing descent into darkness that then slowly took the form of a story, all you can do now is heal and rise back up there. There's really an amazing way that you can relate this album to real life because many of us did go through hell one way or another but in the end you just have to rise back up again.

So "Underworld" has a killer concept, insane skill and unbelievable emotion, all balanced in a truly unique way so that whether you listen to one song, or the entire album it will send shivers up and down your spine and drown you in goosebumps. It may not be their very best creation but it is everything that defines solid Symphony X material, only wearing a more accessible mask so all the metal listeners out there can find a way to enjoy Symphony X if their past releases were too challenging for the weak minds. Maybe it will get many others into the universe of pure bliss that is this band the way it did for me.