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Symphony X's worst album is still listenable - 55%

Sean16, November 26th, 2006

Indeed, Symphony X’s worst. I don’t know how many people will disagree but after all, if there always were a general consensus about everything, there would be no point in writing anything. So to come back to our well-known American neoclassical power metal band, one will never enough point out how much Thomas Miller’s departure affected its general sound, and further its overall strength. Not that said departure had been surprising. This guy always gave the impression of coming from some remote, long forgotten century, so this is no wonder he proved to be unable to tour (the reason commonly given for his replacement by Michael Lepond) – and no wonder as well he vanished into oblivion without being ever spoken about again. He simply wasn’t REAL.

Actually, up to Twilight in Olympus the whole band indeed hadn’t looked real; hence the rumours of it simply being a studio project with no actual existence. Nowadays this idea wouldn’t come across anyone’s mind, but the price the act paid to give a proof of its... incarnation may have been too high. And even if The Odyssey will eventually be a tad better than V, especially with its astonishing title track, it still cannot live up to the earlier stuff. However, the change is subtle and far from being striking at first listen. Most listeners (listeners familiar with old Symphony X, I’m not writing for those who discovered the band with The Odyssey anyway) must have thought something like, let’s guess – Well, SOMETHING has changed – Well, it’s the same band which released The Divine Wings... is it? – Well, I like it... but do I really? – Well...

Well, because, what could have changed, actually? Michael Romeo’s characteristic syncopated riffs and arpeggios-based solos are still present. Russel Allen doesn’t seem to have become especially voiceless. Drummer Jason Rullo is back and as strong as ever, even gratifying us with a little solo in The Death of Balance. So, what?

Many things, if you think it twice. The bass, first, is almost non-existent. Miller era Symphony X showed very audible, as well as totally whimsical bass lines, which were part of the originality of the band. By contrast Mike Lepond seems to be devoid of any imagination and (or, thus?) is relegated in the background of most songs – Egypt and A Fool’s Paradise being notable exceptions. Secondly, with years the guitar will be more and more prominent and mixed up, Symphony X more and more becoming Michael Romeo’s, and only Michael Romeo’s band – what will be even more flagrant on the following album. A pity, as the perfect balance between the different instruments accounted for a large part of their overall charm. Consequently, Michael Pinnella’s part is becoming more and more discrete, here often limited to background keyboard accompaniment. Granted, some genuine piano may still be punctually heard, but the golden days are undoubtedly gone.

But there is worse. Orchestrations. Symphony X making use of synthetic orchestrations is an ultimate heresy for a simple reason: they were the orchestral band by essence, meaning each of their songs worked like a classical piece of work, but with metal instruments. Adding extra orchestrations is like superimposing another, fake orchestra on a chamber music quintet, it’s perfectly absurd. But, after all, with V Symphony X have abandoned many of their neoclassical characteristics to lean towards more standard power metal so it’s not that absurd; it’s just pitiful. Without mentioning V is a concept album, so it goes with its handful of orchestral transitions every beginner in the genre could have written. You definitely don’t have to have released Twilight in Olympus to write a pile of crap like On the Breath of Poseidon, or the general Prelude. On the other hand I may admit the short Rediscovery, fronted by an eerie acoustic guitar, is for once rather well-crafted.

Equally pitiful are a couple of other findings, like those mid-eastern melodies on Fallen or Egypt. Even if the concept is centred upon the myths of Atlantis, thus melting Greek as well as Egyptian references, this can’t justify them as they’re in contradiction with everything the band ever did. Furthermore, what could be said about those distorted vocals which can regularly be heard? Distorting vocals of a singer like Sir Russel Allen is, simply put, a crime.

To sum it up, V displays a worrying level of ARTIFICE. After all, pretty much everything is artificial here. Orchestrations. Modified vocals. Oriental melodies. The way the different instruments imperfectly melt together. The whole, incomprehensible concept which doesn’t fit the band AT ALL: Symphony X always had a predilection for odd games of lights, ghosts and mirrors which went on par with their once slightly weird, chilling music; here by contrast it sounds like they have borrowed lyrics from Therion and tried to adapt them to their own manner – and failed. There had always been some Shakespearian vibe in Symphony X’s music, and you just can’t put an Egyptian mummy in the middle of Macbeth’s castle (sorry, but the fact Shakespeare has also written about Cleopatra goes beyond the scope of this review, right?).

Then, once you got rid of all this suspect and unpleasant sauce, you begin to notice the main riff of every track is more or less the same, without mentioning actual riffs are pretty scarce in comparison to the act’s older works. Remember, The Divine Wings of Tragedy and Twilight in Olympus counted 17 songs together, 17 genuine songs without a single useless segue or intro, and each of them was unique. You begin to notice The Bird-Serpent War goes exactly nowhere. You begin to notice the long closing track is only a poor summary of everything else on the album. You simply begin to notice this release is simply NOT Symphony X.

... with the exception of the mandatory semi-ballad Communion and the Oracle of course. I don’t think I’ve to present what might have become the most famous Symphony X song. Some may be reluctant to call it even a semi-ballad, but there’s no other way to classify this kind of highly melodic tracks only SX can write, with the eerie, crystalline piano, acoustic guitars and some of Russel Allen’s finest singing moments. Melody devoid of any mellowness or cheesiness, you know. Intrinsic Beauty, good sir.

In fact, I’m far from hating this album, simply because it’s so fluently played, as every other Symphony X release, that no one can really hate it. It even exhibits several agreeable moments: Evolution or A Fool’s Paradise are lively power metal anthems which easily stand above most of their counterparts around here, The Death of Balance with its drums solo at least has the merit of originality though I won’t call it beautiful by any means, and eventually it bears Communion and the Oracle on it. But I nonetheless still feel really, really CHEATED.

Highlights: Evolution (The Grand Design), Communion and the Oracle