Review Summary: Is it epic? Yes. Is it pretentious? Yes. Is it technical? Yes. Is it heavy? Yes. Is it a motherfucking beast of a record? You bet!
Prog metal goes a lot further back than some of us imagine. And by that I don't mean that Fates Warning started in 1984, or Dream Theater in 1989 (or even Queensryche who are barely prog, but anyway.) The genre is rooted in two styles basically: the 70s brand of music played by rock intelligentsia such as Rush and Yes, and the aggressive, gritty metal of bands such as Iron Maiden and Metallica. The melting pot of these two styles spawned Dream Theater and a host of other bands in the wake of the most renowned prog metal giants.
For their first two albums, Symphony X kind of fit the mold a band playing the style above, albeit not very imaginative. But with their third outing, The Divine Wings of Tragedy, they would rewrite prog metal history as we know it. Was it the introduction of Mr. Allen on vocals? No, he'd been around for the Damnation Game. Was it Michael Romeo's guitar pyrotechnics? No, many prog metal bands are renowned for their guitarists' virtuoso skills, that's nothing new in these metal regions.
No, it is the melting pot of both these with a more symphonic, power metal-infused style while never abandoning the heaviness. Romeo isn't great because he's an amazing soloist (though his licks are worthy of worship by all means.) He is great because next to those powerful licks he displays a high quality of innovative rhythm guitar techniques as well. One reason why I like Symphony X so much is Romeo's rhyhthm playing: his D-tuned chuggathons, the complex Pantera-infused heaviness, the speed, and the neoclassical "wow how many notes did that guy just play" licks on top of it. Don't believe me? "Out of the Ashes" is the prime example, displaying a penchant for heavy chugging yet never abandoning the classical melody injected throughout the song.
Similar is Russell Allen. He hits nice and beautiful notes (anyone who has seen him live will attest that this guy is a devastatingly good vocalist), but he has a metal edge to it many vocalists in the style lack. He doesn't have to stick to the pretty wispy stuff, he's versatile and besides that his voice is somewhat lower-ranged than most contemporary prog/power metal vocalists; he has a more mid-ranged bellow he uses to great effect. Plus his choral vocals (check out the awesome intro to the all-encompassing title track The Divine Wings of Tragedy) are of high quality in addition to his usual vocal lines. Not to mention pulls off some massive sing-along choruses; it may sound like an oxymoron, and prog purists will shout BLASPHEMY, but check out opener Of Sins And Shadows or its successor Sea of Lies and tell me those choruses don't have bigass hooks.
It's not just Romeo's rhythm guitar playing that gives the music its dark and menacing edge apart from the brutal chugging. The Eyes of Medusa sees keyboardist Pinnella underpinning the vindictive riffing foundation with some superbly haunting synths, giving it a nice fantastic edge not out of place in some cheesy fantasy movie. On the other hand Pinnella doesn't have to go for the spooky effect: on The Witching Hour punishing riffs collide with keyboard licks that come straight out of the realm of classical music.
And for the real headbanging enthusiasts out there, you're going to be satisfied with Rullo's amazing footwork on the drums. Of Sins and Shadows contains some double-bass-o-rific percussionwork, and Rullo punishes his kit throughout the album, occasionally freaking out for some nice crazy jazz-influenced fill or an extra dose of punch and power with some more swift kicking of the bass.
Lyrically the band comes straight out of the kind of Dungeons and Dragons type of thing, drawing heavily on literature and mythology for their lyrics. If they aren't referencing some epic poem of John Milton (the title track is a prime example) they are singing about old Egyptian gods (Pharaoh) or classical Greek legends (The Eyes of Medusa.) Pretentious maybe, but hey, love songs get old after a while, don't you think?
And yes, their music is just as epic as the lyrics sometimes: the song The Divine Wings of Tragedy is one of those songs that will keep the proggers coming and the non-proggers running in terror. Spanning over twenty minutes and emblazoned with aforementioned choral vocals, epic keyboard flurries traded off with some more shredtastic guitar soloing and the near Dimebag-worshipping riffs (especially at the beginning: check out the syncopated intro after the choir), it's everything a fan of the style wants (and if you're a hater, you won't like it at all.)
At the end of the day, it's prog metal at its very best. It's got a melting pot of styles, including the heavy (emphasising Symphony X's metal roots), the symphonic/neo-classical, and some punishing technical proggy parts the style has become notorious for. It's got the hooks, the power, and the intention to keep fans of the style enthralled for a pretty big while. If you're turned off by the bombast and pretence of it all, keep away, but for everyone who likes that extra dash of intelligence with their music: this is for you. Highly recommended to any prog/power metal fan, and to anyone unfamiliar with the style.
Recommended tracks for the people unfamiliar with the album...
Of Sins and Shadows
The Eyes of Medusa
The Divine Wings of Tragedy