Review Summary: Little did we know Iconoclast was actually a triple album
“Masterpiece,” “monumental,” and “perfect,” are among the words that are normally thrown around by fans upon the release of a band’s new album. It seems like some fans can be impressed by just about anything. After the slightly underwhelming Iconoclast
I lowered my expectations of the band since it seemed that Michael Romeo’s heavy influence on the songwriting wasn’t going to wane anytime soon. However after the release of Underworld’s
singles I felt my anticipation rising ever so slightly.
The feeling after digesting the album is of ambivalence. The formula on Underworld
is very similar to Iconoclast
. The album sits more comfortably in the heavy metal domain, with hints of progressive and power metal scattered around. Romeo’s guitar still being at the forefront. Overall the album feels very structured due in large part to Romeo’s prominence in the songwriting department. He seems to be stagnating in the riff oriented mindset where the music requires intensity at the expense of diversity. Fortunately there are moments that deviate from Romeo’s linear guitar work, which provide the album with a source of variety. Songs such as ‘Without You,’ ‘To Hell and Back,’ and ‘Swansong’ for instance offer a much needed change of pace.
Metal’s aggressive facet is a treat to the ears when done tastefully and passionately, two aspects that are slightly lacking on this album unfortunately. The few times I was genuinely caught off guard by the guitar work include the choruses of ‘Kiss of Fire’ and ‘Run With the Devil,’ the former of which has an almost black metal feel to it complemented by Jason Rullo’s blast beats. Additionally ‘Without You,’ ‘To Hell and Back,’ and ‘Legend’ show glimpses of the melodic aspect of Romeo’s playing. There is no doubting the man’s chops, but I really wish he had brought more depth to his playing like he presented on earlier Symphony X albums.
The largest surprise for me was the involvement of other members in the songwriting process, with Michael Pinnella and Michael Lepond contributing on a few songs. Pinnella’s influence can be heard in a few of the more melodic sections of the songs, and especially on ‘Swan Song,’ which is stylistically reminiscent of ‘Accolade 2’ and 'When All is Lost'. Unfortunately however, the majority of his contributions are either in the background using monotonous atmospheric synth sounds, or doubling the guitar. On the plus side he has added a few new tones, especially for his lead playing, that feel like a breath of fresh air.
Elements of groove are sprinkled across the record courtesy of Lepond, which was pleasantly surprising to hear since it provided some life and vigor to the music, even if slightly. Jason Rullo also contributes in this regard, but a lot of his performance feels more functional. That’s not to say it’s bad because he brings the required intensity as always, but I had expected for more creativity as he has provided in the past. Russell Allen on the other hand is probably the highlight of this album. He treats us to a host of memorable vocal melodies with his cleaner vocals shining in the limelight. He displays his range from the raw aggression of recent albums, to his soothing and soaring vocals while keeping melody as the priority. It’s great to hear Russell focus on his strengths and display his most mature and diverse performance since ‘The Odyssey.’
virtues lie in its melodic parts as well as most of the choruses which supply the hooks for the listeners to hang onto. There are also a handful of gritty riffs that are enjoyable, even if they feel like rehashed ideas. I mean the man does know how to write a riff. Contrarily one of the album’s significant shortcomings is the production. Apart from the fact that the album’s sound engineering feels sterile, the severe compression really suffocates the dynamics. This combination leads to the album lacking spark and sounding a little flat.
In the end Underworld
may not be as dynamic as the band's "classics," or possess the level of emotion and character that those albums albums had in copious amounts, but it manages to provide some memorable songs. That being said, four years seems too long to release an album that basically continues the same formula as its predecessor. Fans of the modern Symphony X sound however, should find enough to enjoy on this record. Fans longing for the band to return to the neo-classical era will no doubt be disappointed for the most part, while fans like myself that were hoping for something innovative will just have to wait a little while longer to be completely satisfied.