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Metal/Prog Metal CD Reviews

Symphony X

The Odyssey

Review by Mike Korn

Here is a band that has finally gotten progressive metal right. They've reached that elusive point where muscle and melody intertwine, without one overwhelming the other. They create lengthy tracks full of epic grandeur but manage to stop short of being overbearing and pompous. This is not easy to do, and a lot of bands have fallen flat trying to perfect the progressive metal sound.

"The Odyssey" is an album with a lot of depth and character to it, each song having its own flavor. There's no "soundalike" syndrome here. The metal quotient is high, energized by the sizzling guitar solos and crunchy riffing of Michael Romeo. This dude must need asbestos gloves when he plays, that's how fast his fingers fly over the strings! Michael Pinella's exquisite keyboard work gives Symphony X its progressive character, adding melodies and atmosphere. But it's the vocals of Sir Russell Allen that boost this band to the stratosphere. What range this guy has! He's got Dio's snarl, Ray Gillen's soaring high end and the huskiness of Steve Walsh all rolled up into one total package. There were times during "The Turning" where I had to check the credits to make sure Ronnie James Dio wasn't guesting on the track. He wasn't...it was all Sir Russell! Allen and Romeo will attract most of the limelight but every member of the band excels at their roles.

The standout tune here is the 24-minute plus title track, an ambitious musical adaptation of Homer's classic legend. That prospect will have many groaning and fearing a pretentious, overblown mess. But such is not the case. The track moves around a lot, but never loses focus or heaviness. It's a true metal soundtrack. Breaking into 7 easy to digest parts, it never becomes dull and it reaches some very grandiose heights. Without doubt, it's a great achievement and worth picking this CD up just to hear by itself. Add to that other outstanding tracks like the very heavy "Wicked", the highly melodic "Accolade II" and the aggressive "The Turning" and you have a record which is not just superb but an example of everything progressive metal should aspire to. Very well done and I hope Symphony X can reach the acclaim in the States that they have already gotten in Europe and Japan.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2002 Year Book Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Inferno(Unleash the Flame)
This starts in speedy, classically-influenced fashion with dueling guitar and keyboards and then a very heavy, jerky riff, almost like a classical version of Pantera, comes in. Sir Russell Allen's vocals are smooth but smoldering. The chorus brings an organ riff to the front and reminds me of Kansas in some way. There's some red-hot guitar and key soloing on this one.
Wicked
This is a very guitar-driven song, propelled by a quirky, heavy riff that creates an ominous feeling. The overall tone is dark and the instrumental interplay is very involved - a great crunchy prog metaller.
Incantations of the Apprentice
The movie soundtrack influences of Symphony X start to rise here, as this starts with classical instrumentation before moving to a metallic military beat. The song intensifies with some really fast and heavy riffs. The Dio side to Allen's vocals is on display here. The shortest tune on the disc, this is one of the more aggressive cuts but not forsaking melody.
Accolade II
This displays the keyboard prowess of Mike Pinnella to good effect. It's a lengthy progressive piece where the keys assume control. Beginning with some very delicate and beautiful piano work, the track does heavy up with guitars, but the guitars generally play second fiddle to the keys here. The soaring chorus is excellent and again I detect echoes of Kansas in this tune.
King Of Terrors
Another tune veering to the heavy side. The guitar here is very choppy and grinding, with almost a Fear Factory type riff. Jason Rullo's drumming is hard-hitting and Allen's vocals are grittier than usual. Pinella's keyboard enhancements elevate the tune above mere groove metal. It's a combination of Fear Factory and Dream Theater that manages to be pretty effective.
The Turning
This features a speedy attack very reminiscent of European power metal like Stratovarius. It is very classy speed metal with Allen sounding uncannily like an angry Ronnie Dio. There's some excellent dual keyboard/guitar soloing going down on this one.
Awakenings
This is a very symphonic and classical sounding bit of progressive metal. It starts with a lush and somewhat mournful melody and restrained vocals from Allen. Then some quick guitar licks come in, with Hammond organ floating over the top. Pinella is just a superb keyboardist - one of the best I've heard. Once again, I am reminded of a more metallic version of Kansas, even down to the Walsh/Elefante style vocals. This tune is definite leaning more towards the prog side than the metal but it still packs a punch.
The Odyssey
This is the 7 part, 24-minute epic that caps off the record. Where Rhapsody fails with overblown pretentiousness, Symphony X succeeds with a mixture of songwriting skill and sound-track style pomp. I'm going to analyze each part of this huge track separately:
Odysseus' Theme/Overture
This represents symphonic pomp at its very best. Featuring a full array of horns, strings and woodwinds, this could be the soundtrack to any fantasy film ever made. You can still hear Romeo's guitar, but the orchestral instruments prevail. The tune jumps from theme to theme and I could hear traces of John Williams, Bernard Herrman, Basil Poledouris and Danny Elfman throughout. This lets you know you are starting an epic musical journey.
Journey to Ithaca
Gentle acoustic guitar starts this and Allen delivers some heartfelt vocals setting up Odysseus' long journey home. The chorus is a beautiful collection of sounds. The heavy guitar then kicks in and the track switches gears, hitting a swirling guitar arpeggio. Though lacking the instrumentation of "Odysseus' Theme", the soundtrack feel is still strong here. It is a killer prog metal track!
The Eye
This chronicles Odysseus' encounter with the Cyclops. There's a Middle Eastern feel to the heavy riffing here. I cannot praise Russell Allen's incredible vocals enough. He just blows me away. The track is like a much heavier Dream Theater.
Circe (Daughter of the Sun)
Tumbling piano introduces this cut, soon transforming to crunchy, choppy guitar. It's a simpler and catchy track.
Sirens
Not to be confused with the Savatage track! This is dark and heavy metal with a Sabbath-like riff on the verse. Again, this is less involved than some of the other cuts and is all the more devastating for that. It reminds me of old Helstar.
Scylla and Charybdis
An instrumental interpretation of Odysseus' encounter with these two sea monsters, this returns to a symphonic feel, making use of many instruments. It has a driving, nervous aura to it. There's a really cool part in the middle that reminded me of old Moody Blues. You can envision Odysseus' ship sailing into peril as this track plays.
The Fate of the Suitors/ Champion of Ithaca
The epic ends with this power metal cut. It gallops along like prime Iron Maiden and is catchier than hell. The chorus is incredible, reminiscent of Styx or Queen with its harmony vocals. Just try to forget it! Finally, the song returns to the same acoustic theme that began "Journey to Ithaca". You feel like you've just seen a movie after listening to this track.
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