For me, Symphony X was originally one of those bands where you buy their albums but don’t really “get it” until you see them live. That was my experience when they delivered an exceptional performance in 2002 in San Francisco in the absence of tour-mates Blind Guardian. After seeing them perform songs like “Egypt” and the “Odyssey” live, it just clicked. Fast forward 9 years and we are now seeing a very different band from what I once heralded as the perfect marriage of progressive and power metal. The release of Paradise Lost was a dramatic, even jolting departure from most everything I loved about this band as they took a less symphonic, more stripped down approach toward more straightforward instrumentation and composition.
The release of this year’s Iconoclast was a day that I was both eagerly awaiting and dreading. Would they be delivering an album that could come close to the meticulously motif driven era of V: The New Mythology Suite? I wasn’t really expecting that, but I hoped and prayed that it wouldn’t be another Paradise Lost. Strangely enough, it kind of was, but somehow they managed to capture the Paradise Lost style in a way that, disregarding a few clunkers, turned out to be a collection of pretty good songs.
To put it plainly, this is a decent 80 minute album that would have been a great 50 minute album. While there wasn’t anything that recalled the epic scope of the Symphony X of old, there is about 50 minutes of really great songs. Anyone who knows me can probably guess the songs that I hated (and consider to be the worst songs of the band’s career), but even if you don’t feel the same, I think that most people could agree that Symphony X could’ve really tightened up the awesomeness of this album by cutting it down to include only the absolute best songs.
So, without further distractions, the review:
The ugly: As Symphony X is an extremely talented band, please take into account that I do not mean to criticize them as musicians or artists. I do feel that my review should reflect my honest opinion of the album. I’m not gonna lie, as far as my tastes go, there were a few songs that left me very disappointed. Dehumanized is the only one I’ll mention by name. While this one sports very uncreative and painfully repetitive lyrics, sludgy riffs that are very uncharacteristic of the band, and hooks that get stuck in my head for the wrong reasons, I’ll leave it up to you guys to decide which tracks you might have left off the album. In all fairness, there is a lot of great material on this record; I recommend making use of the skip button because you will still have plenty of great tracks to listen to. Don’t let the ones you don’t like ruin it for you.
The awesome: As I’ve been getting more and more into cyberpunk and distopyian themes lately, the content of this album thrilled me. Technophobia and the disembodied and image ruled alienation of internet culture, there’s simply a great textbook approach to sci-fi going on here; plus, it comes out more and more with every anime I watch (Serial Experiments Lain, anyone?).
Musically speaking, Symphony X manages to write a bunch of songs with really killer in your face guitar riffs. By the way, we see a slight return of the keyboard in the production, which really made me happy. The opener, Iconoclast opens up with an ultra-dark theme and sets your head spinning with wild riffs in odd time. From there we get a number of songs that find a good balance between powermetal, progmetal, and thrash, with smart rhythms that are still rocking, good atmosphere, and pretty decent vocal melodies.
The songs that ended up doing it for me the most where the final tracks off each disc: “Rein in Madness” and “When All is Lost.” “Rein in Madness” seemed to be the only song that truly captured the sci-fi/cyberpunk/dystopia mood, from the synthy and grooving beat that kicks off the piece, to the hauntingly beautiful clean section about 5 minutes in where we get a moving vocal delivery from Mr. Allen that spells out a clear message of future dystopia. However, “When All is Lost” was the true surprise and gem of this album. What seems to open up as merely a decent ballad suddenly evolves into a fine example of progressive rock which melds a tiny bit of the glorious feel of “Through the Looking Glass” with a blend of modern and classic prog elements. Did you really hear a Hammond style organ in there? Indeed, and it was glorious as this song goes from amazing to incredible at about the 5 minute mark. This piece really shows Symphony X doing everything well without having to be really metal, adding some much needed variety to their latest output. In terms of vocal composition and melody, this is a song that completely reminds us that once upon a time this band really delivered majestic and soaring melodies rather than the quick “hooks” of late. If there’s a piece that holds hope in my heart that Symphony X will do great things with their next release, it’s this song.
In the end, I think there’s a little something for everyone in Iconoclast. Figure out which songs you like and pretend that you’re the producer. Take the good songs and use the skip button on your player to pretend the others don’t exist. I’m pretty convinced that you’ll find that there is still plenty of great material on this album where you could trim it down by 4 or 5 songs and listen to a fantastic 50 minutes of music that will make you smile… and bang your head… of course!