Symphony X beats the Metal Pigeon into submission
A few years ago, a friend and I were deciding how best to spend the rest of an August Saturday after work, and on a whim decided to go see Symphony X who were playing that night at a venue here in Houston called the Meridian. With the spirit crushing Houston heat and humidity pretty much spoiling enjoyment of most everything, taking in a metal show indoors with some cold beers wasn’t a bad idea. We got there late, only just in time to see Symphony X take the stage and launch into their set. The thing was, however, that neither of us were fans of the band. In all honesty, I barely knew any of their stuff, had only a cursory listening of their Odyssey album once and not given it any decent amount of attention, nor did I know anything in general about this band except that their name was thrown around quite a bit in progressive metal circles, and that they were American.
My faith in metal produced in the States had been recently renewed by my emerging obsession with all things Kamelot, so I went in with what I hoped was an open mind and happily plunked down the 20 dollar door fee. My memory is fuzzy on details, but I clearly remember a half full venue with a very enthusiastic crowd, and a very bored look on my friend’s mug. I felt the same way, nothing was clicking with me and I waited out most of the set hoping that something would get me pumped up. Decent front man, obviously great guitarist, good stage presence for the band all over. Still, nothing. We gave up before they hit the encore and chalked it up to a failed experiment. A few months later, I checked out their video for “Set the World on Fire”, the single from their then most recent album Paradise Lost. Again nothing, I can’t really remember why, but I got nothing from it. Well, I figured, I tried.
Recently I saw a friend post on Facebook excitedly about the newest Symphony X album Iconoclast. Earlier last year I was made completely aware of the name Russell Allen and his incredible vocal performances on Avantasia’s The Wicked Symphony/Angel of Babylon releases. He sang with a perfect blend of smoothness and sandpaper, seemingly able to alter between the two with ease, or blend them together into a vocal style that seems to be rather rare in power/trad metal circles. I was surprised that I enjoyed his tracks on those albums so much (to a degree that I wondered if my prior experiences with Symphony X were with a different vocalist). I obtained a copy of Iconoclast and proceeded to have one of the best experiences listening to music that I can remember in recent memory. One of those experiences that makes you remember why you love metal in the first place. The precision crafted, crunchy riffs hit me first, and then the sledgehammer staccato pounding of excellent drumming that seemed tailored to evoke the albums thematic concept of sentient technology gone awry. Russell Allen’s gritty delivery of verse lines with perfect pacing, followed by the audaciously epic chorus of the title track filled me with nothing less than adrenaline. By the end of the song I found myself actually banging my head, all while sitting at my desk with my laptop, headphones nearly falling off. This is what metal is supposed to do to you.
I did some digging on the Metal Archives, found out that the band had tightened up their attack on Paradise Lost, metal-ed up their sound a bit more and toned down the prog tendencies of the past. Iconoclast was a continuation of this style and of course this shift in style had perhaps quietly divided their fan base a bit. A curiosity about prog fans is that most of them are not metal fans, whereas it seems that most metal fans can handle a bit of prog now and then (I draw this conclusion haphazardly perhaps from being both a Porcupine Tree and Opeth fan). I’m currently going back and listening to their older albums, and I can see what I missed the first time – there is really good stuff there, but none of it is hitting me as hard as the Paradise Lost and Iconoclast albums. The latter being my introduction, will forever be my cornerstone for the band, their moment of pure excellence – I really can’t see how they’ll manage to top this.
Why relay this admittedly long-winded tale of a band’s redemption in the eyes of one lone metal fan? Because it gives me pause to consider the many other bands I’ve dismissed in the past and neglected to give a second chance to. The reasons for why they were dismissed are as long forgotten as my recollection of what these artists sounded like or what their story was. I’d like to think the reasons were all musical, but I was pretty good at being a naive idiot in the past so I can’t put it past me that some of them were tossed aside due to some arbitrarily perceived prejudice. I’ve been jotting down a list – its pretty damn long, and honestly, I feel like a bit of a tool for it. I’m slowly making my way through it, and the hits are far and few between, but at least I’m feeling better for it.