Released: 2007, Inside Out
My apologies in advance...this is a long review.
Four and a half years is an awfully long time to wait between albums for any band. The most obvious problem with long delays between releases is the fact the longer the wait, the more listeners will place high...perhaps unreasonably high...expectations on its contents, and often times, they wind up being disappointed. Not so in the case of the 2007 release from New Jersey's progressive-power metal giants Symphony X. Like the Biblical prophets, Symphony X was a group unwelcome in their own land for many years - though the band was founded and the first album was recorded in 1994 and the group quickly built up a major following in Europe and Japan, they did not land a North American distribution deal until their fifth album (V-THE NEW MYTHOLOGY SUITE) in 2000. After that single release on Metal Blade Records, the band signed a new deal with the prog-metal-heavy Inside Out Music and then released a double live album in 2001 and a brilliant 2002 disc entitled THE ODYSSEY, the latter of which featured an epic 24-minute title track based on the Homeric myth of the same name. Inside Out, being the intelligent folks they are, also acquired the rights to the band's first four albums from the now-defunct Zero Corporation Japanese label and re-released them in North America in 2004.
Momentum was gathering, and as early as September of 2004, news was beginning to trickle out that the group was working on writing a new album, originally with a hopeful release date of Spring of 2005. Distractions and delays dominated, however: vocalist Russell Allen recorded and released a solo album entitled ATOMIC SOUL, keyboardist Michael Pinnella recorded and released a solo album entitled ENTER BY THE TWELFTH GATE, the band was invited to play on Dave Mustaine's 2005 Gigantour and accepted...then decided they should focus on finishing the new album first...then changed their minds AGAIN and went on the tour after all, Allen decided to collaborate with Jorn Lande (Masterplan, Yngwie Malmsteen, Ark, Vagabond, solo vocalist, etc etc etc) in a dual-vocalist effort and released two albums under the Allen-Lande moniker entitled THE BATTLE and THE REVENGE, bassist Michael Lepond was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease but was fortunately able to recover after surgery, and when the band finally got into the studio to record in late 2006, they were beset with numerous technical problems. After seemingly interminable and innumerable delays and scads of speculation about the direction the band was taking with rumors flying they were going for a "darker" sound, PARADISE LOST...a title they'd been bandying about in various news snippets since early 2004...is finally here. I had to wonder: could it possibly be worth that much of a wait?
Let me answer that in the simplest possible terms: HELL YES. Opinions will vary greatly on where PARADISE LOST stands in the ranking of Symphony X albums, but for my money, it is either the best album they've ever released or very, VERY close to the 1997 masterpiece THE DIVINE WINGS OF TRAGEDY...oddly enough, an album whose 20-minute title track was also about John Milton's "Paradise Lost." The first thing you note about PARADISE LOST is the absolutely gorgeous wrap-around cover art depicting a lone angel holding a petal-shedding rose and an army of fallen angels approaching with obviously murderous intent against a backdrop of a hellish, flame-and-crater-filled landscape. Spectacular artwork alone does not a great album make, but in this case, the music within demands a cover piece that impressive. Production on the album was handled by Jens Borgen (producer for recent albums from Opeth, Katatonia, and Bloodbath) and it is nothing short of phenomenal...guitar tone is superbly crunchy, keyboards stand out in the mix effectively without detracting an iota from the overall heaviness, drums are full and rich, bass is clear and powerful, vocal lines clearly soar above and rage through the musical mix, and orchestral and choir segments abound, lending an incredible epic and darkly menacing feel to the overall production. As their very band name might suggest, Symphony X is no stranger to incorporating such symphonic-metal elements, but this is easily the best those parts have ever sounded for them.
As rumored, the band have indeed gone for a more aggressive, darker-toned sound on this album. Michael Romeo's guitar riffs are absolute monsters, heavier than anything previously done by the band yet retaining his penchant for building technical prog-explosions into the rhythms while still remaining accessibly memorable, and the amazing Russell Allen has delved into a new side of his already-vast vocal talents by unleashing a barrage of rage-infused snarls in addition to his usual repetoire of superbly melodic harmonies and powerful mid-to-high-ranges. Fans of the band already know Romeo and Pinnella are both exceptionally talented soloists, and both get plenty of opportunities to rip through stunning tradeoff lead passages that despite their technical excellence always retain a sense of melody rather than functioning as nothing more than instrumental wankery. Rhythm section members Lepond and Rullo get plenty of chances to shine as well, though not as prominently as the rest of the group.
Opener instrumental "Oculus Ex Inferni" (loosely translated, "The Eye Of Hell") sets the stage for the album with an epic orchestral arrangement accentuated by some background riffing from Romeo and drum work from Rullo before fading into "Set The World On Fire (The Lie Of Lies)," a furiously aggressive galloper with a typically heavy-yet-catchy Symphony X trademark chorus and a superb lead break tradeoff section. The closing riff for this track is just CRUSHING, especially with the choir chanting in the background for atmospheric reinforcement. The pace doesn't slacken a bit on "Domination" as Lepond launches into a cool bass lick somewhat reminiscent of the intro for "Sea Of Lies" from the DIVINE WINGS album before the band launches into another explosion of technical excellence melded with chugging double-bass-driven groove and near-sadistic-sounding wickedly-barbed vocals from Allen. Personal favorite "The Walls Of Babylon" opens with an eerie-sounding Arabic-style vocal piece bridging into a great heavy-technical riff backed by a decidedly evil-tinged choir chant. The vocals don't enter until nearly three and a half minutes into the song, giving it plenty of time to build atmosphere, and the solos are some of the best on the album. "Seven" (this is the band's seventh studio album...and the track is almost exactly seven minutes long...but oddly enough, it's not the seventh track?) opens up with a neoclassical instrumental flurry before launching into an excellent speedy track along the same lines as many of their faster-paced cuts from earlier albums. The album isn't all fire and fury, though - the title track is a slower balladish number with piano and guitar lines somewhat similar to the two parts of "The Accolade" from the DIVINE WINGS and ODYSSEY albums, a great lead break section, and some truly emotive vocals including a skin-shiveringly beautiful and hauntingly moving chorus. The other ballad on the album is "The Sacrifice," which is a serious and heartfelt romantic piece with another fantastic chorus and a classical guitar outro.
Perhaps the only weakness I can find on the album is just a little shade of "haven't I heard that before?" While no two songs on this album sound repetitious of each other, some portions of a few songs do sound fairly similar to prior Symphony X work - for example, some of the orchestral parts in "Oculus Ex Inferni" are reminiscent of bits of the intro to "The Odyssey," there's the aforementioned nod to previous work in "Domination" which some may find a little too familiar, and perhaps a couple more sections here and there. One piece of musical repetition from a prior album is deliberate - on closer "Revelation," the fadeout theme is the same as one of the major themes from the title track of the DIVINE WINGS album - not surprising, given that the song's subtitle "Divus Pennae Ex Tragoedia" loosely translates into "Divine Wings Of Tragedy." Other than those occasional moments, all I can say is although some of the songs may be about Hell, the album is sixty-one minutes of power-prog heaven!
Some fans who had been hoping for a return to the less-heavy, more prog-oriented sound of the band's early works may be somewhat disappointed with the direction they've taken on PARADISE LOST, but for most, this will and should be considered an absolute masterpiece. For me, it's a very strong contender for album of the year and a disc I simply cannot recommend enough.