Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Music Review: Symphony X: Iconoclast (Special Edition)

Last Friday, my friends and I were treated to seeing Symphony X on tour with Iced Earth and Warbinger. That was pretty much an inspiration for me to finally write a review of what was easily one of the most hyped progressive metal albums of last year. Seeing them on tour was exciting for many reasons. Their skill and songwriting ability is praiseworthy, as is their musical knowledge and comprehension. This band can sound just as good live as they do in their recordings, and trust me, when you really listen to the technicality and detail that goes into their work, you'll see that's a monumental achievement in itself. So after seven previous outings, how does this monstrous band hold up today? Well, that depends on how you look at a few things.

What I will immediately get out of the way is that the instrumentals and overall skill of the group are just as powerful and engaging as they ever were. Michael Romeo, the lead guitarist, still has the shredding ability that makes you question whether or not he is in fact a human being. Michael Pinnella on the keyboards (as in literally multiple keyboards at once!), still astonishes with his quick and precise hand work that goes into each song he plays. Russell Allen is still a ridiculous powerhouse on vocals, showing he can go many dynamic ranges without skipping a beat. All of the band members have amazing talent and deserve to always be recognized as such. This album, just like the previous, will continue to show that to the world, regardless even of what they may think of the music itself.

Going into the music itself would be inevitable at this point. Your feelings on the music will likely be based on a few key details. Ever since the band's previous entry, "Paradise Lost," they have all but changed their original sound. The current sound is much darker, the fantasy elements in each song have all but been replaced by more of a science fiction theme this time around, and many of the classical elements that helped shaped their original sound have been let go as well. It's not to say that the current sound the band promotes is a bad one (quite the opposite in fact), but to go pretending that this wasn't a dramatic change in the listening would have been a lie. Fans will want to take all of this into consideration if they're trying to figure out what to expect in this album based on the band's previous history. If you loved the newer sound found in "Paradise Lost," then you will likely love the sound in Iconoclast as well.

Only one song on the album goes over the 10 minute mark this time; the title track "Iconoclast" itself. This is immediately one of the best songs on the entire release, encompassing just about everything this band is known for. I dare someone to listen to the complex time signature right at the intro part of the song and not come back impressed. The song progresses in an excellent fashion, all the way up to the second track, "The End of Innocence." This was the first single off the album, and understandably so once you hear how catchy the combined sound of the guitar/keyboard truly are. A very simple song, but a very effective one all the same.

The third track, "Dehumanized" changes up the pace once more, with a bit of a heavy and slow, but powerful structure. Despite this formulaic approach, the song manages to sneak in a few moments you wouldn't have expected a song of this style to showcase. This is followed by the blistering-paced "Bastards of the Machine." The band shows off a great deal of energy with this track, while the keyboard will hook you almost immediately in. Another all-around great effort.

One more track that deserves a standing ovation is the track "When All Is Lost." This is the only song where Russell shows the softer side of his voice once more, followed by a wonderfully-crafted progressive masterpiece. The way the song builds up and crashes will surely leave a lasting impression, and rightfully so.

I will now stop listing thoughts on each particular song from this point forward. Why would I do this? Well, simply put, after these first four tracks, while the remainder are still good, they lose their unique factor at this point, and begin to blend together almost a little too much for my liking. As someone who knew this band almost right from the beginning (including being from the same general home state), it kind of disappoints me to see them taking a more generic approach to some of their songwriting with this and the previous release.

One more concern lies with the lyrics of this album overall. A very large amount of the lyrics in this release are overly cheesy and sometimes a bit difficult to stomach. For a band that's capable of writing such epic tracks as "The Odyssey," this may also come as a bit of a surprise to those who've come to know the band's directions over the years.

The last detail I will mention is the difference in the special edition content, as opposed to the single-disc release of the album. This special edition version includes three bonus tracks, with some of the other tracks re-arranged to fit two discs. The band said they felt this was the proper order of the album and the way they intended for it to be heard, but that Nuclear Blast USA wanted a single-disc release from them to put out as well. The three tracks are not necessarily any more essential than the rest of what's already on the album, but there's no reason not to go with the version that has everything on it for a few bucks more.

Once again, I must emphasize that I do like the new sound, as I do the old, but there is a serious change in the material they are now choosing to put out, and I can't help but feel that I miss many of the sounds and themes we've grown accustomed to with them over the years. Evolution can be a wonderful thing, but I feel like these last two releases have been a bit more of a step back for this band. I am very happy to see them getting better recognition among the charts than ever before, and I hope they continue to grow as a result of this. I just hope we don't continue to lose out on the things that once made them great at the same time. They are an amazing group through and through however, and I will continue to follow them, no matter what they do from this point on.

Overall, I would give this release an 8/10.

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