Once a week I turn the blog over to Dan Marsicano for his Retro Recommendation, giving you a chance to learn about underrated and overlooked gems from metal's past. This week, Symphony X is in the spotlight.
Every band has one album that is overlooked in their catalogue, and if bets had to be put down on which Symphony X album is in that category, their self-titled debut would be a shoo-in. The only album without vocalist Russell Allen, and full of neo-classical guitar wankery, the band's first album is an indulgent display of technical proficiency and over-emotional mush. That being said, there is something charming about the album that makes it a worthy beginning to an illustrious career.
For such a young band, Symphony X has the chops of bands twice their age. Every song includes at least one spectacular solo break, and not only from guitarist Michael Romeo. The bass/guitar trade-offs on "Taunting the Notorious" is mesmerizing, rising above the tame production that threatens to contain the duel's power. Closer "A Lesson Before Dying" is the band's first opus, a 12-minute journey that feels like the prelude to a great tale that remains unfinished. "Masquerade" takes a classical approach to the metal onslaught, though the 1998 version with Allen on vocals is far superior.
The band was still working out their songwriting at this point, and the ideas are there, but the execution is mixed. Ballad "Premonition" has hilarious pitchy crooning that sounds like it came from a hair metal reject. Vocalist Rod Tyler doesn't have the range of Allen and gets in some cringing high notes. Tyler is a decent singer when he sticks to a mid-range, but when he tries to belt out a note, things get interesting. "Absinthe and Rue" is one of his more over-the-top performances, not helped by the verbose backing vocals that dominate the song, a common nuisance on a good portion of the album.
The best songs stick to a formula of a driving tempo and fluid interplay between the band members. "The Raging Season" exemplifies this attitude, as does the vicious "Thorns of Sorrow." The musicianship is tight, never succumbing to a kind of looseness that can make for sloppy instrumental passages. The unsung hero is keyboardist Michael Pinnella, who sets an appropriate tone that doesn't overwhelm the songs. He is largely in the background, save for a few finger-aching leads alongside Romeo.
With albums like The Divine Wings of Tragedy, The Odyssey, and Paradise Lost ahead of it, it's no surprise that Symphony X would be forgotten. It just can't compete with the stellar material that has poured out of the band since the mid '90s. Like someone that can never forget their first kiss, it's hard to leave a debut album entirely behind, and Symphony X is far from terrible. For dazzling instrumental work and hints of their future sound, Symphony X gets the nod for this week's Retro Recommendation.