Symphony X - The Odyssey

Year of Release: 2002
Label: InsideOut
Catalog Number: IOMCD 109
Format: CD
Total Time: 65:10:00

I'm going to tell you right at the outset that I love this album. I haven't even finished listening to it -- that is, I've been listening to it over and over already, but I'm not ready to stop playing it. I'm not really ready to review it yet, either, but I will share with you my thoughts and opinions on it as they stand at this point. I mean, if I'm at a 6/5 point already, there's not much further I can go, right? Anyway, I love it! Not just the epic "The Odyssey" suite, but the whole album. It is certainly very strong in the running for my favourite of the year. Why? Oh, Russell Allen's vocals, Michael Romeo's guitar playing, the arrangements, the production... everything about this album is spot on. And everything is presented with such enthusiasm. Sure the big draw is going to be the 7 part "The Odyssey" and well it should, but we mustn't overlook this album's other gems - "Awakening," "Accolade II," "Incantations Of The Apprentice," to name three. The middle of those three, "Accolade II" is a sequel to "The Accolade," which appeared on the band's classic 1997 release Divine Wings Of Tragedy. Folks who discovered them only with 2000's V: The New Mythology Suite, will find much here in common with that release, and with their previous releases.

Maybe because I've been listening to them this month as well, but "Odysseus' Theme/Overture" bears not only a strong resemblance to composer John Williams' material (and Romeo, who orchestrated this piece, has admitted that Williams is a favourite), but also, at least to me, to Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Well, more specifically the Emerson element of that equation - which would be the Michael Pinnella factor here. But then, given that Emerson adapted classical works, and this first movement of the "The Odyssey" is a classical piece, perhaps that observation comes too easy. ELP fans should note, though, that I am specifically thinking of, right now, "Changing States" from Black Moon, which wasn't a classical adaptation (and not a beloved album by ELP fans, I hear). Of course, observant readers will also note, and not only because the changed text colors indicates so, I've reviewed that album.

Anyway, while I am familiar with Homer's The Odyssey in concept, I must admit that I haven't read all of it. It was an assigned text for a World Lit class I took in college 15 years ago, but I found I just couldn't get through the dense translation. Of course, maybe now I'll have to give it another try. I'm 15 years wiser and astute (in my own not so humble opinion). Symphony X tell the tale in a combination of instrumental and vocal tracks that keep the whole suite humming along. I first heard this, by the way, while listening to DJ Zero Hour's show on Seismic Radio, and my comment then (in the chat room) was "sublime." And you know what? Yes, that comment still holds.

The album opens with seven unrelated tracks, beginning with "Inferno (Unleash The Fire)," which gives us our first listen to a rougher voiced Russell Allen and a crunchier Symphony X. This is more a showcase for Romeo's guitar playing, which doesn't mean Allen's vocals are merely token lyrics, but it is a performance that Allen has delivered so often that he could probably do it without thinking. Drummer Jason Rullo and bassist Michael LePond are absent -- though I really don't hear much from keyboardist Pinnella on this track -- as there is some dynamic interplay between the two (Pinnella is very much a factor in "Wicked," however, and elsewhere on the album, especially the intro to "Accolade II"). And this is one reason why I have come to admire Symphony X so much. Rarely do they resort to generic bash-bash-bash, letting the vocals carry all the diversity and melody. . And, unlike a lot of progressive and power metal bands, Symphony X also know the value of space, which makes the arrangements seem ever so much bigger. On "Incantations..." for example, the trio of Romeo, LePond, and Pinnella keep in tight formation, stopping for a couple of beats perfectly. Too often artists try to fill all the space with guitar riffs, chugging bass lines or drums... but drama and emphasis are revealed by the spaces.

I say that the tracks that make up first half (or so) of the album are unrelated, but for the most part, they touch upon a common theme - the journey. And so, it is a concept album, as each of these journeys become odysseys themselves. Maybe not told with same far reaching and epic scope as "The Odyssey," but the elements of what will follow in that suite are laid in the tracks that precede it, from the underlying theme to the piano solo of "Awakenings," which presages the classical arrangements that start out "The Odyssey." One might think that "King Of Terrors," based on Edgar Allan Poe's The Pit And The Pendulum), might be the exception to this theme, but death can be a journey as well, if doesn't come swift. If you recall the Poe classic, the protagonist is strapped down, a blade swinging back and forth, inching closer on each pass. What must go through one's mind at that moment ... during those moments, as death creeps closer? Ah, that is the journey here in a track that big, heavy, as you might expect, played with dark tones. Rullo's drumming mimics the racing heart of the protagonist, though it doesn't specifically mimic a heartbeat. The piece ends with a single, gothic keyboard note from Pinnella, which captures much of the drama that has come before... and gives the piece a grim finality.

The crunchiness continues on the second track (yes, I'm jumping around), the darker "Wicked." Though I'm not sure if this track is based on anything specifically, it is a both creepy tale with a twist ending and, to some degree, a male fantasy -- beautiful woman only wants man to hang around for eternity, promising endless sex. Oh, this isn't as frank as that, really, as like the classic medieval tales, things are suggested rather than said. Metaphor, simile...actually, not unlike the metaphysical poets, as well. And, in contrast to the frankness of rap, say, I much rather hear "Burn forever / Leave never from my arms / Embrace the night" than ... well, you can guess. And, like the sirens that Odysseus encounters, there's a dark underside that leads to the twist.

"Accolade II" is an epic piece with a grand sweep and a great deal of emotion... well, the same could be said for the entire album. Yeh, another thing I love about Symphony X, the emotional quality of Allen's voice. Which means that Allen's clean, soaring vocals aren't entirely gone, but here on The Odyssey they provide contrast. Sometimes, however, the change seems wrong, as if the lyrics should have kept their gruffness. But, this is a minor quibble. And, I should note, Symphony X hasn't become a black metal band. Allen's rougher voice works best with "The Turning," as here man has become beast, a werewolf -- the journey being a night on the prowl. So yes, a growl is very appropriate. There is some nice interplay here for the solo section between Romeo and Pinnella, at point they are so in sync, I'm not sure if they both are playing, or if it's just Romeo...

"Awakening," is at first a reflective piece, with a nice piano intro from Pinnella, which continues under the first verse. But this gentle passage is just an interlude before we get some intense heaviness from the band, including a snarling guitar solo from Romeo. Still, self-examination is the subject - a journey into the self, as it were.

Of course, as mentioned, the biggest journey of them all is "The Odyssey," which encompasses just a little more than 24 minutes of the album. "Journey To Ithaca" is at first an acoustic guitar and vocal piece, to which for the second verse light drumming and percussion are added. (Maybe it's me, but I hear echoes of "Can't Find My Way Home" here). This builds, to the full band (and Allen sounds to me like Damien Wilson here, too). As his journey home gets more treacherous - a storm is brewing - the music picks up and matches this turmoil. All leading up to a screaming guitar solo from Romeo, a keyboard solo from Pinnella (though this precedes actual mention of the storm). The album cover depicts the chapter told in "Sirens," where Odysseus must face and resist the sirens. We get another powerhouse classical composition with "Scylla and Charybdis," and again you can hear the Williams influence in Romeo's scoring. The suite ends with "The Fate Of The Suitors/Champion Of Ithaca." If you recall at all the story, Odysseus's wife Penelope is courted by a number of suitors, thinking that Odysseus is dead. Of course, she has kept them at bay, by telling them she will decide once she's finished her sewing project (a project that she unraveled every night to begin anew the next day). The "Champion Of Ithaca" section is, of course, Odysseus return home. All in all a tour-de-force performance that is sure to put "The Odyssey" and The Odyssey among their very best.

However, I can see that critics will say that Romeo's orchestrations recall too much of Williams and not enough of Romeo's own voice. Of course, were this Romeo's statement as a classical composer, that might be a valid point. But that intro only forms one part of the whole. Here, using a well liked composer's style as the basis for own composition, which needs to be heard/seen in its whole and in context, it serves as homage and gives the piece the same kind of epic scope that a Williams score gave Star Wars - big, heroic, and energizing. And it's not as if Romeo has failed miserably at writing a score, I'd say he didn't fail at all. Critics will also point out that Symphony X haven't really done anything that they haven't done before,or that others have done before. And that is true, there are Symphony X set pieces here, stylistic touches that are their trademark. But, I still think the "The Odyssey" is something they haven't tried before - a multi-piece epic. And give them a lot of credit for pulling it off magnificently.

Rating: 6/5

Inferno (Unleash The Fire) (5:32) / Wicked (5:30) / Incantations Of The Apprentice (4:19) / Accolade II (7:04) / King Of Terrors (6:16) / The Turning (4:42) / Awakenings (8:18) / The Odyssey (24:09): Part I: Odysseus' Theme/Overture - Part II: Journey To Ithaca - Part III: The Eye - Part IV: Circe (Daughter Of The Sun) - Part V: Sirens - Part VI: Scylla And Charybdis - Part VII: The Face Of The Suitors/Champion Of Ithaca (Masquerade '98 - bonus track taken from the "Prelude To The Millennium" will appear on the limited edition release which will also include an extended booklet)

Michael Romeo - guitar
Russell Allen - vocals
Michael Pinnella - keyboards
Jason Rullo - drums
Michael Lepond - bass

Symphony X (1994)
The Damnation Game (1995)
The Divine Wings Of Tragedy (1997)
Twilight In Olympus (1998)
V - The New Mythology Suite (2000)
Live On The Edge Of Forever (2001)
The Odyssey (2002)
Paradise Lost (2007)
Iconoclast (2011)
Underworld (2015)

Genre: Progressive-Power Metal

Origin US

Added: December 2nd 2002
Reviewer: Stephanie Sollow
Artist website:
Hits: 454
Language: english


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