By: Nathan Lagden
Islington Assembly Hall, London | February 19, 2016
Symphony X may not be all that well known outside of their own progressive/power metal genre, with even followers of other kinds of metal often not having heard of them, but over the last 20 years they have become undisputed legends among a select crowd. Their recent sold out visit to London certainly didn’t do any harm to that reputation as they proved beyond doubt that they are one of the best progressive metal acts around. Support was provided first by Melted Space, a one-man project from France which supposedly aims to create a new theatrical form of metal dubbed ‘metal opera’ and with four vocalists it’s easy to see why this description was chosen. The constant changing over of vocalists was a little chaotic, but the interesting melodies and terrific vocal performances certainly won the crowd over, giving most of us something which we had not seen before which is always a great thing for any lesser-known support act. Next up are rising Tunisian prog metal outfit Myrath, who don’t do quite as good a job at winning the crowd over. It’s not that their performance is in any way bad; all of the musicians are clearly very good at what they do and they have a decent frontman who not only fills the stage well, but has a very interesting vocal range which gives an Arabian folk twist to the band’s style. It’s just that the crowd seemed to be very much split into two distinct categories – those who knew Myrath and enjoyed their set and those who didn’t know them and didn’t get much out of it. They were just unable to offer that little bit extra to really win over those in the audience, such as myself, who were unfamiliar with their songs.
Symphony X though, were obviously the band that everybody was waiting for and they let them know it as they came on to the starting ‘Overture’ from their latest album Underworld and perhaps somewhat predictably they kick things off with the first proper song from that album, ‘Nevermore’. Predictable not just because it is the first track and the first single from the album, but also because of the fact that its high dynamic tempo is perfect for getting the crowd going before they then launch into the album’s title track. It turned out, as they announced to my surprise, that they intended to play through the entirety of Underworld, albeit not in the right order. Whether or not this was announced before the show I’m not sure, but if it was then I certainly didn’t realise (unless the fact that it was called the ‘Underworld‘ Tour was supposed to be the giveaway). Either way, the fact that it was not made explicitly clear did annoy me a little bit because had I known that this was going to happen I certainly would have given their latest album a lot more attention than the one full listen-through I did give it. I often have mixed feelings about when bands do opt to play an entire album in a set. From the point of view of the band and fans who see them consistently, I do understand the need to freshen up the set-list from time to time and not just play reordered ‘Greatest Hits’; but on the other hand by doing this a band is essentially sacrificing their better songs for album-fillers. This was definitely the case here in my view and as somebody who had only seen Symphony X once before, I would definitely have rather heard some better-known songs than fillers from an album which hasn’t been out very long. They weren’t helped by the fact that though Underworld is a good album, it doesn’t really have many stand-out songs.
One song which does stand out however is ‘Without You’, which they performed an outstanding rendition of following that announcement. The two things that must be said about Symphony X’s decision to perform Underworld are that even if I personally wasn’t keen, the same can’t be said for most of the crowd who responded with the utmost enthusiasm to even the more obscure songs from the album. And why not, because the second thing to be said is that whatever it was that they played, they pulled it off in spectacular fashion. Although the show started perhaps a little rushed, that definitely disappeared by the time of ‘Without You’ and every song was performed with such expert precision it really is no surprise that this is a band who have had the same line-up since 1998. Russell Allen is on form as the enigmatic frontman that he is. Not only is his vocal work utterly superb, but he has a fantastic knack of always being the focus of attention when he needs to be but also not upstaging his other band-mates when the songs dictate that it’s their time in the spotlight. And one band-mate who certainly deserved the spotlight that night is guitarist Michael Romeo. His solos really are a thing of beauty as he makes something which we all know is so difficult look remarkably easy. A figure of the utmost envy surely for any aspiring guitarists in the crowd, but really I don’t think anybody could be anything other than awestruck by his performance.
This all culminates in the incredibly moving rendition of ‘Swan Song’ before they move off of Underworld onto some older favourites from The Divine Wings of Tragedy. ‘Sea of Lies’ in particular is an old crowd-pleaser with Allen expertly conducting everybody in the venue through the chorus before the band headed off for their encore. Upon re-emerging, they go to another favourite of a more recent variety with ‘Set The World On Fire’. Thankfully both the audience and the band still have the energy to respond to this thrill ride of a song before the evening is closed out with a return to the Underworld for the closing track off the album, ‘Legend’. And legends they most certainly are. I highly doubt there was anybody in the building who doubted this before seeing them, but there certainly weren’t any afterwards. To have managed to get a sold-out crowd on the same night that fellow prog-metallers Dream Theater sold out the London Palladium is an enormously impressive achievement; and it’s because of the fact that they’re able to put in performances like this that they were able to do so. Russell Allen closed out the show with a spiel about how this often overlooked sub-genre is still going strong, which of course was a highly popular sentiment with crowd; but really it is thanks to bands like Symphony X that this is the case. It’s always refreshing I feel, to see bands who do have an abundance of talent and aren’t afraid to showcase it. Symphony X do that whilst adding energy and showmanship to their shows to boot. I suspect that the crowd was mostly populated by people who had seen them before, which would justify their set-list choice, even though I still found it to be a disappointment. However one thing I certainly can’t criticise is the overall performance.