Hey there, everybody! Welcome to the thirty-first episode of A Scene In Retrospect; I hope y’all are feeling well! We’ll be covering an album today that I’m sure not many of you saw coming from us: The Odyssey, the 2002 release by American progressive metal band Symphony X. In the following, our PR/social media manager Inter, as well as writer/editor Tyler and staff writers Ashley and Vigz, will be giving you a piece of their minds on this record, so please enjoy!
Metal music, classical music, and mythical fantasy have been bedfellows for a while now, and what a trio they make! From Richie Blackmore’s early experiments and Malmsteen’s high-octane output to the modern symphonic metal that we know and love (or loathe) today, Symphony X have been part of this story. The band released a solid output of albums in the nineties and 2000’s that help shaped the genre, but how does The Odyssey stack up to a listen now?
Well, at the time, the album pretty much offered more of the same for fans. Doubling down on the Euro-centric-classical-metal widdle-a-thons™, The Odyssey takes Symphony X‘s successful formula to produce another solid, if not stellar, album. The opener, “Inferno”, is a nice blast, though it could have easily been something off a Rising Force album back in the 80’s. “Wicked” tries to be heavy, but lacks the modern punch that we expect nowadays. Of the shorter tracks, “Awakenings” stands heads and shoulders above the rest. It gives both the band and the listener a chance to take a breath and contains excellent riffs and melodies. It echoes early Dream Theater in regards to quality and sound.
The other jewel in the crown is really the title track, which is inspired by the Greek epic poem of the same same. I mean, this poem practically invented epic storytelling, so combining classical-prog and Greek tragedy seems like it was both ‘meant to be’ and ridiculous. Allen might as well sung it in Greek to add even more authenticity to the pomp (not that it needed it). From the full orchestral arrangements, over the folksy verses, to the obligatory palm-muted riffing, it is a tour de force that really is something to behold. Although I’m not familiar with the subject matter, Allen’s lyrics are really well-written, painting a fantastic picture of Odysseus’ trials, and the music matches the mood perfectly.
As usual, Russell Allen and Michael Romeo (that name was destined to be in this band!) form a fantastic duo across the whole album, the precise riffing and guitar pyrotechnics of Romeo and the soaring vocal of Allen forming a sort of modern version of Blackmore and Dio. On steroids.
For me, the band peaked with the previous album, The New Mythology Suite. With this one, many parts sound needlessly complex. Odd time signatures are used liberally across the whole album. Sometimes Romeo is cranking out a great little head nodding riff, but then ruins it by adding an additional beat at the end, breaking the flow.
Time has not done it any favours, but The Odyssey is an album that the band should be very proud of. Symphonic metal is probably bigger than ever thanks to bands like Symphony X. Does it stack up when listening to it now, in the future as it were? Nearly. It sounds dated, cheesy and thin, but you can’t deny the talent and impact this band had on what we enjoy today.
Could it be true to say that The Odyssey is a grower? Yes…Yes, I think it could. Terms such as symphonic, power and neoclassical, all of which encapsulate the soundscape of Symphony X’s masterpiece perfectly, are off-putting to some (okay, several) corners of the metal fraternity. But those possessing this more skeptical mindset may want to approach an album like The Odyssey objectively. It’s worth soaking in more than once, as it is without contest an excellently crafted record. The musicianship is outstanding on every level. You might not like the tried and tested Megadeth-style thrash formula of the guitars, but you cannot deny the technical wizardry with which they are played. You may not like the borderline cheesiness of the keyboards, but you can’t contest that they fit the tone of the music like a glove. And you may not like the Bruce Dickinson/Freddie Mercury-inspired vocals or the fantasy storytelling content of the lyrics, but you must, with no hindrance, acknowledge the immaculate standard of the voice itself.
You must also give credit to a band who stick to their guns, in the great tradition of more universal names like Iron Maiden, as they release an album that merely forwards the creative endeavour they had set out to make in the first place. Cast your memory back to the general metal industry back in 2002 when this album was released, and think of what occurred both in the mainstream and in the underground. I bet no immediate concepts of neoclassical spring to mind. But these guys did it, and they did it with pride. And considering some of the punchier groovy riffs of this record, they revolutionised it.
Let’s also talk about the title track, “The Odyssey”, a 24-minute everything-but-the-kitchen-sink spectacle which is a kind of ‘final boss’ track of the album, featuring all the emotional ups-and-downs in between. The band could easily have released this as a record of its own, let alone place it as the penultimate act of a larger set piece. It just shows how devoted to their craft Symphony X truly were, and how going the extra mile was clearly second nature for them.
The Odyssey defines epic like the best of them. It’s loaded to the brim with trinkets and memorable bits. So I’ll say it again: play it, absorb it, and learn to love it. It could be the start of a beautiful friendship.
I’m in a complicated place right now. One part of me just wants to write about Symphony X’s The Odyssey, tell you how much it shaped my love for prog and conceptual music, while the other part just wants to sing along the 24-minute journey of The Odyssey in a goofy but proud manner, just like I always did when the song came up at a party. Imagine me doing that while writing these rows.
I was never a big fan of prog metal with a more power metal or even neo-classical edge. The pathos and cheesiness was always a huge turn-off, and I stepped away from bands in that realm. Symphony X are definitely the big exception to that. I have such a huge sweet spot for that band; Russel Allen’s voice sends chills down my spine, and Michael Romeo’s highly influential guitar playing blew me away on many occasions. In my eyes (respectively ears), the band delivered their best work to date with the amazing The Odyssey, which features one of the best prog metal songs ever written, conincidentally of the same name.
Besides their magnum opus, the album features a lot of awesome tracks, like the second part of “The Accolade”, which was featured on the rival for ‘best Symphony X album’, the also very impressive The Divine Wings Of Tragedy. Overall, while the album is cheesy and histrionic to the core, it comes along with a certain elegance and subtlety, fantastic riffs and solos, and probably one of the best Allen performances. It was always incredibly fascinating for me that besides my open and strong aversion against power prog, I deeply care for and love Symphony X.
Apparently, singing all the melodies, solos, and epic vocal lines with a bunch of prog nerds at party after some green sticks shapes a lifelong love for something you otherwise would have despised.
NA NA NA NAA NANANANA!
Symphony X, as a band, have always had their success somewhat dampened by their association with Dream Theater, ever under the shadow of the prog monolith. The late nineties and early aughts saw a reciprocal duality not too dissimilar to that of Maiden and Priest, or Avenged Sevenfold and BFMV. There were those that sat in either camp, feverently defending their chosen side, though most simply enjoyed both.
With The Odyssey (and their previous record, V: The Mythology Suite), Symphony X really came into their sound, developing a style that helped them step out from under the thumb of their noted influences. The musicianship was always there, but this record, perhaps more than any other in their catalogue, found a perfect balance of progressive and power metal slants with a heavy infusion of that ‘devil may care’ rock ‘n’ roll attitude. Aggressive riffing that’s easy to bang your head to, fast and sharp guitar work lining each melody, and enough ballad material to even out the scales.
But for as much as I recall this being a seminal part of the band’s history, returning to it for this reflection honestly left me a bit disappointed. In no attempt to intentionally be the contrarian, I feel this work has not aged as well as some might say, and that much of this love comes from rose-tinted memories. That is not to say the band is not talented or worth listening to, but rather that their technical and songwriting abilities grew over time. I’m of the opinion that their work on Paradise Lost and Iconoclast stands tall beside what we are discussing today.
That being said, there is little that can get the blood flowing like listening to Michael Romeo’s blazing fingerwork alongside the harsh yet melodic power behind Russel Allens vocals. Even in the case of their earlier, somewhat rougher albums, they remain engaging all the way through. Furthermore, it’s hard to imagine how the sound of bands like Persefone and Allegaeon would have been shaped without this influence on the metal scene – both bands worth checking out if you’ve come to this article for the Symphony X and haven’t given much time to them. If you’ve never heard this record before, then it’s worth giving it a spin, as there is something here for near any kind of metal fan.
And that’s all for now! Hopefully the initial surprise about this episode was replaced by sense of nostalgia or curiosity by now. What are your thoughts on this band and record? Are there any you would like to see included in this feature? Leave it all in the comments!
See y’all again in fourteen days for another look at a classic album we sadly couldn’t review when it came out; I can already promise you that the next episode will be very, very special for all you djent fans out there! Until then, do stay safe out there, and as always…
…thanks for reading!