Welcome to Check Your Mode

The all-inclusive, ever-changing, and uncomfortably flexible guide to all things music in the 2010's.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Symphony X - Iconoclast: B+

If you’re a fan of modern screamo, you have probably heard the use of subwoofer boom in otherwise metal-styled songs. The sound often punctuates the endings of phrases in order to give a track’s hook an epic conclusion. It’s a rather disquieting method, regardless of context, and can draw much attention to a song’s transitions. Unfortunately, though, the sensationalist likes of bands such as A Day to Remember have co-opted this technique in order to try to make up for the strength that their actual music lacks. Like so many others, this technique has been bastardized beyond recognition by bands such as Attack Attack! The most traction it has ever gotten has been on System of a Down’s Mesmerize. Aside from that, it has never been used to good effect.

Iconoclast, the eighth album from New Jersey prog metal band Symphony X, has a few strikes against it, one of which is that it frequently incorporates that technique. As one would expect, riotous booms serve as periods for the ends of musical movements, giving unnecessary oomph to aggressive arrangements that would be just fine on their own. When used traditionally, the technique is very annoying, but it sounds even worse when used incorrectly. There are times that Symphony X will use the booming sound to introduce verses, which can completely throw the listener off, as that explosion is supposed to highlight a conclusion, not the thick of a track. As a result, many of the verses on Iconoclast sound weak and underwhelming because they are snuffed under the bass’s massive presence.

This may sound like nitpicking, but the inappropriate use of this technique is indicative of the half-baked nature of much of Iconoclast. The album feels a bit unsure of itself, a sentiment typified by its theme. Lead singer Michael Romeo said in an interview for Blabbermouth that the subject of Iconoclast was “of machines taking over everything, and all this technology we put our society into pretty much being our demise." On the album, Romeo goes about getting this point across by making grandiose statements as directionless as his intentions. “What’s done is done,” he sings on “Dehumanized”. “I’m dead inside / I’m what you’ve all become / Mindless and mesmerized / Dehumanized.” Songs such as “Bastards of the Machine” and “Electric Messiah” set up straw men for Romeo to demolish with rote sloganeering. The execution would befit a group of half Symphony X’s experience.

But guess what? Iconoclast is still an excellent listen. Its themes may be undercooked and the group may throw themselves too wholeheartedly into gimmicks, but Symphony X’s penchant for excellent musicianship and catchy choruses is something that cannot be taken away from them. “Dehumanized” may be laughably heavy-handed, but Romeo sings that aforementioned pre-chorus with palpable gusto, making it easy to vigorously sing along to, even if the words are patently silly. Tracks such as “Electric Messiah” and “Prometheus (I Am Alive)” are persistent earworms. The group has an undeniable talent for hooks and the performance of each of its members is something to be in awe of.

Also, the album’s theme shouldn’t count against it too badly. Romeo’s specious arguments may be reprehensible, but they’re really not all that different from what the late Ronnie James Dio was doing in his prime. With all its particularly nimble guitar work and Romeo’s soaring vocals, Iconoclast can often feel like a twenty first century update of The Last in Line. The fact that the group can still pull off such memorable songs with such clear limitations is a rather fitting tribute to the original proprietor of the devil horns.

I’m hesitant to give Iconoclast my full support, because those first criticisms I mentioned do tend to get in the way when I try to prod the album for its artistic worth. However, if you are a metal fan, Iconoclast will most certainly be satisfying, because it really can be a brutal and meaningful listen. It can be found in both single and double album versions, so you know it will be expansive and feel sufficiently worked upon in the four years since Symphony X released an album. It has its flaws, but they are far from crippling. Something tells me RJD would be proud of it.