Five years after the release of their critically acclaimed Odyssey, New Jersey prog metal quintet Symphony X have taken as their inspiration John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost as a follow-up. The poem, about the fall from grace of Adam and Eve and the rise of Satan's presence as prince of the world, seems like a fitting theme for a heavy metal album, but it's an ambitious one and for a lesser act, would prove to be impossibly daunting. The most immediately apparent thing about the sound of this album is just how Symphony X rethought their musical universe in order to accommodate it by going against natural process and punter's expectations. While the band's sound has been populated with outrageous time signature changes, extrapolated harmonics, and extra textural production elementals -- like large choirs, keyboard sounds as large as the guitar sonics, and utterly orchestral and nearly operatic pretensions -- from the beginning, this recording, whose theme suggests it ripe for such excesses, moves in a sideways if not opposite direction.
That's not to say that those elements are entirely missing -- choirs and orchestrals abound on the intro "Oculus Ex Inferni" and "The Walls of Babylon" and elsewhere, but there is a more direct approach at work here. While changes in meter and harmonic key shifts are ever present, they are secondary to the most primal of metal constructs: the riff. Guitarist Michael Romeo has concentrated on a more accessible approach because of the potentially difficult nature of the material and not only does it work, it offers another look at Symphony X as a power metal unit as daunting and bone crunchingly effective as any. The songs here have a direct appeal, pulling no punches despite their amazing compositional frameworks. Add to this Michael Pinnella's empathic keyboard runs and Russell Allen's vocals -- second in both expressiveness and power only to Ronnie James Dio's -- as well as the abundant blastbeat rhythms of Jason Rullo and Michael Lepond's propulsive yet guiding basslines and the equation goes beyond what we normally consider in the realm of prog metal. The ironic thing is that Paradise Lost is simultaneously more in-your-face aggro and musically nuanced as well as conceptually ambitious (check the gorgeous power balled "The Sacrifice"). A few instances include the melodic fist pumping chorus in "Set the World on Fire (The Lie of Lies)," the over the top knotty guitar and bass mania in "Serpent's Kiss," the moody piano chromatics in the title track with Allen's vocal unhurried and unforced, carrying a melody both melancholy and prophetic and you have something quite special. The layers of Romeo's guitar work on "Seven" for their sheer dexterity, speed, and elocution are worthy of celebrating, but when they are woven into a lightning fast bassline and overdriven riff-like melodic structure, they are possibly even amazing. About the only real challenge of Paradise Lost, with its emphasis on Satan, is its follow-up based on Milton's sequel, Paradise Regained, making the redemption cycle complete (that would take a real philosophical shift and therefore be truly visionary as far as 21st century metal goes, but Symphony X is already working on it). Even so, Paradise Lost is a new high-water mark for this quintet.