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Symphony X - The Damnation Game CD (album) cover

THE DAMNATION GAME

Symphony X

 

Progressive Metal

3.32 | 235 ratings

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Frankingsteins
4 stars The second album from New Jersey progressive metal band Symphony X refines the sound of their uneven debut and introduces one of the genre's finest vocalists. Russell Allen brings Symphony X on the course to perfection; the experiments in song format, structure and vocal styles pave the way for their later masterpieces.

Released in 1995, 'The Damnation Game' owes little debt to the then-fresh European power metal scene, despite its similarities. Rousing choruses, alternation between melodic and thrashy songs and plenty of noodling in-between make this a more straightforward heavy metal album in the vein of Iron Maiden or Helloween, but the band's trademark sound is ever-present and actually begins here.

Michael Pinella's glorious medieval sounding keyboards can be heard throughout the whole album, becoming highlighted at relevant times, and perfectly compliment axeman Michael Romeo's clean guitar solos and distorted, punctual riffs. Romeo has been compared to prog metal's king of guitar pomposity Yngwie Malmsteen, the difference being that Romeo knows when to stop.

Another interesting feature of the band that may divide listeners is the precision of it all; Romeo and drummer Jason Rullo are always perfectly in time during the riffs to the extent that the bass drum sounds like an extent of the guitar chords.

The production on this album is clearer than the debut, but still a little way off the perfectly polished mix of 'The Divine Wings of Tragedy' or 'Twilight in Olympus.' The guitars sound expertly distinctive to the band and soon become inextricably linked to Allen's operatic wails and booms. This isn't a perfect album, but it has a lot to offer to fans of straightforward metal and experimental rock alike.

The biggest difference to the band's later offerings is that no track here clocks in at the somewhat overwhelmingly epic time of twenty-odd minutes. The longest song, 'The Edge of Forever,' lasts just under nine minutes, progressing through light and heavy moods but lacking the inspired eloquence that 'The Divine Wings of Tragedy' or Dream Theater's 'A Change of Seasons' resonate from making an extremely lengthy track coherent and enjoyable. That said, Symphony X's more recent album 'The Odyssey' features a twenty-five minute title track that simply sounds like eight separate, similar-sounding songs, so it's no easy task.

THE DAMNATION GAME

1. The Damnation Game 2. Dressed to Kill 3. The Edge of Forever 4. Savage Curtain 5. Whispers 6. The Haunting 7. Secrets 8. A Winter's Dream part 1 - Prelude 9. A Winter's Dream part 2 - The Ascension

Setting the trend that has continued to this day, the album opens with a speedy, punchy opening that nevertheless displays its progressive flair, especially in the solo section. 'The Damnation Game' is a very average offering from the band, the closing section with repetitions of the chorus being especially unimpressive, but Pinella's keyboards still make it highly enjoyable. 'Dressed to Kill' keeps the heavy, speedy sound moving, featuring more in the way of guitar breaks but still accessible and fun.

The technical skill of the music moves up many steps with the grand 'The Edge of Forever.' Enchanting and varied, this begins with a now classic Symphony X acoustic section (re-used as part of a medley in 2002's 'The Odyssey') before the finest vocal performance of the whole album kicks in, lasting for the full length of the song. This is certainly one of the highlights, but the rest of the album doesn't lose this spark.

'Savage Curtain' is the first Symphony X song to feature the now customary unison chorus from band members. The speedy sound is similar to the opening tracks but more accomplished, the sound carrying through to the more reflective 'Whispers' and the exciting, double-bass-drum-led 'The Haunting.' If there is a flaw with this section of the album, it's that it can be difficult to remember specific movements and sections from these three songs as they seem to flow together in the brain even after repeated listens. There is a lengthy instrumental section at the end of 'The Haunting' that is entertaining and thankfully doesn't outstay its welcome.

A spooky keyboard section introduces 'Secrets,' another of the album's finest moments with the most original chorus and the perfect blend of heavenly backing keyboards, driving grinding guitars and varying vocals. It's also one of the only times that Michael Lepond's bass can be distinctly heard, keeping the dingy atmosphere going behind the lengthy solo. The song fades out to introduce the two-part 'A Winter's Dream' - the first section is soft, led by an acoustic guitar and some very, very airy vocals and the second retreats to the heavy metal style of the opener. An interesting touch, especially in the opening minute when the chorus become seriously addictive, but progressive metal fans may find themselves a little disappointed that this idea wasn't taken further.

Everything about this album now seems like a precursor to the perfection that is 1997's 'The Divine Wings of Tragedy.' The fast, powerful rockers here are nothing compared to that album, the same goes for the softer, reflective moments. 'The Damnation Game' cannot hold its own against 'Sins and Shadows'; 'The Haunting' is nothing compared to 'The Eyes of Medusa'; 'The Edge of Forever,' while excellent, is no 'The Accolade' and of course, the two-part 'A Winter's Dream' seems like an average Judas Priest rocker against 'The Divine Wings of Tragedy.' All that said, this is still a very good album, but the band's evolution and own standards have rendered it seriously second rate.

Newcomers to Symphony X would find it more interesting to look elsewhere in their discography. Dream Theater offer a more traditional progressive slant to heavy metal, their albums all sounding somewhat different compared to the similarity of Symphony X, while the recent offerings of England's own Iron Maiden have been increasingly disposed towards prog tendencies.

'The Damnation Game' is a great rock album that unites heavy metal and prog rock in a way that power metal never has. Unlike bands that have fallen into the abyss, Symphony X are still going strong and had a new album slated for release in September 2005. which I suppose means it's taking a little more tweaking than originally intended.

Frankingsteins | 4/5 |

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