Ah yes, "The Divine Wings of Tragedy." It's often dubbed Symphony X's finest hour; a landmark in progressive metal; an enthroned idol that has stood against time's harsh winds without the usual creative or critical erosion often attached. Symphony X has a freakishly incredible slew of releases—progressive monuments such as "Twilight In Olympus" stand tall, and later works like "Paradise Lost" have garnered critical acclaim as well. I'll flat out admit I love this band and almost everything they've done (I think "V: The New Mythological Suite" occasionally mucks up the waters of Atlantis it desperately tries to preserve, but that's another story) with a greater interest in their Thomas Miller-era material as my musical knowledge and expertise matured. When I first bought this, I hated it. It didn't make any sense to me at all. I coincidentally only found out about Symphony X because they were doing some now-defunct Ozzfest knockoff led by legendary (and bats*** insane) Megadeth leader Dave Mustaine called Gigantour. My logic at the time was: if band X tours with Megadeth, then band X is innately awesome and I need all of their albums. I was a dumb kid.
This hypothesis was hit and miss, of course. When I bought "The Divine Wings of Tragedy" and, ironically "V" at the same time, I found myself magnetized to the straight-forward, guitar-driven songs on "V" than the presumably (again, I was a youngster) pretentious, doodling tracks on this bad lad. In fact, I remember struggling with "The Accolade" and could seldom claw through the first few sections of the twenty-minute title track, let alone deal with "Candlelight Fantasia." It was just too artsy and elegant, when I wanted raw, fast, heavy stuff. Things change with time obviously, and after rekindling my Symphony X curiosity with "Paradise Lost" when that came out, I found a remarkable amount of respect for the content within this magnum opus. Maybe it was the influence of time finally fitting "The Divine Wings of Tragedy" and I together like a manpart and that other thing women have, apparently; not to stray away from the point, but yes, it deserves to be crowned a masterpiece, even though it took a few years to click.
Symphony X at this point was coming off of an improved sophomore album that showed growth and maturation in the demanding, complex backbone of progressive power metal; "The Damnation Game" was the first Symphony X release to feature Russell Allen on vocals and further advanced their evolution. Here, they struck creative gold. The opening "Of Sins And Shadows" shows a band riding on every horse Olympus could provide: Michael Romeo's cruising riffs and the wonderfully interwoven keyboard melodies of Michael Pinnella, metal's most prominent keyboardist, overlap each other in a beautifully intense aura of sheer excellence. Allen's vocals accompany this fast-paced canticle in a wonderful storm of powerful, demanding chimes that are mighty and fierce, yet versatile in really any setting, as he's proved throughout his various journeys in Symphony X.
Yeah, it's only one song, but "Of Sins And Shadows" is legendary, a comprehensive classic. The same can be said about "Sea of Lies" and the youthful burst of catchy power metal within "Out of the Ashes," with all three showing Romeo's godly arsenal of riffs and solos, plus the band's magnetic chemistry engaging the sonic front. This legitimately feels like a symphony. The neoclassical elements glaring on numbers like "The Witching Hour" are uniquely wired to so many inspiring keyboard melodies and guitar parts that it all sounds orchestral in a way. I mean, there are loads of different sections and blueprints within each cut, but the specific parts together paint the entire picture, working in unison like a spider spinning delicate strains of web over and over until it all becomes its abstract, mystifying piece. The progressive elements are amplified during "The Accolade," showing Allen's magic in a ballad-based (perhaps a trifle medieval) sonnet largely revolving around atmospheric keys and emotional power that strongly contradicts most of the metal-based tracks; it's an unbelievably beautiful song. "Candlelight Fantastia," too, spotlights Romeo's virtuosic guitar roles in a leading place, yet still applying a somber edge to progressive metal as we know it. Stunning, stunning stuff.
Symphony X separates themselves from cohorts like Dream Theater and others because they are boldly heavy, but can turn into an artsy creature on a dime. I mean, the structures in the first three songs are fast and heavy—lots of hyperactive riffs, barreling double-bass work from Jason Rullo's footwork, Miller's technical bass playing pulling the strings behind the scenes...the works. That's not even including the groove-based beatings of "Pharaoh" and "The Eyes of Medusa," which largely dilute the tempos of the album's beginning phase, yet likewise show so much more in the pristine, methodical rhythms in what are easily the record's heaviest songs. At the same time, it's all incredibly intricate and carefully mechanical, but not bloated or overdrawn; Symphony X knew the limits of their style here, and justified the layered postulates with great music and performances. "The Divine Wings of Tragedy" always cooks up surprises, even to the seasoned, experienced listener that's been under its influence for years.
However, the title track turns more heads than anything else, and with good reason: it's over twenty minutes long! I can picture a new listener viewing that monstrous length for the first time and saying, "Dude, that's, like, two ten-minute songs, but it's one, dude." Yes dude, it's one goddamn song, but an excellent one at that, perhaps their best creation ever. The tune starts with a heavenly choir setting the stage for the triumphs that'll soon follow, and then the band slowly builds up the track with a variety of paces and sections. The piece itself is like an all-consuming sphere that represents everything Symphony X said throughout "The Divine Wings of Tragedy," yet at around the 9:30 mark, Symphony X kicks up the pace and dips the epic in amazingly heavy and forceful riffs; Allen's vocal lines are absolutely crushing, aggressive and infatuating. It's concluding moments are calm and shiny, showing appreciation to the atmosphere and artistic complexity it mastered throughout the title track's impeccable running time. It's the king of kings, baby.
"The Divine Wings of Tragedy" is an unbelievably ambitious and perplexing project. It's one of the few releases that successfully stitches the oddities of progressive metal and the velocity of power metal into one idiosyncratic lump of creative utopia, beyond the visual plains of so many factions that have attempted to capture its otherworldly essence. All of Symphony X's releases have replay value, but this one seems to be the true magnum opus heralded as the undisputed champion among fans, critics, even the band itself. Nothing here deserves banishment; every song is a stand-alone testament to its instrumental magic. It's "The Divine Wings of Tragedy," and it's Symphony X flying high on the winds of Olympus. Timeless, classic, powerful, pristine, angelic and ambrosial; riding on those divine wings.
"And all I know, is my paradise has begun ..."