Review by Alec Wilson
Photography by Sofie Marsden
Symphony X and Black Majesty in Melbourne, Melbourne, 11th October 2016 @ Max Watts
There is a certain pressure of expectation on a band that has never performed live in a country before. This is somewhat accentuated when said career has spanned 18 years, and is as storied as that of Symphony X’s.
The crowd was first treated to a standout set from inveterate homegrown power metal stars Black Majesty. They are always fantastic performers and their 15 years of writing and touring in the scene has culminated in some of their best work on their most recent release “Crown of Thorns”. What I heard tonight certainly convinced me to pick up this disc which I had overlooked last year.
Indeed, to say there was such pressure for Symphony’s debut tour date in Melbourne would be an understatement as epic as their soaring 11-minute metal-opera ballads. I have seen many heavy rock and metal gigs in Max Watts (formerly the Hi-Fi Bar) over the years, but I’d never seen it this full. The crowd’s energy was nothing like I have quite seen before – thrumming with excitement and admiration, but also a little apprehensive. Why had they neglected their Australian fans for nearly two decades?
Onstage, the band’s famously stable line-up appeared and swiftly took up their instruments. Though a few pounds heavier and more grizzled than I remember from my album inserts as a teenager, their air of confident showmanship immediately set the crowd abuzz. With full respect to Black Majesty, you can tell instantly when the acute confidence and power of an international production of veteran professionals invests a stage.
Worryingly, opening track Nevermore immediately suggested that age has weakened frontman Russell Allen’s midrange song voice (never his strongest suit), and it’s true he doesn’t have quite the range he did in 2000. But when, seconds later, he broke into the soaring, piercing operetta style he is so famous for, it was note perfect. The crowd heaved a sigh of relief and settled in for what was to prove one the most powerful, passionate and faithful vocal performances this city will ever witness!
Allen put in his all, as did all the band’s five members.
Long-time drummer Jason Rullo turned in a solid delivery, though never given the limelight during the show, and keyboardist Michael Pinella also didn’t take centre stage. But if you know Symphony X, you know how vital his synth soundscape and lightning-fast fingers are in evoking their neo-classical prog aesthetic, and he did not disappoint. Bassist Michael Lepond was allowed a couple of solos to shine and did brilliant work, but it was superstar lead Michael Romeo who repeatedly stole the show with his stellar fret-board obliterations. Romeo is a staggering musical and technical genius, and it was an honour to watch him work, second this year only to Yngwie Malmsteen himself.
The vibe of the crowd was utterly electric, and the enthusiasm and appreciation of the Melbourne fans seemed to drive the band to outdo themselves.
Off the opener, they performed an almost complete rendition of their newest theme-album Underworld, based on a modernised version of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. This part of the show was just back-to-back music, song after song with very little chatter or the crowd interaction Russell Allen is famous for. It was however brilliantly executed, and we were even treated to a little bit of pantomime with Allen swapping into different masks and hairstyles for characters being sung. While excellent, this long set left a lot of fans concerned – Symphony X haven’t ever come out to Australia before, and we have eight previous opuses of classics we always dreamed of hearing live.
We needn’t have worried – Symphony were here to make all wrongs right. The band clearly felt a debt for being MIA for so long to their fans here, and after a very frank and heartfelt apology two songs in, showed with actions how much they appreciate the Aussie fanbase and their stellar turnout with a nearly 2-hour show.
After completing their tale with the metal-ballad Swan Song, they shifted gears into interacting with the crowd heavily and playing classics right back to Allen’s debut album Divine Wings of Tragedy. After a solid set of these, we were treated to two encores, and I was delighted to hear my second favourite song Sea of Lies rounding out the final encore, which faded out into a sort of victory lap/back-and-forth love-in with the audience by a band who clearly adores their long-suffering Australian fans.
I don’t know what it is about 2016 – every show I go to seems to outdo the last, and all of them have been great. That said, Symphony X, despite its 18-year build-up, is the best so far, and I doubt it will be topped this year.
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