Saturday, December 7, 2013

Symphony X - The Odyssey

It is difficult for me to think of a progressive metal band that existed before Symphony X. The American – New Jersey group debuted in 1994, and prior to that time I do not believe anyone thought to combine the two terms “progressive” and “metal” together. Logically eventually someone would come around to putting those two things together but guitarist Michael Romeo and keyboard player Michael Pinnella just might have been the first to do so.

To be perfectly honest I currently have a limited working knowledge of Symphony X. I started getting into Symphony X when friends, most notably Driver Nick, encouraged me to listen to them, but also because singer Russell Allen. Allen joined Symphony X in 1995, one year and one album after the bands introduction; however I was at least somewhat familiar with Allen before I even knew Symphony X was a thing. Allen was guest singer for my beloved Avantasia and also he has a joint project with Norwegian metal Viking singer god Jorn Lande (who is amazing) simply titled, Allen/Lande. Clearly it is not hard in this day and age for great metal singers to find work.

Symphony X does have a progressive sound, the use of keyboard that is now so common in many modern metal bands, brings a new range of operatic sounds and ambience, and they have used trumpets and violins among other classical instruments to build their sounds at times. To this end Symphony X has an atmosphere that lends itself well to emotions of fantastic voyages and other far out ideas, and like so many bands before them Symphony X was inspired by great literature and thus inspired to compose music of a similar epic scale. As you may recall Manowar wrote a twenty-eight minute power metal epic about the Iliad, well not to be outdone Symphony X wrote a twenty-four minute power metal epic about “The Odyssey.”

Homer’s “The Odyssey” is the sequel to “The Iliad” and follows Odysseus, King of Ithaca, in his ten year journey trying to get home after the end of the Trojan War. Most people who have never read “The Iliad” or “The Odyssey” typically do not realize the great jump in time in between the two. “The Iliad” ends with Hector’s death, and “The Odyssey” begins with Odysseus nearing the end of his ten year voyage and recanting his experiences to the people who live on the island kingdom he washed up on. Nowhere in Homer’s work is Achilles' death or the fall of Troy described to us. It is told to us that Achilles died the death that was predicted of him and that Odysseus thought up the idea of the infamous Trojan Horse and how that was the final maneuver towards the destruction of Troy, but we, the reader, never get to live these moments. This skipping of events does serve to set up a surprise when we discover the true identity of the half starved, half crazed, wanderer as Odysseus. The warrior king whose skills were only eclipsed by Achilles and Diomedes (he’s a whole other story) was now a worn down, weary wanderer.

There are many conflicts for Odysseus in “The Odyssey.” There is the conflict of man versus nature. The Greek heroes angered Poseidon when they failed to give him credit for destroying Troy (the god of the ocean helped just believe me) so he plagued the heroes when they tried to sail home. Odysseus and his crew have to fight against the treacherous Mediterranean and the monsters and magic they encounter on each island. There is a conflict of man versus man as Odysseus has been away from home for so long he knows there will be suitors trying to steal away his kingdom. And last there is the conflict of a man against time. The Trojan War took ten years to reach its bloody end, and Odysseus has been lost at sea for an additional ten years, his wife Penelope cannot hold out forever, the people of Ithaca will demand she remarry and in doing so anoint a new king. There is so much to take in throughout “The Odyssey” in narrative, theme, and symbolism that it is in many ways the perfect story to be transposed into other mediums. Enter Symphony X’s “The Odyssey.”

So much happens in “The Odyssey;” which gives Symphony X plenty of material to fill in a seven part musical adventure, and I will do my best to briefly explain each part.

Part 1 – Odysseus Theme / Overture

It is a good idea for any musical to open and close with an overture, we call that continuity. Symphony X evidently prescribes to this logic as well.

Part 2 – Journey to Ithaca

The primary objective or our protagonist is to return home to his wife and child. The opening lyrics to Symphony X’s “The Odyssey” covers this aptly;

“To the one that I love, my journey has begun.
When our eyes meet once more there will be peace.
The taste of your lips the warmth of your touch,
Again, forever, two souls as one.

Seems like forever that my eyes have been denied.
Home - I'm dreaming of the home.
I've been twenty years away from all I ever knew,
To return would make my dream come true.”

The next several parts depict the many horrors Odysseus and his crew face.

Part 3 – The Eye

Landing on an island Odysseus and his men must escape a Cyclops who just so happens to be the son of Poseidon, whom as you recall is unhappy with the Greek heroes.

“A mountainous black - engulfed in a shadow,
A bone-chilling growl and an Eye of Hate,
A ghastly fate - held prisoner by the Eye.”

Part 4 – Circe

Circe is a goddess and a witch who uses polymorph magic to transform many of Odysseus crew into animals.

“Stay - like those before,
I condemn you all - from walk to crawl,

Part 5 – Sirens

Odysseus and the sirens.
Sirens are rather famous mythological monsters that are half bird half human female, who would plague sailors with their sweet song and lure them into the waters where they would drown. Odysseus’ crew needed someone to watch and guide them through the storm while being bombarded by the sirens. Their solution was to tie Odysseus to the mast and have their king do his best to guide them, while being tormented by the sirens, while the rest of the men row. Symphony X’s cover art for the album depicts this moment.

“Tied steadfast to the mast,
Tragedy awaits me.
I'm falling victim,
Betrayed by the sea.”

Part 6 - Scylla and Charybdis

Scylla is a multi-headed sea monster that dwells in the rocky ridges of a pass and Charybdis is another sea monster typically rationalised as a whirlpool. The term “Between Scylla and Charybdis” is an idiom that basically means caught between two dangers or imply an impossible choice between two terrible options. Odysseus is forced to sail between the two; this spells the end for the remainder of Odysseus’ crew as he is the sole survivor of this nightmare. Wisely, I think, Symphony X depicts this moment from “The Odyssey” as an intense instrumental. What is there to say really?
"Between Scylla and Charybdis" is like being caught between a rock and a hard place, only way worse!
"Scylla and Charybdis" by Steve Somers
Part 7 – The Fate of the Suitors / Champion of Ithaca

Twenty years is a long time to be away from home and in his absence Penelope, queen of Ithaca, is broached by many suitors. After twenty years they demand she choose one of them so she devises a test. She will marry the man who can string a bow and shoot an arrow through the rings of twelve axe heads all of which are planted on the ground in a singular line; but when the suitor’s attempt the test they all fail, none among them can string the bow let alone shoot an arrow from it. Then a withered and ruined homeless man comes forward and asks for the chance to prove himself in this test.

“A contest of valor,
To pierce the twelve rings,
In a single arrow's flight,
Yet, not a one can string the bow.”

There is a technique to stringing a bow. The string cannot be stretched very far but the wood of the bow can bend. The trick is to use your leg as a brace and bend the bow around your leg so the string can reach the second end of the weapon. This withered and ruined homeless man uses this technique and strings the bow with ease. He then proceeds to shot an arrow through the twelve axe heads. Then the illusion fades and all in the hall know Odysseus has returned.

“My veil of silence lifted,
All is revealed,
Revenge burns in my heart,
Thrashing and slashing down all my claim the throne.”

This is my favorite moment in the book “The Odyssey.” In the beginning of the novel, worn out Odysseus is thought to be some meek man and when his hosts tease him he speaks up and proves he is no mere beggar by throwing a discus a great distance and with that everyone is convinced that he must be the stuff of kings, for only a great man could throw a discus so well. In the end of the story Odysseus performs the feat of stringing a bow and firing it perfectly. In ancient Greek culture a good man was much more than good natured, a good man needed to be capable. A great man, if he were great, would learn all that he could and as such was expected to be able to fight with sword and spear, wrestle, box, till a garden, tend a field, read and write, ride a horse, drive a chariot, forge weapons, build a house, throw a javelin and shot-put. A great man is expected to be able to throw a discus. A great man is expected to be able to string a bow. Among the suitors none could even string the bow, thus disqualifying them as good men.

This concept was revived in the renaissance, you might recall the term “a renaissance man” as someone who was cultured and capable in all things. The idea is a good man would not leave things alone, he would learn all that there was to know. I like the idea of constantly learning and improving, and while we live in an age of information so huge in volume that knowing all things by all people is impossible, I still believe the endeavour to try is truly noble, and I think, perhaps, you disqualify yourself as a great man the minute you stop learning. That is the symbolism behind “none can string the bow.”

“Triumphant - Champion of Ithaca.”

After everything Odysseus has been through it is such a satisfying ending for him to return home to his faithful wife, his son, and his kingdom, and Symphony X invokes the feelings I have always held for this story’s heroic and happy end in a very powerful way. These progressive metal champions have created a fanfare worthy of Odysseus, the Champion of Ithaca, and a song worthy of the epic.

- King of Braves

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