Every now and then an album arrives seemingly from nowhere and reignites excitement about either a genre or a specific career. Michael Romeo’s second solo album (and first in 24 years), War of the Worlds, Pt.1, which takes its title from the classic H.G. Wells novel, is one of them. On the musical front, the guitarist borrows from a variety of musical corners including the symphonic works of John Williams and Bernard Herrmann, dubstep, EDM and, of course, the progressive metal Romeo’s known for via his work with Symphony X. Teaming up with vocalist Rick Castellano, bassist John DeServio and drummer John Macaluso, Romeo doesn’t forge a wholly new musical identity. Instead, he focuses on what he does best: Crafting neoclassical-influenced metal music that spotlights his guitar playing and the unabashed musicianship of his band.

The gap between this and Romeo’s first effort, 1994’s The Dark Chapter, is easily enough explained: He busied himself with a variety of projects that were musically satisfying, culminating with Symphony X’s place as one of the leading acts in progressive metal. However, when his longtime partner in that group, Russel Allen, was seriously injured in a 2017 vehicular accident while on the road with Adrenaline Mob and needed time to recover, the moment seemed ripe for a different kind of project.

“Black” can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of Symphony X or even Dream Theater. Romeo’s riffing and soloing remains tasteful while challenging the listener’s sense of the status quo in the genre. You’ve heard material like this if you’re a fan of progressive metal, but you haven’t heard anything that surprises as often and with such audacity. That’s probably one of Romeo’s greatest attributes: Staying true to that which he’s established within the genre while thwarting expectations.

Castellano contributes “F*cking Robots,” a piece which adds contemporary flourishes to the record, becoming an oasis amid familiar progressive metal trappings. Those pieces, “Djinn” and “Differences,” stand not only as two of the best here but also take their place alongside some of the best Romeo’s ever delivered. The effort’s two instrumental numbers, “Introduction” and “War Machine” are equally majestic and the latter makes the listener long for a day when Romeo might deliver an entire collection of pieces in that vein.

Progressive metal albums do come with some standard expectations, including the big prog ballad. Here, that comes in the form of “Believe,” replete with lyrics about self-determination and self-preservation, deft keyboard maneuvers (also courtesy of Romeo) and a soaring chorus appropriate for belting out in the car during the morning commute. (And the orchestral flourishes are pretty close to divine; this track becomes a nice companion to the closing “Constellations.”)

“Oblivion,” the album’s most attitudinal metal moment also rises to the occasion, giving listeners the chance to hear not a veteran musician teaming up with players for another entry in his oeuvre but a still-hungry artist who understands that some may be hearing his work for the very first time. In a genre where one entry can become a mere Photostat of an act’s previous outing, it’s refreshing to hear someone sound consistent and vital.

As for the lead guitar playing? Once more, Romeo’s fretboard work here rivals the best of the guitar-oriented material that’s come out this year (see Kevin Hufnagel’s Messages to the Past). There is reportedly already a second installment of War of the Worlds in the works and Romeo has said that it will differ enough from this first one to matter. Whether it comes within the next year or the next 24, fans will surely embrace it full stop.

If War of the Worlds, Pt.1 doesn’t wind up being the most acclaimed progressive metal album of 2018, it will surely be somewhere near the very top. Slot this right next to your well-worn copy of Symphony X’s 2007 banger Paradise Lost.

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