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Interviews   

Symphony X: all prog and no headlock


Without being a concept album, Symphony X’s new album, Iconoclast, deals with the interaction between man and machine – or rather, with the fight between man and machine. “Nothing original here”, is probably what you’d tell Michael Romeo if you could, you big-mouthed metalheads. And the guitarist would answer very simply: “It’s probably really tough to find anything that hasn’t been done. But we’ll do it our own way. We just tried to find something that would allow us to push the music somewhere where we haven’t really been before.” There’s no hidden message or particular intention behind the music; there’s only spontaneity, a desire to make cool music with cool lyrics.

Music seems to be the band’s only real concern. In other words, these guys don’t care about what might be at stake when it comes to releasing a single or double album, and won’t communicate on anything that doesn’t pertain to their work. And this music is something Michael and his pals cannot write while on tour or when they go back to their families to recharge their batteries, which is why they’d rather take their time to compose an album.

Interview with Michael Romeo.

« It’s probably really tough to find anything that hasn’t been done. But we’ll do it our own way. […] There are so many albums about swords and dragons! »

Radio Metal : What memories do you have of your tour with Psychotic Waltz and Nevermore? It was a pleasant surprise for us to see that so many people had made the effort to come!

Michael Romeo (guitar) : That tour was a pretty good experience. All the bands on the tour were cool, and we have known the Nevermore guys for years and years, so it was kinda cool to hang out with those guys. The cool thing about that tour is that we had the chance to play some of our newer songs. We tried to get a couple of songs into the set every night from the new record, even though the release was still so far off – that was June. But we figured we’d give it a shot and test the waters and see how it went. And the reaction for the new material was great. For us, just with that alone, the whole tour was a great experience. The unfortunate thing was to see some tensions in the Nevermore camp, watching that all unfold. But aside from that, everything was great. And like I said, we’ve known those guys for years, we’re great friends with those guys, and it kinda sucked to see a band start to fall apart. They were actually supposed to come and do this US tour that we just finished up. They were supposed to be out with us, and then the week before we left, we got the official word that Jeff and Van had quit the band and they wouldn’t do this tour with us. So it kinda sucks when that happens. But aside from that, everything was great.

The two songs that the audience has heard so far, both on stage and in the studio, “Dehumanized” and “The End Of Innocence”, are rather straightforward, in the same vein as the Paradise Lost album. Should we expect the new album, Iconoclast, to be in the same spirit?

Yes. I think musically, it’s pretty close. There’s definitely things that are a little different about the new record. With Paradise Lost, just by the theme of the record, dealing with good and evil, heaven and hell, that kind of thing, it was pretty dark. It has some of that kind of feel, with the dark orchestrations and the choir. It lends itself to that a little more, but with Iconoclast… I mean, musically, it’s similar: lots of guitar riffs, big choruses. But it also has this mechanical element to it. A lot of the songs are dealing with this man-versus-machine-or-technology idea. So any kind of subtle textures to the record, or some of the guitar layering, or some of the keyboard sounds, even the percussions – it’s a little bit more edgy, a little bit more artificial, more mechanical. I think that’s the big difference with Paradise Lost. This album is still pretty aggressive, but since it centers on this man-versus-machine idea, it’s a little more relentless, just like a machine. The riffs are relentless, and the songs just keep coming.

About those industrial sounds, have you listened to any industrial artists to find inspiration in the atmospheres? Bands like Prodigy, Combichrist, something like that?

No, I really wouldn’t want to say industrial. There may be a hint of it, but we didn’t want to do that. We didn’t want to take it so far. We just wanted these subtle things that give it more of a mechanical side. And I think – I mean I know that the inspiration for it was some of these films soundtracks. In my spare time, I listen to some of my classic metal, my Sabbath and my Priest, that kind of stuff. But I also like classical music and film music. And I kinda took particular notice of the soundtrack from 300 or The Matrix. The Matrix soundtrack does have a bit of these kind of industrial keyboards flavors to it. The 300 soundtrack, there’s electric guitars in there. It’s pretty aggressive, there’s a lot of heavily distorted percussions. It’s definitely really edgy, and it also has that kind of mechanical, relentless feeling. So I guess that’s where the idea sparked from. I had already started writing a couple of tunes early on, before we had that idea, just to see where it led. The early stuff was similar to Paradise Lost, with heavy riffs and that kind of thing. But when I listened to some of those soundtracks and got this idea of a mechanical thing in my head, I went back to these early ideas and experimented with some different, metallic clanging of percussions underneath, or a more artificial keyboard sound, as opposed to a string sound. Maybe something more digital-sounding. Then it just evolved from there.

Russel Allen’s solo projects always have a very heavy/rock, very straightforward atmosphere. Has this had any influence on the evolution of Symphony X, which now produces a more brutal music?

I think Russ grew up with a lot of the hard rock stuff, I think that’s a part of him. And he also grew up with a lot of the metal stuff. For me, as a writer, I grew up with all the metal stuff. It’s just the nature of my influences. The songs always take on a little bit of that heavier character. But the great thing about Russ is that he can kind of hear the intensity of the song, and he can match it. It can be very aggressive and really greedy, or it can be really melodic, or maybe a little bit more clean. Everybody has different influences, but bringing it together and doing the right thing for that particular song, I think we really have that down now. I think everybody in the band kinda knows where the song is headed and what it should be, and what works and what doesn’t work.

Like you said, the lyrics for this album refer to machines taking control in a not-so-distant future. You found inspiration in movies like The Matrix or Terminator. Can you tell us more about this concept?

Really, it all starts with the music. First we tackle what the album is gonna sound like, what the direction of the record will be. It always starts with the music. When that whole thing started to take shape, with the big riffs and the mechanical textures, we all thought it would be a great thing to do. We didn’t want to have a concept or a big story for the lyrics, but we wanted to have a relative to this mechanical idea. Me and Russ got together for a couple of weeks and just kind of bounced ideas off each other about what we could do. Some songs are definitely more science-fiction, with epic man-versus-machine battles, like The Terminator or something. And some songs are more of a look at society, how we interact digitally and how all this technology is so ingrained and how we live our lives every day. So there were a lot of different topics that we could touch upon and still relate in some way to man and machine and technology.

« We contacted Nuclear Blast and we said: “We have all this music, we love it all, and it all is part of the album. This is the album, it’s two CDs”. And they were cool with it, but they also wanted to do a single-disc version for whatever reason. Maybe for certain territories, or maybe for people who weren’t familiar with the band and would want to check it out before diving into a double disc or something ».

Do you think it could actually happen – machines taking control?

(laughs) No, I don’t think so. We were just trying to find something inspiring, an idea that would inspire the music and make us find something cool for the lyrics. But I don’t think it’s gonna be Terminator or something. I mean, who knows? I could be wrong! We were just trying to find an idea and go with it. It’s more of a creative thing than trying to preach or making some predictions. We just tried to find something that would allow us to push the music somewhere where we haven’t really been before.

This theme has been talked about many times in metal. Don’t you think it’s a bit cliché?

I don’t think so… Who’s done that?

Fear Factory, for example.

Yeah, I’m sure there have been some bands that have done it. But like I said, man, we were just trying to find something that we felt we could do with the music. When you look at it, so many things have been done. It’s probably really tough to find anything that hasn’t been done. But we’ll do it our own way. Maybe other bands have done something similar, and that’s cool. But I think that as long as the music and the whole presentation are different, it’s not like copying somebody or doing anything like that. There are so many albums about swords and dragons! It’s hard to find something that’s cool and new, because most of everything has been done already. But we didn’t think about that much. We just tried to find something that we thought we could tackle with the music, that would make this album different from all the other records that we’ve done.

The artwork is clearly reminiscent of a scene from the third Matrix movie, when Neo is about to fight his final battle against Smith. Was that deliberate?

I’m sure a lot of the artwork was influenced by some… Actually, the artist we’ve worked with, Warren Flanagan, also did the last record. Aside from being a great artist – I think he’s fantastic –, Warren is also involved in the film industry. He does a lot of advertisement and artworks for films and things like that. And I’m a big movie fan too. So usually, when we’re talking, the conversation always gets into films. For this new record, we were talking, he asked what we were doing. The conversation was pretty brief. I said: “Well, we’re gonna do this kind of man-versus-machine thing, a little more of a mechanical-sounding record”. And immediately we’re talking about The Matrix, or I, Robot, Alien, Terminator… All these science-fiction, technology things. And that’s really all it was. Then he just went out on his way, with his great imagination and great talent. He knew what we were about, I think I even sent him a couple of song titles, like “Dehumanized”. This song alone kind of says it all. All the artwork in the album is along those lines, and maybe it’s influenced by some scenes of those movies. But still, it’s our own thing.

« That was two years of touring on and off, and when you’re touring, it’s really difficult to write. We tried it in the past. You’re trying to write on the bus, but it’s noisy, there’s a lot of distractions, everybody’s drinking and trying to have a good time… It’s impossible to really focus on trying to write a record like that. And even coming home for a week or two here and there, and trying to get some ideas… You lose focus. We usually don’t even start the writing thing until all the touring is out of the way. »

Will there be a video to promote the album?

The album will come out in June, and it’s something I’m sure will come up soon. We really haven’t talked about it too much at this point. There’s a lot of touring going on, we’re just trying to keep busy. But I’m sure, when things start rolling and coming together, yeah. The hard thing will probably be to figure out what song or songs to do. That will probably be the toughest thing we’ll have to deal with.

Which song would you like to promote?

Oh, man… I love every song on the record. I think they’re all strong in their own way. I love “Iconoclast”. “Dehumanized” I love too, “Children Of A Faceless God”… In their own way, all those songs are cool. “Iconoclast” might be a little long. It’s gonna be a tough one to try to narrow it down! I think waiting to see some of the fan reactions to certain songs might help out to make that decision.

Then I guess we can expect a video revolving around this machine theme?

I’m sure it’ll have something to do with this in some shape or form. I’m sure we’ll have to represent the music in some way. So yeah!

The two-CD edition of Iconoclast will contain bonus tracks. What can you tell us about these? Why are they not on the album?

They’re not bonus tracks. We wrote until we felt the album was done. We had 85 minutes of music, and to us, every song is part of the record. There’s no bonus tracks, there was no leftover songs or any kind of thing like that. At the beginning, we didn’t have the intention to write a double record. But as time went on, building the songs, it turned out to be 85 minutes of music, so we knew we had a double album. We contacted Nuclear Blast and we said: “We have all this music, we love it all, and it all is part of the album. This is the album, it’s two CDs”. And they were cool with it, but they also wanted to do a single-disc version for whatever reason. Maybe for certain territories, or maybe for people who weren’t familiar with the band and would want to check it out before diving into a double disc or something. But we were cool with that, they know what they’re doing. So we agreed to do the single disc. We had to pick the songs, and that was tough, because they’re not extra songs or bonus tracks. To us, it’s like the complete record. So trying to get something away from the whole was definitely tough. But we went about it in a pretty reasonable way. There are three long songs on the two records, so for the single one, let’s get rid of one of the long ones, you know? We had that kind of approach where we thought the album was still well represented. But it was not the whole thing. And then we had to change the order a little bit, too, just so the flow felt good. So that’s how it happened. But to us, the double record is the album. That is the body of work, right there.

I must say I don’t understand why Nuclear Blast wouldn’t just release a double album. Dream Theater did it with Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence, and other bands did it as well…

I don’t know. They suggested to do it for whatever reason they had. I’m sure there’s something involved, there must be something to it that made them come to that conclusion. We figured it was OK. Let’s see what happens with this, you know? But to us, it’s really the double album. I couldn’t tell you their reasons. I don’t even know.

Symphony X tends to let a lot of time go by between album releases, which means the band tends to disappear from the media for a few years. Why is that?

The biggest thing with the last few records was the touring. I think it started with The Odyssey: we did more touring than we’d ever done. With Paradise Lost, it was the same thing. It was released in 2007, and we toured all the way up until March of 2009. That was two years of touring on and off, and when you’re touring, it’s really difficult to write. We tried it in the past. You’re trying to write on the bus, but it’s noisy, there’s a lot of distractions, everybody’s drinking and trying to have a good time… It’s impossible to really focus on trying to write a record like that. And even coming home for a week or two here and there, and trying to get some ideas… You lose focus. We usually don’t even start the writing thing until all the touring is out of the way. With Paradise Lost, it was up until 2009. We did the last tour in Asia, and that summer, we started to write. Just by the amount of material for this record, it took a year, with the writing and the mixing and recording and all that. You add up all that time, and time just flies by. It’s not like we have time off, it takes us that long to write a record. Two years of touring, one year to make the record… This record was done in January or February. Then there was the thing of the two packages, the double disc, the single disc, some different artwork, a release date that was available, which wasn’t till June… You have to add all those things up.

« The important thing is the quality of the record. You can hype up all this other shit, like “I folded my socks today”, and put that on the Internet. That’s silly to us. We’d rather be: “OK, we kind of go away, do our thing, and we’ll come back with a great record.” You don’t need to say anything after that. »

Is that a problem to you in terms of celebrity?

No, because like I said, we’re still out there, we’re touring. The year that we were writing, yeah, maybe. We were kind of locked away, doing our thing. But to us, it doesn’t seem that long, because we are keeping busy.

Do you think that some bands go too far in order to remain the centre of attention, even if it means permanently letting out pieces of barely interesting info, like: “So-and-so started to record the guitar for our second song”?

Yeah, I think that’s too much. We don’t do that kind of thing. We do our touring, and when it comes to the record, we just keep to ourselves and get the record done. We focus on that. The important thing is the quality of the record. You can hype up all this other shit, like “I folded my socks today”, and put that on the Internet. That’s silly to us. We’d rather be: “OK, we kind of go away, do our thing, and we’ll come back with a great record.” You don’t need to say anything after that.

You’ve been particularly down on luck one time or several: in 2001 your tour was cancelled because of the 9/11 attacks, Michael Lepond’s illness postponed the release of Paradise Lost in 2007… Do you think Symphony X is dogged by bad luck?

No, man. I mean, if you look at the course of all the tours and all the albums and everything for the last… God, how many years has it been since 1994? Yeah, there’s been a couple of things here and there along the way, but for every one thing that might be a setback, there’s a hundred things that go well. For this album in particular, there was really nothing that happened. Yeah, it took us a year, but it was like doing two albums at once. Once the idea was settled down, the music just flowed out and the recording process went really smooth. Sure, there’s always gonna be some setbacks along the way here and there, but when you look at all the things that go right… I don’t even think about those things, they’re minor. They’re definitely minor to me.

Symphony X’s shows are always brilliant; you always give yourselves a hundred percent so even a purely metal audience can enjoy them. Is it important for you to prove that prog musicians are not only “music intellectuals”?

I don’t think we try to prove it. We’re just trying to have a good time. Yeah, the music is complex, and you want to perform it as well as you can, but at the same time, you don’t want to do a music clinic up on stage. We want to interact with everybody and with ourselves. Me and Russ have a good time. There’s a little bit of fun, a little bit of goofing around, very off-the-cup kind of thing. I think that’s just who we are. We’re all friends, we all get along, we all have a good time, and we try to get it out to the fans, too. It’s about the whole experience; it’s about the music, but it’s also about the whole live experience.

Phone interview conducted the 27th of may 2011.
Transcription: Saff’
SYMPHONY X website: www.symphonyx.com



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