inside story: SYMPHONY X

New Jersey Symphonic Metal band Symphony X are back with their brand new album 'Underworld'. A dark tale of Heaven and Hell and the emotions of love and loss. Ian Johnson talks with the band's guitarist Michael Romeo about album covers, what it takes to make a record these days and how the album itself is influenced by heady themes and ideas taken from the writings of Dante and Greek Classical Mythology.
The new album is based a little on 'Dante's Inferno' and 'Orpheus In The Underworld'. It deals with love and loss, darkness and light, which are deep subjects for any album. So what comes first for you as the main songwriter; the story or the music?

On this one and on the last couple we'd sit down and look at what we could do as a band for the albums. We don't write songs without structure and even if it isn't a concept album we like to have a theme to build the album around. On this one, 'Underworld', it just happened to be Dante and Orpheus that inspired us. It was quite early on that we looked at those two stories and I especially liked the darkness in those tales; I think that darkness suits our music. So they were our initial starting points but we also wanted to explore the emotion contained in those stories, Orpheus losing his wife and Dante walking through Hell and witnessing all those tortured souls. So out of the gate those stories helped with the lyrics, and then a big part of the music was that we wanted it to be a whole album, not just a bunch of songs put together. We wanted the record to flow, to be a true listening experience like you used to have with albums back in the day. Every song for us had to be a strong one, a song that fitted neatly together with the others to form a cohesive unit. Even though there a lot of different song styles on the album, we tried our hardest to make sure that they all fitted together perfectly.

I read that you used some of Dante's ideas about the number three and it's multiples throughout the album, hiding them in different songs.

We did. I'm very familiar with Dante's work, especially 'The Inferno' and also his ideas about the number three and I thought it would be a nice thing to use some of those ideas in our songs. Dante's 'Divine Comedy' is in three parts, there are three lines to each verse, there's nine circles to Hell. And so on. I found that very interesting and we thought it would be fun to use some of those ideas during the album. So there's time signatures that flit between three and six and three bars, then verses with twenty seven words in them and lots of other things that are there for the band more than the fans really. It was just a fun thing to try out and hopefully it worked.

Also some bands ask an artist to do their cover art and it has little to do with the album, it's just a nice picture. You instead asked illustrator Warren Flanagan (Watchmen, The Incredible Hulk, etc.) to come up with something that uses elements from the album. He used the masks from your earlier album covers but now there are nine representing Dante's circles of Hell and during his own research he came up with symbols that represent those levels of Hell to accompany each mask.

He did and we love what he came up with. It helps tie in the whole album feel to 'Underworld' because you see the cover first, then the songs tie in with that and maybe you'll go on from listening to the album and find out about Dante or Orpheus for yourself. I think good bands should always try to give their fans a full album experience if they can and Warren's cover isn't just a random thing thrown in at the last minute, it all ties in with what we've done on the record.

How long does it take you from the initial idea to the finished album? With such an elaborate story/theme it won't be a fast process I imagine?

This time it was Heaven and Hell, other times it's been 'The Odyssey' or the Gods of Olympus. Then it's sitting down and working out how to put that together as an album. Funny thing is, as we were making this album, people were telling us Metal/Rock whatever you want to call it, was dead or dying and these days it is tough to make a buck playing this kind of music, but we knew and we've always known that we have something as a band. Those negative comments were just pure motivation to us to prove that you can still make great albums, albums that people want to hear. We knew we had to make an album that had strong themes and doing that takes time. It takes time to come up with the right guitar riffs, vocal melodies and lyrics but when it all comes together and works you know you haven't wasted your time. Always in my mind I have the idea that I have to write the strongest song, strongest riff, best lyric for the album that I can because if I don't, I'm not just cheating myself and the band, but the fans as well. And I'm so proud of what we've achieved on 'Underworld'

You seem to have brought keyboard player Michael Pinnella to the fore for 'Underworld'. Is this because the songs demanded more keyboards than ever before?

(Laughs) He'll be happy to hear. I think that's because this record isn't as heavy as we were on say 'Iconoclast' or 'Paradise Lost'. I mean the heavy riffs are still there when needed and there are lots of heavy songs on 'Underworld' but there's also a lot of lighter passages this time and Pinnella's keyboards really make those passages come to life. Take 'Swansong' which is all Pinella, his melodies etc., that song needed him but on others the guitar is king, it just depends on what the song needs the most to make it work. The cool thing, I think, for us on this record was that everyone seemed to have an energy and passion for the album that was bigger than ever before. We all knew instinctively what was right and wrong for the CD and pulling together I think we've made one of our best albums to date.

Does having Russell Allen as the band's singer make it easier for you to write songs because he could probably sing almost anything and make it sound good?

(Laughs) I think what it is, is trust. We've been at this for a long time now and we all trust each other to deliver for our albums, so I know that when Russell sings he's going to give 110%. He knows I'm going to do likewise and that goes for all the other guys in the band as well. Because of this trust we know when we get together that we can bring this music of ours to life - which is why I think what we do as Symphony X works and works well.

What do you think is the reason behind the band's longevity, how have you survived virtually intact since you started out in 1994?

My God, good question! Well, we all know that it's a hard business to work in, with lots of pitfalls and other problems that bite you on the ass. We also have a mutual respect for each other within the band and not only that, we're friends. Of course we argue and fight sometimes but it's that respect for each other, not just as fellow musicians but as people, that is I think one of the main reasons why we've stuck together for so long. At the end of the day, when we're all together in the recording studio and we've just put something down and we all get goose bumps about the same thing, then we know it's that respect and love of what we do as a band, the music we create, that has kept us together for over twenty years. We're five individuals with strong personalities but that respect and musical drive is what's kept us going as a band, which is I think a really cool thing.

Does having outside projects also help you as a band? When you're away doing solo albums or guest slots and you finally return to Symphony X, are your batteries recharged?

Definitely there's an element of that but also it's hard just having one band as your main source of income these days. At the end of the day we all have families and bills to pay and if we only did Symphony X 24/7 we wouldn't be able to keep working as a band. The other projects help with that and it also gives us an outlet as musicians, so we can do other things making different kinds of music, keeping ourselves busy. I'm looking into getting involved with TV, DVD and Movie soundtracks, I've always been interested in that type of stuff and we've always said to each other that as long as it doesn't interfere with the band then just go for it.

Talking of DVD's isn't it about time that Symphony X recorded a full blown DVD for the fans?

Yes, definitely. Hopefully on our upcoming US tour which starts in September we'll get around to doing that. We had a meeting just the other day about this and we want to do it but we also want to make the DVD something different, something special for the fans. So when we're out on tour later this year, I think we need to seriously consider getting our live show on to film. We've always wanted to do it and now I don't think there's any excuse not to.

Back to the new album Michael, my personal favourite is 'Swansong'. Do you have one from the album and what is your all time favourite SX song?

'Swansong', really? That's interesting. I like that one a lot too. Personally though I can't choose, I'm too close at the moment and each day I have a different song I like more than the others. Today it's 'Nevermore' yesterday it was 'Kiss Of Fire' tomorrow it could be 'In My Darkest Hour' or 'Without You' because it's a different kind of song for us. I think this is one of our best ever albums it's really just too hard for me to pick. My favourite ever Symphony X song is... wow! That's a hard question, I'd probably say that 'The Odyssey' is the one I'd choose because of the way it flows together, the way the story works with the music, it's probably the most complete song we've ever done as a band.
Finally Michael did you ever think you'd still be making music for a living when you started out back in the early 90s?

I hoped I would, I love doing this, I really do. Growing up, it was a little hard as my parents didn't want me doing this at all. They are both involved heavily with the US school system, so my folks and I didn't see eye to eye about my wanting to be a long haired Metal musician. So it was tough but it gave me that "I'm going to show you all" attitude, that "I'm going to try my damnedest to make it" mind set, which in the end worked out for me. Wonderfully my folks are cool about it now and are so proud of what I've achieved. When you're young, you dream of what you would like to do and I think we've been very lucky to have been able to do what we have with this band.

This article was used with kind permission and co-operation from FIREWORKS MAGAZINE

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