The Jersey boys in Symphony X have been well at it for over twenty years now, releasing some of the most challenging and musically-proficient material in the progressive metal scene along the way. There’s no denying that records like The Divine Wings of Tragedy and V: The New Mythology Suite have laid the groundwork for shredders worldwide, and have probably even gone on to influence plenty of bands in the power metal scene as well. Now on the cusp of releasing their ninth LP, Underworld, the band are working on synthesizing their entire discography while still trying to push their sound to previously unexplored heights. That being said, it’s a definite success and shows the band at their most inspired and consistent in quite some time. I had a chance to speak with guitarist and founding member Michael Romeo a few days ago about taking their time between releases, their upcoming summer tour, balancing technicality and songwriting, and much more.
I just heard Underworld yesterday for the first time and it’s pretty fucking awesome, man! I’m really excited to see you guys back at it because it’s been a couple of years…
Was there any specific reason for the lengthy time between albums? I guess three years isn’t too long, but in this A.D.D. culture it may be.
That’s totally it dude, I mean the last couple of records have been like that, a pretty good gap in-between. After we release a record we’re out touring and once the touring cycle kind of comes to an end, then we concentrate on writing. So after the release of a record and touring, two years kind of goes by. And then you start looking at the new record and by the time that’s done that’s a year. Every record we try to make it something cool, something different, and put a little time into it. It just takes time, these things.
It definitely feels like you guys spent a lot of time on it. It definitely sounds as meticulous as anything else you’ve done before. How long had the writing process been going on for?
With the last few records after the touring kind of dies down and everybody takes a little break, we’ll start talking about what we want to do for the new record. This one was the same kind of thing. We threw around a couple of ideas, trying to find some stuff lyrically that could bounce some ideas off of. We were looking at Dante’s Inferno and some different things to kind of catch a vibe on what the theme of the record is or what we could do with the lyrics and music as well. That went on for a little bit and then we settled on that Orpheus, the underworld and Dante as ideas for the lyrics. Musically, we really talked about trying to make an album that really had a good flow to it. Of course we’re always trying to write good songs. Everybody does. But it was more than that, it was about making each song for the right place on the record, so it did have this flow to it.
We were conscious to try to put little things in there of things we’ve done over the years. Some fans that maybe like some of the earlier stuff, there’s a little bit. There’s some stuff in that kind of vein, and then there’s some heavier stuff that maybe could have been on the last record, so there’s a good variety. We just try to have a really good balance and still have the album have this cohesive flow to it. I think I started just with the basic ideas, because after we talk about everything, the guys let me go off and spend a couple months putting together the ideas and basic song structures and stuff. I think I might have started right after the new year of 2014. Maybe February or March, and then we were recording in September. So that whole time putting the songs together, rehearsing, all that shit, and September we were recording. And the mixing it I think was in about March. So the whole process is about a year from being nothing to being totally done. Then of course after mixing, the label needs time to do their stuff, getting ready and all that. So next thing you know it’s June and July, but it is what it is.
So were there any obstacles or issues as far as recording goes? Or did you think it was a pretty smooth process? Do you guys kind of have things down to a science?
It was pretty smooth. I think the hardest thing is trying to find some of those initial ideas and looking for something a little new to add or some fresh ideas. You don’t want to repeat all the same shit that you’ve done. We did talk about putting some elements of stuff we’ve done over the years, kind of putting back into the songs and keeping it diverse, but you’re always looking for something new and that’s the hard thing; trying to find a new riff that sounds like us but it’s a little different. And after nine records it gets harder and harder each time.
Oh yeah for sure, and I totally agree. Just listening to it a couple of times, the first things that grabbed me was that it sounds like new ideas mixed with The Divine Wings of Tragedy, which is pretty old. It was kind of the merger of those to me.
There’s a little bit, or a nod to that kind of stuff. Kind of bringing some of that back in, and like I said, there’s some stuff that’s really heavy that could have been on the last two records. The balance is cool and the albums as a whole, I think, feels right even there’s those little things all over the place. We really tried to make the flow feel complete.
Did most of the music come first, or did you go with the Dante’s Inferno concept and then write the music around that?
Well that concept thing, I mean…it’s kind of just an outline. We didn’t want to tell a story or make a concept record per-se, but just more of those ideas and taking from different things, not just one thing. Even though the Inferno and Orpheus are similar, but I think the phrase that stuck was someone that would go to hell and back for someone. In Orpheus, he lost his wife and he’s going to go to Hades. So that idea was there, but we tried to keep the lyrics a bit more personal, just like a dude would say it, like how I’m talking to you. It kind of starts with that and the music just gets built with those things in mind. We did sketch out the album from the beginning about what songs would go where and what kind of songs would be representing this part or this kind of emotion or what have you. Then it’s like putting a puzzle together piece-by-piece. I think having that framework, having that idea from the beginning…it does make things a little easier because you have a goal. You have something you’re trying to fill in the blanks with, so I think it helps.
Is that something you guys have done before, or is the first time trying it?
Oh no! We’ve done that for a while. The V [The New Mythology Suite] record was really a concept record telling this story about mythology, and touching all Egyptian stuff, Atlantis, and various mythological stuff, and that was cool. Paradise Lost we also picked it up again with that theme. The last record definitely, the whole man versus machine thing. It just helps make the records different, too. The last one was a little heavier. It was a little more aggressive and it was just because. We just said “let’s go with man versus machine” and be a little more abrasive, relentless and aggressive. And that’s just how it took shape. Having that idea up front on the last couple of records just seems to work.
I saw that you guys are also going to be doing some stuff with Overkill which is pretty awesome. I think that’s a pretty solid pairing of pretty different sounding bands but it makes sense together. Have you played with them before? I know both of the bands have been around for a while…
We’ve played at some festivals together, and most of the guys are right in town here. We’re all friends and get along good. We’ve done a couple of things where we’d share a bus and travel together for maybe a festival or something. Actually, the place that we rehearsed at, well, they just closed it down now, but since like ’98 or something we’ve been at this rehearsal place, and the bass player of Overkill, D.D., that was his place that he owned. So he was always there, we were always there, and we always said we should do something together. The timing was cool and I think it will be good. It is a little bit of a different mix, but we’re both metal bands. They’re more thrashy, we’re a little more…this? It’s still cool, it’s that diversity.
I think that’s better. I like diverse tour lineups more than anything else.
I think it will be good, man! I think it will work great.
Do you guys have other stuff planned after that, or is that a secret right now?
Oh, no! I mean, the only now, I mean…the record’s not even out. So this thing put together with the Overkill guys was a while back and the next thing that’s kind of on the schedule is the European tour and that’s probably going to be around February or March, right after the holidays. Right after the New Year. And then eventually we’ll just keep touring more and adding some more places and we’ll definitely be coming back to the states and doing our own full headlining thing.
This Overkill one’s like a co-headliner, right?
Yeah, we’ll headline a night and they’ll headline a night. It’s pretty much the same time, the same kind of thing so it’s pretty equal.
That’s going to be sweet. I can’t wait to see you guys down in Charlotte. I live down in North Carolina, by the way. If you haven’t played at The Fillmore before, it’s an awesome venue.
It’s all a blur to me. laughs
You guys are often labeled as progressive metal band which I think is an appropriate label for what you guys are doing. Over the past couple of years I think the meaning of what it is has shifted a little bit. Do you listen to any modern bands that get labeled as progressive metal bands, or are there anything in the new scene that interests you? Or do you not pay any attention to that kind of stuff?
If I hear a band…well, there are bands I’ve heard and how do you even label them? How do you label Meshuggah? When you say progressive I think Rush, but then you said progressive metal and maybe that’s us…kind of. Eh…I think you just need a label to convey to people who maybe are not familiar with what the band is. It doesn’t bother. But there’s some stuff that’s really “in your face” metal stuff and yes, there is progressive stuff. There’s some classically-influenced stuff too. I think it’s hard to get that one label that says it all. It is what it is, and it doesn’t bother us.
Are you pretty in tune with what you’re writing these days or are there any outside influences that inspired the stuff on Underworld? What were you thinking about at the time?
Once we start talking about the music, it kind of just falls into place. It is from the things that all of us grew up with. The [Black Sabbath], [Judas Priest], we were talking about Rush, Pantera, all those bands. For me, they’re big influences and that stuff comes out when we write. I try not to listen to too many things when I am writing, honestly. Because it’s easy to say “Oh, I’m going to do something like that!” And then all of a sudden you’re like “Oh, shit! It’s exactly like that!” So when writing, I try to shut some of that stuff out and let the creativity take over. Once the writing is done, yeah, we’ll go check out some different kinds of music. I like a lot of different kinds of music, too. Whether it’s classical, and I’m also a big fan of film music. It changes every day. Over time, all those little you listen to find their way into the music.
From a technical and performance standpoint, were there any new things that you were trying to touch on this time? Or are you working within the framework that you’ve already built for yourself?
That’s a good question, because early on we were talking about what we were going to do with the songs. It was about really fine-tuning the songs. And they could be really progressive and maybe they could be really difficult to play, but they couldn’t sound that way. It did have to feel right, and if you hear it, it feels right. It feels good, but if you try to play then maybe it would be a different story. Early on we definitely talked about the performance. Just some of the grooves, finding the right pocket, some of the guitar riffs, and it was more about how we were playing than what we were playing. You may say “I’ve got this cool riff,” but the tempo’s got to be right and everything needs to feel good. So yeah, there was attention brought up about doing the best thing on your instrument for that particular song or part, which everyone always does anyways. But maybe we were just a little bit more aware of it.
I think it definitely shows. Even from “Nevermore,” the chorus has a blazing guitar part under it, but it still sounds like a great hook at the same time.
That’s fuckin’ right on target! We didn’t want to play boring parts, and during recording there was definitely some excitement and some magic. Everything felt really good, and it was that. You could have a really complex part, say in the guitar or drum department, but maybe on top of that the melody is really strong and the keys are holding it together. Maybe something’s in a different time signature, and there’s a little bits of these things. But as a whole, nothing feels like it’s stepping on anything else. That’s good to hear that people pick up on it, because there’s a lot of that.
Don’t forget to catch Symphony X on tour with Overkill later this year!
TOUR DATES (Symphony X headline dates marked with **):
Sep. 18 – The Palladium – Worcester, MA
Sep. 19 – Upstate Concert Hall – Clifton Park, NY **
Sep. 20 – Dome Theater – Niagara Falls, NY
Sep. 22 – Agora Ballroom – Cleveland, OH
Sep. 23 – The Intersection – Grand Rapids, MI **
Sep. 24 – House of Blues – Chicago, IL
Sep. 25 – Rave – Milwaukee, WI
Sep. 26 – Mill City Nights – Minnesota, MN **
Sep. 27 – Park Theatre – Winnipeg, MB **
Sep. 29 – Mac Ewan Hall Ballroom – Calgary, AB **
Sep. 30 – Union Hall – Edmonton, AB **
Oct. 01 – Knitting Factory – Spokane, WA **
Oct. 02 – Vogue Theatre – Vancouver, BC
Oct. 03 – Showbox at the Market – Seattle, WA **
Oct. 05 – The Grand Ballroom at the Regency Center – San Francisco, CA **
Oct. 06 – The Regent Theater – Los Angeles, CA **
Oct. 07 – Marquee Theatre – Tempe, AZ
Oct. 09 – The Bomb Factory – Dallas, TX
Oct. 10 – 210 Kapones – San Antonio, TX **
Oct. 11 – Warehouse Live – Houston, TX
Oct. 13 – The Ritz – Tampa, FL
Oct. 14 – The Masquerade – Atlanta, GA **
Oct. 15 – The Filmore – Charlotte, NC **
Oct. 16 – The Filmore – Silver Spring, MD
Oct. 17 – Terminal 5 – New York City, NY