Stronger Than Death

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Having the utmost respect for what guitarist, keyboardist, and composer Nicolas van Dyk has done with Redemption since debuting with 2003’s self-titled album (followed by knocking one out of the prog metal park with 2005’s The Fullness of Time) and deep gratitude for what the music has meant to me personally, it was with great sadness that I heard the news of his cancer diagnoses a few years ago. At the time, the rare from form of blood cancer with which Nick had been diagnosed was said to be incurable. Fast forward to 2011 and Nick is a man renewed, having faced down his disease and for all intents and purposes conquered it with the help of a doctor in Bart Barlogie that took conventional wisdom and flushed it down the toilet. Van Dyk took the experience of that fierce, emotionally-draining fight and channeled it into his most powerful set of lyrics to go with what may be Redemption’s most aggressive and deeply emotional musical effort to date in This Mortal Coil. At once metaphorical and introspective, This Mortal Coil is musically complex and undeniably heavy, yet as melodically accessible as anything the group has ever released.

In attempting to convey the place within Nick’s heart and mind from which this album came it is perhaps best to quote a section that he wrote for the liner notes and then delve into our discussion.  “This is an album about feelings of confronting mortality, of coming to terms with death, of hopefully learning something from such an experience, and about taking the best from life as we stumble through the continuing frailty of our human condition, fraught as it is with wondering and cynicism, beauty, ugliness, hope and despair, faith and desperation, desire and regret, fear and resolve, and always love.”

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It looks as though you’ve beaten the cancer that at one time was said to be incurable. Can you recap the last few years of your battle with it?

I was diagnosed three years ago almost to the day. I knew something was wrong in October of 2008 because I’m on Lipitor for high cholesterol and went in for my routine blood test since it can be bad for your liver. You’re supposed to get these tests every three months. Ironically, because I hate needles I hadn’t been in for one in like a year and my doctor said if I don’t go in for one he’s not going to fill my prescriptions any more [laughs]. So I went in and he said my cholesterol was fine and my liver was ok, but I had elevated proteins, so he sent me to a hematologist, I got a bone marrow biopsy and was told I had blood cancer and it was not curable and that most people live three to five years with it. It was a pretty rude awakening.

My god. This was right around the time that you were recording Snowfall on Judgment Day, wasn’t it?

I had finished writing Snowfall on Judgment Day, but had not finished recording it. Not to get him off his game, but I had to tell [Dream Theater’s] James LaBrie [who did guest vocals on one track] about it. Right around the beginning of November that year we had finished vocals, which was the last thing to be recorded and then we were ready to mix. But obviously, I was pretty occupied with other things [laughs]. I didn’t have a chance to fly over to Europe to do that as I normally would have liked to because I went into therapy in February of 2009 and was stuck in Arkansas for about eight months.

At some point you found the one doctor that didn’t buy into the incurable part.

Well, I had an open-minded guy who diagnosed me out here in Beverly Hills and I obviously don’t want to die and I’ll go wherever I have to go to get the best treatment. He said there are a number of different opinions of what to do, but here’s what I think you can do, and there are a number of different opinions on what to do that range from the Mayo Clinic that believes the same thing and City of Hope, which is the big cancer center out here, that sort of believes the same thing too, and there is another guy out here that believes you should do less than that. And then there is this crazy guy out in Arkansas and I don’t know what he’s doing, but he believes you should have more. So I went and talked to the top six specialists in the country, including this crazy guy in Arkansas. Most people say to use these drugs until they no longer work, and then use these stronger drugs until they no longer, and then you use these even stronger drugs until they no longer work, and when you run out of time you die. The guy in Arkansas says let’s take everything we know that works, including a bunch of stuff we don’t use any more because we think it’s barbaric, and use 10 times the amount and use it all at once. He based that on research on pediatric leukemia, which in many cases has been cured in 95 percent of the cases because of that approach, which is called total therapy, as opposed to sequential therapy. So he for the last 20 years has been doing this and has achieved such impressive success to the point now where two-thirds of diagnosed patients will be cured if they go through his regimen. That sounded a whole lot better than dying in three to five years. I figured if I went the other route that I’d be reliant on science to come up with new medicines anyway, so now the only difference is that if I relapse I will have used everything that works and I’ll still be reliant on science to come up with something else. That’s sort of where I am and two years into a three-year plan of maintenance, which has to do with being in remission and you stay on these pretty powerful drugs for the three years. So hopefully a year from now we’ll be done with everything and be cured. The odds at this point are about 90 percent in my favor.

I want to say you’ve beaten it and even if we can’t say that definitely, it seems you’re pretty damn close to it.

I still have to respect the disease so I don’t claim victory yet, but I think that it’s very likely I’m on the path to beating it, yes.

I’m really happy to hear that. I know that the liner note explanation you dedicate the album to Dr. Barlogie and state that the lyrics really aren’t about him or your personal experience with cancer per se, but rather about “feelings of confronting mortality, coming to terms with death” and taking the best from life even in the face of the struggle, etc. But some of these songs must have direct links to your experiences, based on some of the most powerful lines you’ve ever written.

Well, of course the lyrics are influenced by it, but I didn’t just want it to be a biographical statement about my particular diagnoses or my particular treatment because, for one thing, that’s self indulgent. Secondly, our lyrics work because we talk about things common to all of us as people: our relationships with ourselves and with each other and with the world around us and part of that is understanding our relationship with our mortality. Sooner or later, whether it’s because of a friend’s diagnosis or death or a family member’s death or your own diagnosis, everybody is going to have to come to terms with it. So these are just our meditations on that and it’s hard of course not to be influenced by the particulars of my situation, but other than a couple of references I think the themes are broad.

In other words, one can’t read that statement with too literal an interpretation. You hate to see anyone suffer through an experience like yours, but for the kind of band Redemption happens to be, there couldn’t be a better musical vehicle through which to convey those kinds of emotions. The conveyance of emotion through heavy, progressive music is in many ways what Redemption is all about.

Thank you first of all. And that’s true. I wish I had other subject material [laughs], but I sort of had a feeling that this would make good stuff for Redemption’s music and hopefully it does.

More than melodies or choruses, there are so many memorable lines in the lyrics, such as “You tried to kill me, but I’ve killed you” from “Stronger than Death,” which Ray Alder belts out with a lot of emotion.

The sad part of that is that I wanted Ronnie James Dio to be a guest vocalist to sing that one line. That was before he was even diagnosed with cancer. Mostly it was because I figured that I had already met most of my heroes and he was the only one left that I would want to do something with. And I became friends with Claudia Butler who is Geezer’s wife and who manages the band. I was introduced by a mutual friend who knew I had cancer and they had contacted me when they found out that Ronnie had been diagnosed and I had sort of counseled them a bit on what to expect. It of course ended up being a lot more serious than I even realized.

Many people in metal tend to be of a contrarian sort, often finding great motivation in doing something because they’re told it’s something that’s just not done or just plain being told it can’t be done. I found the lyrics in “Departure of the Pale Horse” to be inspiring. The song speaks loudly about facing down a challenge and defeating it, like this final sneer at death after the defeat. “Where’s your victory? Where’s your sting?”

That was the intent, yeah. It just sort of came to be me out of nowhere actually as I was going through singing a melody line and thought it would be a good thing to throw in there. It can be dark and brooding music, but we always have an undercurrent of positivity. Particularly with this record, if you listen to it from start to finish it takes you to a pretty bleak place [laughs]. So I wanted something that could pull a person out of it too.

What really hit me about this album at first, as soon as that first riff from “Path of the Whirlwind” launches, is the heaviness of the guitars, which is nothing new for Neil Kernon of course. There is nothing soft about that tone; this is a tough, guitar-forward album.

I had wanted a very heavy guitar tone for some time and I’ve worked – god love ‘em – with some producers that prefer something that is more like 70s hard rock. I mean I love the records we did with Tommy [Newton] and he is a friend and a great guy, but he has always sort of loved the stuff that is rooted in 70s hard rock, but I wanted 80s metal. I had spoken with Neil Kernon in the past about working on something. I thought he could get us the heavy tone that I’ve wanted because I’ve listened a lot to those Nevermore records and they’re very beefy. He delivered on that front. It’s a very guitar-forward mix.

Actually, that first riff in “Path of the Whirlwind” comes off like something you’d hear on a progressive death metal album. I was quite shocked.

Yeah, people have said that. That’s one of two things that happened with the album. I took my guitars with me to Arkansas because I thought I’d have nothing to do there for eight months, so I’m finally going to become proficient with my instrument [laughs]. But I was so exhausted that I don’t think I picked it up more than twice; one time was to write that one riff and the other time was to write the opening guitar melody for the song “Focus.”

There is a serious level of guitar soloing on with this album too.

Bernie [Versailles] tears it up on this record. That’s another thing about past records; not the loudest guitar solos in the world shall we say. So I wanted to make sure they were heard on this record and in order to make it worthwhile I wanted to make sure we really upped our game. Bernie in particular does a phenomenal job on this record.

But both of you are soloing.

Yes. I usually say without any disrespect intended to Dave that if it sounds like Mustaine it’s me and if it sounds like Marty Friedman it’s Bernie [laughs]. The stuff that really, really rips it up is usually Bernie.

The heaviness really comes through in a big way, yet a song like “Let it Rain” is one the most touching, emotive songs we’ve heard from Redemption.

It almost didn’t make the record actually because Neil thought some stuff needed to be changed and it involved a change in the melody line, so it was difficult to get Ray to come back to do that after he had finished all the rest of the record because he was swamped with other stuff. I thought it was so ballad-y compared to the rest of the record that it might be jarring and stick out. But judging by people’s reaction to it I’m glad we went the extra mile and finished it.

There is no question it’s different, but it doesn’t negative impact the flow.

The rest of the record is so aggressive and in your face that you sort of need that one to breathe.

[Bassist] Sean Andrews and [drummer] Chris Quirarte are doing so much in the way of coloration and accent. The playing is very intricate.

It’s busy music, but that’s one of the things that Neil brings to stuff like this. He gets a separation of instruments that very few producers get because of the amount of time he spends when he mixes. It’s very guitar-forward, but you get a bass pop that is much more prominent than on any of the other records and hear what is going on with the drums, especially the cymbal work, which as you know is very intricate.

You had a guest keyboardist on one song as well.

Gary Wehrkamp of Shadow Gallery is a friend of a friend and I’ve always liked Shadow Gallery. He was kind enough to get a hold of me when I was sick and offered help if there was anything he could ever do. So I asked him to play a little bit on this record.

I’m careful in saying this because I think Ray is a perfect fit for Redemption, but he has lost some range over the years.

Yes, but having said that he sings the highest note he’s every sung on a Redemption record. He’s not 22 years old anymore singing “Silent Cries” or “11th Hour” [from Fates Warning], that’s for sure.

Yet looking back over the catalogue I can’t imagine anyone else singing this music and conveying the material the way that it needs to be conveyed.

Yeah I know. He’s the perfect fit.

“Noonday Devil” is one of the most aggressive songs you’ve ever done, if not the most aggressive.

It probably is. Not even just for us; I think it may be the most aggressive prog metal song I’ve heard that doesn’t have death vocals. We played that live when we were in Europe and it’s a fun one to play and the crowd reacts pretty well to it.

How were the European dates anyway?

We did two weeks in October just after the record was released. We headlined and Kingcrow from Italy supported us. The shows ranged from really well attended and awesome to not that well attended and awesome [laughs]. It’s sort of a function of the night of the week you play and the venues that you play, as well as the local promotion. We’re not as popular as Dream Theater, so we’re not going to draw 800 people every night. But we started spreading the word and demonstrated that we’re a live band and can pull this stuff off, and we had a great time.

Somehow Snowfall on Judgment Day passed me by and I never got to spend much time with the digital download when it came my way. There was no conscious reason for that happening; it just did.

We had a weird situation with that one. The label changed hands literally like the day before the album was released and I think promotion suffered a bit as a result. I wasn’t around to do much promotion because I was busy not dying [laughs]. But I think it’s a very strong record and it’s got two or three of the best songs we’ve ever done.

How do you characterize that album within the context of all five releases?

We’ve been following a progression really from The Fullness of Time on of making heavier and more aggressive music, while at the same time pushing stronger and stronger melody. I think with this new one we finally broke through with the guitar tone and I think it’s as heavy as we’re going to be able to push it because if we got any more aggressive we’d have to start going to death vocals. Snowfall on Judgment Day is not quite as heavy, although it’s got some very heavy stuff. After “Sapphire” [from The Fullness of Time] it’s got probably the best song I’ve ever written in “Black and White World.” It’s a great song. I don’t like to toot my own horn too much, but that’s a great song.

The Fullness of Time is one of my favorite prog metal albums – well, in any metal genre really – and it had such an enormous impact on me on so many levels. The Origins of Ruin was very good as well, but it was good for me to step away from my immersion in Redemption for a while because it allowed me to appreciate the band all over again with This Mortal Coil. I think it allowed me to look at this album a little more objectively as well. I mean “Sapphire” is a song that is as emotionally meaningful to me as anything I’ve ever heard. So musically maybe This Mortal Coil is a better work overall, but it is difficult to recreate the kind of magic that was present on The Fullness of Time. You just can’t plan an album like that. It just kind of happens.

You can’t plan it compositionally either. If I could I’d make every song like that. But sometimes you catch lightning in a bottle and you’ve got to be happy when you get it. “Sapphire” was like that and I think “Black and White World” was like that. I don’t get that sense from anything on the new record, although I think the new record is full of solid stuff. Maybe not at the lightning-in-a-bottle level, but I think “Dreams from the Pit” is a great song and I like “Departure of the Pale Horse” as well as far as epic stuff goes.

From front to back This Mortal Coil is a great album; no question about it. The ones that stand out as far hooks are concerned include “Let it Rain” certainly. “No Tickets to the Funeral” is one as well and comes with a cool lyrical play on words.

I actually came up with the concept of “No Tickets to the Funeral” before I got sick and it sort of held in place with some minor changes. It’s the notion that when a celebrity dies everybody piles on and talks about how tragic it is, but you’ve a 100,000 people dying a day that have led much harder lives than celebrities and your heart should bleed just as much for them as it does for Michael Jackson for god’s sake!

When it comes to bands for which I’ve got a lot of respect I tend to listen closely over the course career to see how they’ve changed structurally. Are they using the same patterns? Is the chorus always predictable? That kind of thing… You’re definitely not playing it too safe in that regard and you’ve done a nice job this time with the manner in which you incorporate vocal harmonies in several songs.

We’ve sort of been growing in that direction. There was a bit more of it on the last record too, but “Perfect” on this album has 11 vocal tracks; it’s got five-part harmony recorded twice in left and right channels and then there is a center vocal as well. So Ray worked overtime on that one.

Are you able to reproduce that live?

Hell no! [Laughs] Our keyboard player kind of bagged on us 10 days before we were supposed to go to Europe, so wound up playing to a backing track anyway and I kind of liked it. Once you got over the fear of having to play to a click and if you strayed from the click you’re screwed… It gives you more room on stage, one less mouth to feed, and you don’t have to worry about tempos being wrong. It would let us do something like “Perfect,” which even if all five of us sang perfectly – no pun intended – it would be very hard to pull off. We’re not a barber shop quartet up there.

This Mortal Coil also comes with a bonus disc of covers of songs that, as you write, one wouldn’t expect a prog metal better to cover. I’ve been playing the cover of Elton John’s “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” a lot lately. It’s just such a great song anyway and it lends itself so well to what Redemption does.

I completely agree. I had that idea to do it forever and then Dream Theater releases it in 1994 and I’m like “shit!” I had to wait a long time before I could come back to it. It was like ok it’s been 15 years and we’re not going to get compared to Dream Theater and generally speaking that hasn’t happened. I think our treatment is more of what fits us and is a little bit more aggressive than theirs. But I love that song. They did a great job on it and their arrangement is a little bit different, and it’s also live. So I think we had the opportunity to do something pretty fun with it.

How did the bonus disc idea arise?

I suggested it. First of all, we’ve always done covers. We did a Police cover that never got released, we did a Faith No More cover with The Fullness of Time, and we did the UFO and Tori Amos covers with The Origins of Ruin. We tried three or four of them for Snowfall on Judgment Day, but none of them sort of met hurdle. We tried a Genesis song and a song by this guy named Peter Murphy that was big in the 80s and none of them really worked out, so we didn’t do it. But downloading is so pernicious now and it’s impossible to sell anything. A lot of it is that people want free stuff, but some of it is the people that are really into a band and want the stuff the second it’s available instead of waiting six weeks for the release. So I knew it was going to leak and thought that we should do an advance copy without the bonus disc. That way we could make it something substantive with five or six or seven songs on there and it would encourage people that like us to wait until they can buy the full package.

Hell, I did exactly that even though I had the promotional tracks from the main disc.

Well thank you. I hope you found the bonus material to be worth it. The pictures from the photo shoot alone should have been worth it; I was dying laughing.

And Ray just wouldn’t participate in it, eh?

Nope [laughs]. Originally he was going to be sitting in a chair with his head in his hands holding up a sign that read “I’m too dignified to participate.” We were literally ready to do that and he just said “I can’t do this.” So he left and we decided to have a little fun at his expense anyway. I think we spent probably an hour getting the lighting set up, maybe 20 minutes doing the real photos, and then spent like an hour and a half doing the goofball ones [laughs].

Were all the song selections your idea?

Actually no. The Elton John one was and the Toto [“Hold the Line”] one was. Ray had always wanted to do the Journey song [“Edge of the Blade”] so we did it. At some point we were talking about other songs that might work and [Jefferson Starship’s] “Jane” came up and I said what if we do it with seven-strings instead of regular guitars and really make it brutally heavy. Then I realized that the cheesy bridge section is the exactly same chorus to “Over the Mountain,” so I put a little Ozzy in the middle of the song and then at the very end it’s the same song as “Fantasy” by Aldo Nova, so I put the little Aldo Nova guitar line in it. That was fun one to do. Then we had a couple of tracks from The Origins of Ruin sessions, like the Tori Amos song [“Precious Things”] that was released outside of the U.S. so we added that one and the UFO [“Love to Love”] song.

Who is singing on the Tori Amos song?

She’s a friend of mine from grade school that has gone on to do a lot of jazz and has an amazing voice. She’s also fiddled around with some rock projects and a bunch of different musical projects, so I thought she’d be good for this one. Plus I wasn’t going to make Ray sing about wearing a peach party dress [laughs].

What’s really amazing is that you’ve had the same lineup, aside from the Greg Hosharian [keyboards] stint, for the last four albums.

Yeah, and I think it’s important when bands hit their stride and actually have the opportunity to gel together as players that create something together, as opposed to just playing the parts. They’re good guys; they’re my friends. God knows they aren’t doing it for the money. We like the music and we like the people that we’re doing it with.

Five albums for Redemption, man; it’s hard to believe. Did you think it would end up this way?

Nah. If you told me I was going to be in a band with Ray Alder I would have thought you were nuts. Or that I was going to be touring the country with Dream Theater for six weeks. So it is certainly a lot bigger than I ever thought it would be.

What’s next for Redemption?

Well, we played in L.A. and did those European shows, but we’d like to get out a little more in the U.S. It’s going to be challenging a bit though because Ray is going to be working on some Fates Warning stuff. But I know we’re going to play ProgPower next and I’d like to do some dates around then, maybe around the east coast if we can. So we’ll see how it goes.


Band photo by Marcos Efron


  1. Commented by: Evil In U

    I love the heavier guitar tone and solos on This Mortal Coil. Glad to hear Nick is well on his way to beating cancer and hopefully Redemption can continue making amazing music for a long time.

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