Shredding with the Bastards of the Machine

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New Jersey’s Symphony X have been churning out album after album of top-quality neoclassical prog metal for almost two decades. 2011’s Iconoclast, which takes on a heavier, grinding-gears mechanized theme, still sees Symphony X at the tip-top of their game. Guitar virtuoso Michael Romeo spoke to Teeth of the Divine recently about his role in constructing and molding the band’s most solid album to date.

First of all, thanks for taking the time out of your schedule to talk to me.  I know you guys are really busy.  I appreciate it.

Michael Romeo: Oh yeah, it’s all good.

How did your last American and European tours go over?

With these tours, we wanted to do a lot of the Paradise Lost material and, you know, I mean, we tried to pull out a couple older songs that we had, and, you know, get a little mix.  We didn’t want to do too many new songs just because no one [had] heard the material, but I think we tried to, we rehearsed like four songs we tried to get into the set, and you know, we would play maybe two on a certain night and then maybe a different two.  We kind of mixed it up a little.  You know, on the new record, there’s some longer songs, and we do some more complex songs, but then there’s a lot of just, like, you know, straight and to-the-point kind of songs, you know?  A lot of shorter songs, it’s just like with a good riff and a good hook and, you know, that kind of thing.

So we pretty much gravitated to doing those, because we figured, you know, at first listen, they’re probably pretty easy to grasp.  We didn’t want to do anything too crazy, and when we started the tour in Europe, you know, we tried a couple, and it seemed that the songs “End of Innocence” and “Dehumanized” were the ones that always went over, you know, really good.  And I was probably the one guy who was like, you know, ‘Aww man, I hope this goes over, it’s gonna be so different just playing these songs cold when no one’s heard the album.’  And you know, I was a little concerned about it, but the first couple nights, man, you know, we’re playing and the reaction was really good.  The response was really good.  And then with YouTube and everything else, the next couple shows, you know, people are singing words and know the lyrics, and they know what part’s coming up, so yeah, that was great to see.  I think with the songs we picked, it worked out well.  And then once the record [was] out, the fans were more familiar with the material and we could bust out some of the different songs on the record. It was definitely cool trying to get some of these new songs in there and see how they went over.

I’m glad to hear that; I figured that would probably be the case.  So let’s discuss Iconoclast, which came out in June.  While all Symphony X albums are expertly composed in my opinion, you guys have gone above and beyond this time in creating probably I would say the best album of your career compositionally and musically.  All the classic Symphony X elements are still there, but this one’s a little more…

Modern.

Yes, exactly.  It’s a little more modern.  It’s not a continuation of Paradise Lost; it’s a progression from it, but it’s a little more direct than some of your earlier stuff.

You know, I totally agree.  I totally agree.  It’s like, yeah, everything that you said, that’s definitely, I think with the last couple records, me being a guitar player, I think a lot more of the stuff I grew up with is kind of coming out; you know, kind of getting back to my roots.  I mean, I grew up with Sabbath and Priest and Maiden, and you know, all the classic metal stuff, so I think around the time of The Odyssey now, it’s just kind of getting back to that stuff and letting that come out more in the music.  So I think, especially Paradise Lost too, it’s definitely way more guitar driven, and it’s a little heavier, a little more aggressive, and the new album, same thing.  It’s like you said, it has elements of everything, you know.  There is a lot of the heavier stuff, and you know, there’s some progressive elements and some symphonic elements, but with this one, it was really about the songs. You know, everybody knows we can play, yeah, we can do this, we can do that, but you know, this is now at the point where its’ like, you know, we’ll put the track up and we’ll demo it, we’ll listen back, and it’s like, you know, does this song kick ass?  Is it keeping our interest?  You know, I mean, is it doing something?  And that’s where we’re at now, I think, it’s just trying to have a good variety of songs, and each song, you know, really getting in there and tweaking it and keeping it interesting.  And also with this record, too, you know, every record we try to do something a little different or try to find some underlying theme or something, and usually it starts with the music.

With The Odyssey, I remember us talking about maybe getting back to more guitar-driven kind of riffs but still have that epic thing, you know, or these orchestral things, and so, like The Odyssey is very epic and that kind of thing.  And then Paradise Lost, just by working with the Milton poem, you know, getting that heaven and hell, that ‘universe is evil’ [theme], the music is a little darker, the riffs were a little more dark and any kind of orchestral elements were a little more ominous, you know, the male choirs and things.  So I mean, I think each album has its own kind of personality.  And with this one, we decided to with this more man versus machine thing, or a technology kind of idea, and it kind of started with the music.  A lot of the early material was similar to Paradise Lost or The Odyssey, you know, the big riffs and some big choruses.  But it kind of came about, I think I had maybe four songs pretty much written early on, and you know, it was kind of typical of maybe Paradise Lost kind of sound, and I was just hanging out in my studio one day and listening to a bunch of different stuff, just kind of cleaning up or whatever the hell I was doing, and I kind of noticed some cool things in some soundtrack music I kind of was listening to.  And I think it was from the movie 300 and The Matrix too.  And especially with the 300, man, some electric guitars in there, it’s pretty gritty, man, it’s pretty mean.  And there is a lot of this modern kind of synth textures and these very distorted percussion elements and stuff, and that kind of got the wheels turning.  I started to think, yeah, we could do may be more of a mechanical kind of an idea.  So the next day, I came up with some of these original song ideas and just tried experimenting with some different textures and different things, you know, some maybe grittier guitar layering or some kind of really mechanical synth playing underneath the music.  And then it started to come, everything started to flow from there.  I thought it was pretty cool.  It was like, yeah, it sounds us, but there’s definitely more of a fresh, cool element, you know?

And that’s pretty much how this whole album all came into play.  And then from there, it was  just like, okay, let’s go with this, let’s do it.

I was going to ask you how difficult it was to work that mechanized sound into the music, but obviously it just came naturally to you.

Yeah, and I mean, it’s subtle too.  You know, I don’t want to say industrial or throw out any kind of terms, because it’s not really that; it’s still us.  It’s still Symphony X, but we used maybe subtle little textures and the whole vibe of the record has that thing and it’s something we never really did before, so we were all pretty excited too.  We could have some fun with this, you know, we could really do something different.  And just, you know, the songs progressed as we were writing and recording; we were always adding things to the music and just trying to build this record.  It was definitely a lot of fun, definitely cool.  And I think, yeah, this is what I think of the record, without question: I think every song, you know, usually on past records there’s a song or two that’s like, ‘yeah, that’s not my favorite,’ but with this record, I mean, just by the fact that we do it at my studio so I’m there 24-7 for a year, listening to this stuff, I found myself not really getting sick of it.  Every song, it was like to me, wow, that’s solid.  These songs are freaking solid.  So yeah, we’re definitely happy with this one.

One thing that I noticed when I was listening to Iconoclast, and I’ve been a Symphony X fan for about 10 years now, it was pretty exciting to hear all these little nuances, little pieces from the past albums, which is always cool for the fans to hear.  You guys have done this in the past to some extent, but it’s incredible, especially with this album, to see how much history you’ve woven into the songs, yet every song is still original.

That’s totally a cool observation, because there is some parts that maybe are reminiscent of, maybe a section from “The Accolade” from the third record.  And in the past, we might have put that idea aside, or thought it’s a little bit too much like that, but this one, it was like, we can do it.  We can have some of these different elements from all the things we’ve done, but just by incorporating some of these different sounds and making it up to date, it still sounds new.  And I think the fans who kind of are familiar, they get it.  They’re like, ‘Oh wow, it’s kind of like this but it’s not.’  Yeah, that’s definitely something we noticed too.  I think that’s just kind of letting the music happen.  If it was a section that maybe sounded like something we’ve done earlier, not exactly a copy or anything like that, but maybe had a feel of certain things, it’s like, you know, whatever, it’s us.  Let this happen and we’ll just make it cool.  We’ll make this record.

So let me ask you this.  Was the album in any way inspired by “Church of the Machine” from Twilight in Olympus?

Not really, but that was an idea for maybe the record title.  That definitely came up.  As soon as we started talking, as soon as this whole machine kind of thing came up, yeah, I mean, we were like, ‘Oh yeah, Church of the Machine, maybe that we could be the record, or maybe we could do part two’ or something like that.  But we’re like, ahh, let’s just keep it all new.  Let’s just let it be its own thing.  But yes, it’s funny that you said that, because that was out there.  That was definitely discussed a little bit.

The first time I looked through the song lyrics and I saw “Bastards of the Machine,” I wondered if that was connected.  I had to ask.

Yeah, like I said, we looked at “Church of the Machine” and thought maybe we could do that or a part two or something, but just by the nature of the whole machine thing, it’s out there, but this album is its own thing.

That’s cool.  You have “The Accolade,” which was from The Divine Wings of Tragedy, and then on The Odyssey you had “The Accolade II,” and then on this one, you’ve got “When All is Lost,” which has got some of the same elements.  Is that meant to be part of a series or just its own entity?

I think “When All is Lost,” I mean, we had so much heavy material for this record that we thought just to balance it out a little bit, to kind of have a song that was along the lines of “The Accolade,” or something a little bit more piano against the guitar, maybe a little bit more proggy, but still trying to get a really big chorus and a very full kind of sound and incorporating a little bit of some of these things we’re talking about with the production.  But yeah, I think all the records kind of always have that one or two songs that are kind of like that, and I think it kind of breaks the album up.  It kind of gives the album a little more direction.  You try to break it up and have a  song like that.

Going back to the, I hesitate to use the word theme, but the theme of Iconoclast, what are your feelings about this digital age that we’re living in?  How does that affect Symphony X and your processes, yourself as a musician?

Well, when we kind of started talking about doing this whole machine thing, man versus machine, it all started with the music.  So I think really, most of the ideas start from there.  I think doing the writing, for me, it’s like once you kind of find that thing that you think you can work with, that gives you a little bit of inspiration, and you kind of have a goal and a direction.  That really is one of the most important parts.  And then the lyrics, of course, you do the best to work in the confines of that idea or theme, which is equal.  It’s more about what you can do with the music, and you know, just kind of getting inspired.  We weren’t really thinking too crazy about any kind of method or taking it too serious or anything, just more creative ideas, you know, what can we do lyrically?  Musically, yeah, once that was set and incorporating some of those textures and things, then that was a no-brainer, man.  It just came out.  And with the lyrics, it was like pretty much anything we can find that feels like technology or machine or man, there was just so much we could do that we thought would be cool.  The song “Iconoclast” is definitely maybe more of a sci-fi or futuristic man versus machine war or battle, you know, that kind of song.  “Children of a Faceless God” kind of looks at how we worship our devices, you know, how fast these kids can text now, and how everybody interacts socially through their machines, and just kind of making observations like that.  And I mean, we thought there was a lot of different avenues to take for that.  But for us, you were saying, you know, how does it affect us, I mean, for me, we couldn’t really do a record like this one without some of this technology.  I mean, all these orchestral sections and texturing, it’s all software, and all the recording stuff nowadays too, it’s all computer-based.  It’s definitely an important part of the music production process, so yeah, it’s like anything.  There’s good things and bad things, you know?  The internet and piracy, it’s like, yeah, it’s definitely a bad thing, but at the same time, you know, being able to be creative with almost no limitations is, for me, it’s great.  And some of the software out there now is just so friggin’ state of the art.  I’m always trying to keep my studio up to date with all the latest gadgets and software.  I always try to make the orchestra sound as realistic as possible and the choirs, and all these textures, it’s kind of cool and modern.  You know, there’s just so much to do.  There are so many different things, it’s definitely a lot of fun.  And that’s a positive with this whole technology thing.  Like I said, there’s always good and bad things about everything.

Yep, it’s a blessing and it’s a curse sometimes.

Yep.

I’m going to shift gears a little bit and ask you some non-important, non-album questions.  What are you listening to these days?

Oh, man, so much.  Usually when I’m just kind of at home hanging out, I’ll listen to random stuff.  I have so much, so many different kinds of music in my player, but it’s all this stuff I grew up with: the old Sabbath, and Priest and old Ozzy, Randy Rhoads, god, so much shit.  Pantera, a lot of classical music.  I listen to so many different things.  I like a lot of film music, you know.  Jeez, there’s just so much.  So I can’t even narrow it down, because I just have so much stuff and I love it all.  But usually I go back the stuff that man, that’s close to me.  The stuff that got me, like guitar playing, the old classic metal stuff.

Right on.  And here’s my last and completely silly question: how difficult is it to be in a band with two other guys who have the same first name?

[Laughs]  It actually is easy, because we have little waves of, you know, I’ve always just been Mike.  And then Pinnella has always been P, just P.  And LePond is just LePond, so it’s easy, you know?

[Laughs]  That works.

Everybody, they just know.  Everybody around us knows the deal so there’s never any confusion.  It’s like, ‘Hey, what’s up P?’  So we know they’re talking to Pinnella.  So that’s just the way that it is; it’s never an issue.

I always wondered that.  Like I said, I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.  I got to see you guys once, back in 2003, you played in Omaha at this weird place called the Ranch Bowl.

Oh god, I don’t remember.

Well, it was a very, very odd place.  They had a bowling alley in the same venue.

Oh, wait, were we with Devin Townsend?

Yeah, with Devin Townsend.

I do remember that place.  Yeah, that was kind of unusual [laughs].

It was unusual, but I’m glad I got to see you guys and meet you all afterwards.  Hopefully I can meet up with you again sometime.

Oh definitely.  We’ll be back in the States.  We’ll be around.  Hopefully we’ll see you.

Right on.  Thanks again.

Thank you.

www.symphonyx.com
www.nuclearblast.de

Comments

  1. Commented by: Gabaghoul

    Great interview Jodi! You asked a bunch of stuff inwas curious about too – Church vs Bastards, hints of The Accolade in the album closer, etc. The title track is one of my favorite songs of the year, I may have to crank that some more this morning!


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