SYMPHONY X – Hell And Back
Symphony X (l-r): Michael Pinnella, Michael Romeo, Russell Allen, Mike LePond and Jason Rullo
In penning tracks for each respective full-length, the individual members of New Jersey-based progressive metal outfit Symphony X collectively discuss several ideas which could be potentially fleshed out as well as a given musical direction the band could potentially venture towards. This was also the case for July 2015 studio effort Underworld, their ninth studio affair overall.
“We spent a little time talking about it, and probably the thing that was different about this album was we talked about it really being an album as a whole, and really having the flow of the songs feeling really cohesive,” notes Michael Romeo, guitarist and co-founding member of Symphony X. “We had actually kind of even mapped it out early on, like what kind of song would go where. Just really being conscious of the flow, obviously paying attention to the songs and each song being a little different.
“That was another thing that we had talked about, too; doing like a good balance of things, with some very heavy stuff and maybe some more melodic stuff, and some of the progressive stuff, and trying to get all of those elements in there. The early stages was about having a good variety of material and also a good flow, with a little bit of things we’ve done in the past mixed with some newer things. Just being conscious of all of that stuff was how we kind of started it all out.”
Such comments suggest the axeman feels certain past Symphony X records didn’t function as albums ‘as a whole’. “Every album, you’re trying to write a record,” he submits. “Usually, you have a bunch of songs, and then when you’re done with the writing and the recording, you’re trying to find that right order. That’s the normal way that us and probably most bands do it like. The only thing that was different about this one was that that was really kind of thought out from the beginning. It was really kind of one the main points – just the flow of what, when, and where – and it kind of helped with writing too. Not that any of the other albums aren’t albums as a whole, but this one, yeah, more attention was paid to the continuity of one song into another. Maybe if we even had have written all of these songs and worked on the order later, it probably would have been the same order anyway. Yeah though, man. We did think about that thing. That was just a little different way to approach it.”
In determining ‘that right order’, the chosen closing track shares equal importance with the chosen opening track when crafting an album meant to be digested as a whole. Performing swansong duties on Underworld happens to be ‘Legend’, and not its perhaps more appropriately named predecessor. “Early on, we were thinking of it being the song that’s right before it – ‘Swan Song’ I – and to kind of close it with… I don’t want to say a ballad,” Michael observes. “That song’s not really a ballad’y song, but again, it’s kind of typical of us – that more melodic, lighter thing. I think at some point, it was like ‘Man, maybe just end the record…’…
“We were trying to think of lyrically what we could do, and musically what would be the right one. I do remember that that might’ve been a little open at that point, and then it was like ‘No, man. We should just have a song that’s a summery kind of thing.’ Just about the good and the evil, and the hero, and these myths that go on, and all of this kind of stuff.
“Musically, yeah, it has a little bit of everything. That song has some progressive elements, and again, a lot of the stuff that we’ve done over the years. Yeah, it felt right to close with something like that. I think if it was a lighter song, it still would’ve been effective, but it was like ‘No, man. Let’s pick it up.’ Obviously, you want an album to start with an overture to get you in the mood of it, but the first track? Yeah, it’s uptempo, it’s energetic. You want that first song to really kick in, and then the last song was the same kind of thing. Really though, it was more about putting a lot of different things that we’ve done into that song. And yeah, it felt good too. I think either one probably could’ve closed it, but that was probably the right choice.”
Certain music fans tend to listen to specific tracks nowadays and ignore others, eschewing consuming whole records. “Yeah, and that was one of the reasons that we wanted to kind of stay true to the album thing,” the composer divulges. “Yeah, that was a part of it too. It is tough. To give the music the attention, yeah, it is getting difficult. People are busy and that kind of thing, but man, I think if you really try to do something like that, people kind of see it and will hopefully listen and embrace the whole thing. We still paid a lot of attention to each song too, though, so I think each song on this record is pretty strong in its own way. There are some obviously that are really heavy, and then are some that are a little more melodic, and all of those things that I was saying. Yeah though, man. It was kind of meant to be heard as a whole thing, and the people who do I’m sure will enjoy it. If you can’t do it, that sucks (laughs). But yeah, it’s just the way things are nowadays.
“It is tough, but we just wanted to stick with it. The stuff that we grew up with was all about the album. It was just great records; Heaven And Hell by (Black) Sabbath (April 1980), Moving Pictures by Rush (February 1981), Master Of Puppets by Metallica (March 1986). There were only just great albums. We just wanted to stay true to that thing. I had even seen documentaries about this, talking to people in the industry. And yeah, there is a lot of negativity. It’s like ‘Oh yeah… Albums are dead’ and all this kind of crap, and it’s like ‘Fuck all that.’ We’re gonna do music, and people who enjoy listening to music hopefully will enjoy this. They’d give it the time, I would hope.”
Although general listeners only listen to select tracks, a lot of metal fans arguably still digest whole full-lengths. “I think they do,” Michael agrees. “I totally think they do. I still do. I’m still a metal fan; I still listen to all of the stuff that I grew up with. If I do hear a new band now or if someone says ‘Check out this new band,’ I’ll wait until I have the time to listen to it. During the whole recording thing, yeah, I’m tied up here at my studio, so I’m working 24/7.
“I accumulate a pile of discs that people drop by or what not – friends, bands – like ‘Check out my demo’ kind of thing. I’ll wait until I’m done, and sit down, and give it the attention it deserves. Yeah, I think most metal guys and most bands too, man. They just try to write a record. It’s not about some pop single, or some kind of shit like that. It’s just writing the stuff that we all grew up with. I think metal’s different, but yeah, we do still wanna stay true to that thing because who knows where everything’s heading in the future.”
A properly crafted album will feature different moods. “That’s what we talked about in the beginning, about having a variety of songs and mapping out what kind of song would go where,” the musician acknowledges. “Some things are obvious. The first song on the record, you want it to be uptempo, and you want it to be kind of typical of what you do. I think that this ‘Nevermore’ song is typical of us. There are some different things that are on this record, but yeah, things like that, and then where the softer song would go, and what’s after the lighter song – the ballad song.
“It’s like ‘Well, let’s just go with something really frickin’ heavy,’ so the order was kind of there. The moods naturally just fell into place, and the order kind of thing was mapped out from the beginning. As we were writing these songs and putting these songs together, we knew. It’s like ‘Okay, well, this will probably be this song here’ or ‘Obviously this is the more melodic, ballad’y thing,’ so we did have a pretty good road map of what it was, and then the moods would just follow naturally.
“There’s a lot of different things. Some of the stuff is really heavy, and some of it is really melodic. There’s progressive elements, there’s some of the classic stuff. We did try to do all of the things that we’ve done in the past – to kind of touch on everything a little bit – and obviously being conscious of the fans, too. There are some fans who really liked the Iconoclast record (June 2011) – the very heavy, aggressive thing – and then there are some fans who liked the more… Like the Divine Wings record (The Divine Wings Of Tragedy, March 1997); very melodic, a little bit more progressive. We were conscious of all of these things. We tried to touch on everything, so I think naturally, every song has its kind of own mood going on – its own feel, its own thing.”
With respect to lighter material, Michael is perhaps referring to the likes of ‘Without You’ and so on. “Yeah,” Michael concurs. “We knew that obviously we were gonna have a lighter, ballad’y song here, so it’s not gonna be death metal riffs obviously (laughs). You kind of put the song together, and it’s like ‘Oh, yeah. That would be great.’ Obviously, there’s some songs that are kind of similar – kind of similarly heavy – so they could kind of go anywhere, but the order really kind of fell into place quick. Everything was like a puzzle. Everything just kind of clicked in, and just by having that idea of the flow, I think the album flows really good. I think the diversity – the balance of the melodic, and the more heavy stuff – it feels right. It just does feel right, but it felt like it was kind of always there. Like I said man, it kind of fell into place.”
In penning ‘Without You’ – as the axe-slinger references – Symphony X knew they wished to cut a ballad track. “That song is kind of typical of us,” he reckons, “but there are some different things obviously about it, and with the record. We did talk about really kind of focusing the songwriting and really fine-tuning the melodies and that kind of thing, so that song just kind of happened. I don’t think it’s that different than anything we’ve done, but maybe the arrangement’s a little more streamlined kind of thing. Obviously, we paid a lot of attention to the melodies, and the flow of everything. Lyrically, when we get together and we’re talking about the music and all that stuff, we’re always trying to find some kind of a concept or a theme to bounce ideas off of lyrically. With this one, it was Dante’s Inferno (The Divine Comedy, 1320), and that kind of lends itself to the heavier and darker stuff, and that’s cool. Also, there’s this Orpheus and Underworld myth. Both stories are very similar; both ideas are very similar. His wife dies and he’s gonna go to hell and back to get her and save her, so there was a little bit of that emotional thing too.
“So yeah, you could have these really dark, heavy songs with fires of hell and all of these kinds of things. That works, but then for the ballad’y thing that doesn’t work. So okay, here’s the core of the story, which is going to hell and back for someone that you care about, so you do have a more emotional thing and on a ballad. Obviously, the guy’s in a dark place and he’s missing her, but she’s not there. Those kinds of lyrics just fall into that category, and obviously with the music, the same thing – the music has that kind of thing. It’s very melodic, but it’s not too far off from what we normally do. It was great even recording it; listening back to some of the playbacks, I was like ‘Yeah, man. This feels really good.’ It kind of had that magic going on. It was definitely cool.”
Underworld’s lyrical content revolves around the namesake subject matter, causing some to assume this is a concept affair. “I just like to think of it as a theme, just like the last record Iconoclast when this whole idea was like man versus machine,” Michael shares. “I think when we have some kind of a theme, you have that direction and you kind of have a goal to work towards. Yeah, the last record was Iconoclast, which was man versus machine. The riffs were more aggressive, and the vocals were a little more abrasive. Even the keyboard sounds were maybe a bit more mechanical, and the music was a little more relentless, and that’s what that was.
“For this one, it was like, okay, we had a different kind of palette to draw from here, but concept? When I think of a concept record, I think of telling a big story and that kind of thing. I think it’s more like just a theme, but you can call it whatever it want. To me though, it’s a theme thing. This whole going to hell and back for someone was the basis for most of the songs, so one song could be talking about the loss and one song could be talking about this and then this guy going to hell and back. Maybe one of the songs is touching on all of these hellish visions, and all of these things that he’s going through. So yeah, I think it’s more of a theme kind of a thing, an underlying theme. Not a story, a chronological kind of thing.”
Symphony X arrived at the underworld theme via the usual route. “We’ll normally throw out a couple of ideas,” the lyricist discloses. “With every record we do that, just to kind of get things rolling, to kind of get the creativity sparked a little. And yeah, that came up. I’ve always been into that whole good and evil. I think it’s always a good… The dark and light, that contrast kind of thing – that’s always kind of a cool thing. With this one, it just seemed to work really good. That was just because we had talked about the diversity of the music, and having some lighter, melodic things, and having some real heavy stuff. It just seemed to work. So yeah, that came up pretty early on, very early on. We tried to get all of those things in place before we started writing, so yeah.
“It helps to kind of have that little bit of a framework, where you kind of know where you’re going with everything. There’s nothing wrong with just writing tunes and then putting them together later – that’s worked too – but with each and every album, we just try to do something a little different. We try to keep the music interesting, and try new things. So yeah, this one, it was a little different from the beginning – talking about the order, and that kind of stuff.”
Albeit boasting fresh elements, Underworld possesses elements of Symphony X’s previous eight outings. “Yeah, and that was something that we were conscious of,” Michael tells. “We wanted to have just a balance, I think, which is a good word. We wanted to touch on some of the things that we’ve done in the past; there are fans who do like the heavier, Iconoclast stuff and then are fans who like the more prog and the more melodic kind of thing, so we just tried to keep everything in there but still have the songs be new and fresh; still coming up with different riffs and still writing to make it new, but pulling here and there. I think fans will pick up on a lot of these different things that are in there. Just trying to keep it new, but still keeping it true to what we have always done.”
Although venturing into fresh territory, Underworld is mindful of the past. “I don’t think there’s musically anything too far removed, but like we were just talking about – like ‘Without You’,” the performer cites. “Yeah, musically it’s similar to things we’ve done, but I just think in the arrangement and the writing of the song, that would be a good example. We were very focused on just the song itself; just trying to keep the song moving, and again, being conscious of the melody and the arrangement of the song. So that one, yeah, it is different. It is its own thing. There’s definitely pieces of things we’ve done, and little hints. It’s typical of us, but maybe the arrangement and the melody is different. It’s a catchy kind of song. Different, but still the same.”
Focusing on the songs themselves, there was seemingly trimming of the fat, but Michael clarifies this actually wasn’t the case. “There wasn’t really much after the fact of going into just writing the songs,” he informs. “Again, we had talked about really fine-tuning the songwriting. We knew that we would have some longer songs, and so there’s a couple. ‘Hell And Back’ is ten minutes or something, and that’s typical of us. It was like ‘Yeah, we’ll do that.’ On that kind of song, yeah, you can noodle around a little bit and have some fun. With a song like ‘Without You’ though, there’s no reason to make that ten minutes. We kept that one streamlined, and some of the other songs as well. But yeah, that was pretty much from the start. It was like ‘Okay. On these songs, we’ll have a little bit of fun.’ I mean, we have fun on everything, obviously, but on these songs, yeah man – a little more adventurous with the arrangement.
“Maybe on these heavy songs though, yeah man, we just kept the riff going and kept the energy up. It didn’t need to be 20 minutes. The ballad thing, it was like ‘Okay, there’s no need to drag it on. Get to the point, and have the song feel good.’ We would just listen back, and be like ‘Yeah, it feels good. Nothing should be added. Nothing should be taken away.’ There was actually really no editing after the fact I don’t think. No, it was pretty solid from the start. I think it goes back to having that direction, that road map, that framework of where you know what you’re going for this time. It definitely helps. It definitely helps.”
Maintaining energy can perhaps equally be said of Russell Allen’s vocal contributions, which there was an emphasis on this time around. “That was another thing we talked about,” the guitarist offers. “It was obviously the songs, like just fine-tuning the writing, and Russ had mentioned that he definitely wanted to get back into singing more – really concentrating on the melodies. Going in, usually we’ll talk about these things. Before we do any writing, we get this whole idea together. Then the guys will let me go and do my thing, and I’ll put the basic songs together. And yeah, I was conscious of that, Russ saying that he wanted to sing a little more.
“I think just by the nature of the songs being a little more fine-tuned… We had talked about melody and we had talked about the performance too, like really getting the best performance for each song. Like the song ‘Without You’; maybe instrumentally it’s not really a difficult song to play, but it’s more about how we played it than what we were playing on some of those songs. Yes, some are obviously a little more complicated, and you know we’re having fun with the riffs and things.
“So yeah, there was that thing of the melody, and the performance being a big part in all that like we had talked about early on – when the guys let me go and put the songs together. Yeah, I was thinking that Russ said he had wanted to sing a little more and go back to some of the more melodic things, and with some of those songs. Yeah, I had that in my mind; being conscious of his range, and writing in the right range, and that kind of thing. So yeah, all of these things along the way just… Like I said, just having that initial idea of what we were going to do instead of just writing whatever. That is still fine, but this one was a little different in that way.”
Recording sessions for Underworld took place under familiar circumstances. “Same as we’ve always done, or at least for the last few records,” Michael remarks. “We do everything here at my place, and it’s cool man. There’s a comfortable atmosphere here. It’s good that you don’t have to worry about the clock, but at the same time, you’re not worried about the clock. Things tend to take some time. You’re trying different things, just from doing it for so many years. I’ve always just been into recording, producing, and that kind of stuff. It just works out well, and it is a good atmosphere. The doors always open, man, so there’s always somebody dropping by. If I’m tracking LePond that day, I know Pinnella (Michael Pinnella, keyboards) will stop by with some coffee or something for everybody (laughs).
“It’s like your own place; you can really relax and get it done, and make sure… I think everyone was really happy; the performances were really good, and everything was sounding good. Yeah, there was definitely some magic and some excitement with this one, and you could tell. It felt really good. It always feels good just hanging out and making music. With this one, there were some moments where I was like ‘Wow, this is really good’.”
Warren Flanagan returned to design Underworld’s cover artwork. “We have used Warren for the last two records, and he’s a great guy,” the axeman enthuses. “He works in that whole Hollywood… In the movies. He does all of the artwork for a lot of these big films, so he has that kind of cinematic thing going on, which is perfect for us. He knows what we do, and yeah, he just gets it. He gets what our thing is. Usually, there’s not much conversation with him. With this one, it was no different. We talked to him for maybe about five minutes. We said ‘Okay, we’re gonna go with this Dante, Orpheus and the underworld thing. Musically, it’s gonna be a little bit of everything we’ve done; a lot of heavy stuff, some melodic stuff. Lyrically, it’s going to be that going to hell and back for somebody.’ Then he just kind of went off, and obviously did some research.
“He came up with these nine symbols for the nine circles of hell. He did talk about the album cover, like bringing back the masks, and that sounded like a great idea. He had talked about the dark and the light, and the high contrast on the cover. He came up with that just kind of iconic thing, where there’s the masks, and the contrast of the black on the white. Again, it just felt right. Just from working with us, he knew. He always does the right thing, and he’s a very creative guy. You just point him in the direction that you’re going for that record, and yeah, we’re always happy with what he does. Always.”
A music video to promote Underworld’s release is in the pipeline. “It’s always money and everything else, but yeah, we’re actually just talking about that now – what exactly we were gonna do,” Michael imparts. “Everything in the industry just changes so fast, so it’s like ‘Okay.’ Now, the thing seems to be these lyric videos. Yeah though, we are talking about what we could do; what song we could do, what it’s gonna cost obviously, and all of these other things.”
The songwriter refuses to be drawn on which tracks are being particularly considered. “The usual ones,” he laughs. “We’re still talking about it, because it depends on a lot of things. It might be bad to do a more ballad’y song, but then maybe just a heavy song, or maybe even two. Like I said, we’re just kind of figuring out what we’re doing here. We’re looking at touring, and looking at all these other kinds of things little by little.”
One has to figure that which track will be presented in visual format is a two-horse race between ‘Nevermore’ and ‘Without You’, for which official lyric videos have already been created. “Yeah, but you never know,” Michael stresses. “When the record comes out, it could be a song that people really react to. I think people are reacting to those songs, so yeah, they would probably be the obvious choices I think, but you never know. There could be some… I personally like every song on the record. I think every song for what it is is really strong – they’re good tunes – but everybody has a different opinion. People like different things, so you never know. There might be a song that we overlooked where people are like ‘Oh my God, this is the best song,’ blah blah blah. So yeah, it is tough. Even for like the lyric videos and things, it is tough to find a song on an album that was written as an album. To single one or two out that represent the record, I think that that’s really difficult. Especially with this one, it’s pretty difficult.
“The ‘Without You’ song was first, but the general feeling would be ‘Oh, this album’s gonna be really mellow’ (laughs), which it’s not. Or, if you put a song like ‘Kiss Of Fire’ out there as a video – which is bordering thrash – it’s like ‘Oh my God. The album’s too heavy.’ Trying to find one song, it’s tough – or two, even. It’s pretty tough. It all goes back to what I was saying about the record being really written as a record as a whole. Every song is a piece of the puzzle. Trying to take a couple out? It’s not the same puzzle any more.”
Underworld was released on July 24th, 2015 via Nuclear Blast Records.
Interview published in July 2015. All promotional photographs by Danny Sanchez.
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